What’s a resort’s character and who are we to judge it? Neither is entirely clear to us but we’ll take a crack at the first part of that question.
Earlier this year we were in Abu Dhabi and then in the Maldives. When planning our trip we were thrilled to discover that between us we had enough Starwood points to stay at the St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort for a couple of nights for free. Brunette (who started out as the sensible, unpretentious sister) was particularly excited that we would once again have our own “butler” as one comes standard at St. Regis properties. She had fond memories of a butler at the St. Regis in Singapore drawing her a bath.
Not drawing her in a bath, but still.
For the Maldives we were going to stay at Kurumba, a resort that has been in existence since the early 1970’s and is locally owned but does not include butlers although it’s (relatively) posh.
Did we mull the character of the resorts? We did not. We mulled affordability and access to what mattered to us (water in both cases and good reefs for snorkeling in the Maldives).
But after staying at the two properties and coming away with a massively more favorable impression of Kurumba than the St. Regis, we wondered why. Who wouldn’t prefer a free luxury property over one they paid a considerable sum for and that was less luxurious? Apparently us.
It was in many ways a matter of character. The St. Regis is a brand – and a rightfully well-regarded one. But this particular property often made us feel uncomfortable. Everywhere we went someone – generally a well dressed but clearly “Security” person – would pop up. They would ask us if we needed anything, trail along near us or tell us annoying things such as that we could not go in the sea due to an oil spill. We felt – and were – observed whenever we were out of our room.
The staff fell all over themselves intending to be helpful. However, they were from all over the world and there were many failures to communicate even though all ostensibly spoke English. Some of these failures were amusing but when it took three calls to get someone to understand what an extra glass meant it became annoying. (Oh, our suffering!)
These things were probably more cultural and reflective of the UAE than of the St. Regis. Two western women being there without husbands may have made the hotel think that the AARP had infiltrated them with a hooker ring! And in the UAE it’s impossible to hire “locals” as employees because they simply don’t need the money that service (or maybe any) jobs pay. So everyone is passing through and no one is invested in the place or the guests. It isn’t that something is specifically wrong but more that something is missing.
Contrast that to our experience at Kurumba. We arrived hot and exhausted. They promptly greeted us, whisked us off in their air-conditioned boat and gave us cold drinks and cool wash cloths when we got to reception. No butlers, but really nice friendly people who seemed to genuinely care about making us comfortable immediately.
During the course of our time at Kurumba we learned a lot about the character of the management and things they do that make it a good experience for guests, staff and even the environment. Such as?
At Kurumba they have a trainee program to help promising Maldivian team members eventually become management.
They provide other staff with the opportunity to be part of a 6 month training course to receive national technical and vocational education and training certificates. Those who are selected and successful will be certified as assessors by the Ministry of Education and that will open up opportunities to them.
And they have sent staff abroad – to Sri Lanka, England and Singapore to obtain culinary training.
When we were there we learned that more than 40 staff members were taking free classes on the premises to improve their English skills and some were learning Chinese and Russian.
The fact that the resort is and always has been owned by Maldivians is most likely key to this level of interest in developing local talent.
The employees know they have opportunities they wouldn’t have elsewhere and they are treated with very genuine respect. So guess what, they’re really nice to the guests and they are fiercely loyal to their employer. Why can’t more companies in general get this?
Also, the employees all live at the resort in air-conditioned rooms with wi-fi, a fitness center, a cinema, staff-use kitchen, cafeteria and laundry. We were trying to get jobs there before the week was over (but then we realized we’d have to work and be nice to other people so didn’t bother.)
Kurumba also gave local craftspeople opportunities to come to the resort and demonstrate their skills and sell their products.
And to our great delight they had nightly entertainment of a very high caliber – all from the Maldives.
OK, this was the less than luxurious aspect – we didn’t have air conditioning in our bathroom!!! Blonde pouted that it would make it awful to apply her makeup then realized she didn’t need make up on an island in the Maldives. Instead we both tended to use the lovely outdoor shower.
Kurumba has extensive programs to protect the fragile ecosystem they are located in. They have been steadily implementing more efficient systems that will reduce their energy consumption. They grind down glass and reuse it in cement, they shred recyclables and send them to recycling companies and have a mulcher that, with a composter, takes kitchen waste and turns it into compost for the resort gardens.
There were other things; providing valuable supplies to a local orphanage, supporting an education center that develops local musical talent and a program to educate guests about reefs and provide an opportunity to take dying coral and regenerate it.
So, back to the question of a resort’s character (and ours too). Kurumba truly felt like a family (not a dysfunctional one – apparently there’s another kind) and had a warmth and sense of caring that permeated everything.
Now our character isn’t so great that we will use this as the deciding factor in selecting everywhere we stay. There’s still the matter of cost, having the things we want (mirrors that make us look younger and very slender) and of course location.
And we aren’t dissing big luxury brands – we adore them.
But in the future when we plan a trip (Fiji anyone?) and have equally attractive options to choose from we will prefer the locally owned property that employs and invests in the local area and actively protects the environment.
Then we can stay there comfortable in the knowledge that someone is behaving well so there’s no need for us to duplicate that effort!