Afeef: world-class trainer perfecting service excellence at LUX* South Ari Atoll
The moment I met him, he greeted me with a ‘good morning’ and a long, firm handshake. He invited me to have breakfast with him. As we walked to one of the signature restaurants where breakfast was being served, he greeted everyone he came across with a big smile. He waved and wished them a good day.
That is how Afeef Hussain, the Director of Training, Development and Quality Assurance at LUX* South Ari Atoll, now starts everyday. From the onset, he seems like just another manager doing his job. But Afeef is more than what his humble appearance suggests; this is the only John Maxwell-certified trainer in the Maldives and one of the few master trainers in the country affiliated with Ron Kaufman’s Up Your Service, with a track record that rivals that of his peers from around the world.
Maldives Insider sits with Afeef in the fresh, new setting of the recently upgraded LUX* South Ari Atoll.
Every resort in the Maldives has white sand beaches, turquoise waters and similar facilities such as overwater villas and so on. The only way we can stand out in such a highly competitive market, especially with the number of new resorts opening up, is by focusing on service.
Maldives Insider: What made you join the tourism industry?
Afeef Hussain: After I finished high school in 2002, I took up some part-time jobs such as teaching at the Male English School (MES). I later joined Bandos Island Resort’s Male office, which at the time handled Bandos as well as Four Seasons Maldives at Kuda Huraa and Coco Island, as an HR administrator.
But what really opened my eyes to the tourism and hospitality industry was my job at One&Only Reethi Rah, which I joined after completing a Bachelors Degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management in Malaysia after the 2004 tsunami. I started working there as the Assistant Training and Quality Assurance Manager.
MI: How was your first experience in the field?
AH: It was very interesting because not only did I get to know the perception of people in the industry, but I also came to realise how much we needed each other in order to survive in a demanding industry like ours. Sometimes you have to do really personal things for your superiors as well, but every single experience teaches you how to deal with people.
I spent six years in Reethi Rah, but the experience I got from there was worth 20 years. It was challenging because Reethi Rah itself was a standard-setting resort in the Maldives. The expectations of everyone, including the management and the staff as well as the guests, were very high. I was tasked to train the staff and to lead the quality assurance efforts. We had an exemplary product, but we did not have a playbook to run it. I had to create a service culture based on the expectations of the staff and the guests, and I had to do it from scratch.
My focus was on creating a detailed, personalised service culture. Reethi Rah became the first resort in the Maldives to adopt such a culture. Earlier it was very static; you fetch a guest from the airport, bring them to the resort and let them be on their own. But with the new service culture, we started to create value additions in order to enhance the guest experience from the moment they set foot in the resort to when they leave.
MI: What were the main challenges in your early years in the industry?
AH: Such a detailed service culture, coupled with employees representing 42 different nationalities, proved to be a challenge for everyone, especially for the staff. It became a challenge to maintain a perception where every individual understands the fairness in treating employees. We saw a section of the staff going on strike, but we were able to manage it by adopting a policy where the increasingly high expectations of the staff were considered and addressed properly.
The Reethi Rah story is a highlight of my career not because it was easy, but because it was challenging. If it was easy, I would not have considered it a success. I learned a lot about failure and success. For example, we had a volleyball team with the highest paid players of any resort in the country, but we went four years straight without a single trophy. Despite the repeated failures, we never gave up. Instead, we analysed our mistakes and tried to make it better the next time.
MI: What was your biggest success back then?
AH: It was not an easy task to create a personalised service culture from scratch. It was so detailed that every small detail had to be laid out; how many people would greet guests on their arrival in the island, where would each person stand, how many people would shake hands with the guests and the exact moment when they would be given hand towels. Creating and teaching this new culture proved to be extremely difficult because most people join resorts after high school. Schools do not teach students anything about service and how to effectively deal with people.
Another important aspect of my success was my role in making Reethi Rah the preferred employer in the industry. Back then there were about 80 resorts. Competition was high, but Reethi Rah became the place where everyone wanted to work. A testament to that success was the presidential award received by Reethi Rah for capacity building. I am proud to have played a significant role in that success.
MI: What made you join LUX*?
AH: The CEO of One&Only Paul Jones moved to Naiade Resorts and created a brand from scratch, LUX* Hotels and Resorts. I was inspired to join LUX* South Ari Atoll on his request as I always loved following him as a leader. Dominik Ruhl, then General Manager at LUX* South Ari Atoll and now our group COO, gave me a great first impression of what any great leader would, which gave me the confidence to accept the offer in August 2012.
When I moved here, it was a five-star property run under the brand name LUX* Maldives. That was right after they went through a rebranding process to become a LUX* property.
The rebranding meant that we had to create a new service culture here as well. This island has a very rich history; from a two-star resort called Ari Beach to a four-star resort called White Sands and latest being the five-star Diva Maldives. The staff here were well-established. So I focused mostly on staff engagement, training and development, and quality assurance initiatives.
In the first three months, I did not make any changes. I spent those three months gathering feedback from the staff, including the changes they wanted to bring. Over the three months, a new strategy was formed in order to match our service to the standards of a five-star plus property. With that strategy we had come a long way, from being ranked No. 47 on TripAdvisor to our current position of No. 8 amongst the resorts in the Maldives.
