In this exclusive interview, Zulaikha Manik (Zuley), the Deputy Managing Director of Sun Siyam Resorts, shares her inspiring two-decade journey in the hospitality industry. From her humble beginnings as a secretary at Sun Travels & Tours to her current role, Zuley’s story is one of determination and innovation. She discusses the evolution of Sun Siyam Vilu Reef over 25 years, emphasizing the delicate balance between preserving natural charm and meeting modern travelers’ needs. As the resort celebrates its silver anniversary, Zuley outlines her vision for the future of Sun Siyam Resorts, focusing on sustainability, innovation, and guest satisfaction.
My journey with Sun Siyam Resorts began in 1996 when I joined Sun Travels & Tours as a secretary in the marketing department. At that time, we were a relatively small yet prominent tour operator and travel agency specializing in incoming tourism. In 1998, we made our debut in the hospitality industry with the opening of our first property, marking a natural transition for me into the realm of sales and resort promotion, and becoming a hotelier.
By 2001, we proudly welcomed Sun Siyam Olhuveli and swiftly expanded our portfolio with other exceptional properties. Until 2016, I diligently oversaw the sales and marketing efforts of our resorts, before taking on a new role in the executive office. In this capacity, I became deeply involved in the development, legal matters, and other corporate aspects of our group, all while maintaining a keen focus on sales and business development.
In December 2022, I had the privilege of being promoted to the position of Group Deputy Managing Director. Reflecting on my career, I consider several significant milestones, including the opening of our inaugural resort, Vilu Reef, the successful branding of the group and our various properties under Sun Siyam Resorts, and the noteworthy launch of Siyam World, our largest and most experiential property in the Maldives. The latter, in particular, presented substantial challenges, but it ultimately proved highly rewarding, establishing Siyam World as one of the most popular resorts in the region.
While I am no longer directly involved in active sales, I take great pleasure in staying informed about all developments in this domain. I maintain regular meetings with our key partners, as my passion for this aspect of our business endures. I credit much of my professional growth to the guidance, mentorship, and motivation provided by our Chairman, Hon. Ahmed Siyam Mohamed. His belief in the potential he saw in the young secretary he hired many years ago has empowered me to assume the broader responsibilities I hold today. He continues to be the driving force behind our success, for which I am eternally grateful.
Sun Siyam Vilu Reef became one of the nine islands designated for tourist resort development by the government in 1997. Our company submitted a successful bid, leading to the development and inauguration of the resort in an impressive ten-month timeframe, with the grand opening occurring in October 1998. The initial configuration featured 68 Maldivian-style round bungalows.
Sun Siyam Vilu Reef stands out to me as one of the most naturally picturesque islands. The resort’s design, emphasizing a harmonious connection with nature, resonated exceptionally well with our predominantly European clientele at the time. In 2004, we embarked on a redevelopment initiative, introducing 40 water villas, an overwater restaurant, and additional amenities such as a spa.
This expansion raised some concerns among our loyal repeat guests, who worried that it might compromise the resort’s unique ambiance. We took great care in managing this transformation, ensuring the island’s pristine natural beauty remained intact while modernizing the facilities to meet the evolving preferences of contemporary travelers. Despite the reservations, the resort continued to garner acclaim and capture the hearts of vacationers, maintaining the highest occupancy rates among all Maldivian properties at that time.
In 2015-16, it was time for a revitalization of the resort, aligning it with the standards set by other properties within our group. This endeavor, too, proved to be a resounding success, earning praise from both our partners and guests.
Now, we are incredible proud to be celebrating our 25th anniversary on the 28th of October 2023, what a milestone for our company that is.
We consider ourselves fortunate as all our resorts epitomize the core values of the group. This is predominantly due to the active engagement of our Chairman, Hon. Ahmed Siyam Mohamed in every facet, ranging from conceptualization, design, development, marketing, to daily operations. He imparts his distinctive vision and ethos, which underpins each facet of our offerings.
At Sun Siyam Resorts, we lead our guests on an expedition of innovative experiences, deeply rooted in local culture, the essence of vacation, and the warmth of family. This journey is underpinned by five fundamental principles: People, Innovation, Integrity, Passion, and Sustainability.
We hold our talent in high regard, recognizing them as our most valuable asset. We continually challenge ourselves to be at the vanguard of innovation, nurturing ambition on behalf of our guests.
