Q&A: Finolhu General Manager Mark Hehir

Born and raised in Australia Mark Hehir has over 30 years’ experience in the hospitality industry, including close to 20 year’s experience in the Maldives. He joined The Small Maldives Island Co. after four successful years at the One & Only Reethi Rah, where he held the position of general manager.

Mark was also part of the opening team at Huvafen Fushi by Per Aquum as well as Maldives Hilton Rangali (now Conrad Maldives) after working for various Anantara properties in Asia.

Utilising this extensive experience, Mark has been the driving force behind the recently opened Finolhu resort in Baa atoll, where he currently holds the position of general manager. Maldives.com caught up with him to discuss his career in the Maldives and latest project.

Can you tell us a little about your career?

Prior to coming to the Maldives, it was the UK and Australia – the Dorchester in London and some amazing experiences in those days. I was a chef so we did a lot of great things in London with the Queen and state banquets and Prince Charles and a lot of high level stuff – the first time in my career that I’d really dealt with that premium luxury customer.

So, that’s where I got that bug, like ‘wow’ that’s the elite of our business, and then it also gave me an understanding that, at the end of the day, they’re only human, and how to handle it.

Then I went to the Maldives for the first time to open up Rangali island in 1998, which was a Hilton. Between that time and now I was in Bali – I opened up a resort for Anantara.

I spent three years in all in the Maldives at Rangali Hilton, went from executive chef to food and beverage director, and had a dual role there doing both. Thailand, Japan and Malaysia are countries I also worked in.

When you compare the different locations in which you’ve worked, what makes the Maldives special?

The one-island one-resort concept that we have here in the Maldives is the ultimate biggest difference, because you get a chance to work and live with the team 24/7, so you get a chance to influence the culture of the team; not in terms of their personal beliefs, more the way in which they act and feel within the environment.

You can really work with them and develop an amazing work culture which then creates these experiences for customers. I’ve never seen so many customers be so excited about an experience like the Maldives. Firstly, when they see it, they’re like ‘wow’ but then when they start connecting with local people, they feel the skill level and the hospitality level of Maldivians versus other countries. They compare them.

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

They just feel that there’s a much more crisp and snappy attention to detail. Now, that comes and goes with different resorts cos there are obviously different standards, but it just seems that the local population have adapted very fast and learned very fast and can respond really well.

On our resort here we’re around 60 percent local and 40 percent international [staff] – other hotels are down probably at 45 percent; at the legal limit, if you like.

Over the last twenty years, you must have seen some changes to the industry.

A lot, yeah. I think Maldives has grown up – it’s more aware. The introduction of mobile communication has changed everything. I came pre-mobiles, so when I arrived no-one had a mobile phone. I brought one back once, but I couldn’t even use it much because of the range and whatnot.

We all talk about those days, cos we loved those days. Everything on the island was on the island; stayed on the island; was all about us. We weren’t influenced by anything that was going on outside of the island, so therefore the culture on the island was so strong. It was really amazing.

Now it’s influenced differently, that’s the biggest change. And you’ve gotta say that’s for the good, because now our people are more aware of a lot of other things, so that’s helped educate everyone, and I think that it also trickles down to our operators being more transparent, being more open and working with people ethically in a more correct way.

What makes Finolhu unique in this picture?

For us, it’s about design and architecture to fit into this beach club style, which is very warm and welcoming and with a very strong influence on retro – 60s and 70s being the era of retro that we tried to bring alive in design interiors, uniforms, artwork.

Every form of visual communication, and also the music, we’ve tried to bring it alive like that as well. In a subtle way, in some places – like you’ll look in a room and see this retro telephone for champagne; it’s a 1965 model. I went specifically and found colours that remind us of that day.

This is the era that blue jeans became famous – that type of stuff – so we introduced denim into the uniforms. Then, if you look at our artwork and the styling that we worked on, in terms of the imagery, we also went back to the illustrations and the feel of the day – a bit of a European touch as well.

