Episode Topic: Discover the challenges of launching a sustainable tourism business during uncertain times, and how to ride the wave successfully. We will touch on the pivotal role of strategic partnerships for key aspects of the travel business such as payment processing. This episode casts a spotlight on the rising wave of eco-tourism and its transformative impact on the travel industry, through the captivating Maldives.
Lessons You’ll Learn: Transitioning a nation’s tourism landscape by focusing on local businesses and ecotourism is a mission very few would be ready to take on. Gain insights into the challenges Secret Paradise Maldives faced and their innovative solutions, from educating local travel businesses and customers, to helping local suppliers embrace this transformation into a more sustainable way of servicing the tourism industry.
Additionally, you’ll learn how Ruth navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, kept her team intact, and managed to form future business partnerships including keeping her payment processing systems up and running. Ruth’s strategies for managing risk and maintaining local engagement are also touched upon, providing a comprehensive look at a successful ecotourism business model.
About Our Guest: Our guest is Ruth Franklin, co-founder of Secret Paradise Maldives, a company with ecotourism at its heart. With her background in retail, Ruth ventured into tourism in 2012, transforming how people perceive travel in the Maldives. Secret Paradise Maldives, under her guidance, not only provides immersive experiences to tourists but also contributes significantly to the local economy and sustainability.
Topics Covered: This episode takes you on a journey, exploring Secret Paradise Maldives’ origin story, obstacles, and commitment to ecotourism. We discuss their partnerships with local businesses, community engagement, and response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
You’ll hear about their risk management strategies and how they maintain safety standards. We’ll also delve into their payment and payment processing strategies, the importance of ecotourism in the travel industry today, and their marketing strategies.
Additionally, we explore the company’s customer service and its focus on sustainability trends. Ruth also shares her advice for those interested in a similar venture, underscoring the importance of a supportive community and engagement with your target audience.
Our Guest: Ruth Franklin, Co-Founder of Secret Paradise Maldives
We are pleased to introduce Ruth Franklin, an esteemed figure in the world of ecotourism. Originally from the United Kingdom, Ruth embarked on her journey within the tourism industry in 2012. Secret Paradise Maldives has since been a beacon of sustainability and local engagement in the Maldives.
In her earlier career, Ruth enjoyed a successful tenure in retail. Yet, she felt a pull towards a different path. She was drawn by the opportunity to contribute to an industry that combines economic growth, environmental stewardship, and community engagement. Thus, Ruth made the leap from retail to ecotourism.
Since co-founding Secret Paradise Maldives, Ruth has been instrumental in the company’s growth. Under her leadership, the company has formed solid relationships with local businesses, thereby boosting the Maldivian economy and creating memorable tourist experiences.
Ruth is particularly passionate about sustainability. She sees it as an integral part of any tourism venture. This commitment to a sustainable approach sets Ruth and Secret Paradise Maldives apart. The company’s ecotourism model is a testament to Ruth’s belief that tourism can and should benefit visitors and the local community.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Ruth navigated the company through uncertain times. Her strategies enabled the company to maintain its workforce and even form new partnerships, showing her resilience and innovative thinking. She had a particularly interesting take on how she managed her payment processing system during this time.
Ruth’s dedication to ecotourism and sustainability is inspiring. Her story illustrates that business success and environmental responsibility can go hand in hand. We look forward to sharing more about her journey and insights in ecotourism.
Megha McSwain: Welcome to Travelpreneur, this is Megha McSwain, and today we have the pleasure of speaking with Ruth Franklin, co-founder of Secret Paradise Maldives, who specializes in ecotourism to the Maldives. Hello, Ruth. Thanks for joining us today.
Ruth Franklin: Hi, Megha. You’re very welcome. Good morning to you. Good evening from the Maldives.
Megha McSwain: So I want to talk about your business. When did you start Secret Paradise Maldives?
Ruth Franklin: 2012, so we’re just into our 11th year. So last year celebrated our 10th anniversary.
