Tolga Unan – Managing Director of CROSSROADS Maldives

Tolga Unan is the Managing Director of CROSSROADS Maldives, the country’s first multi-island, fully integrated leisure destination. Nestled in the breathtaking Emboodhoo Lagoon in Kaafu Atoll, CROSSROADS Maldives is perfectly located just a 15-minute speedboat ride from Velana International Airport. Our team sat down with Tolga to delve deeper into his career, and what his experience in the Maldives has been like so far.

Could you tell us a bit about your career?

At a young age, I was introduced to hotels, because my father was a hotel chain manager in Turkey. I then went on to study hospitality in Florida, in the United States. That’s how my career started. Right after university, I initially worked for Club Med. Later on, I became a part of many leading hotel chains including Hilton Group, Intercontinental Hotels, and Banyan Tree, before ending up in the Maldives to work on the CROSSROADS project.

You are among the first people to join this venture. Tell us a bit about how the project started.

Well, I am literally the first one. My employee number is HRHM001. When I first arrived here, it was in the very early stages of construction. It was a mega-project, so there were many different elements to consider. We had a team of architects, engineers and designers, each of which had a different task, so to say. My role was to bring the operations alive.

My initial responsibility was only Hard Rock Hotel; our goal was to create a hotel that we could position differently in the Maldives. We felt there was an opportunity in the market to create a hotel where there are a lot of activities, catering to a very active lifestyle, attracting families with kids. So, that’s what I mainly focused on.

Being the first integrated resort in the Maldives, what are the challenges you have faced?

Quite a few, to be frank. First of all, when you look at the general population of hotels in Maldives, almost all of them are designed to attract external clients, meaning tourists that arrive in Maldives from overseas. At CROSSROADS, more than half of our guests are actually local guests. The Marina at CROSSROADS is similar to an open-air shopping mall, and 90 percent of our guests at the Marina are locals. So, we really had to understand how to position ourselves in that way, and to work with local authorities to help them understand our concept.

Then, there is the concept of the yacht marina, which is the very first yacht marina in the Maldives. Along with it came its own set of challenges – how to operate the yacht marina, what type of boats we should welcome, what services we should provide.

Furthermore, CROSSROADS is the first integrated destination; it doesn’t have just one single brand. Here, we have SAii Lagoon, Hard Rock, the yacht marina, and the Marina with so many different retail shops. CROSSROADS is the big umbrella that puts all of them together. One of the main strengths we have is that we can capitalize on the knowledge and expertise of various different people and businesses, and create a unified leisure destination unlike any other.

As you have mentioned before, CROSSROADS Maldives is mainly focused on the local market. What attracts locals to CROSSROADS Maldives?

The desire to be able to come out of the urban environment, Male’ City, has always been there. The first time I came to Maldives was in 2001, so I know the country’s past very well. Even back then, people looked forward to going out of Male’, going on picnics to various locations. I lived in Hulhumale’ during the time of its construction, and it was nice to see people come out at night time, visiting coffee shops, strolling around and passing the time. That was what inspired the initial idea. What we provide here at CROSSROADS sits in between these ideas. It’s a beautiful location, and while it’s a bit more upscale, it’s only fifteen minutes away from Male’. We have people coming here, having lunch, and going back to work. We have people coming to visit the beach club, passing the whole day in the swimming pool. We have those coming to have events, weddings, and meetings. We have those coming to visit the Maldives Discovery Center, which is a museum, so there is a cultural aspect to it as well. We also have people visiting like merchants; when we do the street markets, we open stalls for local merchants for that particular day, to sell what they want.

What’s more, there is no obligation. Nowadays, if you want to go to a resort as a day visitor, either you have to buy a package, or you have to call up the general manager and ask for permission. This concept is very unique to the Maldives. In Bangkok, for example, if you want to go to the Hilton, you don’t have to call the general manager; you simply walk into the hotel. It’s different here in the Maldives, because the islands are private. So, we’re trying to challenge that status quo. Today, a person can just buy a ferry ticket and come to CROSSROADS, stroll around, consume absolutely nothing and go back; no harm will be done. Or they may come here in a group of twenty people and have an absolutely festive meal, and go back afterwards. It’s open for everybody.