Retro Collage

Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is make people feel comfortable in a nostalgic way, like ‘oh, I remember that’, or ‘my parents had that’, so it may be new again for a younger generation but it’s cool. In the older generation, they’re like ‘I remember when I had that’ too. So it’s got both ends of the scale covered, and at the same time it’s respecting the environment, like the whole washed out looks and the feel.

The other big decision we made was not to build anything on that whole sand strip, leaving it natural and then just putting this shack up there which is naturally nestled into the bushes, and that being the hero – ultimately, we’ve got this amazing sand strip that we can walk along. Then putting most of the rooms over water, so we can get the volume up with people, so there’s enough people here to enjoy it, but not crowding that, and leaving it natural.

There’s a bohemian mood facing into the lagoon, and we tried to style it that way, and then on the other side with the pool, we’re very strong into this retro, using some colours that sort of pop out a little bit. Then there is the furniture which is even more retro, with our synonymous big-blue couch, so we tried to put some furniture that is iconic.

Every room has a Marshall speaker. Marshall speakers are that retro style, so your touch points there are quality and experience of that time.

What were the major challenges in developing this kind of resort?

In general, you’ll always come with challenges in the Maldives to develop resorts in terms of pulling together construction teams and procuring everything to bring it onto the island. That’s a normal situation.

Some companies do better than others and one of our challenges that we successfully overcame was, because we worked together with the owner to build the island, he organised the construction teams within his own office, and the interior design and all of the finishes were done by myself. We were very close on how we were building and what we were finishing and the timing, because we were in the same family.

 

Sheep Beach

The challenges then were smaller. They were firstly getting our team’s attention on the concept – because our concept was a little bit quirky and a little bit different – and that took the first few months as we were selecting all of the smaller things so that they all fitted into the picture, so everything would blend well and also tell the story.

The difficult part then was procuring all of the smaller things – the furniture, the table tops, finding someone who could do a sheep with cork, the little things we’ve done are the boxes in the room with the nice print that’s around them  – to come up with the idea, to think of a pattern that would work. They were the challenges, they were the great success as well.

You must have been taken notes on your perfect resort for the past twenty years, does this come close to that?

This is definitely a lot of my dream ideas, especially this bar [Beach Bar] and the way that it’s situated with two levels, giving elevation. It goes into the pool, there’s a swim-up style, there’s a possibility of having live music and DJ music undercover cos it’s weather-proof. We can then run the concepts fully without having to worry about having to move things around.

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

The styling of the restaurant, how it interacts also through our marine centre – all those connections. Over in the Cove Club, the spa, we don’t spa, we say Cove Club cos we wanted a place that could be a place, not only to have a massage, but to hang out and to get other things done to look after yourself. To not carry all of the expectations of what a quiet tranquil spa is. We wanted this fun place with music and happiness and a bit of a spark.

It’s part of a collective of ideas over many years, so when I started drawing it came out of me very fast and when I put myself into where this was, I knew exactly what floor I was looking for, how the furniture would fit and the colours. I had it like a movie in my head, it was crazy. I drove a lot of people crazy too cos I was very particular about what it is and what it has to be.

Were there any ideas that you had to leave on the shelf? If money was no option, would there be any additional ideas you would follow?

There’s a lot of other ideas that I’ve got going on in my head about resorts, I could build you another three more, with other different styles and concepts. For this concept of this retro 60s-70s beach-style funky place, it pretty much ticked 99 percent of my boxes of what I wanted to do with it.

But there’s a lot of other ideas which I’ve got that I want to put at play for other types of products because I’m very specific about not trying to do everything in one place. This is exactly enough to get that consistency throughout this concept and we don’t muddle it up by trying to do too many different things.

I would have loved to have had a bit more land on the island for my kids club. I would have loved to have been able to have an ocean view, but I didn’t have enough land left.

You must have a lot of interesting stories about your time here. What’s the one you like to tell the most?

A couple of ideas came to fruition in the early days. I was very nervous back in the day when I first started here about being stuck inside a box of ‘this is what we do and that’s all we do’ and too many rules. I’m the rule breaker and I love to smash through that.

I wanted to have different experiences with the customers cos you’ve got this most amazing environment and everyone was like ‘food must be served in the restaurant’, ‘tables must be in the restaurant’, so I was always saying, ‘why can’t we have something under a tree or out on the water; why can’t we sit in the ocean and eat?’.

