The Hotel Pre-Opening in a Remote Location

By Vaibhav Garg

Peace and silence come with a price tag. Travelers choose to come to remote resorts paying high prices for the peace, harmony, and tranquility they get after a busy city life. Having said this, the making of a resort in a remote location is a challenge and even more so in running it. On the contrary, from a human resources perspective, attracting local and international talent and their willingness to explore a career opportunity in emerging or sometimes hardship location is a crucial task for human resources professionals while dealing with their differences and acceptance on flexibility, adaptability, and open-mindedness to cope with a different culture. Human Resources operate from behind the scenes as a key strategic business partner to overall operations while contributing to the success of any pre-opening project. Working in a hotel during its pre-opening phase is challenging yet it allows immense learning, multi-tasking, and flexibility. While for some it is easier to work in a fully operational hotel but where is the fun if everything is easy!

Working for Mercure Maldives Kooddoo from the very beginning of the project in early 2016 immediately after the General Manager was on board helped me in several ways while building and creating a new world for all our colleagues & associates and welcoming them into a new family. At the time I joined this project, for over 3 months there were only two of us (General Manager and myself) involved in the project from the scratch (pre-opening operations) and I had to quickly become familiar with our owning company approaches and processes in coordination with their representatives. During this stage, I did feel comfortable approaching my colleagues at Accor Regional Office whenever I was unsure about a certain task and they too were willing to teach me patiently. Between the two of us, we managed to plan for our team and strategy and I do not recall that we ever had the feeling of “we have plenty of time” attitude which could have detracted us from key milestones under our direct scope including the tracking of executive involvement in the project at later stage. His leadership and vision kept the project deliverables clear and with planned risks into consideration.

Our first goal was to set our dream leadership team to cover crucial aspects of pre-opening operations while ensuring that we have the right leaders and subject matter experts in the team which would be vital to a successful resort pre-opening planning and execution. As a part of our recruitment strategy we focused on two crucial aspects i.e. identifying candidates with Accor experience or having work experience in the Maldives; past pre-opening experience was an additional advantage as our candidate shortlisting criteria.  This strategy helped us to integrate country specific work dynamics with organizational culture and policy framework from process compliance perspective.

Since we were a very small team initially, we also had to teach one another, and I felt that I learned the most when I had to pass on my training knowledge to my fellow colleagues and counterparts in the owning company on certain procedures pertaining to HR and legal framework applicable to Maldives. Even though I was hired as the Cluster Director of Talent & Culture (HR), I had to be involved in activities beyond my job description and I was quite fortunate to be involved in all other spheres of pre-opening operations (legal, statutory, operations, liaison and negotiation etc.) while based at the capital city anchoring and coordinating the sequence of activities in line with the General Manager’s strategic vision. I served as a liaison between our management company (regional office based in Bangkok) and owning company (based in Singapore) for the opening phase on matters pertaining to compensation, benefits, recruitment, and labor law compliance. As a result, I learnt about legal, statutory, finance and public relations, which I didn’t have much experience previously. Besides that, in parallel working on new staff uniforms and designs and to create logos and branding collaterals for our dive center, spa and other back of the house areas while setting up my own Talent & Culture team has been very satisfying experience and exposure.

The best part of this pre-opening experience is being able to bond well with the team at each level and hierarchy from the owning company’s Sr. Directors to our own company’s Sr. officials, Jr. Staff including all contract workers on site. As the team slowly grew in numbers we got to know and understand each other’s talents, aspirations and expectations more deeply. However, keeping our team’s morale high was very important, especially in a remotely located island with ongoing construction. During initial days, for some of our new colleagues who were in the Maldives for the first time, living in a remote area like such was difficult due to various shortcomings of a normal life and it involved a compromise especially due to food options and meal preferences and lack of proper office & living spaces. It took us a while to ensure arrangement for adequate pre-opening offices furnished with basic equipment required for such a period such as office furniture, telephones, internet address, and adequate IT infrastructure etc. While I was deputed at our Male’ office I recall days when the team stationed on site had to make shift arrangements to work from mobile data packages with limited Wi-Fi facilities all while working from the airport café’ and mobile workstations on site. Those days seamless coordination and meeting even the smallest of requests for my team members was my priority.

