Breaking Travel News interview: David Stepetic, general manager, Jumeirah Dhevanafushi

Nestled at the south end of the Maldives in the heart of the Indian Ocean, Jumeirah Dhevanafushi was created for life’s tranquil pleasures.

Stretched across two islands, the enchanting hideaway offers everything you need to get away from it all. Lush foliage, crystal blue waters and stretches of white sandy beach create a sanctuary.

Here Breaking Travel News editor Chris O’Toole talks with David Stepetic, general manager of the hotel to discover the extensive list of comforts that make a stay special. 

Breaking Travel News: Can you tell me a little about the property? What is on offer there? How is this unique to the Maldives as a destination?

David Stepetic: Ours is a very unique property in that it is very small – we only have 37 villas.

There are two distinct facilities in the resort, the main island, and then the over-water villas, which are separated by the beautiful house-reef, which stretches for 800 metres.

There is no way to get across except for boat.

There are 21 beach villas, and 16 over-water, a mixture one and two-bedroom properties.

They are all extra-large, starting at 270 sqm and rising to 360 sqm, so they are all very large. We have the largest, single-bedroom, entry-level room category in the Maldives.

I would say it is one of the smallest resorts in the Maldives.

It has a real sense of privacy and exclusivity, even when we are full we have only 75 guests on the resort.

This allows us to give a level of service that is attentive, intuitive; it can be quite exceptional.

The whole experience is exceptional.

BTN: It certainly sounds it. How does one reach the resort?

DS: Another key feature is the location, in the very far south of the Maldives.

We are on the Gaafu Alifu Atoll, which is 400 kilometres south of Malé.

We collect our guests from the Malé International Airport, put them in our own Jumeirah lounge, while they wait for a 50 minute domestic flight down to our local airport.

From there guests are met by staff and taken by a private speedboat to the resort, which is a further 20 minutes. We are about 70 kilometres away from the equator.

BTN: So what do guests have on offer once they arrive on the boat?

DS: People come to the Maldives for a few things: rest, relaxation, wellness, rejuvenation, and diving.

Diving and snorkelling is a key for us, and we also have a great spa.

Our culinary programme is also in place and we have all the excursions you could ask for.

We have a private island excursion; a private island where we can send guests to see the sunrise or sunset, and have a picnic.

We have a fleet of boats to do all the activities.

Our average length of stay, for the UK market, is seven to eight days; there is plenty to keep you busy.

BTN: How is the market changing? I understand Chinese markets have fallen quite sharply, but are they being replaced?

DS: The Chinese market is important for us – we embrace visitors from China.

We opened to this market just three years ago and we are doing well there.

In the Maldives around 40 per cent of the market is Chinese, so we accept as many visitors are we can.

At the same time we hope to maintain a balance of markets on the resort.

There has been a decline here though, with fewer Chinese visitors.

But we are reaching out, welcoming business from other markets, and thus we haven’t felt the impact too badly.

We aspire to run at around 74 per cent occupancy over the course of the whole year.

Chinese guests are being replaced by those from the Middle East, Germany, and even, I am happy to say, Russia is also coming back this year.

It was a terrible, dramatic decline last year, with the fall of the rouble, and the international conflict, but that has started to reverse. We are back up for 2016.

The UK at the same time is up 34 per cent in the year to date – our numbers are still small from the UK, so we are looking to increase our market share.

BTN: Do you have any investments planned for the hotel in the coming months to ensure it remains among the best in the market?

DS: We are celebrating our fifth anniversary this year.

We got a new owner in January 2014, from Singapore, called CDL, and they have proved committed to the resort. They have invested wisely and have been very supportive.

This year there is also a lot going on – but it is mainly structural.

Last year we added two new villas, two beach villas, increasing our inventory from 35 to 37 villas.

There is nothing so dramatic this year, but we are still working, replacing a lot of timber in the villas, and improving the feel of the villas overall.

This is a big project for us, to get the timber from New Zealand, to complete the project.

We are working on the thatched roofs; they need to be replaced once every three years and this is one of those years.

BTN: Does the political situation play a role in the tourism sector in the Maldives? Has this discouraged travellers?

DS: I don’t think it impacts us greatly.

I believe some of the things that happen are too quickly picked up by the press, especially here in the English press.

The ex-president Nasheed is here in the UK and is very popular outside of the Maldives. Inside the Maldives he is very popular with 50 per cent; but it is a very divided country, split down even lines.

But I think it is remarkably stable.

Although there are things that are conveyed to the press that give it a sense of instability, it is remarkably stable there.

There was a state of emergency introduced last November, for example, and there really was no state of emergency.

On the ground the situation was fine, but the government was nervous.

BTN: What more could the national government do to support this, a vital economic sector? I know the Maldives was the partner country for ITB Berlin this year, and there have been a series of celebrations around the 50th anniversary of independence?

DS: I am happy with the way the destination is promoted internationally; the government has a good team, good people.

The Ministry of Tourism is very supportive, and they consult with us closely. Communication is thorough and effective.

I believe this shows in the numbers; despite the economic situation in recent years, tourism has continued to flow healthily into the Maldives.

That is a reflection of the good work they do, and of a great product we have there.

BTN: How do you sell the resort?

DS: Like most resorts in the Maldives we work with travel partners in various regions.

We meet with our partners and seek business from them and then we do a certain percentage through online channels, including Jumeirah.com and Expedia.com for example.

BTN: How has Jumeirah changed in recent years? The company has been expanding a great deal of late?

DS: China is a big market place – both people heading into China and outbound Chinese. This is a key market under development for Jumeirah.

We have a new property in Nanjing, China, and then three of four more in the pipeline beyond that.

We are also looking at Istanbul for further development.

Turkey is again a good market for us.

BTN: Will the direction change following the change of chief executive of the company? With Gerard Lawless stepping into a role with Dubai Holdings.

DS: Yes, that is right, he now reports to Dubai Holdings, and is outside of Jumeirah.

But he stays true to us, on a global scale.

He has a big legacy for Jumeirah, similar to Isadore Sharp and Four Seasons; a founding father, and it will never be otherwise.

BTN: I see the hotel is also recognised by the World Travel Awards as Maldives’ Leading Luxury Hotel Villa for the past two years. How important was this accolade?

DS: They help and when we get accolades like this it is great for the morale of the team and it is inspiring for them.

It helps them continue their hard work.

It is nice for us to hear it, but it is also important to stay humble and be true. It is important to keep working on things.

As soon as you start listening to the awards and the accolades, that is the moment you fail.