Nilesh Singh on Le Méridien’s milestone celebration in Maldives
By Ali Naafiz
Located on the Thilamaafushi Island in the Lhaviyani Atoll, Le Méridien Maldives Resort & Spa is a canvas inspired by the formation of the atolls, fringing reefs and marine life. Spanning nine hectares, the island is a true castaway experience abundant with indigenous flora and fauna enveloped by a shimmering lagoon and coral reefs teeming with marine life, including pods of rays and turtles. Taking cues from a mid-century design aesthetic and the rich European heritage of Maldives the island boasts 6 restaurants and bars.
This young property is manned by Nilesh Singh who brings his experience in taking Le Méridien Maldives Resort & Spa to new heights as it celebrates its one-year anniversary. Maldives insider takes a look at what the property plans for its future as it celebrates this milestone.
Maldives Insider: Tell us a bit about your journey leading up to this position.
Nilesh Singh: Before joining Marriott in 2012, I worked with an Oberoi Hotels, an Indian hospitality company operating in the high-end luxury segment. I worked with Oberoi from 2000 to 2012. When I was working at Oberoi Bangalore, Ritz-Carlton opened their first hotel in India, in Bangalore. I had the opportunity to be a part of the pre-opening team, heading food and beverage for the first Ritz-Carlton hotel in India. That’s when I made the move.
We opened the hotel very successfully and I spent around three years there. Then I started looking for what’s next for my career? That was the only Ritz-Carlton in India at the time; now there is a Ritz-Carlton in Pune as well. So, the obvious choice was to go out of India. The Ritz-Carlton Bali in Nusa Dua was looking for an F&B Manager. I applied and got the job; so, I moved from Ritz-Carlton Bangalore to Ritz-Carlton Bali.
Ritz-Carlton Bali was an outstanding experience. It was my first time out of India. Bali is a beautiful island. People are very nice and hospitable, so it wasn’t as difficult as I had thought it would be. I settled into the role quickly. It was a smooth transition.
Bali gave me a lot of international experience because the guests who came to Bali were primarily international, mostly were from Australia, China and other countries. In Bali, I was promoted to the role of Hotel Manager. Being a hotel manager, the responsibilities became broader and I loved it.
During my time in Bali, I also had the opportunity to work at The St. Regis in Singapore for about four months. They needed help, so I went to The St. Regis Singapore and worked there handling the hotel operations. Again, that gave me a very good experience, as I had the chance to interact with a diverse international clientele and a workforce. While the hotel had many local Singaporeans, a lot of employees were from Malaysia, Philippines and South Korea. So, helped me to understand other nationalities as well.
Then I moved to The St. Regis in Kuala Lumpur as a Hotel Manager. Kuala Lumpur was another city altogether. It was my first time in Malaysia. The hotel is beautiful; that’s one of the best St. Regis hotels in terms of product I have seen. I worked there in 2019 and the hotel was relatively new; it had opened in May 2015, and it had seen a lot of management changes. Our role was to stabilise the operations of the hotel, retain the workforce and understand the business needs. I was in St. Regis Kuala Lumpur for two very productive years.
That’s when the Covid-19 hit. Those few months that I was in Kuala Lumpur during Covid was difficult because we were taking difficult decisions. We did not close at all; rather we got into the mode wherein we asked ourselves, what is it that we can do in this hotel to keep the cash flow coming in, so that we can keep as many associates in the hotel as possible. So, we quickly moved into the packed orders business. I still remember; April 2020 was Easter and in city hotels Easter is big. Easter brunches are quite popular because Kuala Lumpur also had a large expat crowd. But we couldn’t get anyone into our restaurants; so, we asked ourselves, why don’t we take the brunches into people’s homes? That’s when we started doing packaged orders. In the end, we did very well. Next came Ramadan month, and Ramadan is again very popular. All the hotels look forward to the Ramadan month because breaking the fast in the evening is a community event when a lot of companies host Ramadan breakfasts at hotels. So, we again did Ramadan breakfast boxes. From there on, we changed our gears to include a lot of packed orders because rooms were not producing any revenue as there were no guests staying in the rooms, but we could still keep the F&B operations running.
Then came the opportunity to move to the Maldives. I did not think twice.
I had never come to the Maldives. Forget having worked here, I had never even come here as a tourist. And then when this opportunity came up, I was completely in. I told myself, I have to do it. That was in January 2021. I wasn’t nervous at all, and I still remember when I landed here on the island. That probably was the first time a seaplane came here. When I set foot on the island, it did not even feel like that I was doing this for the first.
When I got to the island, then the real work started. We had 300 plus project workers on the island. From the Marriott point of view, the General Manager is the first one to arrive. Then we start setting up the team. We began by hiring the Director of Human Resources, Director of Sales and Marketing, Director of Finance, Director of Food and Beverage, and then they start building their own teams.
Being part of Marriott is a big advantage because we get a lot of help from the corporate, especially our regional offices in Singapore. If you have any questions that you need to understand in terms of the area, you have someone to whom you can reach out and get an understanding of the Maldives’ perspective because a lot of decisions need to be made keeping in mind how the location has behaved in the past. We worked hard, we got the place in order and we recruited the team.
