Following a devastating fire that destroyed one of the restaurant and bars at Vakkaru Maldives, General Manager Iain McCormack made it his mission – against all odds on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean and with limited resources – to rebuild the Lagoon Bar in just 10 days. He told Editor Hamish Kilburn how he managed it…
It was the perfect hospitality storm. On December 14, 2021 (nine days before Christmas), in the peak of high season, Iain McCormack, General Manager of Vakkaru Maldives was awoken early in the morning, in London following his return from attending the ILTM travel show in Cannes by a phone call. The wake-up call he received was the news that the Lagoon Bar, which sat on stilts over the water at Vakkaru Maldives, had caught fire. “At first, I thought it was a prank,” he tells me. “That was until I watched the full force of the flames on FaceTime, which quickly caught my attention immediately and I leaped out of bed!”
Vakkaru Maldives lies within the UNESCO biosphere reserve of Baa Atoll. It’s a secluded reef island that boasts powder-soft white san, deep-blue holes and house reef with unique marine biology. Prior to the fire, the Lagoon Bar, just one of many F&B facilities on the island, was a vital organ for the hotel; a stylish overwater venue with an open-air lounge area. It featured a Teppanyaki table where the chef would prepare dishes from, as well as demonstrating an exciting experience of flying knives and flames. It also sheltered a sushi and sashimi bar, which offered an array of fresh fish – many from the Maldives waters. McCormack describes the atmosphere as “sophisticated yet laid back.”
In short, the hotel is a paradise island; the perfect destination for travellers to escape to over the holidays, which only made the event that year more devastating for McCormack and his team, who were trained to handle such unfortunate events, but never thought they would have to action the protocol, as McCormack explains. “We have a fire team at the resort as well as our own Island fire truck at the station. We take fire safety very seriously with our team carrying out regular training sessions.
“This was the first time the team have had to control a fire of this magnitude. The head of Security and Management were called immediately and took action according to our procedures. The priority was to evacuate all guests and team members as the fire broke out during our lunch service. The fire team moved quickly and the hoses had started in no time.
“The resort released a statement to guests, partners and to the general public, assuring that there were no injuries and that the situation was under control.” – Iain McCormack, General Manager, Vakkaru Maldives.
“There was a good sense of team effort from the restaurant staff who tried to contain the fire using extinguishers, reducing the spread and damage. Many other team members rushed to assist with several climbing onto the walkway roof section to remove the dry thatch which was the main cause for the intensity of the fire.
“Their quick thinking and heroic actions helped save the Sushi and Teppanyaki sections of the Lagoon Bar. Thankfully, we had no injuries and everyone involved is safe and well.
“The MNDF (the Maldives National Defence Force) was notified of the fire and came straight away to carry out their investigation. The following day a representative arrived from the Insurance Company and conducted their own independent investigation and damage assessment. The resort released a statement to guests, partners and to the general public, assuring that there were no injuries and that the situation was under control.”
Once the fire had been extinguished, and the situation with guests managed as best as it could be, McCormack’s focus turned towards rising from the ashes with an ambitious plan to restore the restaurant as quickly (and safely) as he could. “First, I immediately arranged an emergency meeting with all head of departments via Zoom, as I was still at home in the UK, he says. “My priority was to have minimum disruption for our guests. The Lagoon Bar was our main focus as that was where guests meet and arrive for pre-dinner cocktails, sunset drinks and enjoy a night cap whilst listening to the sounds of our resident DJ, DJ Anna.”
McCormack instructed the team to set up Vakku Beach as the temporary sunset cocktail bar in order to minimise guest disappointment – and introduced a complimentary cocktail hour at 18:00 as a gesture of appreciation to guests for their understanding.
“The next thing was to book myself on the next flight back to the Maldives, having to arrange a fast-track rapid test – just to complicate the normally easy process,” he adds.
The next morning, McCormack arrived on the island and immediately went to inspect the Lagoon Bar. “The general consensus was that we wouldn’t be able to repair the damage during the high season and would likely have to keep the area closed until our low season in May,” McCormack shares. “However, I felt strongly that we’d be able to reconstruct the damaged buildings quickly and hopefully operate again as normal as soon as possible. We already had a construction team at the resort who were completing a roof extension on another restaurant. Along with their team leader, we assessed the situation and I asked if it was possible to clear the site of the debris and re-build within the next 10 days… You should have seen his face!”
