In this intimate Q&A session we spoke to Finolhu's General Manager Marc Reader who joined Finolhu six months after opening in 2016, gaining further insight into the resort, how they dealt with the pandemic and more importantly what's in store for 2021 and beyond.
Since the Seaside Management took over, what were some of the changes made to the resort?
Interesting point is that Finolhu has always been colorful in personality and I think when we opened, the management company that was involved then never wanted it to be known as a party island but they opened with a huge party and then six months later, Cara Delevigne took over the whole resort, I think for her 21st birthday. That was a huge party as well and by the time I arrived, which was two weeks after Cara’s birthday, it was already regarded as the party island of the Maldives. The management company that was involved didn’t ever want us to be known as a party island but it evolved from that, and I think the greatest lesson to be learnt today about media is that no longer can we control our PR, it is controlled by the public and we’ve got to be very careful in how we present ourselves and how we communicate because they will interpret it as the way they like.
We never said we are a party island, but the new owners at Seaside picked it up, viewed it and thought, this has got a really fresh approach, and they’ve taken the colorfulness of that personality, given it a much stronger sense of direction to Kaleidoscope and kept up with the tag of ‘Island Playground’. That’s what it is and I've never seen it evolve as quickly as it has and its become much more family orientated, it still has all the pillars of Finolhu - it’s got the color of Finolhu but it's somewhere where you can come with more than just family, you can come at all different times. You can come with kids, you can come without kids, you can come on your honeymoon, or even a significant birthday. You’ll always have fun - you have soft entertainment 365 days of the year and sometimes we have certain festivals that we ramp up such as Christmas and Easter which is extraordinary. We’ve done Alice in Wonderland, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and we’ve got the Wizard of Oz this year. Our festive season is something that is full-on.
The new owners have respectfully embraced Finolhu for what it was and taken it to a whole new level. Personally, I’ve been in and out of the Maldives for sixteen years and this is probably my proudest moment.
We are curious to know what made Cara Delevgine choose this resort, to book out entirely. There’s obviously a lot of different resorts to choose from. Was there a specific reason?
Well yes, it was because she knew that she could party - we were of that style. It was misinterpreted but they had a beautiful time and they had so much fun. It was orderly fun although I think breakfast was quite late in my memory, though I wasn't here then but I know they had a lot of fun. Finolhu was brand new, it was newly opened, there was a relationship with the CEO and Cara and that sort of came through our PR agency. She’s been back twice so she must’ve loved it.
Does Finolhu see a lot of returnees?
Yes we do, we’re very proud of it. Covid has thrown things out a lot. Our return client base has increased a lot during Covid, I would have to say that it’s to do with trust. I am very clear here, I really, really rely on my PR team and sales team to bring us a customer and that is 100% our operations and my responsibility to bring back a customer, so we are very focused on returnees. The greatest challenge is when you have a difficult or an upset customer - every time it is easier to turn an upset customer into your best customer. I don’t know why but it can only get better from here.
We keep an eye on people and we make sure everybody is safe.
We would love to know a little more about how Finolhu has dealt with the pandemic, what challenges you faced and how time was spent during closure?
In support of our competitors as well as Finolhu, you couldn’t have a safer destination. People have a hard time putting their finger on why. I mean the country just won the best tourist destination internationally around the world during Covid. The reason for that is that it’s the only country in the world where every resort is on its own island. We take great care to make sure that you’re as safe as can be upon arrival as well as a quick test upon arrival. It’s still not 100% safe because the most unsafe part of your travel is the airplane, you’re enclosed in a cylinder more or less for quite a number of hours but we do the best we can. Flip-side of that also is that everywhere - including my office - I’ve opened my windows with the breeze blowing through and I’m very mindful of always being in the breeze.
I do have to congratulate the Maldivian government for being so proactive in their communication which has been extraordinary. All power to them, I think we’re in safe hands.
During your closure did you have an opportunity to revamp?
