Having entered into the collective imagination of travelers with the Ithaa, the world’s first undersea restaurant, today the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island is continuing to push the envelope. In November 2018, the Conrad brand, part of Hilton’s luxury portfolio, will complete another pioneering first when it opens the nation’s first undersea villa. Stefano Ruzza, General Manager of the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, tells us how he is maintaining the resort’s reputation for turning fantasy into reality.
How has the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island risen to become emblematic for both Hilton and the Maldives?
In November last year, Conrad Maldives Rangali Island celebrated its 20-year anniversary, and its 10th year under the Conrad brand, the luxury brand of the Hilton portfolio. Our owners were the first in the Maldives to bring in an international chain, making Hilton the first international brand to operate in the Maldives. After the Hilton Maldives Rangali opened, many other international brands followed. Our owners became the pioneers of hospitality in the Maldives. From this property, a whole range of firsts came forth. This is the first resort in the Maldives to have an undersea villa, set to open in November 2018. We also had the very first bridge in the Maldives and pioneered the iconic over water villa design, set on stilts in the lagoon. Our resort is popular for the world’s first undersea restaurant. Our respect goes towards the owners who had the courage to build this dream.
Why is Conrad Rangali so renowned for its restaurants?
Food and beverage in the Maldives is of utmost significance. Guests don’t have the chance to go out to another village to eat because they are living on a remote island, so restaurant concepts really need to be carefully evaluated and refined. This resort is specifically popular now with restaurants because we are the hotel that has the most choice of food and beverage in the Maldives. You can literally spend 12 nights in our resort and have 12 different dining experiences. Many tourists sometimes feel hesitant about the Maldives because they think they’ll get bored on a small island, eating at the same restaurants for a week. That’s not true. By now, the hospitality field has so much variety. Conrad Maldives has up to 1,500 wine labels in its wine cellar. Every six weeks to two months, we have a wine maker come and host a wine lecture and dinner, introducing his wines that are carefully matched with the food. We have a wine and cheese bar, located on the main island with up to 100 cheeses from around the globe and volcanic sand imported from New Zealand. There is also a full-time sommelier employed on the island.
Can you provide some history of the famed undersea Ithaa restaurant?
Ithaa celebrated its 13th anniversary in April this year, and was the world’s first undersea restaurant, created by Ahmed Saleem, Director at Crown Company. He hired an aquarium technology specialist from New Zealand, Mike Murphy, to design this 14-seat restaurant concept. Ithaa was built in Singapore and shipped as a full 170-ton unit to the Maldives. The acrylic dome was originally too light to sink in the water, so engineers had to add an additional 18-tons of sand underneath to make the restaurant sink. Today, we have changed an entire culinary concept at Ithaa. We came up with a very modern way of combining local produce in an innovative way.
How does Conrad Maldives compare to other experiences offered by Hilton?
We offer barefoot luxury, which through the Conrad brand is called smart luxury. It’s represented in various ways, and we continue innovating. We currently have IPTV in all villas. If there are messages that we want to bring to the guests, we can give it to them via their villa TV. Soon, every umbrella in front of our guests’ rooms is going to be Wi-Fi-enabled soon. Every umbrella is also going to have a little tag for our Webtender, where they can order any drink that they want from the menu.
What makes the Conrad Maldives location special?
Located 90 kilometers away from the capital, South Ari Atoll’s nature is far more intact and matured than in areas closer to Malé, where there is more speedboat traffic. A lot of dive safaris or luxury boat cruises are here because of the atoll’s flourishing nature. Whale sharks, manta rays, turtles; you get all these in the South Ari Atoll. Visitors can snorkel amongst the corals and see hundreds of different types of fish and other marine life right on the property.
What trends have you noticed in the world of luxury tourism from the Maldives’ point of view?
People want to have access to anything, any time. The level of flexibility is key for a successful operation in the Maldives, especially when you have many luxury resorts to compete with. It’s really worth investing in understanding what the guest wants, not just taking shortcuts.
Why should travelers consider the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island?
You’ll be in a property that was the first in so many things and that has a very high repeat ratio. During holiday times like Easter or Christmas, more than half of our visitors are return guests. Last year the resort was awarded best beach resort globally, best honeymoon resort, best luxury family resort and Maldives’ leading luxury hotel villa for our sunset water villa. This, in a property that is 20 years old, says a lot about the care to our product and the staff that runs it.