The General Manager and each divisional head was responsible for a pre-opening check-list and had to adhere to set timelines, with close supervision from our company and regular follow up on the progress by the owners. In our set up there were also teams contributing to the process from the office of the owning company. During this period, due to complexities and non-availability of basic facilities onsite, some of our leadership team members had been sent back to work offsite (from home) for few months. Communication protocol was clearly established to effectively monitor progress during the pre-opening phase through routine Skype calls, ensuring the monitoring of project developments.

Another key task we executed during the early stages was preparation of a detailed back of house budget for all equipment needed to operate the resort; this budget included all items that were not in the general interior design of the resort such as all operating supplies (glassware, silver, linen, kitchen utensils, bars utensils, chinaware, uniforms, engineering tools and chemical supplies, some standard printed materials including menus, and all other rooms and food & beverage operating supplies, staff welfare, recreations items, clinical items), IT equipment, offices furniture, telephone system, computer terminals, photocopiers, and any other material not addressed by the interior design items. The budgets in coordination with respective divisional heads were completed and submitted with  enough time for obtaining quotations and placing the orders. All items as requested were later received in the resort before the estimated opening date and we have had the time to place the office furniture, store them, issue all operating supplies to the various operating departments in time for test – try and train.

Beyond this, between me and the General Manager, we prepared a detailed, comprehensive, and realistic pre-opening HR manpower budget including the timing of hiring and the start date of all department heads and associates indicated by position and level. A complete budget for compensation and benefits in the pre-opening period was prepared and presented. The HR pre-opening budget also reflected anticipated expenses associated with operational activities such as executive hiring and relocation, staff recruitment and training, temporary office space, accommodation, equipment and public relations.

During the interim period, many factors changed, exposing us to complications and uncertain business challenges (e.g. introduction of remittance tax, change in immigration policies, work permit grant of quota restrictions, new requirements for grant of license, amendments in legal procedures and inspection requirements etc.) and challenged our planning and forecasts. The General Manager effectively managed to get hold of these ad-hoc challenges by logically assessing and re-evaluating the same against market realities while anticipating and mitigating potential and relevant cost issues; he was always able to convince the owning company with his factual and logical approach. I recall several instances where I and the General Manager in coordination with our facts & figures and reasonable contingency ensured justifying our decisions in certain areas with an ownership at the forefront of critical issues to make strategic decisions, rather than simply reacting to statutory and non-flexible static recommendations on areas such as finalization of insurance policies, tax implications, bank account opening, work permit quota issues and several other matters. This was also possible as we kept ourselves duly informed and updated with new developments as an owner’s best defense to stay ahead of and mitigate the wide range of issues that surfaced during this stage.

Key focal Initiatives and Learning from Pre-Opening Operations | (Strategic HRM)

Legal and Compliance

Another learning opportunity has been the involvement in compliance to legal and statutory matters such as licenses required to operate in the Maldives e.g. operating, liquor, import, outlet, clinic licenses and grants of several permissions and statutory approvals required to set the resort in order legitimately. My tasks also included the preparation, review and submission of various standard contracts such as employment contracts for local and expatriate employees, labor outsourcing utilities, shop lease contracts, maintenance contracts, and other commercial vendor contracts. I worked very closely with our lawyers on all legal matters in consultation with the General Manager to understand all legal requirements for maintaining the records and documents while ensuring adherence to all statutory information on payroll preparation, payroll deductions, labor laws and regulations, social security rules by labor ministry, insurance for employees (including pension) property insurance, third party insurance and all other insurances required by law.