We renovated all 125 villas during Covid, spending about seven months. We didn’t open again until the 1st of November. We didn’t just pull it out of the hat, we were very fortunate to be planning to close on the 23rd of May. We got a bit of a head-start on it but it wasn’t expected to take as long and Covid slowed things down a bit, but it also allowed us to take our time to make some decisions as well and to get it right the first time around. That’s why I say, I’m a pig in mud, I’ve never been so proud as we’re also only four and a half years old. There’s also an advantage - my experience in the Maldives, and i think anyone who's been here for a while would know that really you should be investing quite heavily into your resort in its fifth year to stay ahead of itself. We got in, in our fourth year and I'm glad we did this because having a resort closed, it deteriorates faster than having it opened. All resorts are a living thing. We’ve been given a beautiful resort. It's now up to us as operations to keep it that way and we intend to do so and I hope you feel that it’s beautiful.
When we opened in November, you might remember the lovely Mr. Johnson came out and locked everyone down in London for another month. We lost a lot of bookings as we had a lot of UK guests at that point. We of course want our guests to re-book when they come to stay, so re-booking just meant that we lost today, you can never repeat today. In fact 90% of the bookings got moved so we were absolutely hammered by December.
Business has been good, right now it’s the lull before the busy season being Easter. We’ll be at 93% occupied, around 320 people. So that just means we’ve sort of come back up and then May and June is the beginning of the holiday season for Europeans and then we go into summer holidays. I think we’ll be smashed if Europe opens up their borders to this Covid situation because you’re safe here.
Our markets have changed - we lost all of Asia which is disappointing (about 20% of our market), we lost all of Australia, New Zealand and a couple of other little destinations, and that was another 20% that went out the window straight away. It hurts, however every cloud has a silver lining, it's pushed us into America - we’ve always wanted an excuse to plant that seed so we’ve planted that now so that’s going to evolve very shortly. The other one is Russia, we’ve never done so well in Russia but during the pandemic we’ve done extremely well with this region. Another country I’ve always valued is Scandinavia. The population of Scandinavia is the same size as Australia. However everybody knows that Australia travels 365 days of the year whereas Europe is very habitual and particularly Scandinavia, they only really travel during January and February.
How do you see the future of travel? Do you think the pandemic has really impacted the travel situation, do you feel habits will change in terms of protective gear or getting tests done or people feeling insecure about hopping on a plane - what’s your take on it?
I will never travel without a mask and without sanitizer again, I am sure for the rest of my life and I’ll tell you why. I do believe Covid will come to an end but I think there will be another one. What’s happened historically such as the Spanish flu, was a lot more dangerous than this, now the danger is that the way we travel is like we’re all getting on a bus. It’s much more a part of our DNA and so these things explode so much faster than before. I will always protect myself during travels but I will never stop traveling.
I don’t want to celebrate this but Covid might be looked back at in 10 years to have been the best marketing for the Maldives. I think the leisure market will be safe, I think there’s going to be a complete re-think in terms of corporate travel and i think it will make one think twice whether it’s worth the risk to fly to New York for that business meeting when instead you can just attend a Zoom meeting and be 100% safer. In particular I think domestically in any country it will increase because we are working from home which means we can go away on your birthday on Wednesday and not wait for Saturday and Sunday where every man or woman is out in the tropics. Overall I think the leisure market internationally is completely safe.
What’s your favorite experience to do at Finolhu?
Oh I love that list. The Beach Bubble at night is extraordinary and we’re going to add a new brand new bubble in there - we’re going to replace the one we’ve got as its now gotten into a point that we’ve got to keep it at that five-star standard and it still is but it might not be in a year so it needs replacement. We’re going to have another room next to it that’s going to have a beautiful lion’s foot bath and a little table for two inside so that if it is suitable you can dine inside. Going to stay in the bubble it's all about the stars. That will probably be ready three months from now. The Bubble in itself has become our most popular destination dining because that’s what it is, where you stay the night. You can’t take the Bubble without taking the villa and you can’t stay in the Bubble earlier than 6:30pm because of the sun as it’s too hot.
