The battle for talent is an ongoing, not to mention frustrating, challenge as HR leaders strive to seek out candidates with the skills they need to keep ahead of the competition. The islandchief sat down with Afeef Hussain, Regional Director of Training, Development and Quality Assurance of LUX* Resorts and Hotels, who offered some compelling advice for ambitious HR professionals.
1. As an industry veteran for the past 17 years, tell us a bit about your journey, as well as the challenges and obstacles you have overcome in your career.
I started working right after high school. I had my exam on a Wednesday – I still remember it – and on Thursday morning, I was reporting for work in Malé. I have always loved serving people. I think that sort of nudged me in the direction of the hotel industry with my first experience being in Bandos Island Resort. I then had the opportunity to work with some international brands like the One&Only, Four Seasons, and of course, now with LUX*. I also spent two years working in Dubai at one of the largest integrated resorts in the city – Atlantis, The Palm. I was a part of the opening team and spent two-and-a-half years or more there. So, I have to say, it's been a great journey. I think that my passion to serve people and my desire to see how people grow, develop and become better because of my presence and because of what we do as a team, is what brought me to where I am today.
When I look at the challenges and obstacles; I’ve experienced the tsunami; I've experienced the recession back in 2008. In fact, that was quite a big challenge in my time, because in 2008 Atlantis, The Palm, opened their doors. I was one of the first staff at the 1.5 billion-dollar resort, and we had hired about 4,000 people when the crisis hit! We really tried our best, but unfortunately, we had to lay-off about 1,500 people. It was tough, and quite the challenge to be involved in those layoffs. When things got better though, we were able to hire almost everybody back again.
However, I would say the biggest challenge in my career, I suppose is bringing people together and trying to create a great organisational culture. As humans we will not always be on the same page. People have different standards, different ways of thinking, and everyone is unique. So obviously, at the very beginning of any organisational culture change, we are not always able to bring everybody together. But then again, teaching people about developing a growth mindset and having the right attitude which, in turn, leads to changes in the results of a company from where it was before, to where it is today, is a big part of my 17-year career, and a challenge that I love.
2. As Regional Director of Training, Development and Quality Assurance at LUX* Resorts & Hotels, what is the most exciting aspect of your profession?
You know, this is my eighth year with LUX* Resorts & Hotels, and I have always been someone who loves working for leaders rather than brands. I'm currently working with Paul Jones, the CEO of LUX* Resorts & Hotels. I had worked with him before at One&Only, so we had a very good work-relationship, and we had the trust. So, when I was asked to join LUX*, I obviously didn't have to think twice. I am also close to the current COO Dominik Ruhl who is always very supportive. This is the most exciting aspect for me – working for good leaders.
In what I do, I not only oversee training and quality, but also look after the overall experience of guests as a part of the quality assurance. Plus, I work towards increasing human capital. So right now, the entire human resource aspects come under me. But the most interesting part really, is when I can grow people and guide them to their next level. Even when I started with LUX*, I remember we had people who had been here for quite some time in the same job. So, we initiated specific development programmes for succession planning, and looking back now, we’ve all come quite a long way. Of course, in the last few years, the industry definitely changed – many new resorts came into the market; a couple of them left – and, you know, my take is that even if people leave because they found something better for themselves, we are always happy for them and their career as long as they're happy and can progress further with their new role.
So, I’d have to say, really seeing people grow to becoming the best version themselves, whether it is over here or even after they’ve moved on to another company, and having the opportunity to develop people are the most exciting aspects of what I do.
3. The tourism sector has been expanding steadily over the past years. Total tourist establishments in operation amount to 946, including 155 resorts, 13 hotels, 622 guesthouses, and 156 safari vessels by the end of February 2020. What are the key qualities and characteristics that interested youth and millennials should possess?
I could speak about this subject for hours, but I’ll narrow it down to three main components. First, is open-mindedness. This is an industry that's always evolving and growing. I mean, in tourism and hospitality, especially in the Maldives, what was relevant yesterday is not relevant today – it's constantly getting outdated, which means that anyone who wants to join, whether it's right after school or higher education, must enter this industry with a very open mind. Another reason that you have to come with an open mind is that, for example, you may apply and receive the position of a waiter. However, serving guests at the restaurant may not be the only job you have to fulfil, you may have to do a variety of other related tasks. Plus, you will be asked to work with people from many different countries, different cultures and different backgrounds. All of this - in a remote location, a remote work site. So, if you don't have an open mind, it will be quite the struggle.
