Maldives' paradise, but staff don’t always see it that way, hotel giant wants to make them happier
- Maldives' resorts are often considered paradise on earth.
- But for staffers, who live tucked away from guests' sight in the middle of the island, resort life can come with hard realities.
- Pontiac Land Group is trying to change that by creating a staff campus on an island of its own.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
Kevin Willis has worked at three different Maldives resorts. Currently, he's a learning and development manager at Patina Maldives, a new luxury resort that's replete with all the usual trappings - overwater villas, a marina with 20 berths for yachts up to 24 metres long, spa centre, you name it. And yet, this is the first time in five years of work that he, a staffer, has ever had a room with a sea view.
While the Maldives is paradise for guests, it isn't necessarily a dream for resort staff. Many employees face hard realities - among them isolation, cultural clashes, and feeling like second-class citizens - as they work on an island in the middle of the ocean for months on end.
Singapore's luxury hotel owner Pontiac Land Group wants to change that. It's launching three new resorts in a string of four islands called the Fari Islands in the Maldives' north Male atoll. All four islands are a quick water-taxi ride away from each other. Three of those islands boast Pontiac resorts - a Ritz-Carlton, a Capella, and a Patina. The fourth island, called Fari Campus, is dedicated to housing and creating a sense of community for staff members of those three resorts.
Pontiac is expected to have around 1,200-plus staff members when its Fari Islands is fully operational. The Patina hotel opened in May, followed by the Ritz-Carlton in June. Capella is slated to open in the next 18 to 24 months.
Currently about 750 staff from the Ritz-Carlton and Patina live in the Fari Campus, Willis among them.
"It provides a sense of community and life away from work," Willis said of life on campus, adding that it gives staff a positive opportunity to meet new people who work at different resorts.
Hidden from sight along with the laundry facilities
Many Maldives resorts are designed to optimise the amount of beachfront space available for guests' villas. That means staffers are made as invisible to guests as possible and packed into the middle of the island along with things like generators, waste storage, water treatment installations, and laundry.
So even if a developer wants to allocate more land to staff facilities, space is limited - and it often comes at the cost of staffers' wellbeing.
"A lot of times what happens is staff really don't have [social] engagement," said Gaurang Khemka, founder and design director of URBNarc, the Singapore-based firm that designed the Fari Campus. "They are on an island in the middle of nowhere, living in the centre, which is the least prime land, and screened off as if they are something to hide."
Nicholas Clayton is the CEO of Capella Hotel Group. He said that at Maldives projects he has previously worked on, worker facilities were always hidden away from sight.
"It sends a really wrong message that you're a second-class citizen in a way," Clayton said.
"Because of space limitations, there has to be a compromise between staff facilities and the equipment planned for the centre. So, as much as other [developers] try, colleagues' facilities generally are somewhat landlocked and constricted, versus a blank canvas that we have to create a wholesome village," he added.
The blank canvas at the Fari Campus, meanwhile, spans 12 hectares, an area that can fit 16 football fields.
Creating private spaces for workers
The Kwee family, who owns Pontiac, bought Capella Hotel Group in 2017.
It's a third-generation Kwee, Evan Kwee, vice-chairman of Capella Hotel Group and head of design and hospitality at Pontiac, who had the vision to build a staff island with a community of its own.
At Fari Campus, staff accommodation is spread out on the island in five clusters. Each cluster comprises four three-story buildings and has a courtyard.
Khemka, the design director, said it's all about creating private spaces for people.
"We may want to be in a courtyard to read a book, or just hang out with two staff and not 1,200," Khemka said. "Or, find a spot to make a phone call to loved ones because all the time we are always surrounded by other staff. Staff stay dorm-style, four to a room, or two to a room [for the more senior staff]."
Facilities include a jogging track along the beach, the largest soccer field in soccer-crazy Maldives, basketball and volleyball courts, a communal plaza, library, clinic, beauty salon, and retail store. And of course, two other key facilities: a mosque and a staff canteen that "isn't your regular staff mess," said Khemka. It seats 450 people, but was designed to create intimate sections, just as in a restaurant.
"Staff can feel psychologically comfortable and create their own little communities. It's just like housing planning, the idea being to create sub-communities by having clusters of courtyards and smaller spaces," said Khemka.
Mausool Abdulla is an essentialist (concierge or butler) at Patina. Patina is the seventh Maldives resort he's worked at. He said he's overjoyed by the "space away from work" and the exclusivity of Fari Campus.
Best of all, staff have their own beach. How often can you see an off-duty staff sun-tanning on the beach in the Maldives when guests have been promised a private beach?
Trapped in more ways than one
In the Maldives, staff are often trapped not just by constrained living conditions but by geography, cultural differences, and religious taboos.
Fifty percent of staff, by law, must be locals - but not all locals work in resorts that are near the capital, Male, or their atoll's capital island, where staff ferries can take them home every day. Many do what their foreign colleagues do: stay at the resort, work during off-days to accumulate more leave on top of their 30-day annual leave, then go home once a year.
"The staff are very trapped. They have nowhere to go. A 10-minute speedboat ride can cost $100 (R1,450), one way," said a former hotel general manager of a resort in north Male atoll, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Staff must stay inside their compound. They hang out at the staff jetty. There is limited space to hang out elsewhere."
He said the walls are so thin that people can hear private phone conversations from two rooms away.
"The pressure and stress of having no escape, no privacy, can turn little conflicts between staff into big dramas. As a GM, a major part of my job in the resort was managing people's lives 24-7," he said.
The isolation that comes with the job has also led to drug issues at some resorts. On some local islands, he said, there's a black market for alcohol and drugs. The going price for a bottle of beer or a small piece of heroin is said to be $7 (R101).
"If you have a gram of heroin or a bottle of beer on you, which is easier to pocket? So any staff could be sitting here with a month's supply of drugs," said the GM, noting that he experienced two or three cases in the three years he worked for the hotel.
There's also the matter of cultural clashes. The GM said he oversaw a team of 15 foreign nationalities, a cultural diversity that puts to test even the most tolerant and accepting of staff working in a constrained environment.
A game-changing vision
Pontiac's Fari Campus stands to be a test of whether a dedicated staff island, effective design and facilities, and the right "programming" can create a harmonious and thriving community for staff. Proposed ideas on staff programmes include organising a bazaar or hosting friendly soccer matches between, say, Ritz-Carlton staff and Patina staff.
While it's a step in the right direction, it's not perfect.
"One improvement [would be] for us to have a training facility on Patina island, as this would save teammates a lot of time in commuting to attend training," Willis, the development manager, said.
It's also not the only hospitality chain paying ever more attention to the welfare of its workers.
"Maldives tourism has evolved over 30 years and living conditions for staff have improved with the entry of more international chains and the tourism ministry's regulations on staff welfare," said Ibrahim Nizam, CEO of The Grand Associates, a firm that helps investors invest in the Maldives. "A few resorts even have a pool for staff."
Capella's Clayton declined to reveal the cost of developing Fari Campus but said "it's consistent with the investment to build and run a luxury resort in the Maldives." In other words, it wasn't cheap.
"The strategy behind the campus is about creating a healthy, productive environment for colleagues," Clayton said.
"But from a cold business standpoint, we are looking for a competitive advantage," Clayton said. We want our three hotels there to provide superior service over the competition."
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