 

Staff Hiring Plan

As per the manning guide and depending on operational requirements by respective departments, employees were brought on board during various stages of pre-opening solely needs based with other staff hires staggered based on anticipated recruiting and training time in line with our recruitment strategy. Some of the key factors that were considered and evaluated within the employee hiring plan included:

  • Preparation of manning guides | staffing levels for the resort (opening vs. stabilized levels)
  • Market survey and review of competitive salary and employee benefits – salary and wage range and balancing market rates to anticipated service levels. (i.e. “Can we attract the talent we need to be successful?”)
  • Negotiating points, remote location policies, benefits and other expenses (e.g. management relocation | recreation – vacation | remote location expenses)
  • Unique issues that might affect staff hiring (i.e. labor agreements, location, security requirements, transportation, etc.)
  • Nationality break up | maintaining Local vs. Expat ratio and position specific job profiles
  • Adequate recruiting/training area availability

Keeping in mind that the 1st year of operation is usually affected by an exceptionally high turnover, and/or dismissing rate we did work on alternate plans to backfill critical positions with some outsourcing options in place. We also actively developed a database of shortlisted applicants to outreach in event of any crucial requirements.

Staff Engagement and Motivation

Slowly as we ramped up our recruitment plan and the team started settling in at the site, the resort became a bit livelier with the right people doing the right job. As a division head for Talent & Culture, getting quality personnel for a remote island location resort such as ours was a challenging task however not impossible. I used my previous connections, and with my own team including L&D Manager & Assistant T&C Manager, made recruitment a systematic approach for each personnel we recruited. We followed the principle of being transparent and fair while keeping our word of promise

for each hiring with terms and conditions enlisted in the employment contracts for all our candidates. From the pre-joining stage candidates were made aware of the pros and cons of working at an island location in a multicultural, multigenerational and diverse cross-cultural milieu. We anticipated their needs in terms of their wellbeing, career aspirations, lifestyle and ambitions when the recruitment was made. Despite doing this we still had many staff members who joined us on a trial basis and left after a short duration, however, employee turnover has never been a difficult task to handle nor did we have a high turnover during this crucial stage.  With the support from the General Manager we kept the teams engaged and interested and several team activities and communication forums were set up to ensure team engagement and motivation as we built strong relationships internally which paved the way for us to run a smooth pre-opening operation. Various activities such as “Power Saturdays” (3rd Saturday of the month – an inspiring learning initiative for the leadership team to learn a new leadership | management skill) and monthly Town-hall meeting (monthly open forum communication platform to communicate with employees) created a new trend to teach and learn in a very engaging and inspiring environment.

Learning & Development

Our learning and development strategy did not restrict itself to mundane classroom training sessions however our goal was to reach out to every colleague and to identify their talents and learning aspirations while instilling “Accor” values and beliefs. Our passionate and energetic Learning & Development Manager brought in a change in the way to enhance and invigorate the culture of engagement and learning within teams. With the General Manager’s direct personal involvement and constant mentoring, we established a path to culture of learning that is crucial for sustaining and retaining our values and work ethics in a self-motivated spirit. With the help of our Regional Accor Academie the employees are being trained on brand specific service standards and leadership trainings to gear up for the resort operations as per Mercure Service Standards. Besides this our mandatory L&D programs covers induction & orientation to all our new joiners, design and the facilitation of off-job, on-job, brand and customer service, selling, language and cross cultural sensitization, fire & life safety and operation trial run trainings on a routine basis. We also developed a team of certified departmental trainers for conducting constant trainings within the departments for specific operations and to utilize this pre-opening phase for sharpening operational skills.

Travel & Logistics

A business partnership with our transportation partner, Maldivian Airlines, made the transportation of men and material easy to our location at Kooddoo Airport. While we did buy our own additional sea and road vehicles and hired additional crew to handle movement of both men and material, employee transportation to and from nearby islands was coordinated with the airport ferry and local transport authorities for work and recreation. With our cordial and professional approach, we always found a way to meet unique situational requirements onsite.