Second, one must have a curiosity as to “What can I learn from the people that I work around?”. I think that if there's an industry in the world that actually makes people better, it’s going to have to be the hospitality industry. Because, for example in the Maldives, every resort will have at least fifteen different nationalities working there. So, imagine if you had an open mind and a sense of curiosity – you could actually learn a lot from the people around you.
This brings me to my next and most important point; the growth mindset. You know, you've got to be a continuous learner. Sure, joining the hospitality industry with a Master's Degree gives you great credentials and it definitely counts, but that shouldn’t stop you from being open to learning even more. You have to be open to continue building your capacity, attending workshops and trainings. What happens a lot of the time to the youth of society is that they want that top management position right away, but you have to start somewhere and give it time. Be patient and don't rush. Take your time and go through the process by making sure you do what is required, working your way up. You will get to your goal. What we see right now is that a lot of the youth, at times, don't want to accept a job because that's not the job or level that they want. I mean, for sure we're all entitled to our expectations, but I think if you want to reach a great level, you have to start somewhere.
I’ll tell you a story that really changed me. When I was working in a hotel in Malaysia, we had to serve 3000 meals in one night. Back then, I was a restaurant waiter, and we were a team of ten waiters. One of us was chosen to be a steward, however he didn’t show up that night, and we only realised it once we opened the restaurant for dinner. It was a fund-raising event and of course, somebody had to wash the plates. So, my Restaurant Manager delegated that task to me instead. I couldn't say no, because then I would be putting my team down. Of course, anyone can wash plates, but I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. And that night I washed all 3000 plates. Washing those plates made me realise that in life you have to expect the unexpected. I'm still very proud of that job – I know that because of what I did that night, the waiters, chefs, everybody; we all survived as a team.
You see, in the hospitality industry, literally everybody has to do everything when it comes to serving people, because we all have one goal at the end of the day, which is to serve our customers, our guests, and of course, serve each other.
4. With the recent global crisis, the turnover rate of employees in the tourism and hospitality industry has been at its peak. How can we ensure and motivate current employees to maintain the same high-quality customer service and standards?
It’s really good timing on that question, because I literally sat down the other day to brainstorm the training programme that I’m developing for all our employees regarding the new mindset, once they get back – I prefer the term “new mindset” over “new normal”. So, I was writing a couple of points and a particular notion hit me; if we thought that the last four months have been about survival, we’re wrong. The last four months have been about coming to terms with, and getting through this crisis. The survival actually starts now. The economy has reopened, people are getting back to their jobs, but of course, most companies will not be able to pay the same salaries, perks and benefits that they used to – pre-pandemic. We will eventually get there over time, but the most important thing right now, is that we need to get the message out to all employees that we have to work much harder than before for the next two months or so, in order to get through this as a team, together. Employees who are getting back to work with the reopening have been with their families for a very long time, having been disconnected from the work environment and it will definitely take time to adjust and get into the new mindset. Teach them, train them, but train them with compassion and care. You may even have to repeat a few things, but that’s okay. Train them over and over again, and have patience towards them. I believe that if we care enough about our employees, even with low pay, we'll get through it. It would be impossible for anyone who is not well-looked after to deliver high quality service. You see, all these new hygiene standards and preventative measures that have been put in place, we need to make sure that they are in place for the employees first, before the guests. We need to be careful and ensure that all the leaders are out on the floor checking everything. Most importantly, we need to create what I call a “circle of compassion”; be caring, be kind, and smile.
5. There is a current deficit in getting experienced and qualified Maldivians for senior positions in the hospitality industry. As an industry expert, how do you think we can overcome this challenge?
I believe that HR departments in all resorts need to come up with talent-growth programmes internally, by not just training high potential people, but by doing follow-up programmes – create a succession plan.
