Interview with Tolga Unan, CEO and Founder at Unan Hospitality & Unan Trading, Maldives

I also spent 13 years working in China as a general manager for brands such as Hilton and Intercontinental.

How has your personal journey led you to where you are today?

My father was a hotel manager in Istanbul, where I got my first taste of hospitality work. In the 1980s hotels began to open on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and there were good opportunities for hoteliers from Istanbul to operate them, which became my first experience of the resort concept. I later studied hospitality in the US and did an internship with Disney. I also spent 13 years working in China as a general manager for brands like Hilton and Intercontinental.

Following that I was managing director of an eco-resort called Naked Retreats, based in Shanghai; a very high-end, very sustainable project that I learned a lot from. Then I came to the Maldives with my wife and two daughters, where I was introduced to the Crossroads project.

How would you describe the idea of multi-island tourism, and what does it have to offer tourists from the US? 

I was Crossroads’ first employee and was drawn to it because it was such an innovative concept. What made Crossroads unique at that time was that it brought cultures together and was one of the only locations in the Maldives where you could experience local culture shoulder to shoulder with Maldivian guests.

Most of the islands here have always been segregated, with tourists and the local population inhabiting different islands. The Maldives is known for the one-island-one-resort concept but the government wants to diversify this offering to offer greater choice.

You recently started Unan Hospitality to assist other hotel and resort operators. What are your services and how can Maldivian companies benefit from your services?

The experience I gained over my five years at Crossroads enabled me to open Unan Hospitality. When we started Crossroads we were managing a variety of separate, parallel brands and business units, from hotels to restaurants to marinas and retail outlets. However, getting all of these to operate in unison under one umbrella required a lot of hard work and organization, which impacted results and profitability.

Managing something with so many moving parts while extracting due scale economies from it required a new way of thinking. Hence the creation of Unan Hospitality; using an integrated model to reduce costs, gain scale economies, and provide a better, more integrated service. Instead of rival companies and brands competing with each other, they can now unite and complement each other’s offerings to the benefit of everyone, not least our customers. This is the approach that Unan Hospitality was established to promote.

What initiatives are you curating to cater to new trends in tourism and stay ahead of the competition?

There are now many new tourism concepts coming out of the Maldives, such as renting an entire self-contained island that can be customized for different groups or purposes, including for the MICE segment.

Local islands also offer fantastic guest houses and there are some exquisite options for budget travelers. This is a segment that is growing in the double digits every year, creating a lot of options for people who are looking for cheaper holidays. This open-mindedness has been a successful official strategy for several years now. The Maldives today has a very adaptable mindset, which is building innovation into the future of the tourism industry.

As an honorary consul of Brazil, how are you helping Brazilian companies export to the Maldives, and how are local operators benefitting from the arrangement?

During the Covid Pandemic, one of the only countries that did not have travel restrictions was Brazil. Most of our other markets were down, and I had connections to Brazil because of my wife, so we tried to break into the Brazilian market. We had the right strategies and a bit of luck, and the idea paid off. Even after the pandemic subsided and restrictions loosened, Brazil continued to be a big market for the Maldives. It is now in our top-four markets whereas earlier it wasn’t even in the top 20.

Brazilians tend to be lively and extroverted, so they create a good ambience in the hotel. I was offered the job of promoting the Maldives as a destination in Brazil and now I represent some of the main hotels in the Maldives and in Brazil as well. I also have a boutique travel agency that does direct sales.

However, there was a whole new array of opportunities when we started looking at importing Brazilian food and other products to the Maldives. People and businesses here have been suffering from higher food prices, which also add a lot to the operating costs of hotels. We discovered that Brazilian producers were eager to export to the Maldives and showcase their products to new international demographics. So we established Unan Trading to pitch to Brazilian brands and offer to help them to do business in the Maldives. We got some very good offers and started working together, and now everyone in the Maldives, locals, tourists, and hotel owners, benefit from good quality, affordable Brazilian produce. Brazilian producers at the same time have a new small export market but also a great way to showcase their products that can be used as a stepping stone into larger markets.

As the fourth-largest country in the world, and one of the largest producers of meat, dairy, and agricultural products, Brazil has a lot to offer somewhere like the Maldives. We are not a large, established trading company, but we have the trust of local hoteliers because we understand them and we know their challenges. My position as honorary consul allows me to liaise officially with Brazilian officials and companies who share my vision of how the two countries can work together.

What opportunities are there in the Maldives for US companies and American investors, and where are the most important growth prospects?

There are great opportunities for US brands to move into the Maldives and use the country as a backdrop to present their products. There are plenty of other beautiful island nations but the one-island-one-resort approach means that producers can have a captive audience from a new market simply by becoming the sole supplier of a product to one establishment. This effectively provides global access in a matter of weeks; an opportunity that you won’t find in other places.

What is your final message to the readers of USA TODAY?

The natural beauty of the Maldives is humbling and illustrates how tourism can be in perfect harmony with its natural environment. This reflects the culture and way of life of the Maldivian people, which is part of the whole experience. I’m a big fan of Maldives and of the Maldivian people. It’s a great destination for couples and honeymoons, but also for kids, which is why guests return here over and over again. There is so much to see, experience and explore here.

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