Interview with General Manager Mr Hafidh Al Busaid
Niyama Private Island Maldives, December 2020
The Republic of Maldives is one of the few countries that are currently open for leisure travel and tourism. Over 90% of hotels are accepting guests and are expected to be fully booked over New Year holidays. Today we are visiting Niyama Private Islands and meeting with the General Manager of the local resort.
Good morning, Mr. Hafidh Al Busaid and Thank you for taking some time off your busy schedule to answer a few questions about work and life as General Manager at Niyama Private Island. Could you tell us a little bit about your adventure with Niyama?
Please Lana, call me Haf, cause, you know, otherwise it's too long and complicated. I started in Niyama about 4 years ago. It was a little bit of an adventure, because I had no idea that I was coming here, initially. It was just to look after the island for a month, whilst the previous GM sorted out some things, and then, eventually, I'm still here, after 4 years, so… It was a bit of a surprise, and a beautiful surprise, because it's a very special place, and – yeah, I fell in love with it pretty much straight away.
Could you tell us about your usual working day on the island?
First, there isn't a "usual" working day. Uhm, every day is different, the island is almost a little bit bigger than some of the islands in the Maldives, but we still have a limited number of villas. But because of its size - and then we are in the Maldives – it's always quite interesting.
So my normal day starts probably around 5 o'clock when I wake up and have a cup of coffee. And then, once I get moving, I do a little round of the island and just make sure it's still there, and check, you know, that everything's the way it should be. Have a quick look in to make sure the breakfast is ready and everybody's happy… And then, yeah, it depends what happens during the day. One thing I've learned as a General Manager in the Maldives is try not to plan your day too much, because the island tells you what it's gonna do.

Sounds busy.
And then you need to be ready for whatever it does. But I think the difference here is that, you know, I spend a lot of time with the team, and with my guests – not so much time in the office, which is nice, and when you have a beautiful surrounding like this who wants to be in the office - so it's a different way of working here and, you know, for me it's quite enjoyable.

