GM Interview: Sun Sea Sustainability
LUX* South Ari Atoll has upped its eco credentials by installing a pioneering ﬂoating solar power platform. Claudia de Brito speaks to general manager Jonas Amstad to ﬁnd out more
For Jonas Amstad, hospitality is a family business. His godfather owned a restaurant and a butcher shop in his native Switzerland, where he started doing odd jobs when he was seven years old. Amstad explains: “Well, of course, as a young boy, I wanted to be exposed to the adult world and, of course, earn some pocket money. That's how it started and later on I took an apprenticeship position.”
An opportunity to go to Russia soon followed and what was supposed to last six months, became three years. He never worked in Switzerland again. “I became a hospitality mercenary,” he says.
Though now settled at LUX* South Ari Atoll, a 193 private villa resort in the Maldives, Amstad’s work has taken him around the globe and he speaks 10 languages despite not having a formal hospitality education. He says: “To a certain extent I'm a little bit proud of what I have become considering that I never did an MBA or a PhD or went to hotel school. I'm self-taught and, of course, I learned most of it from my superiors.”
Speaking about what makes a good general manager Amstad shares: “I think the question is what you learn from each of them. I was fortunate enough to have many GMs whom I learned from and it still dominates the way I do things today. A lot of my original mentors became very good friends. One of them is over 60 years old and we call each other every week to touch base. I have gained a tremendous amount of experience from that. From many, I learned how to do it and from a few I learned how not to do it. But that's equally important.”
"46% of travellers between 15 and 35 partially base their decisions on whether a hotel is sustainable"
Still, he’s quick to point out that a property like his could never be successful without the right team in place: “I recently had a discussion where somebody asked me 'What is a luxury hotel?' In my opinion, luxury starts with the staff. People who are genuinely hospitality and service oriented, and who like what they are doing because that is transmitted to the guests as well. In 90% of all the TripAdvisor reviews, of which we have nearly 5,000, you will ﬁnd at least one name or multiple names of one of my colleagues. Happiness. I think that is luxury.
According to Amstad, the hospitality industry has a big part to play in fostering human connections that are vital for our wellbeing: “It's our obligation. And one of our slogans at LUX* is 'help people celebrate life'. We are in hospitality but at the end of the day we are also in the time business. People come to us, they give us their time, money and trust. Therefore, it is an obligation for us to create as much happiness as possible during the time they are with us, because we also don't know when they have the next opportunity to go somewhere where they can switch off a little bit.”
Increasingly, we’re seeing that, in addition to high and consistent service standards, what makes guests happy is a hotel’s approach to sustainability. Environmentally conscious initiatives are often a deciding factor in the booking process. Amstad has seen this ﬁ rst-hand: “Just recently a marketing expert at our GM’s meeting shared with us that 46% of travellers between 15 and 35 partially base their decisions on whether a hotel is sustainable. We recently won an award for the most sustainable hotel in the Maldives and launched the world's biggest ﬂoating solar platform.”
The resort was already using a rooftop solar power system and once all suitable roofs were covered with solar panels, the decision was made to expand beyond the shoreline with twelve SolarSea platforms. This allowed the solar capacity to increase by 40% to 678 kWp, enough to power all guest villas with solar energy during peak sun hours. The result is cheaper energy and a saving of more than 260,000 litres of diesel per year.
He explains: “The platform is visible from both pools so, at the beginning, I was a little bit concerned that we would get comments from our guests about them disturbing the view. But happily, the opposite happened. Guests are very interested and want to know more details so we're going to start doing excursions to the platform. They want all the details. We will probably start offering an additional 'edutainment' (education and entertainment) component.”
Amstad would like to see other properties in the Maldives and beyond follow suit: “When it comes to sustainability, there shouldn't be any competition. That would be terribly wrong. Recently I had an email from a former guest who lives in Saudi Arabia and is working there as a consultant. He wrote me an email congratulating me for the solar platforms and asked if I could share a little bit more. I called him up and said I was more than happy to share because sustainability is not a secret. For instance, Swimsol, the Austrian company that did our solar ﬂoating platform, for the next 12 months, they have so many projects in the Maldives, that they can't take new projects on. They're fully booked, which is good. So that means the process which we started two years ago, has followers and there will be more followers to come. We can't only rely on the government.
Speaking about his property’s performance over the past year, he says: “Business is good. Of course there is more competition coming in. You see that in Dubai too but there's always space for growth and space for learning curves. I think the Maldives has a bright future, for a very long time. They still struggle a little bit with the infrastructure but they are on the right path.
The added infrastructure will come with the expansion of Malé airport which is currently underway. Despite some challenges in the short-term, Amstad is optimistic about the Maldivian market: “We are talking about close to 1.4 million tourists over the past year and it's growing. The extension of the airport will mean more ﬂights coming in and better infrastructure. More hotels are already on the way to being completed, under approval or in the pipeline. For a relatively short period, this will dilute the occupancy rates, but they will come back.
There is pressure on rates at the moment but we also need to be honest, the Maldives is one of the most expensive locations in the world. I think similar to happened in Dubai, it will settle down somewhere in a reasonable margin and business will go on. It will not stop.”Speaking about new and emerging source markets for his property in particular, Amstad adds: “We’re seeing more guests from South America which is surprising considering the distance. Sadly I think it’s because of the damage they had (from natural disasters) in The Bahamas and The Caribbean. Also, we're seeing visitors from the African continent because wealth is growing.”
Aside from its eco credentials, the property has other distinguishing factors according to Amstad: “I don't think you will ﬁnd a bad product in the Maldives. Everybody's doing a great job. Everybody has beautiful hotels, everybody has nice beaches, beautiful turquoise water and everybody's doing the best they can. For us, the difference is that it is a very large island, one of the largest, and it is a natural island with a large amount of vegetation (more than 4,000 trees) and of course, the multicultural team that we have.”
In accordance with local law 45% of the staff at the property are Maldivians and they are joined by 40 other nationalities who speak close to 50 languages combined.
In fact, the multi-lingual and culturally diverse staff has acted as a driver for guests from the GCC: “We have several Arabic speaking staff members and we have villas which are nicely appointed to serve the GCC market in terms of privacy. We have a mosque for our local colleagues on the island and we sometimes we have guests from the GCC who like to go there and pray. They are more than welcome to do that. The resort also has eight different restaurants, which of course for the GCC demographic is ideal as they like to experience a variety of food options.”
Most importantly, Amstad is keen to underline how accessible the resort is for holidaymakers coming in from the Middle East: “Everybody knows the Maldives. But many travellers are not aware that the ﬂight is only three-and a-half hours. It's a short haul ﬂight. You can go on Wednesday and be back on Sunday. It's a weekend trip. It's paradise on your doorstep.”