Dinesh Bhaskar: marketing Maldives, pioneering premium hassle-free holidays
If anyone understands the technicalities of tourism marketing, it is Dinesh Bhaskar, the Group Director – Sales and Marketing at Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts. He has been working in the Maldives tourism industry for 25 years, and has witnessed almost every major change the industry has gone through.
In fact, Dinesh, to his credit, is the man behind at least a few of those changes. For instance, he is the pioneer of Premium All-Inclusive, a relatively new concept for the Maldives tourism industry that has since come to redefine luxury tourism in the Maldives. Inspired by a resort brand in the Caribbean, Dinesh, while working as the General Manager, Sales and Marketing at Turquoise Experience, which is a Marketing brand for Island Hideaway and Lily Beach at the time, introduced the Premium All-Inclusive concept at Lily Beach resort, as part of its relaunch as a five star resort from a basic four star resort. A first of its kind at the time, the Premium All-Inclusive has now been adopted by several five star and luxury resorts in the Maldives.
A trained economist with a passion for dealing with new challenges, Dinesh arrived in the Maldives in 1993 to setup American Express operations in the Maldives. After taking a big step to move into the hospitality and tourism industry, he has served as the Director of Sales and Marketing at Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa and Taj Exotica Resort and Spa, General Manager, Sales and Marketing at Turquoise Experience, and as the Ground Operations Manager at Maldivian Air Taxi (now part of Trans Maldivian Airways).
In an interview with Maldives Insider, Dinesh shares what he describes as a “romantic journey” in the Maldives.
My services are also for the Maldives and the local community. I have always been honoured and humbled to have the opportunity to serve as a true ambassador of the Maldives. And it certainly has been a romantic journey – a journey of trust, respect and love!
Maldives Insider: How did you get the opportunity to work in the tourism industry?
Dinesh Bhaskar: I am not a hotelier. In fact, I was sent to the Maldives in 1993 to setup American Express operations, with Bank of Maldives (BML) as the paying agent and Universal Enterprises being the agency. It was an amazing journey with two years of wonderful business for American Express Cards, Travellers Cheques as well as Service Establishment business. There were a lot of issues too; a number of Amex cardholders had not paid money on time and fund recovery was core to my function.
In 1996, I was promoted as the Area Sales Manager for Sri Lanka and Maldives and was about to move to Sri Lanka to take up my new position. Universal Resorts Management, with whom I had a strong and warm relationship, came forward the day before I was set to depart and proposed an opportunity to consider formalising their corporate sales and marketing function! Given my love for the Maldives as well as the offer coming from a highly respected organisation like Universal, I decided to take on the challenge and joined the hospitality trade.
MI: How would you describe your experience in the Maldives?
DB: It has been an amazing journey for various reasons. Maldives gave me the opportunity to not only represent a high profile destination but also present such an incredible gift of God to the worldwide travel fraternity. Today, in sales and marketing, product profiling and positioning is everything, and I believe Maldives has these two elements in its core. Anyone who represents the Maldives from a sales and marketing perspective worldwide will always be proud of this profiling and positioning that the destination naturally carries.
Additionally, when you travel the world over, you become a much wiser and pragmatic person, given the numerous interactions with the media worldwide as well as with the high profile tour operator segment. Whatever I am today, I would confidently state that a big credit for all the various personal accolades and achievements that have come my way goes to the Maldives. My family and I are truly indebted for this incredible journey to the nations and its wonderful people. I have always been absolutely proud to represent the Maldives in all forums worldwide.
In this journey, I have been actively involved with different hospitality brands, new openings, and rebranding and repositioning processes. Each of these experiences have been quite magical! It all started with Universal Resorts, which I still believe is some of the most professionally managed hospitality brands in the entire Indian Ocean with incredibly wise ownership who have a clear vision at all times. Opening of Taj Exotica, repositioning of the erstwhile Taj Coral Reef, the incredible challenge of the launch of the first home-grown luxury resort Island Hideaway and competing against all popular international brands and winning the positioning, rebranding and repositioning of Lily Beach from an entry-level four star to a five star property, and most notably the new opening of Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa. Shangri-La’s Villingili was a different ball-game altogether because I strongly believe that Addu — the southernmost atoll — is a destination by itself. It has key USPs that can compete directly with Mauritius, Bali and Sri Lanka.