Is your job a real passion?
Yeah, it kinda is. I've been in hotels… now, goodness, over 30 years – I'm gonna say over 30 years, because if I tell you how long, you'll go "Uhmm". And I stared when I was 10 – no, I'm kidding – now it's been a long time and yeah, I really enjoy hotels, I love the people that work in these resorts, that work in hospitality, because they do it – most of them – because they enjoy doing it – I mean that's not a job you can really do if you don't like it.
And particularly here, where we're trying to give the best service we possibly can. It's almost impossible to do it if you don't like it. So, yeah, I enjoy working with them, I enjoy – the fact that's there's always new ideas, it's a very dynamic thing to work in - I don't wanna call it an industry, because for me it's not an industry – each hotel is individual, and it has its own character, and it has its own style, and it has its own guests, and each guest is individual, so you're constantly changing and you're constantly moving, and I love that about this. It kind of encompasses all we do and how we live, so for me it's a lot of fun, yeah. So it definitely is a passion. Yeah.
And what is the one thing that makes Niyama different?
Well, I think that's the thing with Niyama – there isn't one thing that makes it different, there are many things that make it different. I mean, firstly, it is a stunningly beautiful – it's two islands, technically, Chill and Play, and they're both really beautiful. I've traveled – I had a privilege of traveling around the Maldives for some time, and every time I come back I'm always amazed how pretty Niyama is. It's really luscious, really green, it's very spacious, it has beaches all the way around it, which is also unusual for the Maldives, and it has its beautiful big lagoon, which is perfect for swimming, perfect when you have kids, because it's not too rough, it's quite gentle and easy to manage.
And yeah, we have this very diverse F&B which is quite different from other resorts, we don't really do this sort of the Italian restaurant and Indian restaurant, we have an African, South-American restaurant, we have underwater restaurant, our Asian restaurant is up in the treetops, our fine dining is out in the ocean, so... We have a food truck for surf shack which we're trying to make and serve little sort of funky food for surfers and things like that, so it's quite interesting to work here, because you can play with a lot of things. We try to be a bit innovative. So we're not a safe, little off-the-road kind of resort at all. And there's this team that I have – I mean, they are --- and I've worked in hotels a long time – and they are very special. They are really passionate, they inspire me every day. They are a great group of people to work with. We all live on the island, so we become quite close to each other, and that really makes what I do interesting every day, because, you know, I like to bring characters out in people. And I think it's important when guests interact with people they're interacting with real people and not just some robot who is there to serve. I want them to talk, I want them to joke, I want them to have a good time when they're working. And enjoy it as much as our guests do, sometimes.
It's very interesting, thank you. Could you tell us some secrets or unusual facts about these resorts?
(laughs) Well, I don't tell secrets about what goes on in the resort. I think that's something that's quite important: people come to get away, they come to escape, and the Maldives is probably the ultimate escape in the world. I mean, it is shockingly beautiful, it is very isolated and separated from the outside world. It's sometimes feels like end… But, you know, there are interesting things that go on … the island – one point in its history, I think, many hundreds of years ago may have been occupied, at some point, and the team likes to talk about people who may still be here from that time – so that's a little interesting fact. We have a resident turtle; it likes to hang out in the villa 1-3-4 where we have a little snorkeling path – and history is he was drowning, he got stuck on this old coral, and he was spotted by one of the team and marine biologists went to help him – and brought him back up on the surface. And since then – I mean, that was over a year and a half ago – he still hangs around there. And he's quite friendly and he won't come close, but he will swim with you for a while. I swam with him for maybe half an hour, 45 minutes, while he's been doing his things, so that connection with the island and the things around the island – you begin to see things that you haven't seen before, and you notice the habits of the other residents. So we have two big basking nurse sharks that like to come underneath the bridge, but they won't come early, they only come late at night. But they will come pretty much every other day and hang around there. And when you think of this sort of sea animals, you think they don't have a routine or they don't do a thing, but they do, and you notice that when you've been here a while, you see things reoccurring, and the same animals being around, so yeah.
Very interesting. So you talk about your team - do you have a concierge desk? And how does it work in Maldivian resorts and how do you manage clients' special requests today?
I think the concierge desk is a staple. It's a traditional thing that happens in most sea business hotels, it still happens in resorts – for some strange reason… But here in Niyama – no, we don't even have a reception desk, we don't believe in that, we believe that guests should have someone they can talk to on a personal level, who can spend time with them, who interacts with them on a daily basis, and we call this person a takhuru here. It's not as formal as a butler, but it is someone who will arrange anything that you need, who should be in touch with you every day, who checks in and makes sure that you're okay, and if you need to get in touch with us for any reason during your stay, even just sometimes to say hello, you can call them, and they'll be there, they'll take you where you need to get to if you don't wanna ride the bicycle that day, so yeah, it's a little bit more personalized. The good thing is – we then get feedback as well, from the takhurus – if someone's having a good stay, if someone buys a particular thing – we can do something special for them – and that service becomes a little bit more personalized. And I think that's the way the trend is going, you know, with all the changes in the world. Personalization, privacy – this sort of things – become incredibly important, because we realize that, you know, the attention to another human being is so important – and that is true. And it's not personalization in the sense that the Amazon can give you, you know you look 20 times for a certain thing they will tell you this certain thing is all you like. This is a much more human element where the takhurus are trained to listen and pick up the human inflection or reflection, even if someone is not telling them exactly something, they pick up on this. So we create this personalization on much more human level.

And what is the most incredible situation you have to manage?
Well, in 30 years I've had a few. I've once lost an elevator that a king was supposed to be getting into - and most people will say "How can you lose an elevator that goes up and down" – but that's a long story… You know you get lots of strange requests sometimes, and I've had a whole range, but I think once we were dealing with another head of state in another property – who was needing to go out on a trip to the desert, but the problem was they had quite an entourage, and they had addition to the entourage, they had quite a significant security presence, medical staff, minders, people looking after them, so they had a big motorcade. We calculated that if we did it safely we sort of had 2 minutes between the cars; by the time they've reached the destination the last car would still be at the hotel – and then it wouldn't work, they only needed to be where they needed to be at the same time. So it was a bit of a challenge. And we'd had quite a few of them. And then this idea of helicopters came into place. So we thought: okay, maybe we can arrange some helicopters. But we needed a lot of helicopters, we needed like 20 helicopters, all at once. So I asked a friend who is in the army if he could help me out, and he thought it was just too funny, so he made it happen, he arranged for it to happen. And we were fortunate – we had this beautiful long 2-kilometer beach and we parked the helicopters on the beach, and then, one by one, they took off. That was quite a sight for everybody got where they needed to go when they needed to be there, and everybody got back quite safe and happy, so it worked out well in the end.
Wow, a very interesting story. How many helicopters there were…
There were about 20 helicopters.

