Creativity in Business: How a creative spirit helped AX Hotels rise above the pandemic

There’s a common misconception that creativity has no place in business leadership. Managers, directors, and business leaders are meant to be strategic, logical, analytical. We’re supposedly meant to leave imagination and blue-sky thinking up to the artists and creatives.

However, I have often found throughout my career that the best business decisions arise when lateral thinking collides with strategic planning. From experience, I have seen how bringing creativity into business scenarios has been a sure-fire way to shake things up and kick-start new ideas that would never have occurred to us had we stuck to some predetermined rulebook.

There’s a reason why many companies come and go, but a select few stand the test of time. Those businesses that don’t have the vision to stray from the beaten path are bound to be forgotten because they have nothing new to offer us and they soon cease to remain relevant. We only need to look towards the leading lights in the business world to see how creativity has inspired products and services that wow us. It only takes one visionary leader to introduce us to new possibilities and then suddenly, just a few years down the line, we can hardly imagine life without those once “crazy” ideas.

I feel extremely fortunate to have been mentored in the importance of fostering creativity in the workplace by my father. Always a man with a knack for doing things in his own inimitable way, my father showed me first-hand how creativity inspires, challenges, and helps people find innovative solutions and opportunities out of problems. In fact, alongside Determination and Integrity, Creativity is one of our core values at AX Group. It’s a quality we value highly in all our people, it’s an attribute we continue to seek out in our candidates, and it’s a strength that has ensured our company has continued to move forward and thrive during 40+ years of business.

As such, I’ve always endeavoured to keep creativity at the forefront of all my business decisions. And during a year in which we faced a flurry of unprecedented challenges created by the pandemic, I truly believe that it was the AX Hotels team’s ingenuity for coming up with out-of-the-box solutions that ensured our hotels and restaurants were able to, not only survive, but evolve and grow.

From the start of the pandemic, we decided to not allow ourselves to take a reactive stance to unfold events. We strove to rise above the situation and be proactive in all our decision making. That’s why AX Hotels was quick to implement a range of versatile F&B strategies that allowed us to continue serving our patrons in a variety of ways. If our diners couldn’t come to us, then we made sure we would deliver to them. Each of our main restaurants – including TemptAsian, Cheeky Monkey, and Luzzu – began operating a delivery service in collaboration with our fantastic AX Events team.

We also wanted to innovate on your run-of-the-mill food delivery experience. That’s why we re-instated our Cruise Your Flavours service, giving customers the opportunity to enjoy exclusive gourmet dining experiences prepared by our Michelin-starred kitchen brigade at Under Grain, served straight on their private yachts.

What’s more, Under Grain began creating luxuriously themed dine-at-home experiences to coincide with major holidays, including Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day. Each multi-course menu was designed from scratch by executive chef Victor Borg, meaning no two-holiday dining experiences were ever alike. Customers could tailor the menu to their preferences and have it delivered directly to their homes. This gourmet service proved to be a great success and showed us that people were still looking for exclusive experiences to enjoy with their loved ones in spite of everything that was going on.

Needless to say, with travel and tourism thrown into disarray, our hotel teams were experiencing a considerable amount of downtime. However, we didn’t let idleness slow us down. Where others would be lying low and pulling back, we used this “idle time” productively. We pressed ahead with identifying opportunities and innovative business solutions that would keep us ahead of the competition for when Malta would eventually re-open.

Our pandemic year has in fact been momentously busy, and we’ve even achieved a number of significant milestones. During these past fifteen months, we were awarded our first Michelin star for Under Grain and retained this highest of culinary honours for a second year running. We set up a hotel management proposition to assist struggling hotel businesses and set them on a path for re-invention and growth. We also put in motion several highly complex projects, including acquiring plans to begin the development of the Verdala Boutique Hotel in Rabat, as well as a ground-up redevelopment/rethink of our Qawra properties, Sunny Coast and Seashells at Suncrest Resort.

As if all this weren’t enough for one team to handle in the face of a crisis, we also developed a string of fantastic new F&B concepts, many of which are already in the pipeline. We simply can’t wait to launch them into the world. The latest addition to our F&B family was an off-shoot of our popular Cheeky Monkey franchise. The Cheeky Monkey Creperie launched last month in Valletta, just in time for Malta’s much-anticipated restaurant reopening. It’s been hugely rewarding to see the Creperie concept come together at such a rapid pace, and it has been even more satisfying to see people wandering around Valletta, enjoying the great selection of unique bakes and shakes our team has come up with.

All this work would not have been possible had we stuck to the script. Given the situation, we could have easily shut up shop and put our staff on furlough. Instead, we found creative solutions to keep our teams actively engaged with their jobs, empowering them to endorse and own their own projects. Key to this success was also our willingness to be flexible in how our teams worked. We made use of every communication channel available to address all our business needs, whether our staff were working from home, the office, the hotel lobby, or our restaurants. It has proven to be a hugely effective strategy and one we intend to develop further and keep in place across our businesses going forward.

There’s always an element of uncertainty when you’re throwing creative decisions into the mix. It’s part of the process. After all, you’re going out on a limb, forging a new path, attempting to do something that hasn’t been done before. It can be frightening, but it can also be tremendously thrilling. Projects may not pan out as you’d hoped, but I’ll tell you something. You’ll always learn more in trying and failing, than if you never tried at all.

So, to those who feel even an inkling of an entrepreneurial spirit-stirring inside them, I say be bold, be creative, go where there is no path, and leave a trail for others to follow in your footsteps. Good luck!