ITB 2024 Special Reporting
The Making of a Hotelier
By Yeoh Siew Hoon ~ Web-in-Travel
Sunday, 5th July 2009
As a boy, Giovanni Angelini - retired CEO/MD of Shangri-La Hotels - spent three years with the Franciscan monks and while there, he learnt about a sense of belonging, discipline and humility.

He spoke to Yeoh Siew Hoon at WIT*e – Inspiration & Mentoring about the important things in life and what every young person entering the business should know.

Q: So 45 years in hospitality and 3 years as a summer intern – nearly five decades in the business – and up to six weeks ago, CEO & MD of Shangri-La? How does retirement feel?

I miss it, I still dream of hotels at night and their problems and wake up in a cold sweat and then I remember I don't have to go to the office tomorrow. I am enjoying the time out but I would be lying to you if I said I didn't miss it. I will take it easy for a while but then maybe start to do something again at least to exercise the brains.

Q: Perhaps this is the best of times to take a time out – when the industry is going through the worst times you've ever seen in your career?

No, actually, now is the best time to be on top of things and re-assess the business – what we do, how we do it and how we can do it better. Leaders must be on top of things now and weed out the more inefficient elements of the business – that includes people and processes. You want to be on top of your game when the economy improves.

Q: What do you think will change after the recession?

The years 2006 and 2007 of free spending, loans, lots of cash around, are over. The markets in Asia are overbuilt with five star hotels.

In the future, there will be more potential in the three and four star market because people want to have ROI (Return On Investment), bankers will pay more attention to loans and customers will not be willing to spend more on deluxe hotels.

The key words are efficient, branded and consistent – solid and tangible things. I don't believe in boutique designer hotels, I think they are a fad. We will need better discipline from everyone – owners, architects who don't over design, general managers …

Our industry will also become more customer-centric – in everything we do.

Leisure business will grow more than business travel, and there will be more business and leisure combined trips.

In food & beverage, I see fewer and fewer restaurants in hotels, more and more facilities will be rented out. There will be more specialty restaurants. I see the growing importance of meetings and conferences but we will lose some to technology. Wellness will be very important – hotels started off with gyms, pools, health clubs and now spas – the term itself is very confusing. But people are looking for wellness – detox, weight loss, spirituality ….

To retain talent, hotels may need better incentive schemes for the key players in a hotel – profit participation, for example.

Q: We have a lot of students in the room, what's the most important thing people need to understand before they get into the hospitality business?

That travel and tourism is the second biggest employer of people in the world, after the government – and so the opportunities are immense. To be part of such a big industry is a good thing.

But the most important thing is to understand why they're getting into the industry and what we sell in the industry. Banks sell money. We sell the two most personal human needs – sleep and food.

Once you understand that, ask yourself, how are you going to do that well? 500 customers, 500 likes and dislikes … If you don't like people, then you should rethink.

That's what I do, spend time with new recruits and make sure that culture is there.  And once you are in it, make a career out of it and constantly seek self-improvement.

Our industry will remain labour intensive and there will be many jobs available. Technology will help but some jobs can only be performed by people.

Q: How did you get started?

When I was 16, I worked as a summer intern. I enjoyed it. Tips were good.  I remember too watching a movie set in the Hilton Rome and I said, I want to become the GM of a Hilton Hotel.  I never worked for Hilton in my career but that was what drove me. I became GM at the age of 30.

It's very important that you chase jobs and not the other way round. If I knew the next step up for me was a front office manager's job and there was an in the Caribbean, I'd go there.

Young people have to decide what they want to do in their lives  – take the career route, become a chairman or CEO of an organisation eventually or be an entrepreneur. The first few years are the same but then you reach a point in the learning curve and if you then ever feel the need to set up your own business in your early 40s, I'd recommend it. You've got good experience by then and it goes wrong after 5-6 years, you still have enough energy for another career.

I have achieved a lot but I do regret that I didn't start up my own business, knowing what I know now.

You don't want to be in a position where you have young cocky owners and bankers who know less than you giving you their directions and views.

Q: You can still do that. It's not too late.

Perhaps – you need a lot of energy for a start-up and I am 64.

Q: Do you worry that hotels are cutting costs and services and cutting their own throats in the current market?

Yes, it's happening. The most important thing about a crisis is what we learn from each crisis, to ensure we don't make the same mistakes.

This crisis is deeper than past ones but things will recover. People are now managing by cost cutting. You should manage by revenue generation. Get close to your customers and staff, get to know each other.

What worries me is will the hotel industry become a commodity? Perhaps it has and I am still in denial.

Q: What did you enjoy most in your career?

Growing companies, growing people, the process of creation.

Q: Your biggest achievement?

Team building and stability wherever I had influence. I always had good people around me. I took care of them and they took care of me. I was not an asshole all the time, sometimes you have to be and those are the most difficult times, when you have to fire people.

I always tell people, priorities in life are health, family and job.

Q: How do you wish to be remembered?

Passionate and caring.

There is also something I've not told a lot of people. Between the ages of 13 and 16, I studied with the Franciscan monks. I spent three years with them, and never left the confines. It was very rigorous. Early morning wake-ups, everything conducted in total silence. I left when I was 16.

Apparently I was a sleep walker, and I would wander around at night doing things that I couldn't recall the next morning, and they were worried for my safety. I think that's why they sent me home. But I took away valuable lessons from it – a sense of belonging, discipline, humility. These, I think, have defined my career.

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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