So one of my favourite stories was, one day I went with my team and we dug a hole under a coconut tree – huge hole – that could seat ten people. Then i filled in half of it, put towels down and made seats, which is done in islands – that’s not new. Then I brought a grill and I pushed the grill in and got the carpenter to build me some wood around the sides and turned it into a Mongolian teppanyaki grill, and it was the first glimpse of a Maldivian teppanyaki.

Koko Grill - Conrad Rangali

Literally, I did it with my guys with no money, and that turned into a huge success and was booked out every night, and I created the first teppanyaki out there [at Rangali].

At that table, where we were talking with the owners about what else we could do. We were discussing some crazy ideas because that was so successful – financially, very successful. Then I said, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if we could do a staircase down and go underwater and do an underwater restaurant?’, and as it was coming out of my mouth I thought they were just gonna kill me. But our owner was like ‘yeah, we should do an underwater restaurant’, and then suddenly the next day he’s researching in America where he can find this tube glass or plastic and came back and said ‘we can build this’.

I was being transferred to Tokyo at the time with Hilton so that whole idea came out of the confidence of that teppanyaki working and then, bang, we’ve created the first-in-the-world underwater restaurant.

Ithaa Restaurant - Conrad Rangali

Off of those things came the idea to build a proper underground wine cellar and bring in proper wines and expand to another level. We were being controlled a lot from Male’ with some importers that weren’t taking care of the wines very well. So what we did is we worked with the buyer – a world-class sommelier who has the accreditation of master of wine. There’s only 360 master of wines in the world and he was one of them.

He then selected the wines for our list, which then gave us the best wine list in the Maldives and we imported all of the wines directly in and cut through what was, in those days, smaller operators bringing in wines and really changed the game.

We created a wine programme in Maldives which others later on followed, but we brought the wine straight to the island on the container, unloaded it and [put it] straight into the wine cellar. Customs came, checked it all off – everything was done properly, but in those days you could do it like that.

That’s a couple of crazy stories.

Born and raised in Australia Mark Hehir has over 30 years’ experience in the hospitality industry, including close to twenty year’s experience in the Maldives. He joined The Small Maldives Island Co. after four successful years at the One & Only Reethi Rah, where he held the position of general manager.

Mark was also part of the opening team at Huvafen Fushi by Per Aquum as well as Maldives Hilton Rangali (now Conrad Maldives) after working for various Anantara properties in Asia.

Utilising this extensive experience, Mark has been the driving force behind the recently opened Finolhu resort in Baa atoll, where he currently holds the position of general manager. Maldives.com caught up with him to discuss his career in the Maldives and latest project.

Can you tell us a little about your career?

Prior to coming to the Maldives, it was the UK and Australia – the Dorchester in London and some amazing experiences in those days. I was a chef so we did a lot of great things in London with the Queen and state banquets and Prince Charles and a lot of high level stuff – the first time in my career that I’d really dealt with that premium luxury customer.

So, that’s where I got that bug, like ‘wow’ that’s the elite of our business, and then it also gave me an understanding that, at the end of the day, they’re only human, and how to handle it.

Then I went to the Maldives for the first time to open up Rangali island in 1998, which was a Hilton. Between that time and now I was in Bali – I opened up a resort for Anantara.

I spent three years in all in the Maldives at Rangali Hilton, went from executive chef to food and beverage director, and had a dual role there doing both. Thailand, Japan and Malaysia are countries I also worked in.

When you compare the different locations in which you’ve worked, what makes the Maldives special?

The one-island one-resort concept that we have here in the Maldives is the ultimate biggest difference, because you get a chance to work and live with the team 24/7, so you get a chance to influence the culture of the team; not in terms of their personal beliefs, more the way in which they act and feel within the environment.

You can really work with them and develop an amazing work culture which then creates these experiences for customers. I’ve never seen so many customers be so excited about an experience like the Maldives. Firstly, when they see it, they’re like ‘wow’ but then when they start connecting with local people, they feel the skill level and the hospitality level of Maldivians versus other countries. They compare them.

