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Interview: Wayne Milgate on providing ultra luxury in the Maldives

The GM of Velaa Private Island explains what it takes to be one of the Maldives’ upper echelon of elite resorts

Wayne Milgate is the sort of man you want to sit next to at a party. Appointed general manager of Velaa Private Island in 2021, the mild-mannered Australian has an easy-going nature and a lifetime of stories to share. His career has spanned some of the world’s most exclusive resorts, and much of his time is spent hosting their high-net-worth patrons, among them global influencers, industry leaders, sports stars and medical gurus. There’s never a dull day ‘at the office’ for Milgate, whose mission now is to protect and nurture the soul of one of the leading ultra luxury resorts in the Maldives as it undergoes change in 2022. Connecting Travel met with the man leading Velaa Private Island into a new era.

CONNECTING TRAVEL: What do you have planned for Velaa in 2022?
WAYNE MILGATE: We’re closing for four months in 2022 – from 15 May to 15 September – and we’re going to make some substantial improvements to the property. We plan to build a wellness village. In addition to our current beautiful overwater spa, we’ll have a spa on land, offering a more holistic wellness experience, plus a yoga pavilion, an enclosed glass Pilates studio and a brand new wellness restaurant with raw food and other spa cuisines. We’re going to extend our tennis court roof over the paddle tennis, squash and beach volleyball courts, as well. We’ll also do some work in the rooms and food and beverage areas, too. Everything will be fully completed by our ninth anniversary in December 2022 and we’ll have a few more surprises in store by then, too.

Velaa_Spa_Aerial_HeroThe existing spa at Velaa

CT: GM at Velaa Private Island is one of the top positions in hospitality in the Maldives. How did previous positions prepare you for this?
WM: For the last 17 years, I’ve been working on private islands and at independent properties for private owners. Private islands have unique nuances. If you’ve not worked on an island before, especially a luxury island, it does take a little time to understand the operation and the staff. It’s almost like a small town. The focus is the guests, but the larger focus must be the staff because they’re providing everything and they’re living here as well, and the number of staff is much greater than the guests, so, maintaining the right infrastructure for them is important.

CT: What attracted you to working in the Maldives?
WM: Velaa – and that’s the truth. I’ve got two kids. I didn’t really have an interest in living in the Maldives at this stage of my life, but then the opportunity at Velaa came up and Velaa is one of those properties that arouses your attention because there are only a few properties like it in the world. I came here for four or five days and met the owner and his family, and that sealed it.

What Jiri Smejc was trying to achieve was exactly the way I wanted to work. His philosophy to look after the staff as much as the guests was very important to me

The owner is invested in the people, and he built the product around them. And that’s how it’s been successful. The staff retention rate is great; lots of staff have been here since the start. When you’re running an island at this level of luxury, you’ve got to keep key people and a service culture that just becomes natural and everybody speaks the language. You have to have core people that believe in the product and are happy to stay and deliver that to new staff that come on board.

CT: So, how do you attract and keep good staff in the Maldives?
WM: Everybody in the industry likes to work for a nice brand, and I think we have a reputation for looking after our staff. That’s how we attract them and keep them. When I met with the owner to discuss the upcoming renovations, beyond making improvements to the resort, he wanted to explore how we could improve the island for the staff. We treat people well, and that’s part of our marketing to attract them.

CT: What’s your advice for hospitality professionals wanting to secure a position here?
WM: Approach us and tell us why you want to work here because that’s more important to me than your skillset. What’s your philosophy about hospitality? We could teach anybody what they need to know.

We hire on attitude because we want likeminded people working here and living here

CT: How do you maintain a connection with family and friends back home?
WM: It does take a lot to leave your life behind and live on a remote island. This is the first time I’ve done it without my family, so, I guess I’m still learning. But obviously, Zoom and WhatsApp make it easier. My wife has worked in the industry, we worked together on a remote island, and my kids grew up on remote islands until they went to school, so they know and understand my existence, and I speak to them every night before they go to bed, and every morning when they get up.

