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Robinson Crusoe+Bill Bensley tango at Hard Rockin’ Café Del Mar

Author: Bill Barnett. Category: Hotels. Posted: 7th Apr 2019

It’s every hotel owner’s wet dream. Imagine in the age of the smartphone and the aspirational movement of getting out of the box, being able to contain guests and their money within the confines of a single resort.

No, it’s unlike an episodic Hotel California, expect you can leave, as long as you leave a considerable chunk of money before heading home on the boat ride out. Even Trumpster and his wall-logic couldn’t hatch a plan this perfect.

There is little doubt that the island destination of the Maldives has come to epitomize global barefoot luxury in such a way that hoteliers almost whisper the name when talking about sky high room rates and sinful average guest spends. No escape, no options, if you want to cos-play Robinson Crusoe in this sandbox, you better be cashed up.

Enter the unlikely disruptor, the Thai conglomerate Singha Estate and a reclaimed nine-island  mega project, with a core offering named Crossroads Maldives. With plans to open a themed resort town, marina and two international standard hotels by mid 2019, the project thesis is all about location location location. A short boat ride to the Maldives gateway airport and capital of Male, Crossroads will effectively crash the party of a long-term legacy of long-transits, mono resort offering and scripted hospitality.

Crossroads is ambitious bold, brash and in your face destination tourism, which is meant to not confine you to a single set of mere outlets but connects you to a far wider field of dreams.

On Saturday I paid a visit to the project and in a way, the trip was a look into the future of a new cycle in the Maldives tourism journey. This first phase of two accommodation offerings with a Hard Rock Hotel, SAii Lagoon (Singha’s own brand) which is affiliated to Hilton through their Curio Collection, Café del Mar, a freestanding Hard Rock Café, vast selection of  independent restaurants and retail offerings and a marina is moving fast towards completion.

Noted Bangkok-based designer Bill Bensley has creatively borne both the SAii Lagoon and Crossroads, and has effectively moved away from the norm of the accepted Maldives product, In my mind, people will love it or hate it, but more important they will come experience the flavor of the islands in an entirely new way. As far as luxury, this product is pitched at the emerging four-star upscale travel market which is on the cusp on becoming the fast -growing segment in paradise.

So what’s the impact going to be on the top-shelf luxury hotels?

While Singha Estate is currently the face of disruption, the reality is that Asia’s Chinacation and mass tourism push has become a mainstay in other famed beach-centric destinations like Bali, Phuket and Boracay for a number of years, spurred by low-cost airline carriers, rising consumer class and easy door to door flying time of a third of the world’s population. All bets are off and like it or not the urbanization of the regions islands is a harsh new reality. Enter the Maldives where the outline of a skyscraper now dots the Male horizon and the once familiar site of floatplanes is giving way to secondary domestic and international gateway airports along with larger capacity ATR-72’s pushing greater numbers to far away islands.

Given analysis is my bread and butter, my read on the state of play is that cyclical patterns still apply to tourism and hotels despite the specter of disruption. With hotel transactions and new development in overdrive, the ramping up of new supply simply cannot rely only on luxury  alone for its secret sauce. Segmentation, niche products and the geo-political influences are all now joining the party in the ring of fire. 

Perhaps the clearest sign of maturation is the number of long-time hotel owners cashing out, though in many cases a number are reinvesting. As to how Crossroads is addressing this changing of the guard is interesting as it’s pitching the Maldives to an entirely new catchment of travelers and has understood the growing discontent of travelers who are isolated in properties that offer outlets instead of restaurants and reek of old-school inclusiveness.

 Wrapping up the piece, I’d have to say the challenge for Singha is the scale required, though with only a little of a third of the island’s developed, the upside remains in the underlying real estate. Certainly the interruption of an injection of nearly 5% new supply to the total market will have an impact, but beyond Crossroads lies a number of mixed-use offerings and pipeline projects that is eclipsing supply growth into the double digits.  The end result will like be a more normalized competitive marketplace than existed in the past but profit lines will inevitably recline.

As for Robinson Crusoe and Bill Bensley, they look set to take the art of sundowners into an entirely new direction in what is shaping up to be a new chapter in Maldives tourism.

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C9 Hotelworks Founder and Managing Director Bill Barnett is a noted columnist, author and leading authority on travel trend, hotels and property.

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