A visa complication and subsequently missed chance at an exchange programme to Hong Kong were what fortuitously landed Dominik Ruhl in the field of hospitality.
He grins wryly as he reminisces how his illustrious career took off purely “by accident”.
“I was at home, wondering what I would do,” he narrates, looking back at the days after he finished school in his home country of Germany.
“My neighbour was running a hotel company and asked me if I wanted to do a training for a couple of months, and I said, ‘Why not, I’ll do that and see how I like it' - and well, 25 years later, I’m still here!”
After his apprenticeship, Ruhl launched his career with Ritz Carlton in the United States, first in Cleveland in 1995 and then in Kapalua, Hawaii, where he worked until mid-1998. Ruhl’s next stint was bigger - opening a hotel in Mexico - before he joined the Four Seasons Hotel in Punta Mita. It was from there that Ruhl found himself bound for an unprecedented destination.
“One of my colleagues told me, ‘If you like the ocean so much, I’ve just come from the Maldives’”, he recalls.
As fate would have it, Ruhl was invited to fly into the island nation for an interview by Hilton Maldives in 2000.
“The moment I landed, in the seaplane, I said, ‘This is it!’. It was love at first sight”.
He worked mostly in the Maldives for next 10 years, starting out as the Room Division Manager and Director of Operations at Conrad Rangali, before he landed his first General Manager position at the newly opened Mirihi Island Resort in 2003. Three years later, he took on projects in the Caribbean, returning to the Maldives in 2007 to serve as the General Manager at Anantara Resort for a year before heading back to the Caribbean again.
"I came into the hotel industry because I wanted to travel, I wanted to see different places”, he says, explaining why he never stayed in one place for long.
However, Ruhl found himself drawn back to the little archipelago in the Indian Ocean. He returned to take on Diva Maldives Resort & Spa as General Manager in March 2010 and stuck with the company, now rebranded as the famous LUX* Maldives, ever since.
“When I left [the Maldives], I said ‘It’s just not the same’, because the Maldives, it’s a very special place; especially when you’ve seen so many other options”.
He grins when asked what it was about the Maldives that he found so alluring. With a sweeping gesture at the shimmering cerulean lagoon of LUX* North Male, he says, "It’s beautiful but not just from the scenery, but also from the experience; from the people, from the way we work here.
"Every guest that arrives, it is a different way that people are welcomed, the guests are received. I think that Maldivians really feel that the place where they work - not just LUX* but I think in many hotels - they see it as their home. They are receiving foreigners to their home, and if you receive friends at your home, you want to make sure they have the best experience.
"Whereas in other places I had to focus just to get the basics right, to have the guests look after ... in the Maldives that happens almost automatically. So we can spend our time to create extraordinary moments and really go above and beyond, and I think that’s the secret to the success of where the Maldives was in the ’70s to where it is now”.
And how does Ruhl inspire his staff to create extraordinary moments and good experiences for their guests?
“By proactive listening and anticipating”, he smiles.
"We say at LUX* that we’re in the 'time business’. You come to us and give us five days of your time, and time is precious … we have to make [most of] every moment”.
His passion for his work bleeds through to his voice as he speaks of the importance of paying attention to, and delivering, the kind of experience each individual guest needed.
“There’s a lot of times that guests don’t ask [for what they want], but if you actively listen and you proactively deliver on the cues that the guests may give you, that’s when you’re running a successful resort”.
From General Manager at LUX* Maldives, Ruhl progressed to Regional Director overseeing Maldives, Middle East and Greater China in 2014, before his current post as Chief Operating Officer at LUX* Resorts and Hotels in 2016.
Looking back at how the Maldivian hospitality sector has evolved since he first stepped off that seaplane in 2000, Ruhl notes that the greatest difference is the current abundance of international chains and luxury brands.
“Before ... it was very basic. You came for diving, you came for the beach, you were under a palm tree and you didn’t mind that you had very basic facilities and not a lot of variety of food. So the travellers that came before were more [scuba]divers and adventurers, and people that wanted to have something very exotic, and [they] made a lot of concessions.