And now, Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts. In just four years, we already have three resorts in full operation with 338 keys, and one more resort with 137 keys is opening in May 2018 in North Male Atoll – OBLU SELECT at Sangeli. Probably, there would be one more opening in Addu atoll by 2018.
MI: What is your focus at Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts?
DB: I am directly responsible for the entire sales and marketing function of the brand. In the process, I oversee PR, Marcoms and other marketing activities, and I am directly involved with all aspects of contracting and sales and of course sales admin as well. We started with just one man in sales and marketing in April 2013, but we have now got an army of 33 amazingly passionate colleagues in Sales, Marketing, PR and Reservations . The various teams are led by a fantastic group of team leaders who are totally focussed on the vision set by the management at all times.
I would like to add further that all of the above has been possible, thanks to the pragmatic and practical vision of our Chairman Ismail Hilmy and our Managing Director Salil Panigrahi. This has certainly helped us in always ensuring that the customer is in the centre of all our discussions and decision making processes, and never losing sight of the same under any circumstances. They additionally trust professionals and empower their key personnel, and this has helped in a big way in effectively producing the results without any limitations in creative thinking and hardcore selling. Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts’ journey has been a moment of self-actualisation for me personally. In the process, I believe we are now truly a big player within the Maldives tourism industry within just four years of operations!
MI: What sets Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts and its properties apart?
DB: The world is tired of greed and false propositions. At Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts, we hold one critical philosophy close to our hearts in any decision making process – The Joy of Giving! In every single product offering, be it luxury or entry level five star or four star, we nurture this core philosophy by offering some unique products with a lot of genuine value for the customer. I truly believe this has played a critical role in creating the huge trust and respect for the brand world over, be it with the tour operator segment or with the customer segment.
In hospitality, it is about taking care of the customer because it is true what the famous quote states, “Customer is King”. We truly believe in that too, and in all our actions on the ground this is clearly visible. Today, thousands of customers are true Ambassadors of us who spread the word on our behalf.
MI: In your 25 years of service in the Maldives, what has changed? What are the new trends?
DB: Supply has certainly become more than the demand, making it much more challenging. But as long as you can deliver a product that truly appeals to the customer and is a product that is truly in demand, I believe it will always be a successful property. There are some amazing companies in the Maldives. For example, Universal is still a very strong brand worldwide. People will blindly book any property of Universal Resorts or Crown and Champa Resorts. They are absolute rockstars in whatever they do.
For me, you need to deliver a product that appeals the customer. You cannot forget the customer and their needs, and build your dream hotel. Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts purely thinks from a customer perspective. In any discussion — it could be a menu change or development of a new product — it is always customer first then anything else. That really makes a difference, and hence our surging success.
MI: What is your general outlook on the Maldives tourism industry?
DB: Extremely positive. Everybody loves to create negativity concerning the Maldives, but for me we have just touched the top — maybe one or two percent — of the entire high-end tourism segment of the world. What is stopping us as a premium and responsible destination from attracting the rest of the 98 percent to the Maldives?
Sky is the limit, but we need to have a structured growth process. While we are increasing the number of resorts in a brisk manner, we need to ensure that the infrastructure of the destination is also developed parallel and on priority. In this instance, the accessibility to the Maldives plays a key role in expanding our wings worldwide. The current expansion of the international airport will go a long way in increasing flights to the Maldives. Air France coming into play this coming winter is a big step forward, and having two European airlines flying directly into the Maldives is a phenomenal statement and almost a game changer. We should continue to encourage more such direct flights and even see how we can support the charter flights from Europe as in the past.
Maldives has always maintained a structured development plan from 1981 until today, with a clear sustainable development process in place. However, I am now a bit worried that the supply might just become much more than the demand. This might be a serious deterrent to the overall high yields that the country has been used to in the past. As long as the overall development of the destination continues at a fast pace, I think it should be fine.
MI: What can be done to maintain a structured growth?
DB: Everyone wants to create a five star luxurious resort because the cost of project and cost of operations is extremely high. When you have such a high expense account, you will need to create a product as a five star product, so as to attract high rates and yields. The ultimate burden falls on the customer.