CT: Which resorts are in Velaa’s comp set?
WM: There are resorts outside of the Maldives that are in our comp set, but here in the Maldives we consider Cheval Blanc Randheli, Joali Maldives, Soneva Jani, and maybe One&Only Reethi Rah and the Four Seasons resorts as our comp set.

CT: What are Velaa’s unique selling points?
WM: In terms of activities, you could easily spend two weeks here and not do the same thing twice. We offer a lot of water sports; we have a lot of the boats – fishing boats and luxury yachts – including our 60-foot Princess. We’ve got the most extensive collection of water toys, and then there are our land sports: rock-climbing, badminton, football, tennis, and paddle tennis, which we introduced recently. There isn’t another tennis court like ours that’s air-conditioned and undercover with a huge ceiling so you can play all year round, and nowhere in the Maldives has a golf course like we do. It’s a Troon-managed golf course for serious players.

Velaa_Private_Island_GolfTroon golf course

CT: Velaa’s also known for holding big-budget events. What’s the ROI?
WM: In the past, we’ve set up a stage on the beach and had opera and Broadway singers perform. We’ve had ballet on the beach, as well. Our festive season entertainment is the best, I think, at any resort of this size in the world, with world-class international acts coming here to perform. It requires an extensive budget – in excess of my salary, close to US$1 million – but we get a lot of return. It’s why we have many return guests over the festive periods and a waiting list. Some people book up to a year in advance, sometimes while they’re already here during Christmas.

Every year we reinvent the entertainment, so every year is different with events on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day

CT How has the pandemic impacted your key markets?
WM: Market’s changed based on where was open and where was closed, but the Maldives did a great job, as did Velaa, of staying open. The Chinese market is no longer there, but it wasn’t a big market for us. Russia has always been a strong market for us, as has Europe, and that has developed depending upon people’s ability to travel. We have a lot of return guests via direct bookings and we have strong relationships with the fantastic travel agents that we’ve worked with for years based all around the world.

CT: How do you market the resort?
WM: Our marketing is more personal. We do occasionally go to the large trade shows, but not often. I was recently in Dubai and I hosted lunches and dinners for a select group of people, introducing them to the product. This product is not something that you can sell in 10 minutes to a travel agent or a private concierge; instead, we host a lot of trips here for agents to come and experience it, because the best way to sell the product is to understand it. We also do a lot of PR. We have representation in many countries.

CT: Has consumer behaviour changed due to the pandemic?
WM: It has, and fortunately Velaa is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the changes. Travellers are looking for a safe haven and we have marketed ourselves as a safe haven. Visitors to the Maldives are no longer visiting multiple destinations; now they’re flying to one resort and staying longer. We’ve had guests staying for one, two, three months and more.

CT: How do you keep high-net-worth guests happy in times of heightened stress, such as a pandemic?
WM: We try to engage with guests as soon as they arrive and ensure that they have a point of contact. As well as being greeted by a butler, I will meet 99% of guests, and if I haven’t met them on arrival, then I’m going to meet them throughout the day.

If you maintain open lines of communication, you can make sure guests needs are met before complaints arise

CT: Finally, with more consumers looking for more environmentally-friendly holidays, is Velaa adopting any more sustainable hospitality practices?
MW: We try to ensure that we buy the most sustainable items for operations, and we’re working closely with local islands in this atoll on CSR projects where we provide schools with aluminium water bottles and bags so they can reduce plastic use. We’re trying to reduce single-use plastics on the resort, too. We offer full-sized Clarins products in rooms, and we’re looking at bottling our own water. We’re also looking at changing lighting to reduce demand on our generators.

For more information, visit www.velaaprivateisland.com

Velaa_Private_Island_Aragu_Restaurant_SunsetAragu restaurant

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