Health & Hygiene

Due to the remote island location, the resort had to be prepared with a proper resort clinic, especially since employees were recruited from different geographical locations and may have adverse reactions till they adapt to their new surroundings. It is essential to provide medical attention to them immediately if any health problem arises due to the location. Setting up the clinic as per the requirements of the Ministry of Health and Quality Assurance and Regulations Division was a task in itself. We hired a resort doctor as per the procedures required and coordinated an inspection to secure the clinic operating license. With a proper resort clinic and a qualified resort doctor in place we are now able to take prompt action should any health emergencies arise, giving our employees the confidence to commit to stay.

Safety and Security

When our resort pre-operations began to settle well with over 100 colleagues on site, we addressed the next most important factor i.e. ensuring safety and security for our property and colleagues. We partnered with an external expert security partner to ensure all safety and security measures are met without fail such as property safety, fire-fighting, accident prevention, disaster management etc.

For any emergency situations that may arise, we have ensured that through our Security Manual and Disaster Management Plan we are self-reliant with the help of our Security Team, comprising of a Security Manager and 7 security officers. We also extended our connections and built relationships with the officials of MNDF (Maldives National Defense Force) to ensure proper guidance, update and assistance from time to time to be ready for any situation.

Societal Responsibility

With a genuine intention to give back to society and to support local communities, the resort management ensured several initiatives to provide employment and learning opportunities for local youth and communities by holding job camps to identify local talent from the nearby islands. Due to our recruitment fairs and camps, we were widely exposed to our future workforce from the nearby islands in the GA Atoll with connections being established between island administration, counselors, resort management and potential skilled and talented candidates, developing a greater awareness of resort operations and career options available to them. We also collaborated with United Nations Development Program team to brainstorm and identify critical projects best suited to meet the sustainable requirements of the local community in our atoll and more specifically within our neighborhood to extend our support and aid to build livelihoods while providing opportunities to grow, prosper and co-exist. Personally, this is one area very close to my own interests and the support from the General Manager was significant in making all those brainstorming sessions more effective and worthy.

Conclusion

The opening of a new hotel presents additional challenges, as well as opportunities. Despite budgets, checklists and best laid plans, the reality of opening will inevitably reveal unexpected operational issues, unique market dynamics and other challenges or opportunities that will necessitate some level of adjustment in strategy and approach. Maintaining close supervision during the pre-opening period is critical to a property’s ramp-up, as well as achieving financial objectives and investment returns.

My exposure and involvement in this pre-opening project has been a great personal learning experience and I was able to establish a rewarding network with my superiors, peers and subordinates with management’s support. As a member of the pre-opening team at Mercure Maldives Kooddoo, I feel an enormous sense of pride in knowing that I contributed to building the systems and procedures that are used to run the hotel, which in turn will be useful for myself and all involved as we head forward to our new project at Pullman Maamutaa in the next few months.

About the author

Vaibhav Garg is currently holding the position of Executive Assistant Manager (EAM) at Mercure Maldives Kooddoo Resort while handling a parallel role of Cluster Director – Talent & Culture at AccorHotels, Maldives and is responsible for Mercure Kooddoo and Pullman Maamutaa Pre-Opening Resort Projects in the GA Atoll | Republic of Maldives.

In his hospitality career of over 15 years, he has worked with all major segments of hotel operations i.e. Luxury, Upper Upscale, Upscale and Budget brands of hotels in India and overseas including Maldives and has been instrumental in driving the key functions like Operational Excellence, Hospitality Service Excellence, Strategy Development, Business Excellence, Human Resources and Learning & Development with several best practices in each of his role at the Tata Group and Taj Group of Hotels where he had a stint of over a decade working with 3 Tata Companies.

Active in the area of hospitality service research and academics; Vaibhav has been invited by several renowned international universities, business schools and hotel associations from Asia, Europe, China and USA to present his research papers published in American, Indian, Maldivian and other international management journals and hospitality magazines.

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