Maldives Travel Awards: telling stories, recognising change

When Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) embarked on the task of creating a platform to recognise the players in the Maldives’ tourism industry, it was an altogether different story. New investments, tightly controlled and directed by the government, were made mostly by a handful of seasoned local and foreign hoteliers. Growth was impressive and return on investment was unmatched. But for travellers, accommodation options were limited to luxury resorts that cost tens of thousands of dollars for a night’s stay.

Fast forward five years, and the Maldives’ tourism industry has inevitably evolved. A plethora of new properties has come into play with the backing of a combination of local and international entrepreneurs and seasoned hoteliers. Dozens have forayed into new and untapped segments of the market, greatly expanding the scope of an industry that was previously exclusive to luxury tourism. Tourist arrivals have crossed the one million milestone and is on course to reach an ambitious target of 1.5 million.

It was against this backdrop that MATATO decided to branch out its Maldives Travel Awards into three editions. This year, the brand will see a People’s Edition, which recognises successful pioneers and long serving individuals in the tourism industry, a Guesthouse Edition, which celebrates the outstanding performance of the up and coming guesthouse sector, and the Grand Gala Night, which is exclusive for winners in the categories for resorts, airlines and liveaboards.

“We have seen the whole thing [Maldives Travel Awards] evolve, and we are very proud to say that we have three different editions this year simply because one night is not enough to recognise the entire spectrum of tourism products in the Maldives,” Abdulla Ghiyas Riyaz, MATATO’s President, said, in an exclusive interview with Maldives Insider.

Telling stories

For the first time ever, the Maldives Travel Awards will see an edition dedicated for the extraordinary personalities in the tourism and hospitality industry. From pioneers of the industry to successful hoteliers and to long-serving professionals, this is their chance to finally get their stories heard by everyone in the Maldives and beyond.

The edition, titled Maldives Travel Awards – People’s Edition, will select 10 outstanding individuals through a rigorous vetting process, which includes two key steps; filing their nomination by submitting their CV and personal statement and filling up a questionnaire, and personal interviews by a panel of expert judges.

The People’s Edition, which will take place as a gala ceremony during the Maldives’ first ever travel trade show Travel Trade Maldives (TTM) in July, will be special in more than one way. This is where hard working individuals in the industry will finally be given the recognition they deserve and have their stories told. The journey taken by the 10 individuals receiving the award will be documented through a dedicated video profile and shown at the gala night, which will also be live broadcasted on state TV.

Tourism minister Moosa Zameer (R) confers the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Maldives Travel Awards 2016 gala night. PHOTO/ AVAS

“These are the real people behind the success of the industry as a whole. For instance, someone who has been working in a resort for 40 years at the front office or in F&B who would otherwise not get the recognition,” Giyas said.

“In the past as well we have been recognising people, but we wanted to give the recognition to more and more people, especially to those who actually work day and night to run a property. We wanted to really bring forward their stories.”


Recognising change

Maldives, known world over for its upmarket tourism industry, has resorts in the hundreds spread across the archipelago. The some 120 resorts in the country offer unmatched luxury in the form of private islands, overwater villas, and revolutionary additions such as undersea restaurants, wine cellars, spas and clubs. These concepts developed and championed by the Maldives have served as a benchmark for luxury tourism around the world and have inspired a brand new ‘Maldives-themed’ resorts in the Middle East and the Caribbean.

Despite the Maldives’ brand being synonymous with luxury tourism, the industry has in recent years expanded to introduce more affordable segments, including guesthouses, to cater to a new generation of travellers. Some 300 guesthouses have started operations over the past five years as the number of travellers — backpackers, millennials and budget travellers —  that choose to stay in budget accommodations such as guesthouses increases year over year.

Tourism minister Moosa Zameer (C) and MATATO president Ghiyas (R) attend the Maldives Travel Awards gala night 2016. PHOTO/ ASAD PHOTOGRAPHY

These new travel trends and changes in the industry led to the creation of another edition of the Maldives Travel Awards; the Guesthouse Edition. Hosted as part of the Maldives Guesthouses Conference in September, this edition will have 25 categories. From design and architecture to F&B and operations, this edition of the Maldives Travel Awards will honour the best in budget accommodations in the Maldives.

“For the past five years, we have seen the whole sector of guesthouses really sprung up. So instead of having just three awards for guesthouses, we thought of having a separate edition dedicated for this important sector,” Giyas explained.

“Maldives Travel Awards is all about encouraging people and that’s what we aim to achieve through this edition as well.”


Crossing borders, building confidence

MATATO first experimented with taking the Maldives Travel Awards brand out of the Maldives and into the international arena two years back. A special edition was held at Dusit Thani Dubai in 2015 in parallel with the Arabian Travel Market (ATM). But it did not receive the traction the organisation had hoped for simply because there were numerous similar events taking place throughout the course of Middle East’s biggest travel trade show.

MATATO President Ghiyas (R-2) and a winner pose for a photo at the Maldives Travel Awards Special Edition held in Dubai in 2015. PHOTO/ MATATO

MATATO has since dropped the special edition. But the Maldives Travel Awards will cross the shores of the Maldives this year as well, albeit rather differently. All the events, including the three editions of the Maldives Travel Awards and the Maldives Travel Conference, which takes place a day before the grand gala with the participation of local and international experts, will be geographically restricted to the Maldives. The brand will, however, have an unprecedented level of backing of international experts and organisations, making it a truly global brand.

“Year on year, we are trying to add to the credentials of this award. Every year, we reach out to some of the best talent available locally for our judging panel. This year, we are reaching out to a lot of international judges. We have already spoken to PATA [Pacific Asia Tourism Association], UNWTO [United Nations World Tourism Organisation] and TTG Asia to get experts from these international organisations and publications to take part in our judging panel,” Giyas said.

“This year, we are also getting more media involved. We already have the local media on board, but we need to reach out to the international media in order to widen our audience. That’s why we are trying very hard to get international media involved this year.”

The international backing helps Maldives Travel Awards stand out in a global industry not short of award brands. There is the British Travel Awards, South Asian Travel Awards, and the “Oscars” of the travel industry, the World Travel Awards — all of which rely heavily on online voting. Maldives Travel Awards, on the other hand, depends largely on the score given by its expert judges, who travel to each and every property nominated for site inspections.

“Nobody else does this. You won’t understand product A and product B by simply looking at photos and material available on the internet. Today, you can run bots on the internet and generate votes. So we wanted to create a brand which is trusted by everyone in the industry and which serves as an example for similar products in the world,” Giyas said.

MATATO’s efforts to build confidence and trust in Maldives Travel Awards have reaped the benefit too; resorts and hotels are widely using this recognition in their marketing and promotional materials. MATATO, on its part, has taken new and improved steps to deliver on its promise. The organisation representing local travel agents and tour operators is promoting the winners at the many international travel trade shows and fairs it participates, including Matka Nordic Travel Fair, Riyadh Travel Fair, South Asia Travel and Trade Exhibition (SATTE) and WTM Connect Asia.

It’s not an easy task to create and expand a brand that is so closely linked to suppliers of a multi-billion dollar industry, especially for a non-profit organisation that solely depends on subscription fees, advertisements and donations for funding. But MATATO has done the impossible; the organisation has built an international brand trusted by an ever more competitive industry and has maintained its glory for five consecutive years.

But for Giyas, “there is so much to do [in order] to elevate the brand to what we want it to be.” MATATO is taking on that challenging task, starting with this year’s changes.

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