The Edition sits down with leading Hoteliers in the Maldives, bringing readers exclusive information on what goes on in the minds of the leading business people in one of the fastest expanding, and most exciting industries of our time.
Armed with over 30 years of experience in the hospitality industry, Marc Reader returned to Maldives in 2017 as Resort Manager of Finolhu Maldives, a one-of-a-kind resort that brands itself as ‘retro chic’.
His second appointment in the country comes a decade after working as General Manager at the resort that is widely credited as having launched luxury tourism in Maldives to new heights, the stunning Huvafen Fushi.
Bustling with energy, Marc is a jovial character, ever-ready for a laugh and the classic Aussie down-to-earth approach to life and dare-we-say, business.
However, it is his somewhat unusual journey into Hospitality that piques our interest the most, as it tells the tale of a young skiing enthusiast making his way into the ranks of some of the most successful Hoteliers in the country.
"Essentially, I started off as a kitchen hand at 13 years of age in Aspen, Colorado to get myself through a Ski Racing Camp. Anyway, long story short, I kept on thinking through the snow ski racing, about what I was going to do. I had a passion for entertainment because we lived in a beautiful house in Sydney, my parents were in international business in the skiing industry, and a lot of people from international agencies used to come and stay with us. It used to be nicknamed the Barmen Hotel, the UNBAN.
So I was surrounded with entertaining throughout my life, and I wanted to get into hospitality but my first love was food.
I started at culinary school, but then I got a scholarship through my family’s business to the United Kingdom. When I was there, I continued with food but also studied a diploma in Hospitality and Management.
Ultimately I wanted to get into hotels, the first of which was the Palm Beach Hotel, Larnaca, Cyprus - Holiday Inn it was in those days.
That was just for the season though, and after my parents divorced, my mom was on her own. As it turns out, she had cash and I had none, and we decided to buy a restaurant together, because it was something she and I could do together; she used to be a compère at fashion shows, and I had a passion for food. It went from zero to hero very quickly and turned into a very famous restaurant called ‘Haskan’s’ in West Perth."
“I was invited to sort of, get involved in the hotel industry through my respect within the hospitality business. I came around people in Melbourne and they invited me to go into hotels for the first time. We developed a country retreat, 92-bedroom hotel, still called The Mansion Hotel, I think.
The hotel, in those days, was a conference retreat but the resort was more or less filled through the spa, rather than the spa filled through the resort - so it was very spa focused.”
Marc launched into the heart of his first project with a twinge of happy nostalgia, describing it as the “conversion of a building that was out of commission, the church had moved out 30 years earlier so it was completely depleted.
“We transformed it into the hotel ‘The Mansion Hotel' at Werribee Park, adding two new wings and turning into a beautiful spa retreat. It was enormously successful - I stayed there for eight years; two years on the project building it and six years operating it. It was my Spa Manager from then, Amanda Wilson, who called me one night in 2006 and said, you’ve got to come to the Maldives.
Amanda put me forward, Tom and Jane Mc Loughlin (the minds behind Huvafenfushi and Amillafushi’s initial concept) came to Sydney, we met at a Restaurant called Otters”, he chuckles, cheerfully pointing out the venue’s importance.
"It was Christmas time, same as when I came down to Finolhu - there’s something about Christmas panic, you get the call."
With some prodding, he tells us more of his Per Aquum venture.
"I was there [Huvafen Fushi] from 2007, eventually I followed them onto Singapore, at that point Tom had finished up with the company, so I worked with Neil Palmer and Sanjay Maniku for a little while afterward."
On a more sombre note, he mentioned that family obligations required him to return back to Australia in 2008.
“When I first came, I think there were about 40 five-star luxury resorts or something like that. Now there’s an enormous amount AND you’ve got guesthouses, which have taken over and are doing tremendously well, which I think is brilliant!
Because, what else can you do as a small business in Maldives, if you’re not fixing marine boats and engines, generators - now you’ve got this whole other micro industry which is giving enormous returns.
I’m actually pleasantly surprised to see how many international folks travel with no alcohol! And they are happy to - which is a very good insight. You never have the opportunity of seeing would they or wouldn’t they, because it's freely available. [It shows] they really enjoy the culture here."