MI: What do you mainly focus on in order to maintain the service culture?
AH: It is a daily job. Now that we have established a service culture here, my focus is primarily on staff development and training, and daily quality monitoring efforts. We have introduced a programme called Staging LUX* Shining, where we identify a group of high potential employees and prepare them for future promotions through a three-step training programme. Suppose a waiter becomes a head waiter without any training, there is a gap and that will be evident in the service they provide. This six-month long programme, which was designed and developed by me, teaches them the responsibilities of their future posts and the tools would they need to effectively carry out their responsibilities.
Apart from that, we run specific campaigns from time to time. For instance, we have recently launched a ‘smile’ campaign for our staff, encouraging them to greet everyone with a smile. We are hoping to replicate that campaign and expand it to include our guests; Smile All The Stay.
I am also in the process of starting a brand new coaching and mentoring programme. About 10 senior executives, including the General Manager, Executive Chef and F&B Director, will be selected for this programme and they will be asked to mentor a candidate who had completed the Staging LUX* Shining programme. They will meet at least once a month to discuss about their work and the scope of their career.
Our ultimate result is always guest satisfaction. So we do not just train our employees, but we also monitor them and analyse their performance through quantified means. We also send an email to every guest after their stay asking for their feedback. If we get any negative feedback, we thoroughly review those complaints and take steps to ensure those issues will not occur in the future.
MI: In light of the unprecedented expansion we see in the industry today, how important is it to develop and maintain a service culture?
AH: Every resort in the Maldives has white sand beaches, turquoise waters and similar facilities such as overwater villas and so on. The only way we can stand out in such a highly competitive market, especially with the number of new resorts opening up, is by focusing on service.
Some resorts have a tendency to hold back training for their staff out of fear that they might leave for another resort. But here at LUX* we do not do that. We believe that a well-trained staff is the single most important asset of our team and that of this industry as a whole. That is why we also give priority to local staff, especially in the Staging LUX* Shining programme. We introduced the programme in 2012, and we have already given 188 promotions, most of which are locals.
The service education we provide to our staff is very unique. We do not teach our staff age-old concepts such as customer satisfaction and exceeding expectations. Instead, we teach them the concept of service excellence and value addition. Any guest who chooses to stay with LUX* does not want to leave satisfied; rather, they want to be delighted.
MI: What should be done to sustain the growth and the industry as a whole?
AH: There is no doubt that with the number of new beds coming into play we will face unprecedented challenges. We are talking about 40-50 new resorts in five years, but that is nothing compared to the number of new properties opening up in several neighbouring countries. So what are they doing differently? They are focusing on destination marketing by spending more and more on promoting their country as a destination.
Global tourism is booming, but we have observed a slowdown in growth over the recent years. Individual resorts are doing what they can to fill up their own beds, but there is no effort as an industry to effectively promote the Maldives as a destination. This is where the government and stakeholders need to come together, communicate better and figure out new and creative ways to promote the Maldives as a destination. For example, Mauritius had a slump in tourism a few years back. It was a wakeup call for the authorities and for the industry as well, and they responded by expanding the operations of Air Mauritius and spending more on destination marketing. Now Mauritius is overflowing with tourists.
Developing local talent is another area we need to focus on. Despite the expansion, there has been a minimal effort in training local talent. The government, education institutes and resorts need to focus on training more locals. If not, we will have a short supply of available professional talent, especially because Maldives is no longer the most favourable place for foreigners to work due to the introduction of a comprehensive tax regime.
MI: What is your most memorable experience?
AH: While working in Reethi Rah, I went to work at Atlantis, The Palm Dubai on a company transfer. It was the initial stages of its development and I had the honour to be amongst the first group of employees hired for the opening of the resort. The opening of Atlantis was spectacular, but most importantly it is the experience I received from there that counts the most.
I worked there for two years as a Training and Learning Officer. I was tasked with training the staff and creating a service culture from scratch. It was a whole new challenge because there were 112 different nationalities under one roof, and I had to consider each and everyone of them in developing the service culture.
That experience has played an important role in making me who I am today. Since then, I have travelled all over the world, attending and speaking at several major conferences on human resources management and service excellence. At the World HRD Conference 2016, I was named amongst the 100 most influential HR personalities in the world, becoming the first Maldivian to receive such an honour.
I am also a Certified Course Trainer with Ron Kaufman’s Up Your Service and the only John Maxwell-certified trainer in the Maldives. Those connections give me direct access to their teaching and training materials. The courses and programmes I have developed for LUX* and the things I teach here are based on their materials. So with all that, I can challenge every resort in the Maldives that the training and development of staff here at LUX* will be second to none.
MI: What is your message to young people joining this industry?
AH: Success is not working at a different property every year. From the beginning, my goal was to create a legacy at every property that I worked at. That can only be done by working sincerely and honestly at a place for as long as you have to in order to reach your goal. So instead of job hopping, focus on creating a legacy. Coming to work everyday is not a service. It is something you do because you get paid. Real service is when, and only when you are committed to what you do.
You might have a degree in hospitality and tourism, but keep in mind that you are entering a highly competitive field. So patience is the key here. Even if you have to start as a waiter, start from there. Be patient, be loyal and be committed. You will be golden.