Megha McSwain: A big milestone anniversary, congratulations. When you started your business, what were some of the unanticipated challenges you faced?
Ruth Franklin: I guess I came into tourism from a retail background, and it was a situation where I’d been given an opportunity, once in a lifetime opportunity, happened to be in the right place at the right time to establish Secret Paradise. So I hadn’t a game plan. We hadn’t got a business plan in terms of we were coming together with my local business partner here in the Maldives to do a particular form of tourism. Ultimately, when I started the business, I wanted to be able to give tourists the opportunities I’ve been fortunate to have on the number of visits that I’ve made to the Maldives over the preceding 10 years.
So I came with a very blank canvas. I brought with me the skills that I had developed in my 30-year career in retail and didn’t really come with any expectations of this is what we’re going to do, this is what we want to achieve. And so I guess it was more about organic learning, and in a sense, we were beginning our journey at the time that local tourism was also beginning its journey here in the Maldives. So prior to 2011, with the exception of a very small brief moment in time, guests coming to the Maldives had the option of staying on a private island resort or on a boat. And in 2011, the laws changed to allow guest houses to operate on local islands. So for us as a new business, we had the added expectation of having to not just sell a new brand to the industry and to the consumer, but also to say, hey, we now can offer this style of travel within the Maldives.
So very much, I think, for us, not an obstacle, but the biggest challenge was the education of both the industry and the consumer. And in reality, that’s still a big part of what we do today. There are very many people that you say the word Maldives to, and the first perception they have is luxury resorts, water villas, honeymoons, celebrities.
Megha McSwain: Right, yeah, yeah. So that is interesting because, yeah, anytime there’s something new and people aren’t aware of it, that’s a whole other challenge that you have to kind of overcome when you’re starting your business.
So, yeah, that’s interesting. Can you talk about, you must have had partnerships that you knew of that you knew you wanted to kind of like work with people… Third party tour guides or boat captains or restaurateurs that you knew these people are ones that we can trust and work with.
Ruth Franklin: Again, I guess it comes back to the fact that we and Local Tourism were at the start of our journeys. So we wanted to ensure that the parties that we partner were all locally owned. So the emphasis of our business is about local tourism, but also engagement with locals. So we have our own team of local guides, so with the exception of myself, the rest of the Secret Paradise team are all Maldivian. And then we work with selected suppliers. So in terms of they may be accommodation providers, they may be transport providers, they may, as you well say, be restaurants and so on.
So for us, it’s all about getting the revenue into the local economy. So that’s about for us having our own transportation. It’s about using those local suppliers. So it’s very key that they are businesses that are owned by locals and that for us, we do annual audit of them. And as we have developed and sort of grown, we’ve really tackled the areas that people were perhaps expecting in terms of health and safety, facilities, service.
But over the last six to seven years, they’re very much focused on the sustainability aspect as well. And that’s not about putting a tick in the box and saying they have to be doing X, Y and Z. It’s about also helping them on their journey so that it’s about a movement forward so that we’re helping, encouraging and coaching them to have better processes that are beneficial for the economy, people and planet.
Megha McSwain: And these relationships, they must have been, I mean, you’ve been there now 11 years. And have you lived there 11 years?
Ruth Franklin: Yep, I have indeed.
Megha McSwain: So then these relationships must have happened, a lot of them organically with, I mean, it’s great that you’re supporting the local economy, but these are also people that you know and have probably built relationships with.
Ruth Franklin: So some of them will be people that I know, some of it will be people that the guides know, and we’ve traveled to islands to do our wiki tours to understand what’s available and what we can offer. Just meeting people and speaking with them. So that sort of over a period of time has also developed relationships with NGOs, with marine life organizations, with women’s development councils.
So yes, it’s about being on the ground and being able to go out and meet the community. And also very much more now post-pandemic for us going to the community and asking not what can they do for us, but also what can we do for them? What benefit can we add to their livelihood or to their economy or to a project, for example.