Our unwavering commitment to ethical practices and moral principles ensures integrity. Our customers guide our choices and actions. Above all, we are steadfast in our belief in hospitality for a better tomorrow. Our properties, regardless of size, uphold these principles as brand standards while radiating their unique charm.
These statements are metaphorical in nature, illustrating that Sun Siyam Vilu Reef was my inaugural project in the realm of hospitality. From the initial bidding process, through development, opening, and to the present day, my involvement in some capacity has endured. This is why Sun Siyam Vilu Reef holds such a special place in my heart; it marked my true initiation into the world of hospitality and provided invaluable lessons that continue to influence my work.
I can vividly recall the first time I set eyes on the picturesque island. Without a jetty, we arrived by chartered seaplane, landing in the lagoon and wading to the beach. The day included snorkeling in the pristine house reef and a local barbecue lunch by the beach, shared with some of our partners. To this day, they fondly reminisce about this visit. The island boasts a bountiful number of palm trees, and we made sure that not a single palm was cut down. As a result, guests will always find a palm or two inside their bathrooms, and some rooms are not perfectly aligned with the original blueprint.
The circular room design, roofs inspired by nautilus shells, and the local architectural theme that graces the entire island collectively render the resort truly unique. Our Chairman was resolute that, as a homegrown company and our inaugural resort island, it must pay homage to the traditional roots upon which the company was founded. We were also the first resort to open in Dhaalu atoll at a time when it was less developed than it is today.
Mr. Siyam was committed to ensuring the local communities benefited from tourism. Consequently, island communities played a significant role in the island’s operations, creating a uniquely special experience for our guests. Local women donned traditional attire to prepare Maldivian cuisine, and island communities crafted local treats available in our resort. We offered our guests the opportunity to witness firsthand the daily lives of Maldivians. We sourced fish and other local produce from neighboring islands. For many visitors, it was love at first sight.
In all subsequent developments, we have been unwavering in preserving and maintaining the captivating and charming qualities that endeared the property to guests from the very beginning. We have guests who have returned to the resort over 40 times.
Everything we undertake is rooted in a profound affection for what we do, from the gardeners to the management, and it is our genuine pleasure to greet guests by name with a smile on our faces. These personalized touches set us apart from the rest.
I have been fortunate to have a great visionary to look up to and learn from in this industry. Our Chairman is a leader who sets an example by fearlessly immersing himself in the work alongside the team. Additionally, I had the privilege of being mentored by Mr. Shakir, our Director who has since retired.
He consistently pushed me to achieve the seemingly impossible and imparted invaluable insights into the development aspect of the business. I strive to uphold the principles they have instilled in me, and I find the most fulfillment in working closely with my team. I gauge success not by individual contributions but rather by the collective efforts of the team. It fills me with immense pride to witness colleagues I’ve mentored taking on significant roles and responsibilities within the group and beyond. I’m also proud of the fact that all our resort heads are Maldivians who have diligently worked their way up over the years.
Regarding my tenure with the company, it speaks to how much I value and enjoy my work here.
The Maldivian industry is currently experiencing numerous exciting and innovative developments. However, these advancements also bring increased competition. In order to stay ahead, we must be prepared to exceed the expectations of future travelers. There is a growing emphasis on responsible tourism, and given our environmental vulnerability as a destination, we must adopt a thoughtful and mindful approach. Hence, we will further enhance our Sun Siyam Cares groupwide sustainability programme and focus on various projects there.
Innovation will play a significant role in how we market and manage our offerings. It’s essential that our product offerings align with these evolving demands and have the capacity to meet them effectively. As a group, we are making substantial investments to align with these emerging trends, with the aim of maintaining our position as one of the most forward-thinking and innovative hospitality companies in the industry.
We must remain prepared to face whatever challenges come our way, including criticism and judgment. The work environment has evolved significantly, and in a positive manner, since my initial involvement. Accountability holds a paramount importance. Most importantly, one should possess a deep passion for their work. In our industry, genuine interest is crucial because it demands a significant portion of your life. This isn’t a conventional 9 to 5 job; you are on call 24 hours a day.
Honesty and integrity are fundamental values to uphold. It is entirely feasible to balance both a career and a family if you manage your time effectively. While having a support system can be beneficial, it should not dissuade you from aspiring to attain managerial positions. Numerous women within our organization hold key leadership roles and adeptly juggle their personal lives with their professional commitments. You certainly have the potential to build a successful career in the hospitality and tourism sector, as long as you maintain commitment, focus, and unwavering passion.
Women have consistently demonstrated their ability to find effective ways to make it all work!