Markus Iseli on taking ‘Lighter, Brighter’ luxury to new level with LUX* North Male Atoll
When private island resort LUX* North Male Atoll, located on the six hectare picnic island of Olhahali, opens early next year, its oversized penthouse architecture and easygoing South Beach ambience are set to bring a new level of luxury to the Maldives hotel scene. The resort features 67 double-storey residences, five restaurants and bars, an expansive LUX* Me spa complex, and comprehensive diving and water sports facilities — all coupled with contemporary architectural design elements such as private terraces, rooftop lounges, outdoor decks, private gardens and 13m private pools.
With such ambitious scope and high expectations for the property, LUX* Resorts and Hotels, which already runs the LUX* South Ari Atoll resort in the Maldives, spent many months looking for an exceptional individual to welcome the resort’s first guests. The Mauritius-based hotel group’s search led to the appointment in June of Swiss-born hospitality expert Markus Iseli as the general manager of LUX* North Male Atoll.
A civil engineer by profession, Markus brings over three decades of high-level hospitality experience, which has seen him graduate from service and guest relations positions to the most senior levels of hotel management.
He began his career in Switzerland as an apprentice cook, working his way up through various F&B positions before moving to Germany in 1987 to assume the role of Chief Steward at Hilton International Munich Park, where he managed banquets and conferences for up to 800 people. From here, his professional trajectory took him into executive roles in international luxury hospitality, seeing Markus recruited by the likes of Hilton Worldwide, Intercontinental, Four Seasons and Shangri-La as well as a number of other properties recognised as Leading Hotels of the World.
His life in hospitality has taken him all over the globe; Markus has variously made his home in Germany, Kenya, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Portugal, Syria, the Seychelles, South East Asia, Oman and Saudi Arabia over the years, giving him an unparalleled understanding of the needs and expectations of travellers from countless cultural backgrounds.
Maldives Insider speaks to Markus, who has earlier overseen the positioning and launching of eight hotels across the world, as he takes charge of every aspect of the mould-breaking new resort ahead of its launch in early January.
Maldives Insider: What are your previous experiences in the Maldives?
Markus Iseli: This is actually my second time in the Maldives. I was at Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa for just two weeks as the Task Force GM to fill in for their GM when he was off the island. It was in 2010, just after the opening of the resort.
It was rather short, but I had the opportunity to explore this beautiful country. I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the islands and the fact that every island has its own unique characteristics; be it the shape, size or look.
I also had the change to work with some incredible Maldivians. The Maldivian people are very hospitable and genuine. That in itself is an advantage for the destination as well as for us as hoteliers because we are always looking to hire more local talent to showcase the true culture and traditions of this country. For example, a local meal cooked by a Maldivian is very different to that exact same dish prepared by a Sri Lankan or a French chef. Likewise, Maldivian hospitality is very different from French hospitality, and guests come here to experience the local touch.
Insider: How does that experience help you in your new posting with LUX*?
Markus: Every coin has two sides, and so there are two sides to every story. Likewise, in hospitality, there is the guest experience and then there is the experience of the team member.
The Maldives has changed a bit over the past couple of years, but it still is not a cheap destination like Spain or Turkey. Air fares are reasonable, but a five-star property in the Maldives carries a premium price tag, which naturally means that guest expectations are quite high. Our objective is to not only meet guest expectations, but exceed them constantly and provide little things that will blow their minds away.
Our success as foreigners depends on the support we get from the local team members. The Maldivians I have worked with are very engaging, warm and extremely proud of what their country has to offer. I am honoured to have the opportunity to work with them again. My previous experience in the Maldives has helped me understand the Maldivian hospitality; their service culture and how they deliver it.
Before anything, I have to understand the culture of the Maldives. Part of that cultural understanding is the religious aspect and how to behave accordingly. For instance, when people are fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, I should respect them and make sure that I do not walk around with food or drinks in my hands. I have worked in a number of other Muslim majority countries as well, and observed fasting for a couple of days just to get the experience. So I am quite used to it.
Insider: What made you accept the offer from LUX*?
Markus: I have worked with high-end luxury brands such as Four Seasons and Shangri-La. LUX* too is a five-star hotel and resort operator, but what makes us different is our “Lighter, Brighter” approach and the little surprises we have for our guests. We are helping guests celebrate life. One example is the Reasons to Go LUX* concept, which includes our signature Cafe LUX*, the small gifts we keep at different places of the island for guests to find, and so on.
The concept of “Lighter, Brighter” luxury is more appealing to me personally as well, and certainly trendier and sexier for the guests. I recently stayed at one of the newly opened five-star resorts in the Maldives, and everything there was a bit too formal. In contrast, LUX* is for everyone; be it a child, a teenager, a millennial or a retiree. For example, the Beach Rouge is perhaps not suitable for a 60-year-old or a 70-year-old, but is something for the younger generation that loves to hang out, chill and have a good time. The 60-year-old or 70-year-old can go to Senses, which is a place that allows them to have some peace and quiet.
Insider: What is the progress of the project?
Markus: It is going well, with 75-80 percent of the construction already complete. Villas are up, but our villas are being built slightly different from the ones in the Maldives. We are using double glazing on the walls and ceilings to keep the heat out. This method makes it more sustainable and environment-friendly as it reduces energy consumption. The resort is also built in such a way that solar panels can be fitted in the future.
We do not want to push anything and we want to build everything properly. By December, we will be able to invite some opinion leaders, travel agents and tour operators to give them a preview of the resort. We are looking to have the opening in early January 2018.
Insider: What is your focus at this stage of development?