Megha McSwain: And you mentioned the pandemic, that must have been a tough time. I mean, it was for everyone really around the world. Were there different challenges at that time? I mean, tourism must have slowed down or stopped completely.
Ruth Franklin: Yes, indeed it did. So the borders closed at the end of March. But fortunately, the Maldives was one of the first destinations to reopen in the middle of July. That was only for resort tourism. So we had to do a pivot to sell resorts and to be able to market resorts until local tourism was allowed to restart in the December of 2020. I guess we were fortunate to some degree because we were coming out of our high season into low season. So we did have a buffer of money. Had it been low season into high season, then it could have been a very different story. And we just sat down and I did a number of different scenarios.
So what’s the worst case scenario in terms of over a three month, six month and nine month period? What costs have we got? What expenditure do we have to still account for? And then how long was our finances that we had in the bank? How long would that take us? We were also fortunate that we were able to get a COVID loan from the Bank of Maldives and that allowed us to ensure we retained all our team at that time. So for us, we went into sort of an office mode and the guys came out to the field and into the office, which is perhaps not their ideal.
But we did a lot of things behind the scenes in terms of preparing for when we could get back out and travel, kept ourselves alive on social media. I did a lot of work on LinkedIn and gained some very positive partnerships for future business. So it was still very much business as usual behind the scenes. And I guess I know that we were fortunate when I speak to colleagues around the world and situations that they found themselves in.
Megha McSwain: Right. It was sort of a forced administrative break sort of where you got a chance to maybe focus on other things that you wouldn’t have had it not happened.
Ruth Franklin: Things that were on the list that haven’t been ticked off, so pending work. And every once in a while, I do think, oh, I quite like that moment again. My list seems to have extended and I’m crossing things off.
Megha McSwain: I know. At the time, we thought it would never end and now it’s back to normal, right?
Ruth Franklin: Yeah. I think we went from a period of time where we all thought, oh, it will be over in a few months time to, as you say, something that extended much longer than anyone anticipated.
Megha McSwain: Right. Can you talk a little bit about your liability management strategy? How do you protect your company from lawsuits or otherwise mitigate risk?
Ruth Franklin: Yeah, sure. So we have standard operating practices in place for everything that we do. We have a guide operational handbook and in line with that, we then conduct various trainings and refresher trainings every year for the guide team. We have a destination that’s 99% ocean. All our guides are lifeguard certified and they have emergency first responder certification. So that’s always an ongoing process. We then carry out risk assessments for all the different activities that we do. We have public liability insurance and we also cover the guides themselves.
So they’re all individually insured as well. And I think it’s about ensuring that you’ve got all your ducks in a row for want of a better expression so that you’re very clear on what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and that your team also understand what the needs are from a health and safety point of view. So there are many things for us that obviously link back to the water aspect.
So from a maintenance issue of the boats that we utilize, having buoyancy aid and life vests available, conducting safety briefings before we do any activities, all of those really link back to being risk aware and managing that risk in line with the expectations of either our direct vests or with our business partners who we partner with internationally.
Megha McSwain: Is there a service provider or software that you use in your business that you couldn’t live without or that you would definitely recommend to any other travel business?
Ruth Franklin: I hate to say, but we’re still very manual. So we don’t actually have a very big software pool to be able to select from. But we do use TripAdmit on our website for our booking services. And recently, they have introduced a tap to tip card, which allows guests to be able to tip the guides through the use of a QR code.
But what’s been really beneficial for us is that we can utilize that to raise funds for our NGOs and our marine life organizations. So guests can make a donation very easily to those businesses that perhaps they’ve interacted with on a tour. Or we’ve done some work alongside particular parties as part of a activity.
Megha McSwain: That’s excellent. That’s great. It makes it so convenient.
Ruth Franklin: Yeah, absolutely. And I think post-pandemic, everyone seems to be moving away from a cash payment and certainly from forums I’m in that there’s an aspect of people tipping from a cash point of view has been less post-pandemic than prior to the pandemic.
