Steven Phillips managed Desert Island Resort & Spa, Al Yamm and Al Sahel Villas on Abu Dhabi’s Sir Bani Yas island wildlife refuge, before becoming the general manager of the Maldives resort Gili Lankanfushi. As a child, the Welshman, 52, was hooked on travel while his father served with the Royal Navy around the world. After attending a boarding school run by monks, with a professional rugby career ruled out by injury, he studied hospitality and became the youngest acting general manager of a publicly owned hotel in the United Kingdom by 27. Mr Phillips then managed private members clubs in Japan and London, hosting British royalty, and resorts in Malta, Granada and Sri Lanka. He met his wife Corinne in Mauritius.
Are there contrasts between managing a Maldives island and a UAE island?
The supply process was much easier there [UAE]. Here we have to be really organised, and plan way in advance. We’re ordering food now for October through to Christmas. Our organic garden saves bringing some things in from Sri Lanka or Thailand. Logistics can be a challenge, but we have great professionals in terms of purchasing. I’ve developed them a bit more to ensure we get it right. There is also only a finite amount of labour. At Sir Bani Yas we’d see giraffes, cheetah, hyenas, myriad gazelle – 11,600 animals. Here we’ve fruit bats and reef sharks, manta ray, whale sharks, turtles outside the villas. We look after the animals, but not to the extent they do on Sir Bani Yas.
Does a career in resort management mean a life of upheaval?
There is a disruption, especially for Corinne because she will find friends and then we’ll move on. She’s been a huge rock. I have good friends from college/rugby days; we’re always in touch. I know they’re going to be there and will visit. When you have a good base of great friends you might not see for a year … you catch up as if you’re restarting the conversation. You have to have a very patient partner or family, especially in places like this. Here the average day will start around 7.30am and finish at 9 to 10 at night, depending on what’s happening.
Does it take a certain type of person to manage international resorts?
At the high-end of smaller resort management is someone who spends most time outside and chatting to people. That’s what I love about it. Our geomix is largely UK, US, Germany, Japan – you’ve got a plethora of nationalities to talk to so it’s not a chore, but it means a long day. I meet every arrival and say goodbye to 90 per cent of departures. And you spend a lot of time with the team. It can be challenging living on little islands, in each other’s pockets. You get island fever every now and again, so you’ve got to get off. My favourite restaurant at the moment is Coya at Four Seasons in Dubai. I’ll go there and to Social by Heinz Beck. After a few days I get back, refreshed.
How are the logistics and costs of moving between resort roles handled?
Employers look after most of that. Our contracts allow for all the relocation, of ourselves back and forth, and our belongings. We’re in a very fortunate position. You don’t pay for accommodation, our food is looked after; if I want to go diving, I can, so life is good. They look after all of that for you. We’re building a house now in Mauritius, in the forest. That will become our root, as it is where we’ll probably finish up in a few years’ time.
Is there a management template for running a resort?
At the end of the day we’re a business and we report to our stakeholders and owners. You have to produce the figures and that’s always going to be part of it. In resorts it is not a job but a way of life. You have to have some sort of personality, but still got to be organised. In any service industry you’ve got to have some basics in there. And you’ve got to get the offering right – if they’re here (guests on the island) they can’t pop down the road to another restaurant.
Does somewhere as high-end as Gili Lankanfushi bring certain demands?
It is about paying attention to details. Because we have guests who come back time and again we have systems to remember how many lumps of ice they like in their drink. Some call our villa attendants ninjas because guests leave for breakfast and come back … their villa is complete. We’ve had 83 pages of dietary requirements for a four-day stay. We had one guest who wanted a grand piano (in an over-water villa accessed only by boat) because his daughter was on level-eight lessons. So long as it is legal, not a problem.
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