Another point is that there is a responsibility of locals who are already at senior levels; instead of questioning various authorities regarding the lack of locals in senior roles, I think the question we need to ask ourselves first is, “What are we doing as individuals with our knowledge and resources to contribute towards a solution?” Even a Resort Manager could influence, guide and groom many people. How many people are you mentoring and coaching on a daily, weekly or monthly basis to get them to the next level. For example, at the Maldives Association of Human Resource Professionals (MAHRP), which I am currently President of, one of our key mandates are to help the industry grow people. Within MAHRP we manage lots of virtual learning programmes, and are trying to do our best to contribute towards building human capital. In fact, we just ended the Maldives’ first virtual learning and development conference with around 200 participants from across the country. It was amazing and insightful. I believe we need to be encouragers, rather than critics, because there's no country where all the policies are a hundred per cent correct or favourable. Certainly, I feel that where we are today is not very good – we should have been in a much better position with more Maldivians in the industry’s senior roles – but right now, we must focus on what can we do as individuals. You’ve got to take your personal leadership into account and ask yourself, “What am I doing to resolve this problem?”.
6. What are the career opportunities available for individuals who complete an apprenticeship programme with LUX* Resorts & Hotels?
We were actually about to start a fantastic apprenticeship programme in February with both properties – LUX* South Ari Atoll and LUX North Malé Atoll. Everything was lined up and ready, when the world came face-to-face with this health crisis. But that’s not going to stop us. In fact, we’re going to start off the apprenticeship programme online in September, and hopefully by October we can bring our apprentices on board to start their practical work. We’re actually getting ready for this as we speak. Each property will have about 6-10 apprentices, and we’re going to be taking them through the disciplines of F&B Kitchen and Production, F&B Service, Front Office and Housekeeping.
Over the last few years as well, we didn’t have a formal apprenticeship programme, but we had regular local internships in support of the local community. Every year, about twenty to thirty interested locals get trained at LUX*. We’re keen and excited to do this on a more formal platform. I’m also currently in touch with TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) to certify our training facility as a TVET-registered training academy. Hopefully then, we’ll be able to provide national level qualifications for our team members.
7. What would be the future trends and challenges in Human Resource Management?
The future of human resources is moving towards a more service-oriented direction. Before, the HR sector was more of an administrative department. Those days are gone. In HR, one of the future trends are about how the HR department can be a service department; how can you serve people, I suppose, the same way the customer service department of a company would look after their customers. To be a part of this trend, it’s all about changing the mindset that HR is an administrative department, to realising that it is internal service department. HR staff need to be out there talking to and guiding people, because when you really see what is going on outside, you can provide a much better service.
Now, the second trend is HR digitalisation; there is a ton of new technological transformations and ideas that are coming up. We have to learn to adopt these changes and really make sure that we use this aspect to our full advantage. Not only will this simplify processes and reduce the time spent on repetitive tasks, but it will also maximize employee-experience.
The final trend I'd like to point out is prioritising the wellbeing and wellness of employees. This has been a huge developing trend for the last 5 years, but in our region it’s quite new and it is something we really need to practice. Organisations need to have specific initiatives for the wellbeing and wellness of people and really look after them. For example, when we reopen the hotels and companies, why not allocate somebody from HR as a Wellness Officer, and have them conduct wellness activities? Get employees’ medical check-ups done, encourage them to go to the gym, review the staff canteen or restaurant and give out delicious healthy food. If people are not mentally or physically well, they cannot perform at their optimum rate and cannot provide good service.
I’d like to add something in the perspective of training; upscaling of employees and teaching them new skills are very crucial. The pandemic has left us with a huge challenge, plus it's been an eye-opener. If you were to cut down your employees, you have to choose who you want to let go – it’s a very tough activity and the last thing we want to do is to actually let go of people. A way to be more resilient due to such cases in the future, is to teach people skills that they may not necessarily have to use now, but can utilise in the future. For example, if you have one fitness instructor at your resort, why not find another employee who is interested in fitness? Train that person, so if your fitness instructor is not available, you can have them fill the job. Multi-skilling of people leads to a much better future.
8. With the development of brand-new luxury resorts and international chains, how would you position LUX* Resorts & Hotels in the market?
At LUX*, we position ourselves as all 5-star properties, all packed with world-class competitive products. One thing we actually always look for when discovering new destinations, are places that are not too crowded. For instance, we're going to open a property in Phú Quốc, Vietnam, which is a new developing area. It is an island off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand, and more than fifty per cent of the island is part of the Phú Quốc National Park with dense tropical jungles, wildlife, hiking trails and mountains.
