Sandy Oatley's winning ways

Sandy Oatley, owner of Hamilton Island, says keeping staff happy – even in paradise – is a challenge.

“Staff.” It’s the first word to issue from the mouth of Hamilton Island’s executive chairman when I ask him what makes a luxury resort tick. And Sandy Oatley should know: he’s invested $350 million in the island since acquiring it, owns the resorts, controls the restaurants and relies on more than 800 people to help run it. To achieve this, he must overcome a twin challenge: First, there’s the hospitality industry’s notoriously high staff turnover. Then, there’s the 'easy come, easy go' nature of island life.

“It’s difficult to attract, particularly to an island, good staff,” he explains. “So we spent a lot of time and effort trying to attract the right staff here and we’re finding it easier now. We’ve got our runs on the board, so to speak. But again, because we’re an island, it’s difficult to keep them here a long while.”

The Oatleys haven’t relied on reputation to clear this obstacle. For one thing, they’ve established a TAFE college on the island.  “We’re encouraging our staff to sign up and do a hospitality course, or management, or food and beverage, or chef’s courses, so when they go away they’ve got a certificate that is accredited,” says Oatley.

Graph for Sandy Oatley's winning ways

The Excellence Award scheme is another initiative he says is paying off. Staff get to dress up for a ceremonial dinner that rewards individuals and teams who go beyond the call of duty in pursuit of impeccable service.

Some Excellence Award winners are sent off to five-star hotels elsewhere, to give them a taste of luxury as others do it. “We encourage our managers to go to good hotels in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane or in America, so they can see what the rest of the world is doing. It’s a look-and-learn philosophy,” says Oatley.

Alastair Waddell is a case in point. He spent three years as sous chef before taking the reins as executive chef at Qualia, which was last year voted the world’s best resort in the Condé Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Awards. During his time at Qualia, Waddell has worked alongside dining-scene superstars such as Peter Gilmore and Dan Hunter when they’ve come to the island for special events.

Graph for Sandy Oatley's winning ways

Then there’s Marcus Taylor, who first sampled Hamilton Island as a South African backpacker. On his return to Johannesburg, he packed up the rest of his gear and came back immediately. Eight years on, he’s still there, only now he’s general manager of Beach Club Resort. He says staff get to enjoy the perks of the island, but suggests the mix of professional development and watersports help bypass the kind of boundless hedonism one might expect from young travellers in a tropical paradise.

As I listen to Oatley on the aft deck of Andiamo, the family’s cruising yacht, a couple of women in their twenties breeze past, smiling a casual ‘hello’ as they nose about the cabin. “I thought I’d come along and take a look around your boat because it’s taken me about three years to get invited,” says one of them, eliciting a chuckle from Oatley. This easy familiarity characterises the staff’s interaction with the boss, and it’s something he likes to see. “The fact that we’re a family makes a big difference. We’re here, we see the staff, we encourage them to say ‘hi’ to us.”

It isn’t all – if you’ll excuse the pun – plain sailing. One of the things Oatley wants most from the next government is a change in policy when it comes to hiring temporary skilled workers. “I’d like to see them make it easier for people to apply for visa 457,” he says. “Some people abused the system early on and so it’s a question of, in some ways, tightening it up and letting the real people who want to come in and use it, do so.”

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