Megha McSwain: Right. And is there a payment structure that you found successful in the relationships that you have with your partners as far as people that you work with? And I guess within the tourism that you’re providing to customers, is there a payment structure that you have set up that is convenient in working with them?
Ruth Franklin: The Maldives is a little bit of a challenge with regard to inward payments, as currently we can’t use online payment platforms such as PayPal or WISE, and we can’t take credit card payments over the phone.
So having TripAdmit has allowed us to have a payment link for individual payments that perhaps don’t come through the website site, which for us means that we previously, we have always only been able to offer swift international transfer option and certainly appreciate our clients who like to pay on credit card because it gives them the security and insurance cover.
So for big amounts, we tend to take a part payment through the payment link and then the remaining balance through an international transfer. So yes, finance is definitely a challenge over here.
Megha McSwain: That sounds like it. Maybe is there, is it moving towards a change, do you think?
Ruth Franklin: Post, during the pandemic, online banking definitely came to the fore and certainly payments locally, there are far more transactions that were made online as opposed to people going into the bank and depositing checks and so on. So yes, there’s definitely a movement in that direction, but we’ll wait to see how long that will take.
Megha McSwain: So what exactly is your connection to the Maldives? How did you become associated with it and for you to make this really your whole, I mean, 11 years living in the Maldives, that’s a lot.
Ruth Franklin: It is my second home. I came on what was intended to be a once in a lifetime dive holiday that subsequently turned into returning twice or three times a year over a 10 year period. And the retail business that I worked for, I had worked pretty much from the beginning of my career. And admittedly, I had moved out of one group into another, but it meant that my contract had a very nice clause and it allowed me to take a three month paid holiday once I completed 25 years service.
So I was working in projects at the time. So this three month holiday kept being put back. And when I eventually came out, I stayed in Hulamale, which is where a lot of my local friends had gravitated to, to settle down, have families and work in the travel industry here. And we were at coffee on the beach and a friend of a friend came along and we started a conversation about local island tourism. He was very pro resort. He was an engineer by trade, so doing work for resorts and couldn’t understand why people would want to stay on a local island and not just do a fly and flock to a resort.
So I was trying to explain that it opened up the Maldives from an affordability point of view, no doubt, but also that there were travelers out there who would want to explore a destination, meet local people, get a designated destination. And that’s why they would stay on a local island. So I thought, let’s take more of our conversations and went back to the UK to my job. And then he obtained my contact number from a friend, called me up and said, did I want to start something? And that’s how Secret Paradise was born.
Megha McSwain: Wow. How exciting. Do you have any personal experiences or stories that you can share from your travels there? Because you obviously went many times before you committed to moving there to run this business. Do you have any? I’ve never been, so it would be new to me to hear it. Looks amazing.
Ruth Franklin: I think for me, definitely from the diving side of it, that was certainly something that grabbed my attention as I was a regular diver. I dive far less now than when I was a tourist. But there was diversity in terms of the diving. So you’d got the big stuff, the small stuff, different styles of diving, and that still is maintained today.
And I guess it is that paradise beach, white beach, palm trees aspect, which I hasten to add is not the island that I live in. I live in the capital, so it’s still very suburban. And but most definitely it was the people, that the people in terms of their welcome, their hospitality, their friendliness. And, you know, I got invited to the homes of local families. I learned how to cook Maldivian food. I shared breaking fast during Ramadan.
So it was really, you know, the hearts of the Maldivians that captured my heart and really, I guess, is the basis of what we are trying to do with Secret Paradise.
Megha McSwain: Right. Yeah, it’s, you know, when you think Maldives, you think of this, like you said, white sands, blue water and, you know, these beautiful tropics. Then it sounds like there’s, it’s a lot deeper than that. And then that’s probably, yeah, that’s why people probably recommend it to, you know, as such a sought after travel destination.
Ruth Franklin: Yeah, there’s an abundance of heritage and culture as well as biodiversity on land as well as in the ocean.
