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Bangkok Calling: Hoogewijs Returns as Big Gun of the Four Seasons

May 16, 2014 Headline News, Hotel News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59Belgian-born Vincent Hoogewijs gets another stint of bubble bubble, toil and trouble in Thailand as he embarks on his second tenure in the City of Angels.

Vincent Hoogewijs, the sharply-dressed, affable new Regional Vice President Thailand and General Manager of the Four Seasons Bangkok, is no stranger to Thailand. He was first here about ten years ago as the Hotel Manager of the same property. Hoogewijs could wish he’d have timed his return better, landing as he did in November 2013 when the protest movement in Bangkok was just about hitting its peak! Since then he has had to battle falling occupancies, closing off some floors to save on energy costs and requesting his staff to avail of their leave sooner rather than later.

I first met Hoogewijs in his India avatar and he doesn’t appear to have changed much; still dapper, charming and polite. Welcome back to trouble! Thailand has always battled political turmoil, due to which tourism gets affected. How does he plan to combat this? “Well, since we were faced with the crisis – which hasn’t done any favours to our business – we have kept everybody employed, there have been no lay-offs. We have sent our service expat staff as well as some local Thais too, to our hotels in other destinations that



were looking to hire new people – so this is a way of staff retention. And most were happy to have some international exposure and experience. We also checked with staff who would like to take their vacation time now. Apart from the employee factor, we closed off some floors which limit the expense on heat, light and power. We curtailed some business sales trips which kept the cash flow going. Of course business is affected; group bookings still aren’t coming in and the Japanese corporate business is already down. We need to solve the problem, we’re still optimistic about Thailand.”

Apart from the gloomy tidings, what has changed about Bangkok? “I see many more free-standing restaurants, for one; a lot more hotels too have been built, so the competition is becoming tougher. For another, I see many more foreigners who have chosen to make Thailand their home. Bangkok has become more of an international city compared to ten years ago,” he said.

Speaking of competition, whom does he class in that category? We have competition from our neighbours, the riverside hotels, boutique hotels, serviced apartments….Narrowing it down, I would say the St Regis, Kempinski, Peninsula and Oriental; the Park Hyatt too is coming up. Of course, you have to look at location when you consider competition; the riverside is more for the Europeans and Westerners, Asians can look at dirty rivers back home!” he said, tongue-in-cheek.

“I’m aware that our building is a little more ‘mature’ but we are doing very well in spite of that because of our service; it’s all down to service in our business. We are going to go in for renovations very soon as the owners have agreed to a face-lift. It’s not going to be all about glass and chrome as we want to keep the heritage feel so, even while bringing it to the level of a 21st century luxury hotel, when you wake up you will not be wondering which city you’re in which happens much of the time when all hotels tend to look the same; you will know instantly you are in Bangkok,” he added.

Not so long ago, Hoogewijs was the GM of the Four Seasons in Mumbai, following which he had a stint in Sydney before taking up his current assignment. How would he compare Mumbai and Bangkok – two leading Asian cities? “Both are chaotic but it’s organised chaos,” he smiled. “One has progressed quicker than the other. Bangkok is better organised; the traffic is flowing better, the public transport is better, it’s become more international. You have all the international hospitality brands here with multiple hotels. I feel the economy is better here. On the other hand, for a long time India had only the Taj and the Oberoi and not too many newcomers, although that is changing now. I was very fortunate there was no union problem while I was there (Mumbai is notorious for its trade unions) but my successor is having some major issues now. I would say generally, in Asia you get by, you know how to go around the rules. In Sydney though it was frustrating sometimes as you get bogged down by the rules and regulations,” he said ruefully.

Taking up from where he left off on Bangkok having so many international hotel brands here, I asked him next what his business strategies are going to be to stay ahead of the game. “First of all, our product needs to be market ready,” he said quite definitely. “After that, it’s not really rocket science – consistency is important. Our restaurants do very well so we will continue to see to that. If we are looking at clients from India or China we need to adjust our product according to the market; for instance, we have hired some Chinese-speaking staff and we feature Chinese dishes on the breakfast menu. Indian weddings are great pieces of business, but they do tend to take over the hotel!” he laughed.

CSR (corporate social responsibility) is the new buzzword for hotels today and customers too are very clued in to this, often choosing a hotel based on its CSR policies. What has he got in place?

“Well, we have an annual charity cancer run that takes place in Lumpini Park, which has been postponed at the moment due to the protests. We also host the ‘World Gourmet Festival’ which ten of the world’s best chefs participate in, proceeds from which go to the Red Cross. We also work with our hotels in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai to sponsor schools there, we donate funds to ‘Plant A Tree Foundation,’ we do clothes and toy collection runs in Bangkok.

In terms of environmental CSR, we are installing solar panels on our roof even as we speak. Changing over to LED lights is an on-going process; it has already been done back-of-the-house. We will also be going on to double and triple glazing, changing the chillers etc, when the renovation work starts. The kitchen equipment will be brought up-to-date. We use treated water for our gardens; all the soaps, shampoos etc are certified as being environmentally friendly,” said Hoogewijs.

Eight of the leading riverside hotels have recently gotten together to form a marketing partnership. What does he think of this? “I think it makes sense, especially for hotels along the river or for us in the CBD (central business district.) I’d be happy to join something like this but it depends on what the goal is,” concluded Hoogewijs.

Written by : Punam Mohandas

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