The GM’s View: Sandrine Kaiser

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Sandrine Kaiser joined Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu earlier this year, having arrived from St. Petersburg where she was GM at the Trezzini Palace Hotel. No stranger to the Indian Ocean, she has previously worked in Madagascar, as well as at Fregate Island in the Seychelles. This is her third placement in the Maldives – a country she loves for its spirit and its people. Passionate about sustainability and empowering women, Sandrine talks to Hotelier Maldives about conservation, women in the Maldivian hospitality industry and the joy of welcoming repeater guests.You have worked in some wonderfully diverse locations during your career, including the Seychelles and Madagascar. How does the Maldives compare to these island destinations?

All three places are very beautiful destinations in their own right. In the Seychelles, I was working at Frégate Island, one of the most exclusive resorts in the country, with extremely high profile, European guests. 90% of staff members were expatriates. In Madagascar, it was mainly local staff. Madagascar is not as developed as the Maldives, so that brought different challenges. Here in the Maldives it’s socially much quieter than Madagascar. In terms of associates, it’s not 90% foreigners like in the Seychelles but there are many expatriates. This reflects the guests that we have now at Dhuni Kolhu. Here, we have guests from all over the world. This is my third post in the Maldives – and it’s the only country that I’ve come back to. I like the spirit people have in this country; I find it easier to work here.

How would you describe the role of a GM in a remote island destination such as Dhuni Kolhu?

You have to be proactive in all aspects of the operation. You have to take into account that everything will take more time. When you’re in a city like Dubai, if you’re missing something, you can pop out and get it next door. Here, everything will be coming by boat and almost everything is imported. So you have to plan everything a long time in advance. For example, we planned everything for the festive season in September. I also don’t like to be in my office. I like to spend time with the guests. Unlike city hotels, where you can go to the same hotel ten times without ever meeting the GM, here it’s important for me to have a relationship with the guests.

 

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You’ve been at Dhuni Kolhu for eight months now. What changes are you bringing to the island?

One of the main changes that we’re going to make is to provide wifi in all areas of the resort. This is in response to requests coming especially from the new markets – from Chinese, Middle Eastern and South American guests. They like to be in a laidback atmosphere but they want the option to be connected. Another change we’re looking at is chartered seaplane flights. In the coming weeks, we’re planning to design honeymoon promotions, and more planned programmes for repeaters, with Silver, Gold and Platinum tiers. We even have a repeater who will soon be arriving for his 40th visit so we’re designing a special package for him! Guests also give me ideas; they suggested a fruit platter service on the beach, so I’d like to implement that. I’m also bringing back hammocks on the beach as well as new rattan hanging chairs to create a very cosy atmosphere. We’ve already changed the furnishings in the water villas and we’re going to do the same in the beach villas, too. So we’ve got a lot in the pipeline!

Dhuni Kolhu welcomes a large number of repeater guests each year. Beyond ensuring guests receive attentive service- how do you go about turning a 1st time guest into a repeater?

This is why I spend more time outside of my office. If an associate mentions that a guest is thinking of coming back, I make sure to meet with them and give them my card. Whenever anyone comments on TripAdvisor, I always respond and I even give them my email address. So now I have more guests contacting me directly. I meet guests before they leave to let them know that upon their return I will personally take care of any requests. It’s so rewarding to have repeaters and it’s easier because you know what they like! I’m very close with them – we keep in contact on social media. Next week I’m going to Germany and whilst I’m there I’ll meet some guests at their house for dinner. During high season we have 50% repeaters and my goal is to achieve that all year round.

Dhuni Kolhu recently won the title of Luxury Green Hotel at the World Luxury Hotel Awards. How does conservation affect the choices that you make as a GM, especially given the resort’s location in a UNESCO biosphere reserve?

When we make any decision, we consider what impact it will have on the environment. For example, a few months ago I could see plenty of straws on the floor. So I decided to stop giving straws in the bar. Initially, my F&B team warned me that guests would complain but to my knowledge that’s never happened. Whenever we buy anything, we always look for a biodegradable option, too. We also try to choose suppliers that are as nearby as possible to reduce fuel consumption in transport. We also have our marine biology centre to increase awareness amongst guests. They talk to the guests every day, they collect ghost nets, and in the coming months we’ll start construction on our turtle rehabilitation centre.

 

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What are your strategies for the future of Dhuni Kolhu, in the face of the rapid development of Baa Atoll?

At the moment, we don’t have a very high percentage of Maldivian staff. When you have new openings, the worry is that we might lose associates to the new properties. So my strategy is to ensure that my associates are happy here. We’ve recently started doing a more extensive induction programme for our new associates, and increased our training and activity programmes. We’re also upgrading the standards of their rooms. We make sure that there are transfers to the surrounding islands and to Male’ for those that want to see their families. However, I’m not worried about losing guests to other resorts. The resorts that are opening right now offer a very different experience to Dhuni Kolhu. Our concept is very unique.

Lastly, our cover story for this issue is ‘Women in Hospitality’. Why do you think there are so few women in tourism in the Maldives, and do you feel that women have to sacrifice more in order to ‘get to the top’?

For Maldivians, I believe that it’s due to cultural reasons and social pressure. Only last week one of my staff members told me that she is leaving because she’s getting married, and her husband doesn’t want her to work. For foreigners, it’s the remoteness of the islands; they have to come here alone. And yes, to be at the top as a woman you have to make sacrifices, especially within your private life. Even in other countries, it’s very difficult. When I was 35 I chose to have a career, rather than a private life. Having said that, this is now a new generation, and they don’t need to make such a big sacrifice. Now I believe young women can have both. I’m actually very passionate about bringing more women into the hotel industry. When I first arrived here there were 17 women, now after eight months, there are 30. So now I’m trying to empower them to reach higher positions within their careers.