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

They just feel that there’s a much more crisp and snappy attention to detail. Now, that comes and goes with different resorts cos there are obviously different standards, but it just seems that the local population have adapted very fast and learned very fast and can respond really well.

On our resort here we’re around 60 percent local and 40 percent international [staff] – other hotels are down probably at 45 percent; at the legal limit, if you like.

Over the last twenty years, you must have seen some changes to the industry.

A lot, yeah. I think Maldives has grown up – it’s more aware. The introduction of mobile communication has changed everything. I came pre-mobiles, so when I arrived no-one had a mobile phone. I brought one back once, but I couldn’t even use it much because of the range and whatnot.

We all talk about those days, cos we loved those days. Everything on the island was on the island; stayed on the island; was all about us. We weren’t influenced by anything that was going on outside of the island, so therefore the culture on the island was so strong. It was really amazing.

Now it’s influenced differently, that’s the biggest change. And you’ve gotta say that’s for the good, because now our people are more aware of a lot of other things, so that’s helped educate everyone, and I think that it also trickles down to our operators being more transparent, being more open and working with people ethically in a more correct way.

What makes Finolhu unique in this picture?

For us, it’s about design and architecture to fit into this beach club style, which is very warm and welcoming and with a very strong influence on retro – 60s and 70s being the era of retro that we tried to bring alive in design interiors, uniforms, artwork.

Every form of visual communication, and also the music, we’ve tried to bring it alive like that as well. In a subtle way, in some places – like you’ll look in a room and see this retro telephone for champagne; it’s a 1965 model. I went specifically and found colours that remind us of that day.

This is the era that blue jeans became famous – that type of stuff – so we introduced denim into the uniforms. Then, if you look at our artwork and the styling that we worked on, in terms of the imagery, we also went back to the illustrations and the feel of the day – a bit of a European touch as well.

Retro Collage

Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is make people feel comfortable in a nostalgic way, like ‘oh, I remember that’, or ‘my parents had that’, so it may be new again for a younger generation but it’s cool. In the older generation, they’re like ‘I remember when I had that’ too. So it’s got both ends of the scale covered, and at the same time it’s respecting the environment, like the whole washed out looks and the feel.

The other big decision we made was not to build anything on that whole sand strip, leaving it natural and then just putting this shack up there which is naturally nestled into the bushes, and that being the hero – ultimately, we’ve got this amazing sand strip that we can walk along. Then putting most of the rooms over water, so we can get the volume up with people, so there’s enough people here to enjoy it, but not crowding that, and leaving it natural.

There’s a bohemian mood facing into the lagoon, and we tried to style it that way, and then on the other side with the pool, we’re very strong into this retro, using some colours that sort of pop out a little bit. Then there is the furniture which is even more retro, with our synonymous big-blue couch, so we tried to put some furniture that is iconic.

Every room has a Marshall speaker. Marshall speakers are that retro style, so your touch points there are quality and experience of that time.

What were the major challenges in developing this kind of resort?

In general, you’ll always come with challenges in the Maldives to develop resorts in terms of pulling together construction teams and procuring everything to bring it onto the island. That’s a normal situation.

Some companies do better than others and one of our challenges that we successfully overcame was, because we worked together with the owner to build the island, he organised the construction teams within his own office, and the interior design and all of the finishes were done by myself. We were very close on how we were building and what we were finishing and the timing, because we were in the same family.

 

Sheep Beach

The challenges then were smaller. They were firstly getting our team’s attention on the concept – because our concept was a little bit quirky and a little bit different – and that took the first few months as we were selecting all of the smaller things so that they all fitted into the picture, so everything would blend well and also tell the story.

The difficult part then was procuring all of the smaller things – the furniture, the table tops, finding someone who could do a sheep with cork, the little things we’ve done are the boxes in the room with the nice print that’s around them  – to come up with the idea, to think of a pattern that would work. They were the challenges, they were the great success as well.

You must have been taken notes on your perfect resort for the past twenty years, does this come close to that?