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted the industry. As we head into a new normal, what’s the next step for CROSSROADS Maldives?

I think certain preventative measures are here to stay. The good thing is, now that it’s been almost fourteen months since we restarted operations, we really know how to operate under pandemic conditions. We’ve really learned how to cope with it.

I also think that this pandemic has allowed travelers to see the Maldives in a different light. People who might have never thought about coming to Maldives before have now visited us and said, wow, that was fun! And I believe that they will come back. CROSSROADS, Hard Rock, Saii Lagoon – this integrated concept has been designed especially for families. There is so much to explore here.

CROSSROADS employs the largest workforce in the Maldives. How do you keep track of and manage their everyday tasks?

The team behind CROSSROADS is made up of about 1200 members. Undoubtedly, this is the largest team in Maldives. There are a lot of nationalities, a lot of stakeholders, and the relationships we have work on various different levels. There are partners here who own restaurants or businesses, and they purchase dormitories and staff meals and transportation services from us. It’s not only that they are our clients, they are also our tenants.

When you look at the heart of the house – I don’t like referring to it as the back of the house, for me, it’s the heart of the house – it’s a 1200 bed facility. It has its own gym, a large mosque, a private beach for the staff, along with three staff canteen operations. We have the largest powerhouse in the Maldives, as well as the largest laundry operation. We also literally have a water bottling plant, which is gigantic just by itself. If you look at our warehouse, it’s the size of Walmart. So, it’s clearly a massive-scale operation.

It is not only challenging, but also impossible to manage it as a whole. But luckily for me, I have a great team that manages very small business units. We have department heads and business leaders who take each business unit and manage it separately. They combine the business resources and present it as CROSSROADS; for that, it requires very solid human resource management.

What does the future hold for CROSSROADS Maldives?

First of all, there is SO/, a new resort that we’ve officially announced. It will be built on Island 3, the island next to Hard Rock Hotel. The construction of this project will commence at the end of the year, hopefully in November or December. The resort will be an upscale property by Accor, which signed a hotel management agreement with S Hotels and Wai Eco World Developer to bring the SO/ brand to the Maldives. So, this will be the newest addition to our portfolio. We will have Hard Rock, which is positioned as a lively, upbeat family resort; we’ll have SAii Lagoon, with Asian hospitality, a little bit adventurous and laidback; and finally, we’ll have SO/ which will sit in the luxury segment.

Secondly, we now have a new beach club operator, Sensations Beach Club. They operate a few beach clubs in Dubai, and we’ve partnered with them to operate our new beach club, which is a fantastic setting for events and parties. Their presence here will also add to our offerings, because as I explained before, we are only as strong as our partners are. Having an operator that has the experience and knowledge in successfully running a beach club, offering entertainment in the night-time, while attracting a different type of clientele during the day. It definitely marks another milestone for us.

Above all, the most important thing that we take the most pride in is our picnic island. Our picnic island is a big stretch of land that sits unoccupied today, with a beautiful, untouched beach. Here, we’re designing a local island concept with various attractions. Locals from Male’ and other local islands will be able to visit and spend the day there, for leisurely travel. This will be the next project for us, and we’re very excited to be able to bring this to life.

Why is CROSSROADS Maldives special?

A lot of people ask me why this place is called CROSSROADS. Geographically, Maldives has a very strategic location; it sits very close to the Indian Peninsula, not far from the Arabic Peninsula. In the olden times, sailors who were doing commerce needed shelter, which the Maldives provided. Initially, the idea of CROSSROADS stemmed from this. It’s a place where people from different parts of the world, from different cultures, can seek shelter.

If you and I were to meet at a crossroads, a four-road square, I probably wouldn’t know which direction you were heading. You probably wouldn’t know which direction I was heading either. But the fact that we met at the crossroads is a sign of unity. This is what we try to do here at CROSSROADS Maldives; taking visitors from all walks of life, local and foreign, combining them together and creating one single, unique destination.