Interview with Kurt Wachtveitl: master of the Oriental Bangkok. This is first in a series of Q&A's with Asia's Top Hotelier's.
1. What got you into the hotel business?
I attended Lausanne Hotel School in Switzerland and also studied Philosophy at the University of Madrid and History of Art and Literature at the Dante Alighieri School in Rome--all of these studies helped me to appreciate the intricacies of the hotel business which I feel a great passion for, and this very passion has not diminished at all-even after 40 years at the helm of The Oriental, Bangkok.
2. What are the most important things in managing a hotel?
Having a close knit relationship between our owners, staff and guests contributes significantly in successfully managing a hotel. Our employee/ guest relationship is really what makes The Oriental, Bangkok special, and we have been able to maintain this very close knit relationship even with the expansion of our staff. It helps to have employees working an average of 14 years with the hotel. The staff's main focus is to consistently maintain the highest quality of personalised service for all our guests, and I personally make sure such standards are upheld. What is important is staff must be happy as happy staff in turn satisfy guests. Consistency is crucial. Of course it also helps to hire a General Manager with an impeccable track record of staying awhile. At least 3-5 years is needed to gain the trust of owners, employees and guests.
3. How do you run your week give a typical run down of your role and activities, and the hours on the job!
My normal routine is working 15 hours a day. Every morning I can't wait to get into the office and head the daily morning briefing with key executives. You'll usually see me in the lobby every noon and evening with the staff greeting guests arriving for lunch/dinner or a party. I go home about 11.30 pm, but not before I've gone to reception to check on all the new bookings we've had during the day. That's the joy for me, and what's kept me here for 40 years.
I feel a sense of pride and happiness in every aspect of my job--when the hotel caters to the Royal Palace (I would join the catering team at every Palace function to ensure everything is run smoothly), when we receive guest letters raving about how they love it at The Oriental, when we receive members of the same family for generations, when we win awards year after year for one of the best hotels in the world (the latest one is being named "'Best City in the World" by Travel & Leisure's World's Best Hotels Awards in 2007)
4. What do you admire amongst your competition? You are regarded in these Awards as No. 1 but who else do you think does fine things? I have a wonderful relationship with any hotel in the world, as long as Management plays an ethical game. It is like any other competition in sports. Bad behaviour is red carded.
5. Looking forward to the next 10 years--what big changes are ahead in hotel facilities and management?
I remain open to new technology and to constantly add new products and services to make guests happy. The Oriental recently installed the "next generation 802.11n", a new high-speed wireless system in order to better serve the needs of our businessmen guests. In the past 8 years renovations of hotel facilities and restaurants worth a total of USD 87 million (Baht 2.8 billion) had been carried out. With more than 130 years of history, the hotel has always been at the forefront of pioneering initiatives which are appreciated by our guests. I spend a lot of time listening to them and noting their comments. For example, we opened the first modern hotel spa in Thailand (in 1993) and just recently an ayurvedic penthouse in 2006, both from suggestions made by guests. Aside from talking with guests, new ideas also spring up when I make overseas trips, particularly when visiting the US and the Middle East, where rapid changes are taking place.
6. What pleases you?
When guests pour praise on the staff and the hotel. I feel a sense of pride and happiness in every aspect of my job including meeting and greeting the rich and the famous and enjoying every minute with all of my employees. I have become one with them, building on a very warm and caring attitude.
7. What angers you?
An employee who works for many years with us makes a guest unhappy through carelessness. In this case, all the other hard working employees are collectively let down!
8. What would you say to a person wanting to enter the industry?
PASSION: I believe it is always important to remain passionate about the things one does and passion is certainly paramount to running a legendary hotel like The Oriental. One has to love what one does, or don't do it at all! Think always in the eyes of the guests.
9. Do you believe 5 Star hotels are too expensive to run and will downsize their facilities and services, and charge less?
The Oriental, Bangkok is unique in the sense that besides its rich history, tradition and literary culture, we are a luxury product, a lifestyle, that our guests are happy to visit and revisit, therefore downsizing our facilities and services is out of the question. I believe in fact that we are moving back into the era of the extravagant traveller--travellers enjoy and expect a splendid experience when going abroad--they like to be pampered! The Oriental sells dreams with its exceptional charm and a very individual style. 50% of our guests are repeat guests, and it doesn't end there, the children, grand children and even great grand children of these repeat guests eventually become the hotel's regular guests.
Also, it is not just the riverside location and the beautiful decor, but the personality of The Oriental that people respond to. The world needs, more than ever these days, more affection and kindness, the pleasure of making someone happy in an otherwise cold world. Guests feel at home here. They are relaxed, they have fun and they find it an exciting place to be.
10. Who inspires you to the top standards you have achieved?
I have been fortunate to have been mentored by one of the main shareholders of The Oriental, Bangkok when I was first appointed General Manager in 1967--Mr. Giorgio Berlingieri, and his Thai partner Dr. Chaiyudh Karnasutr, owner of the Italthai group who invited me to work for The Orirental. It was rather run down and we stood in the garden by the River and envisioned how to make The Oriental the best hotel in the world. We started with the French restaurant, Le Normandie, and from then on the enhancements never stopped! It is through their vision that I am here today and that The Oriental is the legend that it is.
My third idol is the 100-year-old retired former General Manager of the Beau Rivage Palace in Lausanne. He epitomised hospitality and showed me how running a hotel was about humanity rather than bureaucracy. He taught me to focus on the happiness of the guests and a close and warm relationship with the staff.
Future Q & A's will be with Deepak Ohri, Dennis Clarke and Mark De Cocinis
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|Title Annotation:||ASIA'S TOP HOTELIER'S|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2008|
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