Markus: My task is to instil the vision that sets us apart, and to make sure that attention to detail is valued and taken seriously by each and every member of the team. Sky is the limit; so at LUX* North Male Atoll, we are never going to say no to a guest request. We will always try and find a way to meet guest expectations and exceed them. LUX* North Male atoll will be a bit more expensive than LUX* South Ari Atoll, but we will make sure that every penny spent by the guest is totally worth it. The guest will leave us after having experienced the best of the Maldives, and feeling completely relaxed and rejuvenated.
Insider: What is being done to achieve that level of service excellence at LUX* North Male Atoll?
Markus: We have our standard operating procedure, which is common for all LUX* properties. But we are going to add our unique touches to it to bring out the next level of the LUX* experience here in the Maldives.
It is important that the team members we recruit have the same mentality. So our recruitment pool will be from amongst the high-end luxury resorts in the Maldives as well as in the Indian Ocean because they will be able to easily grasp the concept of luxury that we are talking about. If we are to hire high school graduates, they would not be able to understand it unless they have been travelling a lot. That being said, we will recruit fresh talent as well because we are committed to developing the next generation of industry professionals.
After we have hired our team, we will do role-playing where we give practical training to our team members in all operational aspects, including check-in and check-out, packing and unpacking, cooking, waiting tables, and so on.
Insider: What sets LUX* North Male Atoll apart from other resorts, especially LUX* South Ari Atoll?
Markus: LUX* South Ari Atoll is a fantastic resort, but it is more appealing to those who seek out a laid back and casual atmosphere. With LUX* North Male Atoll, we are taking our offering in the Maldives to the next level. It is all about attention to detail.
When you book a standard villa, which is 110 square metres big, at LUX* North Male Atoll, you will find that the physical product is already different from that in LUX* South Ari Atoll. But what really sets us apart is the experience. From the time you make the booking and to the time you leave, everything will be done for you. For instance, you would not have to queue up at the airport. We take you to the lounge right away and let you relax there while we take care of the immigration formalities and the luggage for you. At LUX* North Male Atoll, we will also have butler service, and your butler will be there at your disposal throughout your stay.
Most of our villas are one bedroom suites that have its own private living room, and our smallest villa is 110 square metres in size. So we will make sure that our team members are familiar with the hardware, especially with every touch point. They will be delivering the unexpected by learning the behaviour of the guest. For example, if the man sleeps on the right side of the bed, our team member will take note of that and place his pyjama on the right side of the bed and the lady’s one on the left. And no matter how you arrive on the island — seaplane or by speedboat — the people at the arrival jetty will recognise you and welcome you by your name like, “Welcome Mr Miller. We are delighted to have you here in LUX* North Male Atoll.” People will begin to wonder how we knew their names. It is these small little things that will set us apart.
We are not reinventing the physical product. We are not going to compare our product with any other five-star deluxe property, and say that we have this and that. Instead, we will be executing existing concepts, but in a “Lighter, Brighter” approach, making it less formal and more fun.
Insider: A lot of new resorts in the high-end luxury segment are opening up and LUX* North Male Atoll will be amongst them. How do you see the future for LUX* as well as for the Maldives tourism industry in general?
Markus: There is no doubt that it is going to be challenging. In 2008, the global financial crisis hit the most important source markets, and the industry has since been struggling to fully recover from that loss. To make things worse, supply has increased dramatically in a very short span. With these two factors combined, the days ahead are going to be tough for us as well for our colleagues.
So, as operators, we need to think outside the box and do everything we can to stand out from the rest of the competition. I believe the well-established hotels that have been doing successfully for years will eventually have to go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to run it more efficiently and to offer something different to the guest. We also need to make sure that we are consistent in our quality, especially in service. The government also has a responsibility to increase destination marketing efforts to ensure that the demand exists to feed the increasing supply.
Meanwhile, the government needs to establish the infrastructure needed to support this rapid expansion. With arrivals crossing 1.4 million last year, it is expected that the number will increase to two million in a couple of years. For that, expansion of the main airport needs to be completed as soon as possible. I look at my opening in Seychelles, and I see that a reliable and capable transport infrastructure is very important to support the expansion. Is air supply guaranteed?
And of course, political and economic stability has to be there. We can all see what is happening in Europe. With terrorist attacks and political turmoil in places like Paris and Turkey, people are not travelling to those destinations. They are suffering big time because the people do not feel safe there.
Insider: What is your message ahead of the opening of LUX* North Male Atoll?
Markus: In terms of the Maldives as a destination, we all have to be careful, especially those of us operating in the luxury segment. Now there are some 350 guesthouses in operation across the Maldives. More and more people can now come to the Maldives and experience the sun, sand and sea. This makes the destination more affordable, and in turn affects the five-start deluxe and high-end segment. It is a good sign that more and more airlines are flying into the Maldives, but where they are going matters the most. If all of them go to guesthouses, it will have a huge impact on the luxury segment that the Maldives is known for. As they say in Germany, shipping in busloads of people is going to lower the level of service, ultimately hurting the reputation of the destination.
I hope that the Maldivian government will do the very best to support this industry, so that it can flourish for years to come. I hope that the unique natural beauty that the Maldives is blessed with is well-maintained and taken care of. My father-in-law came to the Maldives in the early 70s for diving. He showed me pictures, and it was Robinson Crusoe; just magical! No air-conditioning in the hotels and very simple food, but great corals and great diving. So protect what you have!
At LUX*, we try to surprise our guests. That is how we stay relevant and ahead of the competition. So when LUX* North Male Atoll opens in early January, we will continue our journey of surprising our guests, while taking the concept of “Lighter, Brighter” luxury to a new level. I am definitely very excited for the opening of LUX* North Male Atoll and I am confident that our clients as well as our guests will love it!