personality OKURA OPPORTUNITY ‘I think the biggest challenge you always face (as a hotelier) is your staff being your clients too, because we have to make everyone happy. If there is something wrong within your team it is passed on to the guests. It goes the full circle, so you have to make sure your staff are well looked after…You treat them fairly and you have a winning formula.’ -- Wildemann
Interview with Samir Wildemann, General Manager, Okura Prestige Bangkok By Gavin Nazareth 36
Lookeast | lifestyle
e was just a 12-year-old on holiday with his parents in Kuantan, Malaysia when Samir Wildemann first decided that the business of hoteliering was for him. “We were staying at the newly opened Hyatt and I saw the general manager lying by the pool, and thought to myself: that’s the job I want,” recounts the hospitality veteran of 22 years who has taken over the reins of the Okura Prestige Bangkok scheduled to throw its doors open this year. “As a child we traveled a lot and we always stayed in nice hotels, so I saw life in a hotel and it just seemed so glamorous. Some kids want to be a fireman or fly a jet plane, for me it was hotels,” says Samir. “I spent my childhood as an expat kid in Asia. In the late ’60s, my father who was working for Lufthansa was posted to Thailand, so I went to kindergarten here. We then moved to India, where I went to the German school in New Delhi. Then on to Japan, where I graduated from the German high school in Tokyo." To fulfill his dream of working in the hospitality industry, he went back to Europe to study hotel management in Salzburg. He says that he tried his hand at a few other jobs because his father was not in favor of him working in the hotel industry as it was “long hours for little money.” “After that I moved to France where I started my career with Meridien,” he reveals. He worked in various positions with the group’s properties in Paris, Senegal, and Singapore before it brought him to Thailand where he managed the Le Royal Meridien Phuket Yacht Club (“My first general manager position,” he says) . From Phuket he moved to Le Royal Meridien Baan Taling Ngam on Koh Samui, which is now the Intercontinental. “I then moved to run, first the Pan Pacific, and then the Radisson Bangkok,” he says with a smile. “Obviously when the opportunity with Okura came up my hand was high up.” Located on the corner of Ploenchit and Wireless roads, the 242room Okura Prestige Bangkok, the Japanese hospitality group’s first property in Thailand, occupies the top half of the mixed-use development Park Ventures that uses advances green technologies and bills itself as one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in Thailand. In an exclusive interview with Lookeast, Wildemann talks about the Okura philosophy, what the new hotel has to offer, and the challenges ahead. Tell us a little about the Okura brand and its corporate philosophy. The Okura company was established 58 years ago but the first hotel, the Okura Tokyo, opened in 1962 so this May they are celebrating their 50th anniversary. It was post-war when the hotel opened and there were no international chains in Japan, though there was the Imperial Tokyo. Okura wanted to build a flagship hotel to show the world what they could do. It was just before the Tokyo Olympics and the IMF forum. Today the reputation that Okura Tokyo has in Japan is phenomenal, similar to that of the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. It has a totally different DNA that focuses on service and food, and at 50 it still lives from its service standard. It’s hard to compare with any other international chain. The Okura group has 23 hotels and owns most of its properties. Last year in May the company opened an Okura in Macau as part of the Galaxy complex. We have one in Shanghai, two in Hawaii, two Shillas in South Korea, and one in Amsterdam -- a stunning property that has the one-star Michelin Yamazato restaurant, and recently celebrated 40 years. The company is also expanding. Along with
the Bangkok opening, we are opening in Taipei this June. In 2010, the company added an additional 60 hotels to the portfolio after it bought JAL Hotels, which operate the Nikko Hotels International (NHI) and Hotel JAL City (HJC) chains. The company’s philosophy has always been to focus on the ACS philosophy set by our first chairman, which basically means providing the best accommodation, cuisine, and service. I think a hotel makes its name through its food and obviously the lodging and service, but facilities are secondary. It is really what the hotel can deliver in terms of the look and feel, the staff it has, the welcome the guests gets. So that’s the focus of our property here too, and every Okura. In a city crowded with hotel brands, what will Okura bring to the table? True, Bangkok is crowded with hotels, sometimes two, in every soi. But at this stage it comes down to location. The owners also have a huge network of hotels in Thailand and are very supportive. When Okura was approached, obviously it was extremely pleased to be here because it is a perfect location. It’s also about branding, the fact that we are Okura, the only Japanese brand in Thailand at this stage. Another factor is that it is a mixed-use development, which is perfect because there is office building below. In terms of investment that is exactly what should be done nowadays. With 240 rooms, the hotel is an average size for Bangkok. And though we are adding to the inventory, something the city does not need as the industry is under pressure already. I think there will be some struggle as Bangkok has been suffering a lot lately, but because of our very good location, the fact that we are an original brand, I believe it’s a good time. Do you think being an Asian brand might give you an edge? I don’t think people would go by that because there are some fantastic hotels in the city and some very nice brands. Business is very location driven; certain brands attract certain types of customers. Being Asian or not doesn’t really matter as there are a lot of good American and international brands here. What sells and makes the difference is the Thai hospitality. I think the fact that we are Japanese is a bit unique. Japan has a very rich service culture and attention to detail and what makes us different here is combining the two with the renowned Thai hospitality. I think it’s a perfect fit. What is the most distinctive/unique feature of the hotel? Architecturally, it is quite distinctive, with the shape of the building representing the wai, the Thai way of greeting. Another characteristic feature is the 25m-lap pool, which is cantilevered on the side of building on the 25th floor. And probably the most unique factor is that it is a really green building. It is called the Ecoplex on Wittayu and has been designed in accordance with the US Green Building Council LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) in five key areas: sustainable site, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. It has a lot of features already built in architecturally from which the hotel will benefit: Low-E coated glass, light balancing sensors, grey water recycling and Co2 sensors. In addition, the structure features the Building Automation System (BAS), which controls and manages the internal engineering systems. Nowadays most hotels are doing their bit trying to contribute and may 2012 | 37
lifestyle bidet style toilet. The bathroom also opens completely up to the room. We have used double bay windows, which are nine meters and since the rooms start on the 26th floor, they offer fantastic views all around. So the standard deluxe room is perfect. Our three top suites are the Presidential, the Royal and the biggest at 302sqm being the Imperial suite. It is on the last floor, wrapping around the side of the building with a180-degree view of the city. It is beautifully set up and includes its own kitchen, steam room and sauna.