Our approach is also about light luxury. At LUX*, we try not to make luxury too complex. Our goal is to make it lighter and gentler, where the guests feel the smooth flow of the experience and our service. Wherever we open, our main focus is the guest-experience and not just the physical product – it is the feeling that they leave with at the end of their stay. An experience personalised and tailored to each individual guest. Our properties are not just for the extreme luxury, they are for everyone. Whatever level of traveller you are, you’ll get the same level of service. This is where we stand in the market.
9. With your extensive knowledge and experience in the industry, what are the milestones you have achieved at LUX* Resorts & Hotels?
I'm blessed to work with LUX* and I'm, of course, very grateful. I think the last eight years with LUX* have been some of the best times for me in terms of my own growth and development.
I love speaking to international audiences; I have travelled to over forty-six countries and spoken to fifty-seven audiences. Before I joined LUX*, I had done maybe around five to six speaking engagements, but after joining, I’ve had the chance to travel to more places than in my entire life and speak to a variety of audiences. I strongly believe that it’s all thanks to the encouragement from the leadership of the company, especially our COO Dominik Ruhl; I really want to highlight his name, because he has always encouraged me to get out there and do it. Our team at LUX* loves seeing their brand represented by fellow team members. The global exposure generated by my travels around the world sharing the story of LUX*, and speaking to international audiences are definitely some of my achievements.
I also had the opportunity to create a culture at LUX* where people come to work every day, not because they have to, but because they want to. I remember when I first joined the company in August of 2012, we had a wonderful crew over here, there was sort of a culture, but it was evolving. So, I took responsibility of leading that culture in the right direction. I remember at the beginning, LUX* South Ari Atoll was ranked at 37 on TripAdvisor, and with our changes, we shot up to number 5, and there was even a time when we were at number 2 in the Maldives. We’re still in the top ten, and it’s all because of the service we provide.
You see, at LUX*, we don’t say that we have the best product in the world – I mean we have a very competitive product in terms of the world market, but when it comes to our service, we will argue that we provide the best service. This is what we teach employees. When somebody visits our resorts, we want them to leave feeling like “Wow, I came to LUX* and got something more than I expected”. Of course, there are times we have failed – we're all human – but we make sure to get it right the next time.
I actually joined LUX* at the very early stages, when it used to be called Naïade Resorts. LUX* is basically a brand that was born out of Naïade Resorts’ bankruptcy. Together with our leadership team, we took this company to becoming one of the most admired hotel brands in the world, and to do that and be part of this leadership team, I believe has been a lifetime achievement for me, so far.
10. With the revival of LUX* properties, how would you redefine luxury and what’s next for LUX*?
So, looking at the LUX* brand right now, I would say, as we re-open the property, we're actually looking at three key elements;
One is how can we give more care for our people; our guests and our colleagues. I think it’s very, very important that we understand the context of the word “care”. It’s a word that everybody knows and understands, but at times, we may not fully grasp it for what it is and the way that we define it may vary. At LUX* we think of care as feeling concern and interest regarding someone’s future wellbeing. Caring should be present even when dealing with difficult situations. I like to think of one of my favourite statements which I heard from a coach of mine, "Listen to the wish behind the complaint”; when someone gives you a tough time or a challenge, just listen very carefully to understand what the person cares so deeply about; if we genuinely care for this person and the service we provide, we will learn what it is that they are wishing for, and then cater to it.
Now, the second point is that we want to create more terrific experiences, and I think LUX* has been a brand that has constantly created great experiences for guests all the way through. We're going to be looking at how we can create brand-new experiences given the current situation, whereby the guests don't have to stay in the villa all the time – they can go around the island and engage in some fun activities.
The third aspect is the wellbeing and wellness of our staff and guests which I mentioned earlier. We, as a brand, are growing and we have new properties coming up in China, Vietnam and the UAE, plus two properties in the pipelines in Italy and France. So, we are constantly developing, and wherever we go, our priority towards the wellness and wellbeing of staff and guests, as well as our service excellence will always stand out. We have a very high benchmark for the service we provide – it is the culture that we have created here. Now, when talking about wellness and wellbeing, a fragment of this very much includes sustainability and having an environmental focus. For instance, by providing healthy food for people - your food waste is bound be less and you're contributing more towards sustainability.
I believe our way of redefining luxury is encircled around these three areas; how we can give more care and really do things for the future wellbeing of our guests, how we can create unique experiences given the situation, and of course, focusing on the wellness of our staff and guests.
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