The lady's not for turning
Through all the rough and tumble of hotel management, Piyaman Tejapaibul has looked straight ahead and weathered ever y political and tourism crisis.
Piyaman Tejapaibul’s success in hotels and hospitality is due in no small part to her staying in sync with the dynamic sector through its many ups and downs over the decades.
For the lady of the Regent Group — officially she’s the managing director of the hotel, property and education operator — life is not just about empowering the family business, but also reinforcing and strengthening the country’s service sector.
“I have been working for 35 years,” says Mrs Piyaman, 56. “I’m proud to be one of the people who have been driving the tourism industry.”
In 2010, Mrs Piyaman was chosen as president of the Tourism Council of Thailand (TCT). In two consecutive terms over four years, she and her team worked closely with tourism organisations in the public and private sectors and with other stakeholders inside and outside Thailand.
“During my time, the GDP share of tourism climbed to a record 18%, a level never seen before,” she says. “But then the tourism sector suddenly dropped and faced a crisis due to uncontrollable issues.”
The political tensions of the time chased away a lot of tourists, but all parties rallied to tackle the problem and get the tourism sector back on track.
The daughter of a wealthy family, Mrs Piyaman insists she had never worked closely with politicians and authorities. But to fulfil her duty as head of the TCT, she moved around town and met with many industry leaders and top officials, seeking ways to drive the tourism sector and overcome the crisis.
“All the way, there was pressure,” she says. “But with my strength and maybe because I am a woman, I put my best efforts into work, especially when dealing with groups and bearing in mind differences in thought. In fact, my aim was to lead the tourism industry forward and make it the best for everyone.”
Mrs Piyaman says the TCT post gave her a chance to prove that gender is immaterial to performance in a big job. Some of the worst situations took a long period of time to resolve or show improvement. Stress and fatigue were never a nuisance because she knows how to deal with such hurdles and erase pain from her life.
“My routine work involves meeting and discussing different issues with many people,” she says. “Some days I’m talkative and some days I keep quiet. It’s all about my considered judgement about what to do for the tourism sector.”
When the tourism industry is on the ropes, one resort is “soft power” through diplomatic overtures. For instance, when calamity gives potential tourists pause, the TCT can ask the government for help with soft-power initiatives such as visa exemptions or waivers for visa fees to lure visitors.
During Mrs Piyaman’s 35 years at work, the Tejapaibul family has focused on existing businesses rather than expansion. Core businesses include a 30-year-old office building called Regent House on Ratchadamri Road and the 35-year-old Regent Cha-Am Hotel on the Western Seaboard.
Regent Cha-Am Hotel offers 560 rooms, plus 15 meeting rooms and convention halls. It bills itself as the biggest venue for Mice (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) on the coast.
The Tejapaibuls at one time allowed an international chain to manage the hotel, but the experiment ended with a return to family management and a focus on domestic markets.
According to Mrs Piyaman, instead of building new hotels or expanding the portfolio to other destinations, the Regent Group prefers to add on to existing properties. The group opened a hotel school in 2014 in Cha-am, Phetchaburi province called Regent Cha-Am Hospitality School, aiming to produce a skilled workforce for the hotel business.
“When I worked for the TCT, I realised that the hotel sector is booming but lacks well-trained workers,” Mrs Piyaman says. “So I formed the school for young, passionate people who want to work in hotels. This will help solve the shortage of skilled labour.”
A nine-month course is offered for students with a high school certification or higher. In the first three months, students learn about the hotel industry in general. In the next three months, each must choose an occupation such as housekeeping or receptionist. In the last three months, they can practise at the hotel of their choice and submit a job application before graduation.
The curriculum fee is 100,000 baht per person and includes meals and accommodation. So far the school has produced more than 140 students. Some are even working at hotels overseas.
The school will soon change its name to Regent Hospitality College. It will partner with a hotel school in Switzerland to ensure that instruction meets international standards. The next semester begins in April 2018.
For Mrs Piyaman, life moves forward and there are many things to do. Her latest venture is the establishment of an education club specifically for rich people called the Ultrawealth Group.
Back in 2015, Mrs Piyaman was asked to help raise funds for Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Economics, from which she graduated. As an alumna, she did well because of her strong ties with millionaires in many sectors.
With the fund-raising done, Mrs Piyaman and three friends formed the Ultrawealth Group to run a niche education business. They created an environment in which business leaders can meet, talk and exchange knowledge and expertise. Class takes place once a week at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel in the Ratchaprasong area.
Each member must spend 460,000 baht for a fourmonth course, excluding overseas educational trips.
Since 2015, the Ultrawealth Group has operated three classes and certified 312 people, drawn from various sectors such as finance, banking, entertainment and energy.
Asked whether the Ultrawealth Group functions mainly for schmoozing, Mrs Piyaman concedes that money is not paramount for members, who after all are already rich, but she maintains that the experience is beneficial for bringing together bankers, business owners, media personalities and so on.
“It is not like that way [all partying and fun], because many executives still need to learn more about the world and realise that they don’t know everything.”
The Ultrawealth Group’s new class will begin in January, and potential participants aged 30-plus with a strong reputation are invited.
Mrs Piyaman plans to continue working with no retirement in sight. She says life should consist of three pillars: working, family and social, in equal measure.
“I have to balance all these three things so I don’t work too much and have less time for family and friends,” she says. “I have to ration out my time for every part.”
Mrs Piyaman says her working philosophy includes being a rational person. Yes, it may seem simple for people to have reasons for whatever they are doing. But this becomes of greater importance in business.
“People have many reasons for living or doing business,” she says. “If they have good reasons, they should have a chance to succeed. For myself, I had reasons to open my own hotel school. They were because the industry is lacking trained workers and that will hit the entire tourism industry sooner or later if the problem is ignored. This is one of the reasons.”
Another time-honoured philosophy is always preparing a second plan. Since running a business is not easy, everyone should always have more options or alternatives on the table in case of a disruption without warning.
In her personal life, Mrs Piyaman has to be a good mum, taking care of a son and a daughter while at the same time looking after her parents. She travels overseas with her children twice a year.
Travelling is not only about fun, but also learning. Going to provinces like Ayutthaya offers culture and relaxation, and getting there with family is a great experience. The family also loves to stay at newly opened hotels in hopes of absorbing new ideas.
Mrs Piyaman’s daughter is keen about technology and is helping to oversee a new business platform. Her son is working at another company to gain experience but will soon return to help run the family business.
“Yes, I’m still working every day, but not too much as in the past,” Mrs Piyaman says. “Something is being passed to the new generation. I still love to teach and share my experience with young people.”
Every Saturday, she does Pilates and other exercises. When she can spare a moment, she loves to play piano with her mum at home, singing along and enjoying their time together.
People have many reasons for living or doing business. If they have good reasons, they should have a chance to succeed. PIYAMAN TEJAPAIBUL MANAGING DIRECTOR, REGENT GROUP
As president of the Tourism Council of Thailand, Mrs Piyaman guided the sector through turbulent times.
Mrs Piyaman cherishes her time with her mum and her two children. She says she tries not to let work intrude on her time with family and friends.
The Regent Cha-Am Hotel was once run by an international chain, but the property later reverted to management by Mrs Piyaman’s family.