be as eco-friendly as possible. But the biggest savings are actually in terms of electricity, air-condition, etc. As a hotelier this is something we cannot influence much unless it is purpose-built that way. In our case we have a brand new building and benefit from the latest technology, be that in elevators, escalators, lighting design, and the insulation that runs through the entire building. In terms of being eco-friendly, it starts right from the car park with designated and priority parking for natural gas vehicles, carpool vehicles, electric vehicles and bicycles. It’s different things the owner tried and us as the hotel will try to push. We are also trying to enforce this with our staff; each one receives a special Okura BTS card to encourage them to use the system. Internally we are also working on adding on a lot of initiatives to be sustainable in terms of purchasing food using a lot of local produce. The bulk of coffee we serve is UTZ certified, an internationally recognized set of criteria for professional coffee growing, which includes socially and environmentally appropriate coffee growing practices, and efficient farm management. For our bespoke guestroom amenities we have partnered with a local supplier here whose products are 100 percent natural. They have a fantastic recycling program for the bottles, including aluminum caps that can be reused. What kind of cutting-edge technology can guests expect in the hotel? We will be using the latest, which most hotels try to implement nowadays. For example, we will have tablet check-ins where guests will be taken directly to their rooms were they can sign and swipe their cards on the tablet. The system is still being perfected by MicrosFidelio and it is not that easy as there are a lot of security setups, but we will be able to check-in our clients via tablets. There will be Internet access on the TV. It’s not the latest technology, but is handy to have. Guests can also access Internet TV, radio, etc. Most of it will be free access, including the Wi-Fi, which will be free throughout the hotel, even in the hotel limousines from the airport. How many different categories of rooms are there and which are your top rooms? Due to the shape of the building, we have a variety of different sizes and if you had to categorize them that way, we would have 54 different sizes. So we had to combine a lot of room types into one category. The rooms I would really like is our entry-level Deluxe rooms which begin at 48sqm and are on the lower floors. Design and functionality wise they are identical. All rooms except the corner rooms have walk-in closets, there is a separate toilet, with a Japanese
Lookeast | lifestyle
Can you take us on a brief tour of your food and beverage outlets? As I said in the beginning, our hotels have made their names though their F&B outlets, and here we have some unique offerings too. Our signature restaurant will be the award-winning Yamazato Japanese restaurant that will speak to connoisseurs of Japanese food. It will open in the mornings to serve a traditional Japanese breakfast. At other times it’s à la carte menu, based on the centuries-old kaiseki ryōri or Japanese haute cuisine. Our all-day dining is the Up and Above Restaurant & Bar, which will be an immersive, interactive culinary experience that evolves through the day. In the mornings, breakfast will offer numerous live stations, while for lunch Bento boxes will be on offer some nice combinations of Eastern and Western delights. During the night, the outside area will turn into a lounge bar. Our third restaurant will be Elements, which will be run by Cyril Cocconi who has worked with Joel Robuchon. It’s so named because we have worked with elements in the design of the restaurant. So you will see a lot of raw materials like rusty metal plates, charcoal walls and hardwood surfaces, matched by bold, architectural features such as an al fresco cantilevered deck overlooking the city skyline. We will have four open stations where you can sit before the chefs and observe them cooking the food. It’s an open restaurant focusing a little bit around the grill and 70 percent will be seafood. We will be serving “modern logical cuisine,” a cuisine derived from a lot of global techniques and logical because we are trying to be sustainable and work with produce we can get in our area. Also in addition to the in-room dining and banquet catering, we will have the La Patisserie downstairs, designed much like a jewelry store, for upmarket exquisite cakes and chocolates. What is the hardest part about being a general manager? It may sound a bit silly, but as general managers we don’t really produce anything. We only direct people. But like the conductor of an orchestra, without whom nothing really works, we bring the people together; first the department heads and managers who then have to pass it on to their teams. So it’s working with people for people. It’s a non-stop job which is the hard part but also the fun part because everyday is different; you don’t know what to expect. I think the biggest challenge you always face (as a hotelier) is your staff being your clients too, because we have to make everyone happy. If there is something wrong within your team it is passed on to the guests. It goes the full circle, so you have to make sure your staff are well looked after, the food is right in the canteen, the benefits are there. In the end it’s not the fancy lobby, etc...but the way the staff talk to the clients and interact with them. You treat them fairly and you have a winning formula. But getting that mixture right, selecting the right people to build the team, making the company work. I think that’s the challenge. It’s a fantastic opportunity as an opening general manager: You start off as the No. 1 in the hotel, the next thing you do is look for a personal assistant, a director of sales and marketing, a financial controller. This all takes time and is very time consuming in the beginning. Then you have to indoctrinate them in the Okura DNA, explaining to them what you want to achieve in this city, and who you want to build the hotel for -- that’s the challenging part.
Interview with Samir Wildeman, GM, Okura Prestige Bangkok. For Lookeast