All that was in front of the team was a completely burnt down restaurant. “The entire roof, structure and supporting pillars were all destroyed, McCormack adds. “The bathrooms were in ruins. The kitchen, gone. The bar, non-existent. The flooring tiles, destroyed. The front deck area, charred.
“Being optimistic, I said: ‘If they can build a hospital in China in 48 hours, we can rebuild a bar and restaurant in 10 days!’ The contractor said he would do his best – looking back, he had an amazing ‘can-do’ attitude! He split his force into two teams; team A working 08:00 – 20:00 and team B, who worked 20:00 – 08:00.”
McCormack arranged for a structural engineer to fly to the resort the following day to carry out an assessment for pressure testing, making sure the actual structure was in-tact and safe. Everything was given the green light and they were able to start the re-building immediately. “The first thing was to erect a screen so guests from the Amaany Restaurant and the beach could not see the fire damage and the re-building works,” McCormack explains.
Despite the optimism, McCormack was also realistic and knew that all the will in the world would not enable him to re-build the restatuant exactly as it was. “It would have been impossible to re-build a fully-equipped kitchen as this requires at least three to four months,” he says. “So the plan was to re-open the Sushi/Sashimi bar and the Teppanyaki table, offering a reduced but good selection from our normal menu.
“For the bar, we had recently built a ‘service bar’ at Vakku Beach so we simply moved this over in order to reduce the time of rebuilding a new bar. Instead of replacing the charred floor with new tiles, I opted to fill the area with sand to create a beach feel which worked really well.”
It was during this time, every hoteliers’ worst nightmare, that allowed McCormack to witness the power of collaboration, as he explains. “The engineering team were fantastic, working hand-in-hand with the contractors, helping to install new wiring for all the hotel electrics, building new panels and cabinets, installing lights and re-building the new service area, wash/store room and a new guest bathroom.
“The contractors did an impressive job building a new roof and bar area, connecting it to the existing restaurant area. The overall finish was exceptional, especially based on the timeframe. You would never have known that there was a fire here.”
One of the most testing elements of this process was the logistical pressure. The hotel’s attraction from travellers – it being a far-flung destination cut-off from the outside world – became its weakness. “We were fortunate to have a good number of materials on the island already as we were just about to build a new Yoga Pavilion on Vakku Beach,” McCormack explains. “I decided to postpone this project and shifted all the materials and the construction team to focus on the Lagoon Bar re-construction. Equipment that needed replacing such as glassware, cutlery, crockery, lights, speakers, amplifiers were all flown in from Dubai. Other equipment such as refrigeration units and electronics for our IT system were found in Male and all other construction materials were locally sourced. Being creative, I also collected some furniture from other outlets and areas around the island to set up the Lagoon Bar, until the new furniture arrives in May.”
In 10 days, following a huge commitment among engineers, contractors and staff of the hotel, the Lagoon Bar had been rescued and by December 27, the restaurant and bar was back in full action. “Agents and guests – especially those who were with us when the incident happened – were amazed at how quickly the Lagoon Bar was rebuilt and re-opened. In fact, I did very well out of this as I had bets with several guests that it would be re-opened and we’d be serving them cocktails on 27th!”
The reconstruction was intended to be a temporary fix in order to get the hotel through the high season, with the plan then to rebuild the bar with a refreshed style and design to improve it from what it was before. “The issue I have,” McCormack explains, “is that the so-called ‘temporary re-construction’ was built to such a high standard that it would be a shame to demolish it and re-build again. So now we are looking at ways to maintain what was built and create something even more special. We’d like to have an observatory deck with a high spec telescope for star gazing, add an infinity pool to create a cool beach club feel and hopefully add specially designed Sushi and cocktail bars too.”
What happened at Vakkaru Maldives was a traumatic event that, without the intervention, skills, training, protocols and passion behind its rescue, could have had far-reaching consequences. As McCormack puts its, “accidents are inevitable but it’s how we react, respond and recover that is crucial.” The team at the hotel had several meetings after the incident to air learnings from the fire. “This doesn’t stop with the fire team but for all team members working and living on a remote island,” McCormack concludes. “It’s not too dissimilar to being on a cruise ship – safety for our guests and team is paramount. We have elevated the fire awareness to all team members as well as fire training ensuring they too can respond and react with more confidence to avoid extensive damage and injuries wherever possible.”
Today, the hotel remains on travellers’ bucket list, flourishing as a lush, tropical destination where privacy and personalised service combine to create authentic and one-off travel moments, with a range of accommodation types to suit modern traveller demands.
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Main image credit: Vakkaru Maldives