John D. Bendtsen is the Area General Manager of Accor Hotels in Maldives. He started his hospitality career in housekeeping and worked his way up through 30 years of hard work to Assistant General Manager, to General Manager, and now leads as Area General Manager of all Accor properties in the Maldives.
30 years is a long time to have worked in the hospitality industry and no doubt you must have faced and overcome a lot of challenges in that time. What do you consider to be the most difficult challenges you have faced?
I think opening resorts and hotels is my biggest challenge. This property here is the eight opening of my career. I’ve opened hotels in Sydney, Australia, and Bangkok. I opened a resort in Maldives in 2009. I opened three resorts in Mauritius. I opened a resort in Sri Lanka. I think opening resorts in different countries other than your home country is one of the biggest challenges.
The second most challenging aspect is the people; as in the teams we develop, and the cultures we develop within those teams. To feel that culture growing and developing within the first year of operations is an incredible gift.
Having worked in all those countries all across the world, how did you end up in Maldives?
I was working in Thailand at that time, and a headhunter asked if I would be interested in working in Maldives. So I Googled Maldives and found out that it was one of the most challenging places to work as a hotelier. I thought: this is fantastic! This is just what I like. I took the challenge and came over. To me, it’s the most incredible place to work and this is my fourth contract here. On and off, I have been here for 8 years. I have never seen water like we have in the Maldives. I have never seen the quality of resorts and the service delivery we can actually produce here. I think it’s the one country in the world I have worked where guests leave being exceptionally happy and they are very sad to be leaving. Yes, it’s expensive but we over-deliver.
What other properties have you worked in the Maldives?
I opened Centara Grand in South Ari Atoll and then I worked at Atmosphere Kanifushi. I’ve worked at Loama, briefly it was an Accor property… we were going to rebrand as MGallery. Unfortunately, that project didn’t proceed. Then I transferred here to take over Mercure and the pre-opening, and finally opened Pullman.
Can you talk a little bit about the differences between Pullman and Mercure?
Mercure is a beautiful boutique little resort that I took over in December 2018. It’s an extraordinary small property located on Kooddoo. With a boutique style property, you can have a complete different service staff and Mercure is our 4-star brand. It’s a very relaxed service style and very professional and we have a lot of fun there.
Pullman is one of our upper upscale luxury brands. It is more of a contemporary style resort so you’ll see a lot of art around the property. A lot of big walls have mirrors. It’s a very young and happening environment and the demographic is 25 to 40-year-old travelers. It’s the adventure travelers who come to Pullman. They come for a sense of fun. We have our four pillars: fitness, fun, art and food. So here we have a concept that is different from anywhere in the Maldives. We have no butlers.
The all-day dining restaurant has 6 à la minute stations and each live cooking station has its own nationality. So we have Chinese kitchen, Indian kitchen, Middle Eastern kitchen and so on. A massive variety of food. We have Phat Chameleon, which is the organic vegetarian restaurant. I guess we are among the few resorts in Maldives that has an organic vegetarian restaurant with vegan food as well because the vegetarian food movement is the fastest growing food movement in the world today. We thought it was quite important to feature that, plus it also corresponds to the wellness mindset we are trying to influence to our guests and encourage them to eat healthy.
What do you consider to be some of your biggest successes?
I think what I am most happy about is being able to help develop people. That’s the biggest success. I’ve been very lucky to have worked with lots of different management teams… but to see those managers grow and develop their careers has been incredibly satisfying. In Maldives, one of my resort managers of 10 years ago is currently a GM in a Maldives resort. Another resort manager I brought to Maldives 6 years ago also a GM now. Being able to mentor people and help their careers grow has been the most rewarding. I think that is the key to my success.
Your advice to those seeking to pursue a career in the industry?
I think hospitality is the most amazing industry in the world. You can start anywhere you want, and you can achieve anything you want. You just need to have the passion and you have to keep the passion. You can never become cynical. You have to keep loving the people and you have to want to deliver that expectation to the guest. You need to actually feel it in your bones that this is something you want to do because if you’re trying to fake it, it doesn’t work. So, you have to love the industry and you have to have the passion.
Some of the resorts in Maldives are very remote, located in the extreme ends of the country. Some consider this a disadvantage. What do you think about the properties being developed in faraway atolls like in Gaaf Alif atoll?
I think it’s great. To be honest, some people look at us and say it’s a disadvantage being so far away from Malé. I think it’s actually an advantage because we are not surrounded by other resorts. You actually get that genuine one-island-one-resort concept. You can’t see another resort just over there. At night, you can’t see the other resort’s lights all around you so you genuinely get that full Maldivian experience.
Also, being located in an area that is being actively developed, the ocean is teeming with life. The sea life hasn’t been scared away by a hundred people snorkeling, scuba diving and so on. Every time we go on our boats, we see dolphins. The sea life down here is incredible, plus I think it’s great for the local islands as well. We have a great relationship with the nearly local islands of Villingili and Maamendhoo. We employ team members from both those islands. We also do a lot of business with the local islands. We buy produce from them, we utilize their boats as well as their skill sets and mechanics. We buy fuel from them. Wherever possible we try to work with them, so it is a benefit for them and a benefit to us.
Pullman Maldives Maamutaa’s landscaping is amazing! You have maintained and conserved the natural beauty of the island while developing a resort around it. This is very rare. What’s the story behind it?
For us, as we developed the resort it didn’t make sense to basically bulldoze over the existing trees and plants and then replant. We had to clear some vegetation to build, but we tried to clear just that spot, replant as much as possible, and keep the surrounding vegetation intact. What we’ve done is enhance the vegetation by introducing more plants to that area and blending the two together. The end result is that you have a brand new resort that looks like it’s a fully-grown forest. You don’t have one-foot tall trees so it gives that ambiance straight away.
Now that we’re in 2020, what do you have to say about the tourism industry of 2019?
It was fantastic! The year-on-year growth of incoming tourists to the Maldives is quite astonishing. It’s consistently growing every year and you can see that reflected in the amount of new resorts that have opened in Maldives. Everyone has a lot of confidence in the growth of Maldives. So, I think it’s brilliant.
What do you see in the future of the industry?
I see a lot more innovation. I think now as people are developing resorts they are thinking innovatively. They are not thinking to follow the same trends of the past. I mean, this property for example is very contemporary in design. It’s not your traditional Maldivian resort. Having a lake in the middle of the island is a natural bonus for us but I think you see a lot more innovative approaches to resort design. We are all striving for that point of difference, that unique selling point, as we call it, and to achieve that these days I think the new developers coming up will have to try to be a lot more imaginative. It’s going to be a lot more fun and they’ll need keep coming up with interesting new ideas.