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Interview: Ross Sanders on how to make a Maldives resort stand out

The Anantara Kihavah GM’s strategy for success has paid off, with unique experiences attracting repeat guests

Ross Sanders oozes affable Scottish charm. As general manager of Anantara Kihavah Maldives, his reassuring presence is felt around the resort. Personalised communication is what he believes secures bookings – and with a 35% repeat business rate, he’s clearly doing something right. Connecting Travel caught up with Sanders to find out how he ended up on a remote island in Baa Atoll and what his winning strategy is for successfully selling his patch of the Maldives in an uncertain world.

Connecting Travel:How did you get into hospitality?
Ross Sanders: I fell into it by accident, but I loved it. Originally, I started studying computer science and business management and was working in a bank before I left the UK. My family is in travel; my mum was a lecturer in travel and tourism in Glasgow, and my dad was in travel on the sales and marketing side. They had connections in Malaysia. I thought I’d only be there for six months on a working holiday.

CT: What led you to your role at Anantara Kihavah?
RS: I was previously GM at Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort, which is a stunning hotel, our flagship in Sri Lanka. Before that, I was with a company called YTL in Malaysia, which is named after the founder Yeoh Tiong Lay. I was there as GM of Pangkor Laut private island resort. When I moved to Asia about 18 years ago, it was as guest relations manager at Pangkor Laut, and then I went to Ritz Carlton in Kuala Lumpur, and I did a management development programme. I went on to a place called Tanjong Jara, which is on the east coast of Malaysia, as rooms division manager, and then I moved back to Kuala Lumpur. I was director for the central reservations office, and then I was director of business development in sales and marketing, so I’ve done the full spectrum of roles.

CT: Is it challenging to work in remote island locations?
RS: I’m kind of used to it, but this is the most remote I’ve been – and then Covid happened and I couldn’t get off the island at all for nine months. Working at a remote resort is so different to working in a city. You sacrifice so much of your life, and you work from 6:30am to 10:30pm most days. When I was in Sri Lanka, my boss moved from Sri Lanka to come here to be the GM. He invited me to come on a fam trip, so I came with my wife three years ago and I was completely blown away. It’s mesmerising. So, when the call came to take on the GM role myself, I said to my wife, “You’re gonna have to take one for the team”. It was a big career step for me. It’s an amazing hotel, among the top five in the company. It was also really interesting to see what makes the difference – why would someone pay $3,000, $4,000 or $5,000 a night as opposed to $500?

Service has to be amazing, of course, but you also need to deliver unique experiences, which is what we do at Anantara Kihavah

Anantara Kihavah Two-bedroom Sunset Over Water Pool Residence Aerial DaylightAnantara Kihavah

CT: Has your wife managed to settle in?
RS: My wife’s amazing. We got married seven years ago, just a month later I got offered my first GM role on a small private island. My wife had to quit her job in publishing, so when I went to negotiate a package, I calculated my salary and hers and said that’s my number, and they agreed. My wife always wanted to write a book, so she wrote a children’s book, which was published in the UK. Then she studied to be a yoga teacher. She’s qualified now and works as a wellness consultant.

CT: You’re very present on the resort – is that part of your management strategy?
RS: At a luxury hotel, everyone wants to see the GM. Everyone that comes here is a VIP. Everyone’s important and they want to feel important. I’m there for every single arrival and every single departure, which takes up a lot of time. I’ll normally attend breakfast too and walk around at dinner to check guests are OK. My whole ethos is based on genuine hospitality. I lead by example. I meet guests and the team see me doing it. Our service is very relaxed, very personable and very warm. And that’s why we have 35% repeat guest bookings.

People love the island. They love the team. They love the homely feeling that we’ve created with service from the heart

CT: What’s the biggest complaint you get as a GM in the Maldives?
RS: One of the challenges we have is with seaplane timings because we can’t control that. Seaplanes only fly in daylight hours, so they depart no later than 4.30pm usually and if a guest has a late departure from Malé airport that can be an issue. So, we’ve recently moved to Manta Air seaplane suppliers with a new lounge, which is much more hospitality-focused.

CT: What are Anantara Kihavah’s key selling points?
RS: We have a world-class overwater observatory for mind-blowing star-gazing experiences and, I think, the best underwater restaurant on the planet, which also hosts WSET wine courses. We’re blessed with a stunning reef. We don’t have any fake breakwaters or fake beaches, nothing is fake – it’s completely 100% authentic and genuine, a Maldivian island experience. Honestly, you don’t get better beaches anywhere else. If you just want turquoise water, a white sand beach and a private island, it’s hard to beat. A lot of the returning guests know this; even if they want to try somewhere new, they’ll come to us for a week or two before trying somewhere new.

CT: From stargazing to underwater WSET wine courses, which if the hotbed of activities has proved most profitable?
RS: It’s hard to quantify. I have so many guests telling me they booked because they wanted to try one of the activities we offer. Then you have people who book based on the impact of images shared across social media by existing guests of the overwater observatory or the underwater restaurant. The telescope was an especially expensive purchase but the ROI will never be calculable. Fundamentally, hotels in the Maldives have to keep reinventing themselves and being creative to distinguish themselves from the rest.

Anantara Kihavah - SEA Underwater Dining InteriorThe underwater restaurant hosts WSET courses

CT: Which resorts are in your comp set?
RS: There are so many good hotels in the Maldives, but we try to aim at the top, so we put the likes of Soneva Fushi, Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, Cheval Blanc and One&Only in our comp set, along with some really good local brands like Milaidhoo. Then there are the new openings like the Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi and The Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands, which are doing well. They’re all very different and everyone does an excellent job of what they do. So, we look to all of these when setting rates.

CT: How have your markets shifted during the pandemic?
RS: All of Asia closed, which had an impact. Pre-pandemic, China was massive for the Maldives. Korea was big. We’re a Thai company, so we had a lot of Thai guests, and a mix from Malaysia, Singapore, a little from Vietnam and Japan, too. Then there was Australia and Northern Europe – Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Italy, the UK. The markets that helped us through the pandemic were Brazil and the US. Before and after the outbreak Russia and Ukraine have been big markets for us, and Kazakhstan as well, which is a big new market for a lot of destinations. The world is still limited on where people can travel to, and I don’t see things changing until the end of Q1 2022, so while the Maldives is open and European markets are looking for winter sunshine in January, February and March, they’ll come back here again.

We’re already seeing that in forward business, which is fantastic

CT: So, bookings are good?
RS: Honestly, not that much has changed – we’re still at the top of the market. When people are dropping $30,000 to $100,000 on a booking they still want a concierge an agent to do the paperwork for them. Direct bookings online were low when we reopened because people wanted to talk to someone to be reassured. Lots of people would look at our website, but then they would email my sales team, or they would email me directly, and we deal with every individual inquiry and completely personalise all communication. I put my email address on every TripAdvisor post, so it’s out there, and it’s on the website. And that’s how we had such a great reopening in 2021 because people wanted to be able to put their trust in a resort and talking to the person in charge, who then assures you, “Yes, it’s safe, I’ll see you on the jetty” makes everything feel OK.

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