Hotelplan is a Swiss-based tour operator that has operated in the Maldives for 25 years and is a key player in the Italian market, bringing 20,000 tourists to the country each year. Minivan News spoke to the CEO of Hotelplan Italia, Marco Cisini, during his recent visit to the Maldives.
JJ Robinson: What is the occasion of this visit?
Marco Cisini: We are ending a 25 year long love story with Maafushivaru (in Ari Atoll) and Universal Group. We decided it was very important we come and visit before the island closed and is refurbished and upgraded. After that it will go to a new tour operator.
JJ: How has the market changed over 25 years?
MC: It has changed a lot – for a start, the number of flights arriving. A wide number of offerings have been built in last 20 years, and while there are islands at price, when the government identified the power of tourism it decided to increase the rates and taxes, for that reason a lot of deluxe hotels were built rather than four or three star properties.
The occupancy depends on the quality and quantity of clientele you can find for these products. Today the quality of the products – and the professionalism – has increased a lot. Quality in the Maldives is a target that has been reached, and while certainly some things could still be done better, generally the suppliers are well organised and it’s working very well.
We are pleased that the country is becoming much more modern and flexible in its ideas, and we remain good investors in this country because we believe in the future of this place.
At the same time we know there are new markets coming in, from Asia especially, that will absolutely give an international image to the country.
JJ: The market for tourism in the country has traditionally been very Eurocentric – have you considered broadening into these new markets?
MC: Hotelplan is an international company based in Zurich and is present in England, Switzerland, France and Italy. Obviously as the CEO of Hotelplan Italia I am looking at the Italian market, but as a company we are looking at these emerging markets.
However to sell product such as we are selling, you need to be well integrated into the [source] country and be identified as a country expert. It’s much easier to buy an existing company rather than build a new company in these emerging places. But we are absolutely watching the new potential for business.
JJ: What is unique about the Italian market?
MC: Italians like to have fun, and we try to create an atmosphere with our T-Club concept. The meaning comes from ‘tea’: the idea of it being an elegant moment in your day.
One friend brings another friend, friends bring families, and you spend time together in a group while not feeling you are in a group, doing activities that you cannot do alone.
We also try and add to the nature of a place, by bringing specialists such as astronomers, biologists – people who can really give the clients information about the environment. The aim is to have fun and to think.
JJ: The traditional image of Maldives tourism is that of a European in a beach hammock slipping a Pina Colada. Has this changed? Are tourists demanding more?
MC: I wonder. I hope. Everybody coming and lying down on the beach – that is the general mass identification. But everyone wants to be different to each other, and now people are looking for something new, a new experience, and new sensations. That’s why eco-concepts are important – thinking while travelling, and understanding where you are.
For example, you can say to someone: ‘Let’s watch a 50s movie.’ You might reply, ‘Nice, but it’s not my plan see a movie.’ But then I say ‘OK, if you do, the meeting point is at the jetty.’
So you jump on a boat, go to a real desert island with a sandy beach in middle of the sea, with a computer and a projector. All you see around you is water, and you are with 20-30 people sitting on the beach under the stars. This is a movie you will never forget your entire life.
It’s not important what you do, but how you do it – people are looking for these types of emotions. We know people on holiday are looking for something like this, but how do you give them an experience with such strong emotions?
Think of how many hotels there are in the Maldives and all over the world. To be different you cannot just be different in style and service, because people take these things for granted – they paid for it.
JJ: What are the particular challenges of operating in the Maldives?
MC: The challenges are many. Today the major challenge is the people. We found in our suppliers a lot of good people we have worked with for 20-30 years, and helped upgrade them in terms of business know how. Over the last 20 years people have learned and studied a lot, and the quality and organisation is much better.
The challenge in the beginning was to be a pioneer. You were discovering and building a destination with all of the problems of building something in the middle of the sea.
We put in a lot of effort to help people here to be able to make all these places – how to be organised, providing know-how, information, instruments… and we found a lot of them very open to learn. This is something you don’t find in every country, especially when you start as pioneer. A lot of people don’t see the potential future.
JJ: Do you consider the Maldives a politically stable environment in which to operate?
MC: I have to say that since September 11 there are no more stable places. One of the major ways to get attention from the world is through [violent] actions, and stupid people are everywhere. That exposes any country to risk – also my own country.
JJ: The issues of labour rights and industrial disputes have surfaced recently at several resorts. Is this something you think guests are interested in? Do they want to know that resorts are treating staff fairly?
MC: What I can say is that it’s not easy to manage an international group of people from many different countries who speak different languages and have different religions, and to respect all of them. As I told you, countries must build and upgrade themselves when they face international markets, and this takes time.
On the other side, this orientation to look for money everywhere has to include respect for people and labour laws. This must be done. In our experience we have never felt this was a problem – the staff at Maafushivaru were perfect.
JJ: Do you have plans to further expand in the Maldives?
MC: We looking for new destinations and new islands. We are following new developments in the southern part of the country, and we are one of the two operators present in the Gan project. The Maldives is a target for us, and we would like to be friends with this country and follow the directions it takes. We feel the need to be present and to protect the culture of this place.
JJ: The resorts have historically been kept separate from the rest of the country – at least as far as tourism is concerned. Do you think this will continue?
MC: I think in this environment it is not easy to combine cultures – especially the beach holiday concept. But we are trying to combine these things.
JJ: Some in the industry claim that a declining demand for luxury properties is becoming offset by a lot of demand for lower star hotels. Does your experience reflect this?
MC: In winter time, you have good clients in terms of potential for five star. There is no problem with demand in Winter. But in the Summer season it is much more complicated because of the proximity of places like the Meditteranean, which are similar in terms culture and have better weather.
In Summer the European demand must be combined with demand from other markets to rebalance occupancy – such as opening the Chinese and Indian markets here. But if the [resorts] think only Europeans can afford to fill the occupancy of these hotels all year long, it’s not enough. The demand is not enough.