Megha McSwain: Right. And that really adds something to a trip. It’s such a such a bucket list destination, really. I mean, for some people, it really is just once in a lifetime. So that really does add to the experience. So let’s talk about ecotourism. Can you, I’m not so familiar. Can you sort of define it for me or, you know, explain its significance in the travel industry as it is today?
Ruth Franklin: OK, I guess there are lots of words being bounded around in the travel industry. So whether that’s ecotourism, sustainable travel, responsible travel, ecotourism really does focus on the environment and making a positive impact.
But I think if you bring them all together, it is about sustainability, which, as Dr. Harold Goodwin said, that’s not an action. It’s a vision. It’s an objective. And what we do, either as people within the industry or as travelers, the actions that we take and the things that we say are about moving towards sustainability.
So it’s about protecting the environment. It’s about ensuring that tourism has a positive impact for local people. And it’s also about ensuring that the local economy is impacted in a positive way because of tourism and the connections that travel brings to a destination.
Megha McSwain: Right. So it’s that sort of like intent behind this business that you’re sort of looking out for?
Ruth Franklin: Yeah, absolutely. And I would really describe us now as a purpose and impactful business. So it’s about what we do and how we do it so that we’re doing it in the right manner and we’re having a positive impact. And that’s not just necessarily on what happens here in the destination. I like to think that we have perhaps an unconscious learning experience for our guests so that they go away with a greater understanding of how they can travel more responsibly in other destinations that they may visit.
Megha McSwain: Right. Where did you get your first customers or how did you market the business? And where do you get the customers now? How does that all work?
Ruth Franklin: We were very fortunate when we started. But TripAdvisor would only allow operators who provided day tours to list at that time. So because we were in the capital, it made sense for us to also offer day experiences. So that really was sort of the first portal for us to be able to spread the word about what we were doing over and above social media and the website. And then I attended travel fairs, so both consumer travel fairs and also industry travel fairs.
And as I said right back at the beginning, it was really very much about talking and educating and highlighting that there was this alternative side of the Maldives that could now be experienced. And I guess in terms of over time, part of that has been continuing. Ultimately, it continues. And we have a very broad range of destinations.
So, Scandinavia is very large for us and the UK, parts of Europe. We are just seeing North America and Canada return post the pandemic. Southeast Asia to some degree, although that’s a little bit slower to return post pandemic. But it’s a four-hour flight for most of Southeast Asia into Mali. So we used to get people coming for three or four days. And we have a very, again, a broad customer base as well in terms of their profile.
So we have those that are traveling perhaps before they settle down. It’s on their bucket list, as you’ve mentioned. And we have those that are the empty misters and they’re starting their travels again as they move into their senior years.
Megha McSwain: So you clearly have a customer base from around the globe. I mean, so many different countries. So they must expect their tourism company to be very responsive. And this is obviously it can be a big trip for people. It can be costly, especially when you’re talking about high end bespoke tours to the Maldives. How do you provide customer service to a global tourist base who may speak different languages? They’re in different countries, different time zones. How do you address that?
Ruth Franklin: I think what we’ve done, we haven’t really changed this as we have grown over time. The consensus for us is that we will always respond within a 24 hour period. Certainly, connections through social media, through WhatsApp has grown over the last five or six years. But it’s also, I think, as a business, you have to set an expectation.
So if we are closed, because at some point during the day, we will be closed when other people will be open, having a clear out of office message so people know when you’re going to be back in the office and when you’re going to respond. And that’s the same on the messaging platforms. I think otherwise for us, we would be making a rod for our own back and you’d have a 24 hour service, which for a small business is just not feasible.
And from a language point of view, so far, we have survived on English, although I appreciate that other languages would be of benefit to us. But at the moment, that’s not a point that we have found to be problematic, either with our B2C or our B2B clients.
Megha McSwain: Right. And do you find that there’s more, as far as the customer base goes, that they’re adopting this ecotourism trend or sustainability trend, that they’re more focused on it now than they were before?
