Meet Six Senses Zighy Bay GM Aaron McGrath

Published: 18 July 2020 - 3 a.m.
By: Hotelier Middle East Staff
Having started his career in the Middle East in the 1990s, seasoned hotelier Aaron McGrath returned to the region four years ago when he was offered the role of Six Senses Zighy Bay general manager.

He recounts some fond memories of his early days in hospitality: “I love the Middle East. I rolled into the Hyatt Regency Riyadh and there I was, a young fella on a cool new assignment. We rolled in to reconvert the property back to a Hyatt. Those were crazy times. The military was still there. I did three years there, then I was in Fiji for a while running a cluster of hotels, then China, Australia for a long time and Switzerland for the better part of three years.”

Since taking the reins at Six Senses, McGrath’s focus has been on continuously evolving the property’s sustainable initiatives: “It’s the DNA of the brand. It’s what we are. It sounds like a sales line but it‘s just true. And you don’t get that until you come to the property and you really live it and you breathe, you see it, you see what they’re doing. And, you know, we don’t beat our chest much about sustainability and I think that’s part of what makes it so well received by our guests because, you know, they come here and they see the sustainability initiatives that we’re doing and they ask why aren’t you marketing this?

"We’re terrified of greenwashing. We don’t want to be caught up in the marketing spin because that’s not why we’re doing it. I think that you’ll see that at the Dibba farm and the Earth Lab.”

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Six Senses properties are known for doing it without shouting about it. The brand has eschewed the use of amenities housed in plastic bottles from its inception, building resorts that cause minimal environmental impact and give back to local communities.

McGrath explains: “The thing with us also on the sustainability front is that we’re closing the circuit. It becomes this self-driving thing. I think a lot of companies, who will remain nameless and who are new to sustainable hospitality, will talk about plastic straws. Great, good. With Six Senses, we wouldn't necessarily want to go out and wave that flag.”

According to McGrath, the property’s sustainable approach starts with its hosts. “We give them great healthy meals sourced as closely to the property as we possibly can. We say ‘take as much as you like, but please don't put anything into bins.”

When something does end up in the bin, it goes into the hotel’s new compost machine. The compost then gets used at the hotel’s farm where crops for the kitchens are grown and any waste from the kitchens gets composted. According to McGrath the machine is capable of producing 350kg of compost in 48 hours, which, if you know anything about compost-making is quite remarkable: “I often bring people down to have a look at my compost machine, which I love. It’s nerdy but it’s cool.”

Still, the process is ongoing: “To be able to be involved in this level of sustainability is great but thought of complacency keeps me up at night. I hope the day never comes when I sit here and say ‘we’ve ticked the sustainability box. What's next?’ We’ve got to keep those wheels moving and keep innovating and keep trying to continually close more circuits and do more with what we have.

“It’s very important from a competitive edge perspective. While we're not marketing sustainability, it's certainly a competitive element for our brand and our customers know that. That’s why they keep coming back and it’s why we have a 24% repeat customer ratio at the property, which is fantastic.”
Increasingly, guests want to know that where they’re spending their money is aligned with their own values. Research shows that a large proportion of younger and upwardly mobile travellers want to know that they’re investing in brands that are investing in the future. However, in terms of operations, it’s often harder to see the immediate benefits.

McGrath says: “I’m in the camp that believes that sustainability initiatives in hotel operations save money, yes, tick. But not all of them. That’s a little bit of a trap. Hotel managers often think ‘If I can get an ROI on that, I’m going to do it.’ But, for example, we have paper straws here. They cost me more per unit than a plastic straw does by about double but I’ll spend it because that’s the right thing to do. Then there are other sustainability things that you can do that, of course, do make financial sense. Last year was a pretty big year for us at Dibba farm. I’ve been here for four years and it cost me money for the first three years that I was here. I’m lucky that I have an owner who was cool with that. It really wasn’t about making money but last year, we made a small profit and that was great.