My personal favorite after the Bubble is the Jet ski Dolphin Cruise. I call it a dolphin cruise but its so wrong, I actually call it dolphin hunting when I’m off and how it works is that we take a jet ski and there’s another guy on a jet ski who will take you through the corals so you don’t damage yourself or the jet ski and he’ll essentially get you out of the lagoon to find dolphins. 350 days out of 365 days, we’ll be able to spot dolphins because we’re on dolphin highway over here. Sometimes my staff will ring me to say there are dolphins and I'll tell the guests. It takes about an hour and costs about USD350 which may seem like a lot but it’s absolute value. I mean I had a friend of mine that is as tight as can be and after the experience he came back saying “mate, I would’ve paid USD500 for that”. When you bang the side of your jet ski the dolphins will end up playing with you and it's extraordinary.
There’s also the Dolphin & Turtle Cruise where you go snorkeling with the turtles and dolphins. Also our marine biologist program at Easter is blown out of proportion and after that there’s a program for the period going forward because we’ve redeveloped it. As we’re also the largest turtle breeding island in the world, because we’ve got so much sand, so turtle eggs were hatching three nights ago. There’s a lot to do.
Finolhu's Watsapp function is a thing of beauty - is this something most resorts in the Maldives have implemented or just Finolhu?
I would like to think not, we worked hard to be unique there. The advantage of it is that we don’t get your number, so triple A celebrities for example are protected. If you don’t talk to me for 24 hours you're no longer on the system, so the disadvantage is that if you don't talk to me i can't tell you what’s happening at the resort, therefore I sometimes need to remind people not to forget to say hi. As soon as you’re off our network or stop talking to us, your privacy is your privacy. You can contact us but we can't contact you. The advantage of this is that our guest magic officer handles all of it - you can be out on your sunbed and request for another beer and it’ll be brought to you for example. You don’t have to pick up the phone, I mean we’ve realized that millennials don’t like speaking on the phone. There’s no loss in language. Bottom line is people are aware of this technology so they’ll write in basic language.
What’s in store for the future of Finolhu?
Not too distant in the future but we’ve got a whole development team ready to start developing island three and four. If you Google ‘Seaside Finolhu’ and zoom out, you’ll see that Seaside Finolhu is actually made up of four islands that are permanently connected with the sandbank. That’s what Finolhu means, ‘sandbank’.
The first one we’ll be doing are seven two-bedroom beautiful luxury villas that will cross the entire island. So one bedroom of the two-bedroom villa will be on the sunrise side of the island and the other one will be on the sunset side and they’ll be connected by a walk-way and glass bottom pool, and that’s the really sexy part of it. On the fourth island there will be one four-bedroom residence where there will be a lot of sexy toys when it comes to water- play and things like that.
In the absolute spectrum of things, when I came to Finolhu four years ago I regarded it as an embryo of itself, it still is an embryo where there’s so much to do. There is so much to do that in fact it can be detrimental to visitors because people don't know what to do first so they don’t do anything. There’s too much choice and we do suffer from it, we do acknowledge it. We need to give you better briefs as a customer coming here so on our website we’re developing a thing called ‘Pack for Purpose’ which is all the things you should think about, i.e. don’t bring your high heels. It’s also thinking about what to pack for this type of climate, sometimes people don't think about that. It’s basically all the things you require to really enjoy your time on the island.
Barefoot luxury is our mantra I should say. In 2023 these new additions should be bookable.
I’d also like to mention our children’s club as we’ve also got plans which will come to fruition hopefully by Easter next year that it’ll be doubling in size. We want to expand it because we’re a very successful family resort. The advantage of Finolhu is that it’s big enough, there’s enough room for all of us and if you make a great kids club that’s where they are. They don’t want mum or dad!
We’re just going to make it more of a wonderland of Finolhu because the other side of the coin is mum and dad want a break.
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