With rival specialist resort brands like Alila and Six Senses, can a legacy luxury hospitality brand successfully pull off the highly anticipated Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi?

Lifestyle hotel brands are an emerging trend in Asia’s hospitality sector and the commercial and popular appeal of the genre is drawing high-end luxury hoteliers like Waldorf Astoria to that little cluster of resort islands located in the Arabian Sea. We are talking of course about the Maldives. That said, running a luxury resort is more art than science and for a while, you had the more purist, rustic-style operators like Banyan Tree which operated these resorts around the idea of wellness rather than a “luxurious experience”. This line was muddied when W reinvented the genre and this disruption has led some within the industry to refer to this era as “Life after W” or LAW.

W Hotels, managed by Starwood Hotels & Resorts is widely accepted among industry practitioners as the first high-end lifestyle hotel since their launch in 1998. The Waldorf Astoria on the other hand, first opened in 1893, is a heritage New York institution and a symbol of that gilded age of “Robber Barons”, pejorative term (Captains of Industry – was eventually coined as a more positive descriptor by Thomas Carlyle for his 1843 book) for the powerful 19th-century U.S. industrialists and financiers which exemplified the Great Gatsby era. But the real question is, with such differing DNA, can one of the household names in legacy luxury successfully pull off the highly anticipated Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi? LUXUO spoke to Daniel Welk, Vice President, Luxury and Lifestyle, Hilton, Asia Pacific, Etienne Dalançon, General Manager of the highly anticipated resort, and Michelin-star chef Dave Pynt, to better understand how a luxury institution can compete in a niche sector dominated by purist resort brands like Alila and Six Senses.

In a sea of specialist resort brands, Can Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi succeed?

Daniel Welk has managed Hilton’s enviable luxury and lifestyle portfolio including the Conrad Hotels & Resorts and Canopy. As a group, Hilton celebrates its 100th anniversary later this year, while the Waldorf brand has been in luxury hospitality business for over 88 years. Today, The Waldorf is once again to pioneer a new definition for luxury resort living by catering to tomorrow’s traveller. There is little doubt that the rise of a millennial generation and in particular, Airbnb, has unleashed many changes in the global hospitality sector and so, to accommodate changing preferences of Gen Z, we’ve seen an outgrowth of new hospitality brands catering to these tastes and demands for a lifestyle experience beyond your usual “luxury offerings”.

What do you feel contributed to the rapid growth rates of the luxury hotel sector in Asia Pacific

I’ve opened 11 hotels in the last 3 years. At Hilton, we believe that a golden age for hospitality is dawning in the Asia Pacific thanks to the rise of the Asian millennial traveller. Rapid growth of middle incomes as well as growing airport infrastructure have created a confluence of experiential needs, this results in a vacuum for brands like us to innovate as well as incubate new brands.

The Waldorf Astoria branding is often associated with elite metropolitan hotels, what sort of challenges are there in opening a resort in the Maldives?

Waldorf Astoria has been around from 88 years, it has a great legacy but it’s also known as a pioneer in the luxury hospitality space. For the average traveller, we’re known as a brand of firsts and a certain standard of luxury with extraordinary service. These standards are not just meant for metropolitan areas but also pure leisure destinations.

Waldorf Astoria established a presence in Bangkok because we were noticing that chefs and artists were going to that city for inspiration. We are innovators, so we sought to be where those new experiences and stimuli are. Hence, Maldives is not something entirely out-of-field for the brand. We’re only 30 minutes away from Male by luxury yacht. We want to inspire our guests and this desire is not limited to metropolitan areas. The key is adapting it to the environment and developing this unforgettable experience. It’s both simple and complicated at the same time. Instead of a limousine pick up, it’s a luxury yacht, and now, how are we going to make that yacht passage memorable?

“We look forward to delivering unforgettable experiences that reflect Waldorf Astotia’s unique sense of place and iconic service standards.” – Daniel Welk, vice president, Luxury and Lifestyle Group, Asia Pacific, Hilton

What would you say differentiates the Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi from the others?

Exceptional location, true Waldorf service and innovative culinary options like how we’re collaborating with Burnt Ends. Sense of space, luxury of choice. We have to bring certain key ingredients for it to be a Waldorf Astoria, you need to select right partners to share that vision and commitment to quality in order to deliver a true Waldorf experience.

Regardless of location, metropolitan or island, the design, the architecture, the sense of space and diversity of culinary options is the guest has to experience everything they’ve come to know of Waldorf Astoria. These authentic moments become unforgettable memories. The Waldorf Astoria is a place where one gets goose-bumps because we are lock-step on every part of the guest’s journey.