What is your inspiration and source of energy?
A powerful coffee, constantly. And… I love my job, I think anybody in this industry who has been in it for this length of time or who is starting out – you've gotta ask yourself a question if you really love what you do, and I think that's fair to say for anything people do. So yeah, I enjoy getting up early in the morning, I enjoy making sure things happen, I'm enjoying the fact that the more complicated the resort is, the more moving parts there are, the more it interests me. But I think it's also reflection on how we treat each other. And people have often asked me this question, why do you do this? I mean, that's the hours of crazy… You know, I get to travel to the most beautiful places on the planet and work with inspirational people all the time – it's heaven. But I think it's the way about how we treat each other. Hotels and resorts have this perception in people's mind about service that is different from any other service industry. You know, you can walk into a bank, and the service you get there will be completely different, and your expectation of what's going to happen is completely different. You know in a bank you gonna wait, you know in a bank it's gonna be a queue, you know in a bank they gonna ask you fill out ten thousand forms and then make you wait again and then tell you no, we can't do that, and that's an expectation. Which is why the banking industry invented the ATM machine, because they realized they couldn't address this issue. If you had to do that in a hotel or resort, no one would stay in that hotel or resort. So the idea that we can treat each other better interests me, the idea that building expectations in people's minds about how well they can be treated and then surprising them a little bit more interests me. And hopefully people go away from that experience and carry a little bit of it away with them – when they interact with others. I would hope so. So that kind of is my inspiration in doing this here.
And I also need to ask you. Could you suggest what impact can bring today's situation, on the, we'll say, global luxury industry and travel industry?
On the travel industry – because when you talk about it on that level – it's a huge industry. And it's already gone through, you know, dramatic changes, I think, being affected more than any other industry. But I also think anything that happens in the world creates opportunity, great opportunity. And you can see that in the conversations happening around travel and around what is luxury and around what does it mean to be a tourist when you visit another country. And these conversations are being in the background for years, but now they've sort of come to the surface. And you can see, you know, cities like Vienna and Amsterdam having conversations about how would the experience be better – not just for the tourists but for the people that live there – how do they manage that coexistence. So I think that element of just trying to generate money has taken a back seat to this idea of what we can do more responsibly and how that will impact the way we travel and how we behave in certain places. And what is sustainable and what is not sustainable. Because I think they realize that the model was too big and too huge.
It may be again, but I think, you know, much like what has happened in the food industry – you know, buying things locally, making sure that supply chain is shorter, making sure that things are fresh and more organic – I think that's kind of happening to tourism. And I think it redefines luxury in a way. It tells us that luxury is not about the biggest gorgeous villa, it's more about what you're experiencing, how you feel – not just random experiences, like, you know, jumping out of the plane in a parachute, but how do you feel when you're doing that and how do you feel when you celebrate something like that. And how do you feel when you re-live that moment. So, yeah, I think the emotional connection to travel – because so many of us haven't been able to do it – has become much stronger, we realized that it was important to us. And I think that when you think back to what made you travel in the first place, before it became habit, and how you experienced that travel is now more about how you felt. And I think that's going to have a remarkable impact on our business, yeah.
Haf, thank you so much for sharing with us your ideas, inspiration and information about the resort – it was very interesting. And I wish you very good day.
Thank you, Lana.

Thank you so much. Maybe we could have a round – a short trip – of the island?
Yeah, I mean, you've already got the tan, so you've seen it. But I will show you the island in my way, okay?

With pleasure!
Perfect. Let's go on then?

Let's go. Thank you.
Thank you.

©️ 2021 Affinity Concept. Interviewer Lana Steux. All rights reserved.
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To join the club, please direct your questions or requests by email or by direct line.
We will deal with your inquiry as efficiently and quickly as possible.
FR tel. : +33 6 65 34 15 70
RU tel.: +7 916 630 08 53

36, rue d'Antibes, 06400, Cannes
French Riviera – Monaco – Paris – Courchevel – Moscow – London – Geneva