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An important factor that McGrath continually considers is how sustainable the sustainability initiatives actually are: “I could sit there and grow the most beautiful cucumbers you’ve ever eaten, but I can also buy them for really cheap at the market. It’s a huge amount of effort, wages and resources to grow something that’s incredibly cheap even though mine may be a better product. But then we brought goats into the farm. You’re never going to get rich milking goats but then we decided to take $10 worth of goat’s milk and make cheese, which is worth $60. So yes, you‘ve got a sustainability element, and then you’re upcycling it or you’re making secondary or tertiary products and that is where it’s at. That’s where the sustainability side of things really starts to kick in, when you can do that.”

On the qualities that make him a good GM, he offers: “I’m a pretty good people manager. I'm one of these guys who’s a little bit obsessed with my team, especially my line staff. I champion my line hosts and I think they feel it and the guests feel it as well. You see that my guys are happy, they’re having fun and they’re relaxed.

“In this operation, I’ve got a turnover rate of less than 2%. The majority of my staff have been here for more than five years. A lot of them have been here for 10 years, if not since opening. These guys make my life easy, they know the property, they know the guests and they know they’re not on a learning curve. They’re solid in what they do and so I champion them. Honestly, that’s what makes me look like a good general manager, the team.”

The property has a 25 percent repeat customer rate. When asked why guests keep coming back when they have so many other properties in the region to choose from, McGrath said: “There’s not a single reason for it and that's part of the reason. The thing that I love most about Zighy, and what really took my breath away when I first got here was, how authentic it is. It’s not Disneyland. It’s just not trying too hard to be anything, it's a property that’s comfortable in its own skin. But it’s a property that also gives you a very Omani experience.

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“You have that amazing moon on the water, these wonderful stone buildings, the low light and you have the smell of frankincense in the air. You don’t feel as if anything shouldn’t be where it is. You can go to some other properties that are trying to be Arabian and they have something from Morocco and another design element might be from Kuwait or Tunisia. The experience that Zighy Bay offers you is authentic. On top of that, we have extremely high service levels that are driven by a long-standing happy, competent and engaged team. Our customers really love that.”

When asked to identify who Zighy appeals to, he explained: “I’m not dealing with the young fast, latest Rolex-wearing guys, although I certainly do have some young guys coming. A lot of my guests are very wealthy, they know what they want and they can have what they want. They’re very worldly and I think that type of clientele really appreciates the low key, high value sustainability, things that we do and they appreciate the wellness elements as well.”

In fact, many consider the Six Senses brand a wellness company that also runs hotels, with equal consideration being given to both. The 12-year-old property is continually evolving its offering, having just refurbished its signature villa, The Reserve. McGrath talks about the process: “We felt that, given that we have such heavy repeat clientele, we wanted to refine the offering. It was a very tough thing to d because we absolutely couldn’t venture into Disneyland and we absolutely had to stay true to Zighy. We had to retain our identity. We worked with our owner who is the custodian of the property as well as Six Senses. We did the two Retreats as well, which are our second level rooms.

They had kitchens but no one had used them in three-and-a-half years so we looked at how we could better use the space. We also lightened the furniture up a little bit and added more texture within the realm of the traditional Omani feel. The thought process was to get these three villas done and then possibly come up with a template to seep that into the rest of the resort.

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“It’s nice to be able to show our repeat customers who have this genuine love for the property and they love to come back and see these tweaks that are done. Last year we also did the display kitchen in Spice Market. All of the cooking was being done behind the scenes so it was fabulous to open that kitchen up.”

Speaking about the current state of that market: “It’s a, a situation and a time, that irrespective of your experience as a hotel manager, no one has dealt with an issue on this scale. We’re very well supported by our team at Six Senses Bangkok. For us, it’s about supporting our team and following the protocols have been set out for us. My team is very engaged and motivated and I’m very focused on making sure that they’re comfortable, being looked after and trained appropriately.

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“Flexibility is key because we have such a deep relationship with our guests. At the end of the day, it’s not about short term business wins. It’s about long, genuine, personal relationships with the guests that come and stay here. That’s at the top of my mind at the moment.”

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