Referring to demographics, Marc says with a glint of humour, “I hear there is a lot of change but I don’t personally see it. I think the big player, the only big change that has come to the tourism industry since has been China. And it was very present then too, but it was mostly concentrated on - I think I’m right to say, the 3-star area.
Now, of course, the demographic is present across all categories and is a vitally important contributor to the Maldivian economy”.
“Well, I’ve always loved the people. I’ll never forget my first arrival to Maldives - I felt very at home by the end of the week”, once more he smiles fondly at a distant memory.
"Couldn’t read a word of the language, couldn’t speak a word, found it very difficult - but I really just took a natural liking to them.
Before I came back here, five years after I left, Maldivian people were still the biggest population on my Facebook".
On the subject of his return, he starts off with, “I wanted to come back and was asking around if anyone knew anybody.
Later on then, an interesting thing happened, our Chairman Michael Flynn went to his 40th school anniversary, along with my cousin who went to the same class.
"He said they were looking for someone in the Maldives, there is a position that came up overnight”, he laughs, “You know, the usual”.
Emphasizing on how fast things progress in the hospitality industry, he stated that he was in a flight headed to Finolhu Maldives, just a few more conversations and rushed decisions later.
The answer is almost immediate: “Tom McLoughlin and Mark Hehir”, he said with confidence, adding that it was probably more so Mark due to his “understandable visionary”.
"In a small country like this, you feel at home as a Maldivian. When people become unemployed, they become unstable, when they get sacked from being really loud the previous night or whatever it was, everything goes funny.
The other thing is, fewer tourists arrive when you’ve had a coup or whatever, in a cafe over the backstreets of Male’, when the media announces that the entire country is in an uproar. It affects tourism; the industrial relationship there was definitely a challenge".
“To keep growing and retire by 65”, Marc retorts, “I’ve got ten years to go!”.
Laughingly he elaborates, “Yes, keep growing with the company’s own width and find a mutually agreed road ahead.
I’m very happy with TSMIC [The Small Maldives Island Company] and being led by both Michael and Mark, as well as Gabbar [Gahthaan Haleem} and Sabeena [Maniku], the directors of TSMIC. It’s really nice because the Maniku family’s there, I’ve got enduring respect for AU Maniku [Ahmed Umar Maniku], all the time”.
"My Aha! moment, was opening the Mansion Hotel, which was an extraordinary success because it had all the odds against it and it was a product where myself, I was bought into the team by the two boys that owned it, very successful business people.
In fact, to be honest with you, [the other would be] taking Mark [Heir]’s fine work and making sure that that is delivered with consistency and continuity".
Marc certainly enjoys his work, as his face lights up whenever he speaks about it.
"I don’t challenge that because I love the work, and I love his vision. And there is no reason not to!”
“ I think everyone’s very happy. I’m very much a guy who, I don’t care what position they’re in, they are very important to me.
In fact, that was what I was just doing - I was down doing a speech in a training session with fifteen new employees".
A rather serious expression on a face that we have always seen earlier sporting a great big smile, he says, “I have immense respect for what a kitchen steward does or what a mechanic does working on our generators throughout the night, all of it and I think they know that.
I think they are comfortable, and I think I’m fair”. The grin returns. “I could be a bit firmer though”.
Marc leans back and ponders the question for a minute, “What’s to come…hmmm”.
“Watch out for Mark Hehir!”, everyone laughs. “He’s just [at the time of the interview] travelled to Japan. God knows what he’ll bring back!
Mark Hehir’s greatest frustration, to quote him”, says Marc, “is that 'I gave you guys a great foundation but what are you doing with it?', which is his frequent point of concern.
And so, as a company we try to evolve, constantly, meeting his vision with our creativity”.
“It is not a hard life, it’s a lifestyle", an almost wistful look clouds his eyes as he says again with determination, "It is, it is a lifestyle".
He leans forward again and delivers the following guidance with distinct seriousness, “You’ll see more things than in any other career in hospitality. Especially in the Maldives, [where] it is such a mix of quality people, all around”.