The Upper Reach team interviewed Silvio Debono, Group Chairman and Managing Director of Seabank Group, and asked him about innovation in the tourism sector, the growth opportunities of Malta’s economy, and his strategy as a true leader of the company.This is truly a year of celebrations for Malta. One comes to Malta not only to celebrate what it has achieved in the last 50, 30, 10 years, but also the firm direction where the country is going. In a period of global economic recession, Malta has been one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, and with its new fresh administration, has managed to double GDP in one year alone. What has this economic impact has on Malta’s international image?
Malta’s tourism industry has been expanding rapidly for a number of years and business has been improving year-on-year. This was a result of more direct flights from all over Europe. Secondly, many of us in the local tourism industry have been dedicated to turn the country into a top destination for global tourism. We want visitors to holiday in Malta because of the db Seabank Hotel. This is our mission. Db Seabank is Malta’s first all-inclusive hotel, offering premium quality services across the board. Substantial investments had to be made to create an all-inclusive hotel which delivers topnotch services. But I always believed in this country and put my money where my mouth is: I invested €40 million during the global financial crisis. It was a difficult challenge but the fundamental changes we made paid off. Most months we reached maximum occupancy, even in January. Clients are happy and feel satisfied because they are receiving value for money. Currently, we are riding high on the good reviews from Trip Advisor. Our guests just have to go into our hotel website combine it with a direct flight to Malta, and presto their holiday is organised. The online world is helping Malta attract a different sorts of tourist. I have just finished building another hotel, db San Antonio Hotel, which opened its doors in May. It has five hundred rooms and 1500 beds. Again, we are doing very well. Riding on this success we have now launched db, our very own hotel chain brand. What are the characteristics that make a good brand?
I always put myself in the position of a client at one of my hotels. When my wife and I go on holiday with four children, I need to ensure that each family member, has something to entertain and interest him or her. When my whole family is comfortable, so am I. My hotels are run on this principle and on the equally important one that we deliver excellence in everything we do.
When you stay in an all-inclusive hotel for seven days, the food has to be exceptional. You cannot afford mistakes, and you must offer a variety of cuisines and dishes. It is for this reason that we have five restaurants at db Seabank Hotel.
Another key point is the friendliness and hospitality of the staff. The db Seabank management and I are like a family. The hotel belongs to all of us. This is our hotel. Turning every staff member into a team player’s has always been a main priority. All the staff receives bonuses if the hotel receives good reviews on Trip advisor or on an internal CSQ. If I do well, they do well - it is a mutually beneficial relationship. You have a story journalists dream of covering. You started as a waiter working your way up to owning two of the three biggest hotels in Malta. Could you give our readers a background of your stories and the keys to your success?
I started off as a barman. As a young man I was very ambitious. The most important thing for me when I left school at 14 (at the time, I was not able to speak English and had to teach myself) was learning everything I possibly could about absolutely everything. If you are proactive and teach yourself new skills, you have the most important tool to be successful in hand.
When I was 16 years old I worked in one of the best restaurants in Malta. My boss assigned me to washing glasses. After a while I asked those behind the bar if needed help. Soon, in addition to the washing, I began helping the barmen. But I also wanted to go front of house and interact with the clients. So I began serving as well. It was a lot of work. However, it taught me a lesson: you have to push yourself because no one else will. By the time I turned 18 I had worked myself up the chain and was managing the establishment.
When I first bought this hotel, it was a very humble building. I got an architect to inspect the roof before I committed to the purchase. When he certified it, I bought it. However, when we began renovating, we found that the roof was in fact defective. Had I known before I signed on the dotted line I would not have bought it. For me that was another important lesson: behind a negative there can always be a positive. Negativity comes on its own but you must build positivity.
Eventually, I started my own construction company so I could start to build my vision myself, so to speak. I didn’t know a thing about the business but a friend helped. I said, “We want to build a hotel and you will teach us how it’s done.” My staff came from my hometown, and together we built it. The message is this: no one will show you how to be successful. You have to learn for yourself. That is how we created and expanded this hotel. How do you build a corporate culture around excellence?