Exquisite Culinary Experiences: Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi collaborates with Dave Pynt, Burnt Ends, Singapore

The modern Australian barbecue restaurant is famous for its open-concept kitchen with custom-made grills and oven fired by apple or almond wood, no charcoal, electricity or gas.. These “four tonne, dual cavity ovens and three elevation grills” heat up to over 1,700 degrees. It is said to be modeled after one that Pynt hand-built for an extended pop-up barbecue event in London. Since welcoming its first guests in May 2013, the restaurant has established itself as an integral part of Singapore’s new food order and the country’s historic Chinatown.

The Ledge is a collaboration between Burnt End’s Dave Pynt and Waldorf Astoria

What made you decide on Dave Pynt to provide a “Waldorf Astoria culinary experience”?

Our Asia Pacific HQ in Singapore gives us the good fortune to dine at Burnt Ends over the years. From a purely hospitality perspective, Dave too has lived all around the world and so brings a global perspective and palette to Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi. The unique four tonne oven is available in only three locations around the world and this makes a difference in the experience one can provide. Like us, he’s a pioneer. Together with Waldorf Astoria as a brand, we are creating a new legacy by partnering Dave and his brand.

Dave, is The Ledge going to be an ‘Aussie grill’ take on Maldvian dishes?

It’s going to be Burnt Ends but in the Maldives over looking a lagoon with exceptional service and produce.

Was there pressure for you to look at the breadth of culinary experiences currently provided in the Maldives and then do something different?

[Dave Pynt] There’s always that pressure. We are constantly innovating but people have come to recognise us and enjoy our relaxed, fun, casual atmosphere rather than the stiff service that is usually associated with a Michelin-star dining experience. We know who we are and what we do and we do it better than anyone else.

Etienne, what do you hope to accomplish working with Michelin star chefs like Dave?

I think one cannot go without the other. Hospitality and culinary options have to be perfectly blended together when you’re secluded away on a resort in the Maldives where the majority of the guests never leave the resort grounds. Once you’re in the Maldives you want to enjoy it, not go out exploring. The concept of the BBQ on the beach and by the pool was natural because Dave does it better than anyone else. We could see his cuisine being a good fit for that environment.

The hallmark of the Waldorf Astoria is in providing an unforgettable experience, partnering with Dave allows us to do that – Relaxed Michelin dining by the pool. You’re completely elevating that poolside experience.

Dave, what would it be like for you since the guests are stuck with you throughout their stay? Any stress in keeping the menu fresh each day?

Things get flown in from different parts of the Maldives and the quality of produce will shape our menu. That said, people are creatures of habit and mostly, they will have their key favourites. We have our repertoire of over 400 dishes, but we will figure out what people want while we’re there and how much variety they want since we have not had that aspect of experience. Naturally, The Ledge will be more seafood oriented compared to Burnt Ends in Singapore.

While you’re in-house in the Maldives, what happens to Burnt Ends in Singapore?

[Dave] We have a solid team and it’s because of them i’m confident in heading out to the Maldives. I’m always worried about over-extending ourselves and how we are going to manage that process. Luckily, i’m very comfortable with their standards, training and the infrastructure which allows me to head up The Ledge at Maldives.

Daniel, given the immense legacy and thus potential inertia from such a recognised brand, can Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi succeed?

While the Waldorf Astoria is new in the Maldives, as a company we were the first international brand to launch in the Maldives, the Hilton Maldives was among the first there 21 years ago. 13 years back, That hotel was rebranded as the Conrad. We have been pioneering the Maldives as a destination for over 20 years. That iconic undersea restaurant is still among the most widely used restaurant shots in the world. The world’s first undersea residence can also be found at the Conrad Maldives. As a company, we have a lot of experience in the Maldives and now, this experience will be used to grow the Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi.

The Muraka undersea suite at the Conrad Maldives

“Our brand has redefined the hospitality experience for the modern, luxury traveller in landmark locations around the world, and we look forward to transforming the Maldives experience for our guests.” – Etienne Dalançon, general manager, Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi

Unique Waldorf Astoria experiences in the Maldives

Spanning three islands in the South Male Atoll, a short 30-minute yacht journey away from Malé International Airport, Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi will offer a private escape for couples and families seeking the luxury of space and exclusivity, as well as unique experiences, including a private sandbank available for guests to turn into their own playground paradise.

Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi boasts 122 luxuriously appointed villas, each with exquisite, uninterrupted views of the Indian Ocean.  Every spacious villa opens onto a wide deck that has a swing daybed, dining gazebo, an infinity pool and in-water lounges.

In addition to the gastronomic treasure that is Dave Pynt’s The Ledge, other concepts include an elevated treetop dining experience featuring spectacular views of the ocean and horizon, accompanied by exquisite food and wine pairings in a sophisticated setting seemingly chiselled out of the rock face. From authentic Middle Eastern flatbreads and mezzes to impeccably prepared crispy Peking duck; the verdant spa restaurant where fresh ingredients from the on-site herb garden are used in thoughtfully prepared and deliciously healthy menus, guests are spoilt for choice of extraordinary gastronomic experiences.

Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi opens 1 July 2019