Neil Shorthouse on inter-resort collaboration, training locals in Maldives fast-growing tourism industry

When Neil Shorthouse first arrived in the Maldives in early 2008 as the Cluster Director of Human Resources at Anantara Resorts Maldives, the Maldives tourism industry 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 10 years, and the 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.

This rapid expansion in a short period of time poses several challenges, especially in getting enough skilled individuals to fill up managerial positions. Resorts are forced to bring in professionals from abroad to an industry already dominated by expatriates or promote individuals without giving them proper training and guidance.

“Some people will pick up very quickly and are very good at that role. But some people are put there because there is no one else to do it and they don’t necessarily have the skill set to do their job. This means that if they go to another property, they may actually fail,” Neil, whose 20-year long career in hospitality involves working with a variety of top luxury brands such as Regent Seven Seas, The World, Soneva, Six Senses, Anantara Resorts and Cheval Blanc Randheli by LVMH, says, in an interview with Maldives Insider.

Neil poses for a photo with the participants of a training programme he conducted at the Hulhule Island Hotel (HIH) in Maldives. PHOTO/ HIH

Smaller resorts have to bear the brunt of the current deficit in getting skilled Maldivians for senior positions, as international hotel chains have the luxury of moving employees within its hotel portfolio. For new resorts, especially those owned and operated by up and coming local hoteliers, apprenticeship programmes run by industry leaders could be the answer.

Apprenticeship programmes for the hospitality industry are growing in popularity in countries such as the UK. In the Maldives, Four Seasons and Minor Hotels have been running their own apprenticeship programmes for years, and leading local resort operators such as Universal Resorts are formally getting into the game with their own apprenticeship and internship programmes for aspiring locals. These programmes have already enabled several young Maldivians to enter into the industry; starting at the very bottom and climbing up the ladder to achieve their goals.

“It’s all about getting to understand that when you start from the bottom and move up the ladder in the right pace, you appreciate it far more and you have a better understanding of the operation. So, if you want to be a chef, you start as a commis or in any other similar position. This way, they understand what it’s like to work at the very bottom and to move their way up,” Neil explains.

“What a great place it is to study hospitality when you have over a 100 resorts to get your work experience from. Almost every international brand is here. The experience students will get here in the Maldives is phenomenal.”

Neil conducts a training programme.

However, apprenticeship programmes are not enough to bridge the gap that currently exists, especially in light of the number of new resorts opening up across the Maldives. With dozens more expected to come into market in the next few years, Neil believes that resorts should collaborate with established local educational institutes such as the Faculty of Tourism and Hospitality Studies of The Maldives National University to offer courses as well as internship opportunities.

This collaboration needs to extend to inter-resort cooperation as well. Industry stakeholders should come together, and share information and ideas in an attempt to find ways to better adapt to the fast-changing trends.

“When I first came to the Maldives 10 years ago, it was very collective. Everyone spoke to each other. Everyone was involved and willing to assist. Nobody would say we can’t do this, we can’t do that. We had that trust and respect for each other,” Neil, who has worked in countries such as the UAE, Thailand, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Seychelles and the US, says.

“Nowadays it has become very secular in the sense that only some properties will talk to certain properties, or if there is a request for information, people don’t want to provide information to anymore. With the market becoming so challenging, it’s almost silly that no one speaks to each other and shares ideas. It maybe because it’s growing so big, that there are so many resorts, that it’s becoming more difficult to coordinate. But we need to have the inter-resort collaboration we used to have.”

Despite the challenges, Neil, who now runs his own hospitality consultancy firm Shorthouse Hospitality International (SHI), believes that training locals to take over managerial roles is the only way forward. Having worked with some “phenomenal” Maldivians who have gone onto become General Managers and HR Managers at reputed resorts across the country, he says that Maldivians can do every single task just as well as their colleagues from abroad if given the right skill set and opportunities.

“If you go to Thailand or any other destination, you can see a lot of locals in senior management positions. So, even from the guest perspective, having more locals in your workforce, especially in senior positions, is key. They are coming to the Maldives and they want to see locals. I think guests get more excited when they see that the resident manager is a Maldivian, or when they see a Maldivian chef or a Maldivian GM,” he explains.

“Those of us who are foreigners working here, are here as a guest. We have been given a work permit to work. I try to make sure that there is always a local capable of taking over my position. In my view, it’s all about giving back. It’s all about giving the skill set that they may or may not already have so as to ensure that they succeed.”

Neil (R-5) attends a networking session organised by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in London. PHOTO/ SHRM

The expansion of the tourism industry is set to continue, as local hoteliers and international hotel chains keep announcing new developments almost every month or so. With these developments, the uniqueness of the Maldives is changing as well; it is no longer the luxury, high-end destination that can only be accessed by the ultra-rich from the world over. New segments such as the booming guesthouse sector have opened up the Maldives to budget travellers and made the luxury resorts more affordable as well.

In this fast-growing industry, cooperation amongst properties and developing a capable workforce comprising a local majority are the key to survival. As Neil says, “We all make mistakes, but we need the opportunity to make mistakes in our career. If you don’t give the opportunity to locals, you won’t know their capacity.”

Editor’s Note: Shorthouse Hospitality International (SHI) is a luxury management and consultancy company headquartered in London, with operations across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Indian Ocean and South Pacific Islands. SHI provides a hands-on approach to services focused on operations, corporate audits, human capital, and significant projects. Specialty vertical markets include boutique hotels and resorts, cruise lines and private member clubs, yachts and residential estates. Working from an individual project basis to full retained consultancy, SHI assists in identifying “who you are”, “where you want to be” and “how to get there”. The international hotels and resorts and luxury properties are not only each exquisite in their own way; but are all culturally authentic, emotionally compelling and completely unique. SHI was founded by Neil Shorthouse in 2014 following more than two decades of experience in creating industry-leading, revenue driving platforms for companies from start-ups to Fortune 500s. He has launched business endeavours for multi-national corporations and led world-class teams of hospitality professionals.  His portfolio includes The Walt Disney Company, Disney Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas, The Soneva Group, The World, Six Senses Hotels & Resorts and Cheval Blanc Randheli by LVMH-Hotel Management.

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