Having worked in different countries like Bali, Malaysia, Singapore and India, I had a lot of resources everywhere in terms of manpower. A lot of people who had worked with me in the past also wanted to come and be a part of this pre-opening team. To move people from Bali to Maldives and from Bangalore to Maldives, and shuffle the workforce from within Marriott is what we did. In the end, approximately 45% of the total workforce is from a Marriott background. They understand the Marriott culture, which made our life easier on the island. When we opened the resort on 1 September 2021, we were ready and set. We knew that we were absolutely in a space where we could welcome the first guests on the island. We had the first seaplane on the island, and the journey then began!
We just completed our first anniversary. It’s been outstanding. It’s been very rewarding from every perspective. How do we measure guest satisfaction? We use a tool called Guest Voice, which gives us a figure. We have done very, very well. The thing that gets highlighted the most about the resort is our associates, which is our strength. The attitude to serve is our strength and that gets mentioned in every forum, be it our internal Marriott Guest Voice, TripAdvisor or any other forum. In the past 12 months of operation, we have had guests who had come three times to stay with us. This speaks volumes; they are taking not a four-hour flight from Dubai, but taking 30-hour flights from the US. So, like I said, that speaks volumes about our service.
We are also adding 42 new villas, so our total inventory will be 141 villas. With new beautiful overwater rooms and the existing beach villas, we are all ready to get into the festive period. Starting November, we will ensure that every single guest who comes to the resort is happy, goes with great memories and comes back to stay with us here again.
MI: What do you focus the most on in leading your team here?
NS: Everything is linked. It is linked in the way that we need to take care of our associates, everyone who lives on the resort. This is a different environment. Unlike a city hotel where once the associate finishes their work they go back to their respective houses, then they are not the responsibility of the hotel. In a resort in Maldives, it’s different because everyone lives on the resort. So, a lot of focus is on associates and their well-being. Again, Marriott conducts an associate driven measurement which is called the Associate Engagement Survey, wherein we measure associate engagement in their department and hotel. We’ve done very well on that front as well, which is a testimony to the fact that the team is happy on the resort. As I said earlier everything is linked, so once your team is happy, they create happy moments for the guests. Guests who are being wowed return to the resort multiple times. This in turn helps you to generate revenues.
MI: With the changing trends in the Maldivain tourism industry, how do you see the Le Méridien positioned to these changes, especially the post-pandemic transformation?
NS: Covid taught us a lot. Especially to all of us in the service industry. We know one of the worst affected industries was hospitality industry. We are still recovering from it.
We had to make some difficult decisions and it made us think out of the box. Easter brunch guests come to the restaurant, enjoy the brunch, and from that you generate your revenues. None of us had thought that we could take that brunch to the guest’s home in take away orders as a luxury five-star hotel.
Covid also taught us a lot about hygiene and cleanliness. Cleanliness is a big focus now. As part of Marriott, we are committed to providing guests with a safe environment that aligns with expert protocols for working to defeat Covid. Consisting of in-house and outside experts in food and water safety, hygiene and infection prevention, and hotel operations, our global Marriott Cleanliness Council is redefining our cleaning and safety standards. Guided by our corporate colleagues, we will actively monitor and evolve our solutions to ensure a continued focus on the health and safety of our guests and associates.
Thinking out-of-the-box is another one. Yes, there are many resorts opening in the Maldives. I would also say that similarly the number of guests who are coming into this destination is also increasing. There’s room for everyone. We saw it in the number of tourist arrivals in 2021 and we are seeing that this year. The numbers are good despite what we see in many other destinations across the globe. We were all lucky in the Maldives that the destination was open, we could continue to go around our business in the normal way and the guests kept coming.
This is an upscale brand, and what is expected out of Le Méridien as a brand is what we keep delivering consistently. Quality of food and beverage is important because guests who stay in the resort don’t have an option to visit any other restaurant. We have a wide array of dining options, from international cuisine at Turquoise and Japanese fine-dining at Tabemasu to conscious dining at Waves Café and a relaxed café experience at Latitude. Our Velaa Bar + Grill and Riviera offer guests with a light, relaxed environment to enjoy snacks, light meals and drinks. As you can see, there is a lot of emphasis on the quality of F&B. Guests have praised us for our F&B quality, which makes us feel happy about the fact that we are not making the guests a captive audience on the resort and not giving them food which they like or which is of their choice.
MI: What are your thoughts as Le Méridien completes its first year and enter the second year of operations?
NS: A lot of thank you’s to every single individual who has been involved in the success of this resort. Our associates, owners, and regional team; everyone has supported us very well. The local community has supported us very well. We have a local island next door and we work very closely with them. Even during the pandemic, we worked very closely with them. So, it’s gratitude, it’s thank you to everyone. The idea is that we continue to grow our business and we continue to grow the local talent, which is a major focus on our island.
We work with the Maldives National University (MNU). We take interns from MNU and that is primarily done to ensure that we are growing the local Maldivian talent. The interns come here for six months. Based on their performance, we recruit them and they become a part of Le Méridien Maldives Resort & Spa team. We will continue to do that.