Tolga Unan is the Managing Director of the iconic Hard Rock Hotel Maldives and the Managing Director of The Marina at CROSSROADS Maldives, the country’s first multi-island, fully integrated leisure destination. Our team sat down with Tolga to delve deeper into his career and how CROSSROADS differentiates itself from the rest of the crowd when it comes to MICE travel.
Can you tell us a bit about your career so far?
I started my career 26 years ago. My career began when I worked in hotels in the United States and travelled around the Caribbean. Most of my career was in Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and China, before finally ending up in the Maldives. Even though I worked a lot in the resorts, I have also worked in city hotels and large banquet hotels.
CROSSROADS Maldives was a new concept in the Maldives, and we are now seeing similar projects being developed very close to Malé. What was the main idea behind this integrated project?
It is totally new, and it has a lot of advantages. I’m happy to see that more and more projects are coming to the Maldives. It’s an economy of scale, and the size matters. It allows you to operate multiple businesses relatively cheaper cost by managing and combining certain services. This didn’t mean that integration and clustered are the same thing. People often mix up clustering services versus the integrated resort concept — it is not the same thing.
In our current organization, the way we are organized is based on a business unit model. Each business unit has its targets, its own goals, has its own teams. What unites us under the umbrella brand name of CROSSROADS Maldives is that we are part of the community. We work under the main cover brand, which is CROSSROADS Maldives. So, in that sense, we can create a community combining where we work with where we live, bridging the gap between them.
CROSSROADS Maldives has changed the face of MICE travel in the Maldives. What is the reason behind this success?
First of all, we are humbled by the interest shown to us by the corporate community and the government. Any big prestigious event in the Maldives, whether held in CROSSROADS Maldives or considered to be held in CROSSROADS Maldives, makes us very proud to be able to host such events and also to be at the service of the people.
As for a reason for the success, there are a few. One of the most important reasons is the structure of CROSSROADS Maldives. It helps that the resorts, the retail area, the event area and all are positioned distant from one another or have easy access to Malé. But more importantly, I will say the sense of welcome that the CROSSROADS Maldives team has provided to the visitors. We built a ballroom at the beginning of the project. From the beginning, we believed in the potential of events and catering and MICE in the Maldives. That was why we invested in building an initial ballroom, and later, we added a marque. Proximity to Malé plays an important role. Still, I think the secret here is to understand what people want and create a seamless operation to deliver a platform to the corporate community.
We are part of the corporate community in the Maldives. We run multi businesses under the umbrella of integrated resort Maldives. We, too, become our own clients. We organize our events and meetings, open new shops and create new businesses. We learn how to host events by hosting our events. What we are doing with the Maldives’s corporate community is just mirroring how we do things around here. We are selling that, and we sell our own product the way we would operate ourselves. Since the beginning, this idea has been at the core of CROSSROADS Maldives.
How do you see the Maldives as being one of the pioneers in this modern-day approach to MICE?
The first couple of steps is the most difficult because, for international MICE organizers, it will take a little time for them to trust and understand. They worry about the logistics of the Maldives. It’s not an easy thing to bring 300 people from across the world with 20 different flights and get them to a single resort. In a destination like the Maldives, there are other places where you can do this seamlessly. But because of its sea conditions, the weather, and the airport, everything seems to be another challenge that these operators need to consider. But when we are living here, we don’t see this as a challenge. We need to operate under these conditions every day.
Eventually, the big MICE planners will see the value in the Maldives as a MICE brand. It is such a central destination, isn’t it? Between Asia and the Middle East, and easily accessible through Europe. Currently, Maldives sits at the top of the charts as a honeymoon destination and is one of the top destinations for family travel. We have always been the number one destination for adventure diving, water sports, etc. But now, why not MICE? Which rank are we today in global MICE destinations? Maybe not very high, but I am a believer that year after year, we are going to see an increase in the ranking of Maldives in the MICE charts.
What were the main challenges when you first started CROSSROADS?
Social distancing was challenging! We opened the destination in September 2019 and are now celebrating our third anniversary. We were focused on the high occupancy in January 2020, but in March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit us, and the Maldives was already closing its borders. Everything was left off to resume after the pandemic. It was completely unprecedented. We had to try to react to what the market needed immediately. We made a lot of mistakes. We had difficulty understanding what our consumers wanted, but we didn’t give up. So, after pandemic-induced restrictions were lifted, the operation of our events and venues resumed as usual.
What future plans does CROSSROADS Maldives have that the corporate community expects to seek?
CROSSROADS Maldives is built upon innovation. We are the pioneers of the integrated resort concept in the Maldives. We want to be the preferred destination within the Greater Malé Region, and we also wish the corporate community in the Maldives to feel at home. Our venues are perfect for visiting in their leisurely time, whether for their celebrations or with their own families and kids. We aim to enhance these experiences so that we always provide something new and fresh.
We have a new picnic park coming up. We have new tenants signed up that will bring further variety to our offerings. The street market held once a week is already a very known affair. The beach club here is now gaining much traction on the weekends, with people coming to spend time and pass the day. We are also planning many more events throughout the year, such as concerts, music, dances, and other activities, for people to come and experience.