The Suite Life

We catch up with Blair Fowler who gives us an in­sight into the life of a ho­tel gen­eral man­ager

Oi Vietnam - - Troi Oi! - Text by Tasso Dat­ten­berg-Doyle Im­ages by Ngoc Tran

THE RE­NAIS­SANCE RIVER­SIDE Ho­tel Saigon on Ton Duc Thang has an ecosys­tem of its own: 336 rooms, a ground floor bar, spa, two restau­rants, sky­bar, lounge, rooftop pool and a fit­ness cen­ter are all com­pacted within the cream mono­lith over­look­ing the Saigon River. Like many lux­ury ho­tels, the Re­nais­sance seems to swal­low you whole when you step off the Saigon pave­ment and into its mar­ble lobby. The air is cool, guests and staff alike crisscross the large, open sur­face and the con­stant stream of noises pal­li­ates. The sense that per­vades this area, and the rest of the ho­tel, is sta­bil­ity and as­sured­ness. The ecosys­tem ac­com­mo­dates you, the for­eign body, as it has done many thou­sands be­fore, to en­joy its many at­trac­tions and shake off your wor­ries. This, of course, is the ul­ti­mate at­trac­tion of ho­tels: a homeaway-from-home where every­thing is pro­vided for in a seam­less stream of con­ve­niences. It’s even bet­ter than home in fact, so how does it all come about? In the Re­nais­sance, this gestalt at­mos­phere is the keep­sake of Blair Fowler, Gen­eral Man­ager (GM) of the ho­tel, and while every­one has their part to play to keep every­thing run­ning smoothly, he’s the one who has to over­see them.

Blair be­came a hôte­lier af­ter com­plet­ing his stud­ies in ho­tel management in his na­tive Aus­tralia.

The train­ing, which formed the ba­sis for un­der­stand­ing the over­all run of a ho­tel, was use­ful for ac­cel­er­at­ing around the learn­ing curve that one goes through with any pro­fes­sion. It is, how­ever, clear that, like with any pro­fes­sion, there is no sub­sti­tute for ex­pe­ri­ence. As Blair ex­plains, the most valu­able piece of ad­vice he was ever given in the busi­ness was “you don’t know what you don’t know” and ev­ery day in the life of a gen­eral man­ager can bring you up to date on an­other blank niche.

What are the main func­tions of the GM? Slowly the flood­gates open. “As the GM you have the over­sight of every­thing in the ho­tel. A large part is owner re­la­tion­ship [Mar­riott in the case of the Re­nais­sance], an­other part is man­ag­ing the re­la­tion­ship with the management com­pany [Mar­riott’s sub­sidiary in Bangkok] and then the next part is run­ning the op­er­a­tion. The direct re­ports

that I have re­port­ing to me are Di­rec­tor of Sales and Marketing, Di­rec­tor of Op­er­a­tions, Di­rec­tor of Finance, Di­rec­tor of Hu­man Re­sources and then the Di­rec­tor of Engi­neer­ing.”

In per­son, Blair is very friendly and attentive, a must-have qual­ity in the busi­ness of hos­pi­tal­ity I imag­ine, but it’s clear that his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties keep him busy at all times when he is in the build­ing. As he’s talk­ing the power cuts out for a few sec­onds. Blair checks his watch. “The backup gen­er­a­tor should come on faster than that,” he ex­plains, be­fore mak­ing a quick call to the peo­ple in charge of that de­part­ment who also re­port to him.

In the first in­stance, it is clear, the role of a GM is to be hands-on. Ev­ery day Blair makes sure that every­thing is in its right­ful place. The food has to be pre­pared and dis­played cor­rectly, the beds need to be made and staff have to be attentive to their guests. If there’s some­thing miss­ing, some­thing that needs to be fixed or a prob­lem that the staff need help deal­ing with then it’s to him they turn. If he were up in his of­fice the whole time he would be un­able to help or give ad­vice based on the im­me­di­ate needs of the sit­u­a­tion, he ex­plains. A ho­tel is only as good as the peo­ple who run it and the buck stops with the GM. It is up to them to make sure that ev­ery as­pect of the ho­tel is moulded to pro­vide the right ex­pe­ri­ence for the guests, from the top down and back to front. While the GM is not an en­gi­neer or a chef or an elec­tri­cian, it is their re­spon­si­bil­ity to co­or­di­nate with these dif­fer­ent groups in or­der to tie to­gether the whole ecosys­tem.

Quite aside from these prac­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties how­ever, the ho­tel in­dus­try in gen­eral and par­tic­u­larly top tier jobs like GM are built for the ad­ven­tur­ous. Ho­tels, by their very na­ture, are a des­ti­na­tion for the in­ter­na­tional, for hol­i­day­mak­ers and those in the busi­ness alike, Blair ex­plains. His own work had al­ready taken him from Aus­tralia to New Zealand, New York, Lon­don, five years in Thai­land and then to Viet­nam. Work­ing in such a busi­ness re­quires adapt­abil­ity and, for those will­ing to dip their toes in un­known wa­ters, it can pro­vide a wealth of op­por­tu­nity for travel.

One big draw­back is ad­mit­ted. Ho­tels are a 24-hour busi­ness and when you’re the one in charge you can be up all hours. When it’s mid­night and the guests are a-rois­ter­ing there is still work to be done and dili­gent GMs like Blair make sure that even late-night slots run with the ef­fi­ciency of prime­time.

When I asked Blair what he en­joyed most about his busi­ness, I was sur­prised when the an­swer came: “Men­tor­ing.” From any­one’s per­spec­tive, the world of 5-star hos­pi­tal­ity seems glam­orous. It calls to mind im­ages of celebri­ties from the movies, a life of ex­cess and lux­ury. Don’t get me wrong, ho­tels can pro­vide that, but for Blair and hope­fully for many other GMs it is more than that. Blair ex­plains to me that he is a men­tor, help­ing more ju­nior mem­bers in the com­pany grow their ca­reers. He says that he had a men­tor when he was com­ing up as well and still has a men­tor to­day. Be­yond the man­i­fold du­ties re­quired in the run of the ho­tel it is fit­ting to see that, at the top level, there is still a duty of care in the role of the man­ager of these stately sec­ond homes, and one which they en­joy whole­heart­edly.

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