Maldives Promotion House - “I’m South African,” he said to me. Of course he was South African, not that you would know from seeing him. It wasn’t those first words, but the strength and the conviction the words carried that sparked my curiosity. This was a man who had spent his life doing exactly what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it.
Mr. Laurens Kritzinger, grew up in a small farming community in South Africa. He now holds the remarkable position of Hotel Manager for W Retreat & Spa Maldives. But there was something different about this particular Hotel Manager. Something that you notice when you first meet him, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. So I listened, intently, to his story, determined to figure out what made him different.
Laurens studied from Central University of Technology, in Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. “I studied business management, which is almost like a general business degree ranging from financial accounting to mercantile law to economics to administrative management to general management,” he said.
He also told me how he wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do with his life. Laurens knew that he wanted to go into management. “When I was studying, I was also working in a restaurant as a part time job, and that is where my interest in the hospitality industry started. It comes partly from studying business management and partly from being a casual waiter working on the weekends.”
Almost 15 years has passed since then. Laurens has been working full time in the hotel industry for about 12 years. Once he finished his studies, he was offered an opportunity to go straight into hospitality and tourism.
Mr. Kritzinger’s background is also unique and very different from the average hotelier. He brings with him a more adventurous background. One that is filled with the thrill of following your dreams despite not knowing for certain what the future holds.
“It was during the end of 2000, right after I had finished my studies. Someone called me and said to me that they need an Assistant Front Office Manager for a game lodge. They told me that I had the right qualifications,” he said.
So, like a man on a path to find meaning in life, Laurens drove 7 hours to the game lodge, met the front office manager the Human Resources team and the General Manager. He had gotten there at 10 in the morning and by 2 in the afternoon he had started working.
“That was my first company, and it was a fairly big company in South Africa. They had 40 or 50 of these places. I worked my way up to become the manager in one of the properties in Kruger National Park for a couple of years. Then I went on to Botswana. I spent about seven years in the safari industry,”
From there Laurens followed another opportunity and went back to South Africa. He became the General Manager of a small country estate. But Laurens, who had gotten accustomed to being thrilled by nature and excitement, deeply disliked it. Simply because it was too normal. “I like nature. So for me I prefer to go into areas that are a bit more rural, a bit more natural and a bit less populated,” he says.
Luckily after a few months he found himself in East Africa. He became the director of a beach resort, located on the northern tip of the remote island of Pemba, Zanzibar. “Zanzibar is pretty similar to Maldives. Even the culture is similar but the islands are bigger. I thought to myself ‘sharks, lions, it’s pretty much the same thing, right’. That was going to be for a year or two but that became a couple of years,” he explained.
“Zanzibar is much bigger and has two main islands. One is Zanzibar the other is Pemba, which is like a forgotten island 60 km long and has a population of 300,000 people. I think the similarity to Maldives comes from the close proximity to the same trade routes and the geographical location. They are also a 98 percent Muslim community and it’s almost the same climate with two seasons,” he said.
From East Africa Laurens began to wonder about his next destination. The traveller’s urge in him kicked in, and all of a sudden Maldives just made sense. “I’ve worked in these safari places where it’s quiet funky and a bit retro. I wanted to find something similar in a bigger scale and then I thought the W Brand is where I can be myself,” he said.
He wanted a more permanent future. But he was more than just a Hotel Manager. What made him complete and whole, was ability to be himself. And that mix of intellectual honesty, talent and willingness to be better was perfect for the W Brand. Laurens had also been fascinated by the W Brand, and had been eyeing them for a while.
“At W I can be a slightly unorthodox manager and still have a long term future, so I found out about the vacancy with W and with my experience it was a perfect fit. By then I had really wanted to work for W. I had followed their growth for many years. It’s been more than year and a half since I came to Maldives,” he said.
What Laurens dislike about most hotels is the typical approach to luxury. Hotels that were just the same everywhere frustrated him. For him, there has to be some creativity, some flexibility in bringing out something special. He believes that the hotel must be built around what the guests want. “Each guest must have an individual experience. We try very hard here at W to give the guests something that would surprise them,” he said.
“There is something that we don’t talk about W. But also something that is very important. It’s the natural beauty of the island, and the excellent house reef that surrounds W. We also have a separate private island, where you can spend a night.”
Thrilled and excited Laurens prepared for his arrival in Maldives. But nothing in his old life had prepared him to see this property. It was also the first time he had taken a sea plane. “If you talk about the actual geography of Maldives it’s when you land here the first time that blows your mind. You research, trying to get a feel of what it’ll be like, and when you land you actually realise that Malé and the airport are actually two different islands. Then you begin to figure out how small the land mass is. This was a place where you see more beauty snorkelling, than you seen anywhere else while diving. Maldives is a whole different level of tropical bliss. So it’s a very different experience for me,” he noted.
What mesmerised Laurens more than the geography of the Maldives, were its people. He describes Maldivians as impressive. “Maldivians are well educated proud people and good people. I think people might be a little bit shy at first. But it’s nice to know that most people you meet are actually interesting people, who you can have an intelligent discussion with. These are people who know what’s going on around the world. They are well read and well learnt,” Laurens says.
“I remember the trip around the island when I first came here. I just remember the guy that showed me around the island, I felt that these people were so full of energy. The people, or as we call it the talents are so friendly and made me feel so welcome. They respect you for the bit of knowledge and experience you have.”
Unlike most foreigners working in Maldivian resorts, Laurens explains that he rarely gets bored. “I can understand why people say that they get bored after a while. But I like to be outside a lot, and I’m very active, and that is probably why I don’t get bored,” he said.
Laurens is also an active sportsman. He likes excitement and exercise. During the end of March he went back to South Africa and ran a half marathon, a 21 km run. He explained that the training for that took a lot of his time. Very often he trains twice a day, and during mornings and afternoons he spends his time running or swimming.
“Now I’m going to start training for a triathlon which is running, swimming and cycling, which I will probably try and do in October. I just started to do windsurfing, it’s cool but it’s difficult. The first day it seems so easy, but when it gets windy you realise how difficult it actually is,” he said.
For Laurens his experience of a place is defined not by work, but by what he does in his spare time. The fulfilment of his hearts desires, replaces his boredom. The need to live in the moment drives him. “I feel that where ever I am, six days a week I would be busy working. So my day off is what makes a difference for me, between working here or anywhere else,” he said.
In the end, Laurens becomes special because he doesn’t need to be told what to think, what to believe and what to do. He is a man who looks for the best in people. He is also a man who is truly certain of himself. He lives in the moment and strives to make the best of life. He borrows from conventional wisdom, yet builds his own path. As he puts it, “everything in life is temporary, so I feel that while I’m here I might make the best of the facilities and possibilities here.”