The industry needs more market segmentation, with more products coming into the four star and three star segments. For sustaining a destination, we just cannot focus on a five star or a luxury segment, as the clear breadwinner would always be the four star and three star segment resorts with more volume in business and more demand from world over for these products. If you were to do a gap-analysis worldwide with knowledgeable tour operators, one of the most critical points that majority will bring up is the lack of four star and three star properties in the Maldives. Given the high occupancies that the currently existing properties within this segment enjoys, I really believe the government needs to make a serious effort along with industry experts to create a way for charter flight operations to restart in a big way from Europe and from Far East as well as create affordable tourism. If this can be achieved, the balance will naturally be achieved, and you will get back the business you lost in key source markets like Italy, France and Germany. All in all, the urgent priority is for the Maldives to go into different market segments with a structured plan.
MI: How is Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts aligning its strategy towards achieving structured growth?
DB: Our vision is to be the best in class in whatever market segment we are in. As it stands, we truly believe that we are the best in class in the market segments that we currently operate in. That philosophy allows us as a brand to even open a three star or a four star property. For example, one of our existing properties, OBLU by Atmosphere at Helengeli is a four star superior brand. Next year, we are launching a product called OBLU Select, which is a four star deluxe brand. We have OZEN by Atmosphere at Maadhoo, which is a luxury resort.
We need to have the right balance of properties within our inventory because everybody in the world visiting the Maldives cannot afford luxury. Even though Maldives has the premium destination tag, which itself is fantastic, sustainability is the key. At Atmosphere, we do it responsibly. If at all the Addu project clicks, we would be positioning an entry level four-star property. We would never look a five star or a five star luxury property there because Addu needs additional number of beds and volume coming in. Only then the respect and establishment for that particular atoll as a key tourism contributor will come through.
MI: What is the biggest advantage Maldives presents in order to maintain its status as a premium destination and to achieve sustainable growth?
DB: Everybody loves to compare the Maldives to Mauritius, Sri Lanka and Seychelles. They all say they are like the Maldives. No way! Maldives is unique and I get goosebumps when I say this. I think every Maldivian should be proud of the fact that Maldives is truly a unique destination. It is a gift from God. Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius are beautiful too, but the unique selling features of the Maldives are totally chalk and cheese, compared to any or all of them. Each of these destinations would be better off not considering Maldives as their core competitor.
It is the ‘one island, one resort’ concept. It is the island inspiration. It is that feeling of being far away from the madding crowd and it just being bliss. A typical Maldives holiday is certainly not about shopping, cultural excursions, casinos or sightseeing. It is all about yourself; it is self-indulgence and investing in yourself for your mind, body and soul. Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Seychelles and even Bali are beautiful destinations in their own way, but their selling features are completely different.
MI: What is your deepest connection to the Maldives?
DB: Both my children understand and can communicate amicably in Dhivehi. My younger son was the winner of the national singing competition in Dhivehi for three consecutive years. One of the proudest and nostalgic moments of our lives in the Maldives was the time when my elder son stood up in our living room, placed his hand on his chest and started reciting along when the national anthem of the Maldives came on during the Republic Day parade was being shown live on TV! That was a true moment of truth, of how much the Maldives has seeped into our inner core fully. He was just eight years old at the time.
We, as a family, are totally indebted to what the Maldives has offered us. I truly believe that I am a much better human being because of the Maldives and its wonderful citizens.
MI: What is your biggest accomplishment?
DB: What we have built here at Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts is certainly my biggest accomplishment. Freedom of speech and true empowerment is very important, especially in marketing, because you need to speak up your mind, and only then can the best creatives come out of the team. The board of Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts have allowed my team and I to blossom in every aspect of sales and marketing, and I see this being the same core value that has been cascaded to the entire operations team too. The sense of ownership is so high that each of us believe that we own the organisation in some form, which is truly magical! All credit to the ownership for this wonderful moment of truth.
One another personal accomplishment which I am absolutely proud of is the equal opportunity that we offer every colleague of ours – whatever nationality, colour, creed the person maybe from. The moment of Truth was when at the Luxury Travel Fair 2016 in London, Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts was solely represented actively and effectively by two Maldivian colleagues from our marketing team, who were absolutely proud to represent the organisation as well as represent their own country at the fair. We were the only Maldivian resort partner having our own stand at this fair. As a responsible expatriate, I felt top of the world when they came out of this fair with flying colours.
We strive to empower, grow and nurture local talent. My services are also for the Maldives and the local community. I have always been honoured and humbled to have the opportunity to serve as a true ambassador of the Maldives. And it certainly has been a romantic journey – a journey of trust, respect and love!
Photography: Ahmed ‘Obofili’ Shuau