This is definitely a lot of my dream ideas, especially this bar [Beach Bar] and the way that it’s situated with two levels, giving elevation. It goes into the pool, there’s a swim-up style, there’s a possibility of having live music and DJ music undercover cos it’s weather-proof. We can then run the concepts fully without having to worry about having to move things around.

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

The styling of the restaurant, how it interacts also through our marine centre – all those connections. Over in the Cove Club, the spa, we don’t spa, we say Cove Club cos we wanted a place that could be a place, not only to have a massage, but to hang out and to get other things done to look after yourself. To not carry all of the expectations of what a quiet tranquil spa is. We wanted this fun place with music and happiness and a bit of a spark.

It’s part of a collective of ideas over many years, so when I started drawing it came out of me very fast and when I put myself into where this was, I knew exactly what floor I was looking for, how the furniture would fit and the colours. I had it like a movie in my head, it was crazy. I drove a lot of people crazy too cos I was very particular about what it is and what it has to be.

Were there any ideas that you had to leave on the shelf? If money was no option, would there be any additional ideas you would follow?

There’s a lot of other ideas that I’ve got going on in my head about resorts, I could build you another three more, with other different styles and concepts. For this concept of this retro 60s-70s beach-style funky place, it pretty much ticked 99 percent of my boxes of what I wanted to do with it.

But there’s a lot of other ideas which I’ve got that I want to put at play for other types of products because I’m very specific about not trying to do everything in one place. This is exactly enough to get that consistency throughout this concept and we don’t muddle it up by trying to do too many different things.

I would have loved to have had a bit more land on the island for my kids club. I would have loved to have been able to have an ocean view, but I didn’t have enough land left.

You must have a lot of interesting stories about your time here. What’s the one you like to tell the most?

A couple of ideas came to fruition in the early days. I was very nervous back in the day when I first started here about being stuck inside a box of ‘this is what we do and that’s all we do’ and too many rules. I’m the rule breaker and I love to smash through that.

I wanted to have different experiences with the customers cos you’ve got this most amazing environment and everyone was like ‘food must be served in the restaurant’, ‘tables must be in the restaurant’, so I was always saying, ‘why can’t we have something under a tree or out on the water; why can’t we sit in the ocean and eat?’.

So one of my favourite stories was, one day I went with my team and we dug a hole under a coconut tree – huge hole – that could seat ten people. Then i filled in half of it, put towels down and made seats, which is done in islands – that’s not new. Then I brought a grill and I pushed the grill in and got the carpenter to build me some wood around the sides and turned it into a Mongolian teppanyaki grill, and it was the first glimpse of a Maldivian teppanyaki.

Koko Grill - Conrad Rangali

Literally, I did it with my guys with no money, and that turned into a huge success and was booked out every night, and I created the first teppanyaki out there [at Rangali].

At that table, where we were talking with the owners about what else we could do. We were discussing some crazy ideas because that was so successful – financially, very successful. Then I said, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if we could do a staircase down and go underwater and do an underwater restaurant?’, and as it was coming out of my mouth I thought they were just gonna kill me. But our owner was like ‘yeah, we should do an underwater restaurant’, and then suddenly the next day he’s researching in America where he can find this tube glass or plastic and came back and said ‘we can build this’.

I was being transferred to Tokyo at the time with Hilton so that whole idea came out of the confidence of that teppanyaki working and then, bang, we’ve created the first-in-the-world underwater restaurant.

Ithaa Restaurant - Conrad Rangali

Off of those things came the idea to build a proper underground wine cellar and bring in proper wines and expand to another level. We were being controlled a lot from Male’ with some importers that weren’t taking care of the wines very well. So what we did is we worked with the buyer – a world-class sommelier who has the accreditation of master of wine. There’s only 360 master of wines in the world and he was one of them.

He then selected the wines for our list, which then gave us the best wine list in the Maldives and we imported all of the wines directly in and cut through what was, in those days, smaller operators bringing in wines and really changed the game.

We created a wine programme in Maldives which others later on followed, but we brought the wine straight to the island on the container, unloaded it and [put it] straight into the wine cellar. Customs came, checked it all off – everything was done properly, but in those days you could do it like that.

That’s a couple of crazy stories.

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