"But if you come now, well, you still have all of that, but you have all the luxuries that you’d expect when you go to any other high-end destination”, he says, praising the country’s success in establishing itself as a top bucket-list item.
He also highlights the rapidly advancing local tourism industry, noting that guesthouses opened the Maldives to a whole new demographic of travellers.
“… It’s a lot happening. But I think if you can do it right and if the infrastructure can keep up, if the airport gets opened, and we do the right marketing and promote the destination on top of the hotels, there’s still a lot of room to grow for the Maldives”.
As the topic steers towards Ruhl’s career highlights and personal achievements, he states matter-of-factly, “It’s very hard to achieve anything on your own. You achieve things together”.
For Ruhl, one of the greatest accomplishments was how the team behind LUX* managed to overcome a financial crisis, to rise up the ranks and become a top destination contender.
“Our company was basically bankrupt”, he says of the crisis that occurred circa 2006/2007, before the rebranding.
“We had to pay the loans, [it was a] complicated mess … and at the very end, we thought ‘What are we going to call this company?’ And we always talked that we wanted to be ‘lighter’, so we decided to call [the company] LUX*, which is a Latin word for ‘light’. It didn’t come from ‘luxury’.
"And we managed to - without any renovation - we increased our occupancy, we increased our ratings on TripAdvisor. That has been nothing but the secret to our success, that everybody who worked, in any of our hotels, has contributed to making something out of a very difficult situation”.
Sitting by the water’s edge of the newest property LUX* Resorts and Hotels unveiled in the Maldives, Ruhl looks quietly proud of the company and team he has been with for the better part of the last decade, as he sheds light on their future ventures.
“Right now we have 23 projects in development for LUX* across the world”, he says, listing a few examples such as the hotels in Mauritius, France, Italy, Turkey and China.
"We just moved our head office to Singapore [in January 2019] because we have a lot of development in South East Asia as well. So yeah, we have big plans and we’ve been very fortunate to get where we are today.
"But we understand that the Maldives will always be a very important part of what we do”.
As for his own priorities as the COO, Ruhl affirms that he focusses not on telling his staff what to do, but to "support the hotels in becoming more successful, more efficient, help them to increase the service delivery, and increase the success of the hotels”.
With hundreds of new hotels scheduled to open across the Maldives over the next few years, competition has grown stronger than ever, and LUX* is not exempt from the challenges that arise.
"I think the challenges are to, what I always say, to drown in the 'sea of sameness’”, says Ruhl seriously.
"There are so many hotels that are very similar. And unless you do something different, unless you dare to try new things, you will disappear in the mass of all these new hotels”.
The LUX* brand has risen to the challenge, even with its latest property in North Male’ Atoll, which offers a fresh alternative to the traditional thatched-roof suites prevalent across the country, with penthouse villas in a refreshing nautical design complete with sprawling rooftop terraces for stargazing.
Being bold and unique is a rule that applies to all other services as well, Ruhl emphasises, especially cuisine, which is a defining factor of a hotel, as well as unexpected surprises for visitors.
“You have to keep surprising your own repeater guests but also, obviously, you have to encourage others to come to your resort”.
His advice for young hoteliers preparing to brave the business, as well as ventures that are struggling to stay afloat, is the same.
“You have to be bold. You have to dare to be different. Because if you try to compete by doing the same, there will be a lot of others that have bigger pockets…
"Here, if you look at it, every hotel has great beaches, beautiful palm trees, turquoise lagoons. So it’s expected when you come to the Maldives. But if you have something that sets you apart and you can talk about and really make it your own, then you succeed”.
He stresses, again, on the ever-mounting competition in the Maldives, with around 20 new hotels lined up to open this year alone.
"And there’ll be another 20 next year, another 20 the year after, and the guests have to come from somewhere...
"So either do it differently or you will drown in the sea of sameness”.