Ruth Franklin: I think in the industry, in terms of our B2B partners, that yes, for sure, there is a lot more focus on it. I still think from a direct consumer B2C point of view, that no, the focus isn’t there in the large majority. And I, you know, in terms of a rough number for us, I would say 15% of our B2C clients do travel with intent. They seek us out because of what we offer and the sustainability aspect.
The large majority travel with us because of the experience and the alternative style of holiday. And hopefully, they are the people that go away with a better understanding and then mindset will change because it’s all very well preaching to the converted, but we need to reach to the wider market in order to make sustainable long-term change.
Megha McSwain: Right. And whether they’re traveling with you or with another company or elsewhere in the world, how can businesses like Secret Paradise Maldives and travelers contribute to sustainable practices?
Ruth Franklin: I think from an industry point of view, it’s about education, awareness, and building knowledge. And in terms of from a traveler point of view, it’s about keeping it local. So spending time, yes, they can go to a resort, but also ensuring that they’re experiencing a local environment. So buying souvenirs that have been locally produced, eating in local cafes, following guidelines in terms of snorkeling or diving, which is obviously particularly key here, but thinking about how they impact the environment during their travels.
Megha McSwain: In your, I guess we’ll say decade, a little bit more than a decade of this business, being in this business, is there anything that you would have done differently? Or looking back, would you have maybe taken a different route or implemented things differently?
Ruth Franklin: I guess, as I said, everything that we did was very organic and because I didn’t come from a tourism background, I didn’t come with the idea of this is what we need to do, and this is how we need to do it, and these are the systems that we need to have. So it has been a learning experience. And it’s been a positive learning experience, and we’re in a strong position. So I don’t think there is anything specifically that I would do differently.
However, for people starting their journey now, there is so much more out there that’s available to them to assist in terms of their learning. There are forums, Facebook groups where they can connect with like-minded people and travel operators and share experiences and learnings. So if there was anything that I would change, having those type of forums 10 years ago would perhaps have elevated our progression forward in a much quicker way.
But I’ve always been in it for a marathon. It hasn’t been about a short sprint. So the long-term path and the journey that we’ve taken has been a positive one. And as I said, I wouldn’t necessarily change anything in terms of what we did along the way.
Megha McSwain: Right. Well, do you have any advice for people who may want to get in a similar business elsewhere in the world or even when it comes to a very sort of, you know, once-in-a-lifetime destination like the Maldives?
Ruth Franklin: I think it’s about finding your tribe or finding your people. So whether that’s the guest that you’re marketing to, finding where they hang out and being present and engaging with them. And likewise, from an industry point of view, getting into a forum through LinkedIn or through Facebook.
Tourpreneur is an excellent example of that, where people engage and they share their experiences so you can learn from them. You can ask questions and there is sort of knowledge there for you to be able to take on board and assist you in growing your business.
Megha McSwain: Right. Social media really, I mean, it’s come such a long way. I mean, every year it seems like something new is happening or people are using some new app or website. So that is a tool that people often overlook because they look at it as just being social. But really, you can use that. You can look to it in any industry and it really can be beneficial.
Ruth Franklin: Absolutely. And we’ve now got you. ChatGPT, so you put that into Google and ask them what you should do to start your business.
Megha McSwain: It’s amazing, isn’t it? What all is out there. So for listeners who want to get in touch with you and hear more or work with you, where can they find you? Share with me your social media platforms or your website.
Ruth Franklin: Okay. So, our website is www.secretparadise.mv. We’re on LinkedIn. We’re on Facebook and we’re on Instagram. And if you want to drop an email for a chat, then it’s sales at secretparadise.mv.
Megha McSwain: Excellent. Thank you so much, Ruth. It was wonderful getting this insight from you. And we look forward to speaking with you again here on Travelpreneur.
Ruth Franklin: You’re very welcome. Thanks very much for having me. Take care.
Megha McSwain: You too. Bye bye.
Ruth Franklin: Bye.