I have a very good team around me. Most of them, like my CEO, began with me as a waiter. The director of hotels started with me as an assistant financial controller. The one taking care of my restaurants started with me as a cook at 15 years of age. He now has 200 people working with him. The manager started as a barman. The group of companies grew as a family. I think that this helped our success. Seabank Resort is now the 17th in the top 25 all-inclusive hotels in Europe. How gratifying is this for you and your employees?
We were all overjoyed and celebrated in a big way! Less than two years after we opened we were 17th in all of Europe. And we were put there by our clients themselves. I could not hope for more. Obviously, we are constantly looking at ways of continuing to improve our service and product. Your story reminds me of another entrepreneur in another field. Steve Jobs said, “Innovation is what distinguishes a leader from a follower.” How important is innovation for you?
Innovation is crucial. In Malta there are many entrepreneurs who started in this business before me but who have been afraid of challenges. For instance, no one ran a real all-inclusive hotels prior to the db Seabank. I learned from my colleagues abroad, applied the system to Malta and plunged into the risk.
If you want success, you have to be different, to find your niche. I find that our greatest challenge is to constantly refine our image and maintain our place at the top of the industry. We must always be leading from the front with ingenuity. I am not afraid of competition because it means that Malta’s popularity will increase as a result of the success of this type of hotel. I will become concerned only when I or my managers are no longer driven by excellence and the hunger for growth. We have many more projects in the pipeline, such as the first-ever Hard Rock Hotel in Malta. It should be different from anything that this country has ever seen. How difficult is it to innovate when you are at the top?
Every brand tries to do something different, yet most are essentially the same. I have been to Hard Rock hotels which are creative in leveraging a fun atmosphere, filled with music, parties, food, and comfort. The Hard Rock brand is very well designed and executed - rock music for the children, special music for massage rooms with soundproof walls, and so on. Essentially, it’s a fun concept. Is this what attracted you to the Hard Rock brand? You are the local franchiser for the café.
The first time I heard about Hard Rock was when I was in Orlando, Florida. From the outside the restaurant looked incredibly busy, with a long queue winding down the street. I felt compelled to see what the attraction was. What first struck me was just how well the staff was trained. I have gone to great lengths to ensure that the same meticulous dedication to customer service and excellence is a staple at our three Hard Rocks outlets. Again, it worked. Ours are rated by Hard Rock global as some of the best in the world. On the basis of this track record we are now planning the first Hard Rock hotel in Malta. Where is your focus? Is it in Malta or maybe the greater EU?
We are ready to venture abroad and test the waters. But first we are consolidating what we are doing here. In our business you have to know exactly what you are doing. There must be maximum preparedness at all times and at all levels. We have plans to open five and four star hotels over the course of the next 5-6 years. We’ve worked hard in last few years and it is paying off – db Seabank has been a success in every sense. And it all boils down to perseverance, dedication, planning, fortitude, and perhaps a bit of luck. Do you see potential for business tourism?
Malta has a boundless amount of potential. There are many things to see and it is easy to get here. The year on year increase in tourist arrivals means that there is still room for growth, expansion and for more five star resorts and hotels. We, all of us hoteliers, must keep upgrading our facilities. Most of all, we have to continue giving value for money. At the same time, the government needs to do the same to our promenades, beaches, roads and the infrastructure in general. There is passion when you speak; in everything you say, even when you speak about numbers. What is it that drives you? What motivates you?
My team is my motivation. You can’t be successful on your own. As long as I see them excited, I get excited. I don’t see myself as just a hotelier. Above all, I’m a motivator, bringing everyone on board, giving everyone a goal and a reason to strive for higher goals. You mentioned you have four children. What advice do you give to your children?
The most important thing I tell them is to keep their feet firmly on the ground. They see my dedication, the respect I have for all our staff and the strength of my belief that it our success is due to them. Secondly, I teach my children the value of teamwork, collaboration and cooperation. People have different abilities and the secret is to bring out the best in each one. As a member of our team you will learn, and you will learn how to learn.