Shaolin Monks, Hoteliers and the Recession.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon
Sunday, 24th May 2009
Yeoh Siew Hoon gets a new perspective on creativity in a box -

One often hears about creativity and how one has to think outside the box to come up with the real gems. Well, last night just got a whole new perspective on creativity in a box.

I had the good fortune to land a good seat at the opening night of "Sutra", a dance collaboration between Western artists and the Shaolin temple.

Choreographed by Flemish-Moroccan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoul, who said his inspiration came from Bruce Lee (who was his role model), the performance, being held as part of the Singapore Arts Festival, brought together the martial arts of Shaolin monks and Western dance performed by Cherkaoul himself.

The only props on stage were 21 wooden boxes and it was amazing to watch how the monks played, fought, jumped, kicked and toyed with the boxes. I never knew you could do so much with a box.

In one scene, Cherkaoul and the youngest monk (all of 12 years old), got into the same box and manouvered their bodies around each other within the confines of the box. I never knew you could do so much with a body within a limited space.

It was haunting and moving, watching the connection and trust between the Flemish-Moroccan and young Chinese monk.

For a short clip of "Sutra", watch this.

The same afternoon, I attended the first HICAP (Hotel Investment Conference Asia Pacific) South-east Asia Update conference.

Two more different universes you couldn't find. One full of spirituality, creativity, strength and grace and the other full of numbers (mostly depressed), assets (mostly stressed) and funds (mostly absent).

Yes, the numbers that were shared at the conference were all bad. Capital. Fled. Debt. Huge. Liquidity. Dried Up. Occupancy. Down. Average Rate. Down.

"2009 has already been written off," said Robert Hecker, managing director-South east Asia of Horwath HTL, predicting that "I survived 2009" T-shirts would be the hot sellers for 2010.

Suchad Chiaranussati of Real Estate Capital Asia Partners, talking about the difficulties in structuring new deals in the current climate, said, "There are some risks I don't understand, I am very nervous about it."

Patrick Imbardelli, CEO of Pan Pacific Hotels Group, was perhaps a tad conservative when he called it "a slap in the face" but his point was, if we don't learn something from this, we never will.

KP Ho, executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, when asked if he was planning any acquisition since one of the talking points at the conference was that Asian family money would come to the rescue of the industry, taking up the vacuum left by global funds, retorted, "I'll be happy just to survive this year."

Answering a question "Is flat the new growth?", Michael Issenberg, chairman of Accor Asia Pacific, quipped, "I'll be happy to get to flat."

During the Hotel Leaders panel, Imbardelli, Issenberg and Ho agreed that one thing chief executives like themselves could do was to influence sentiment and bolster confidence in the industry.

To Issenberg, that starts at home. "I have to manage fear within my own organisation first, give the troops confidence that they will still be getting their pay cheque and hopefully, that has ripple effects outside the company."

Ho said the good thing about being his age – "I am the oldest here, I think" – is "you can tell people I've been through this and we will get through this."

He added, "The hotel industry in Asia is relatively young, the people working in it are relatively young and many of them have not been through anything like this before. We can bring our experience and wisdom to bear on this."

Imbardelli said, "Now is not the time to go quiet. Now is the time to communicate."

Paul Foskey, executive vice president-development, Asia Pacific, for Marriott International, said, "Now is the time to project enthusiasm and confidence," and he related the story of Bill Marriott who met up with President Obama to personally lobby for the hotel industry when Washington came down hard on corporate meetings and incentives.

"Leaders have to make a stand and fight for the industry."

There were quite a few of the delegates who told me they found the discussions depressing. "It's all so gloomy," one said.

Yet I thought this was one of the most open and realistic discussions I have heard in a long time at an investment conference.

It's as though the bluster has been taken out of the sails and what's left is a naked, vulnerable industry that's struggling to make sense of it all but is determined to get through it, slowly and surely.

I suppose it's all a question of perspective. Do you see a half empty glass or a half full one? Do you see a wooden box? Or do you see a piece of art?

Depression is in the mind of the beholder.

Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com

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