Silvio Debono interviewed by the Malta Independent Newspaper

Posted on: March 16, 2015

Former barman raises the bar - Silvio Debono on Seabank Group's fast growth

source: Malta Independent

He started out as a barman at a restaurant in his hometown Mellieha. Today he’s one of Malta’s most successful hoteliers. The group of which he’s the chairman, Seabank Group, has been growing at a fast rate and spreading its wings in various directions, including ownership of the Hard Rock Café franchise in Malta . We caught up with Silvio Debono to see what makes him tick and what he’s got his eye on. We found a man who is as down to earth as he’s dynamic, and as astute as he’s generous.

In the span of a week you opened the doors to a new entertainment complex at the db Seabank Hotel and those of a completely refurbished db San Antonio? Where does all this enthusiasm for investment come from?

I have always believed in this country and continue to do so. We decided to invest €40 million in the db Seabank three years ago, that is when we were in the thick of the global financial crisis. Many thought that I was crazy to take such a risk. Thankfully, they were wrong. Over the last 12 months we invested another €32 million to give a rebirth to db San Antonio. So that’s an investment of €72 million in three years. We at the Seabank Group do not just say that we believe in this country. We put our money where our mouth is.

You have now decided to launch your own chain – db Hotels & Resorts. Why?

Our philosophy, our mission has always been captured in a single phrase – excellence in everything we do. Today’s tourists and local clients are more discerning than ever and they respond positively to excellence and negatively to its absence. Our decision to create our own chain is to institutianise excellence in all our processes – from the way a room is decorated to service at our restaurants and to our ability to respond effectively to complaints. This is what db Hotels and Resorts is all about.

Will it be a local chain?

At the moment, the chain is made up of db Seabank and db San Antonio. We are looking at other local and, quite soon, international opportunities.

Both these hotels operate on an all-inclusive formula. Does it work?

The db Seabank was the first resort in Malta to operate on a genuinely all-inclusive basis. In other words, our clients do not need to put their hand in their pockets from the moment they check in to the moment they leave. We knew that the investment in capital and human resources to make it work and to keep the quality high was going to be a huge challenge. But it worked at db Seabank and I am certain that we’ll have the same success at db San Antonio.

What’s the evidence that the all-inclusive formula is working?

In the first year of operations, db Seabank was ranked by TripAdvisor in the top 20 all-inclusive hotels in Europe. In the second year, it was ranked in the top 10. This ranking was not made by the government or an NGO or a panel of experts. This ranking was given by the men, women, families and couples who chose to come to db Seabank, experienced it at first hand and took the initiative to rank it among the best in Europe. I couldn’t have hoped for a better certificate of excellence.

Clearly, however, the all-inclusive formula appeals to a certain type of tourist. We shall be exploring others targeting different market sectors.

What are the main features of db San Antonio?

Architecturally, I am very proud of its Moorish style which really worked. It is right by the sea and has spectacular views of St Paul’s Islands and beyond. It has 515 state-of-the-art rooms on eight floors, making it second in terms of room numbers only to our very own db Seabank in Malta. By the end of this year all five of its restaurants will be in operation and offering dishes from cuisines from all corners of the world. Tagine (Moroccan and Indian) and Q-zins (Asian and Mediterranean) are already open as is our main restaurant which takes up to 600 people.

According to our information, the db Seabank was built in eight months and the db San Antonio in six months. What does it take to do the job?

It all boils down to project management and having a sharp eye for detail, both in the processes leading to the results as well as in the results themselves. To take the db San Antonio as an example, we had 30 companies employing 800 people between them working on the project. Apart from these, we had a range of other firms employing some 1000 other people making all the materials required to outfit it.

Now that the hotel is operating in full swing, our staff numbers 300 and it rises to 400 in the summer months. Allow me to add that I am very glad that our staff turnover is much lower than that of the tourism industry’s national average.

In other words, a project like this creates work for many people before and after opening its doors. 

How do you see the tourism industry changing?

Let me put it this way. Forty per cent of our bookings at the db Seabank for summer 2015 came directly to us through the internet. This in itself constitutes a huge change in the way that the industry operates. Beyond this, today’s tourists are very different from those of even a few years ago – there is no longer a single market but segments and niches and each of them has its own requirements which we need to cater for. 

Finally, what do you attribute the Seabank Group’s success to?

This is an easy one. Quite simply, our employees. No matter how much we have grown, I always make it a point to remain as close as possible to all my staff. For me, they, all 1,200 of them, are the company. And nothing gives me more pride and satisfaction than having this feeling reciprocated. It is their enthusiasm and dedication that drives me to take on more challenges.