It is amazing how fast a place can fall from grace.
Holiday Inn was opened with great fanfare in September last year. The whole city was abuzz with excitement at the opening of the first international hotel in Male.
Government officials made noises about what a positive impact the hotel would have, while businesses said they would finally have a good hotel in which to lodge their clients and consultants. Maldivians zoomed around in ‘Holiday Inn, I Love Male’ t-shirts, the campaign the hotel used for its launch.
The hotel lived up to the hype. Beautifully finished, it almost makes you forget you are in Male. The views from the rooftop restaurant and upper hotel rooms are stunning, while the food is delicious and unlike any other dishes served in Male’. The wifi in the hotel works like a dream (guests from other Male’ hotels frequently complain about the poor internet facilities). Holiday Inn is like a resort located in Male’.
But alas what a difference five months have made. A series of PR blunders has alienated it from Maldivians, to the point that no one wants to identify with it, or frequent it much either. From the hope and the hype, the Holiday Inn has become toxic: the pariah of the city.
The major mistake was the hotel’s attempt to obtain a liquor license. Opening a bar in the rooftop restaurant potentially enables them to increase earnings manifold, but has nevertheless damaged their brand enormously.
This idea for a bar has found almost no support in Male’. Conservatives claim it was against religion, while expat foreigners are furious their personal liquor licenses might now get revoked (and they would end up paying quadruple the amount for a drink at the hotel as they would at home).
Meanwhile liberal-minded Maldivians couldn’t care less, except that now Maldivians would be banned from stepping foot on the amazing rooftop if the hotel were ever granted a license.
Holiday Inn’s plans for the solar eclipse watching also proved to be a disaster. How out of touch they were with the customs of the country, when they advertised that they would be holding a barbecue on a Friday from 11 to 3 – the time of Friday prayers? And this at a time when they were constantly being targeted by conservatives and was enjoying a good bit of media spotlight.
At the start Holiday Inn bragged about having qualified Maldivians among its senior management. For a while they did have a charismatic Maldivian as director of sales and marketing, who envisaged branding the hotel an integral part of modern Male’. Inexplicably, the manager left the company soon after it opened.
More surprisingly, around 70 per cent of the staff are foreigners, even though the hotel is situated in the capital where one third of Maldivians live.
Whatever happened to the ‘I love Male’’ campaign remains a mystery. Far from enjoying its relatively unique status and becoming a pillar of society, the Holiday Inn alienated itself completely. It is now normal to see police patrolling outside. Things have gotten so bad, the manager of the Singaporean Holiday Inn was reportedly flown in.
For all its early mistakes, however, the hotel has tremendous potential for improvement. It is stunning, in a brilliant location, and the food is among the best one can find in Male’. It has great conference facilities, the clientele give glowing reports of their stays, and it’s one of the few places in Male where the coffee is not burnt and staff actually smile when they are serving you.
The rooftop restaurant – the highest point in Male’ – has stunning views of the airport, nearby islands and the speedboats and dhonis whizzing up and down. The balmy wind keeps you cool and the restaurant could easily compete with any trendy capital around the world.
In a society that’s opening up after being closed for so long, Holiday Inn is well placed to repair the damage done to their image, if only they have the imagination. It could incorporate the music scene in Male, by inviting acoustic bands to play at the rooftop restaurant. It could resuscitate the idea of open air cinema evenings and from time to time let groups like Maldives Science Society, literary or poet’s societies, use their spaces.
It could become the cultural icon of Maldives, a hub for artists and intellectuals, and hold visiting art exhibitions. It could recruit more Maldivian staff and reduce prices to make it affordable for more Maldivians. In short, it could aim to be part of this city.
Of course, all this boils down to the question of whether or not to have the liquor license. No amount of good public relations will be able to undo the damage a liquor license and bar will cause, as it would mean alienating locals. The ball is in the Holiday Inn’s court: either have a liquor license or have a local friendly business and become an integral part of Male’ city.