Managing and training nearly 350 Thai locals how to achieve a five-star level; experiencing the ‘Thai way’ of things; hosting cocktail parties for Koreans, Japanese, or guests from Kazakhstan; visiting travel trade shows to do marketing; as well as running an elephant foundation are everyday duties for General Manager Sam-Erik Ruttman. And sometimes he gets pop stars as visitors, like when the Danish pop group Michael Learns to Rock recently came for a charity concert!
Newcomers to Thailand, bumping along the narrow roads in Phuket, may understandably wonder – “Are we really on the right way to our five-star hotel, or are we just lost in the wilds? Is this truly the way to the Laguna area!?”
Perhaps such discomforts can be seen as part of the charm of a not-yet-fully-developed country. And once inside Laguna, you enter one of Phuket’s few really peaceful oases left – including huge lagoons where Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket that opened 17 years ago shares the area with among others Banyan Tree, Sheraton and Laguna Beach Resort.
Right near the beach and surrounded by delightful gardens, Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket, with is Thai architecture, breeds comfort and that special Thai hospitality – with an extra touch. It is clearly a place where anyone can feel at his very best, including Finland-Swedish Sam-Erik who excels as its general manager.
Sam-Erik seems to be the right man in the right place, clearly enjoying socializing and taking good care of guests and even visiting some of them who has become his friends, when he occasionally goes on business trips.
“I believe that this is the biggest difference; you build friendships, rather than just being guest and hotel director. If you succeed to get friends for life with your guests, independently of what hotel you are in, then they follow me wherever I go to work,” Sam-Erik says.
When the chairman of the board of company X, in his London office, starts thinking of the winter escape, he personally gives Sam-Erik a call: ‘Can I have my room 301?’ ‘Sure, as usual,’ Sam-Erik replies and continues: ‘Shall we arrange golf the following day?’
Sam-Erik keeps detailed records of his individual guests’ needs to be able to give them those extra small details for a memorable vacation.
Personal care-taking is of utmost importance for these kinds of guests and by involving himself in giving personal service, he points out, the staff can see and learn how important it is to take care of the guests in this way. And it pays off on returning guests. “During January to March, eighty per cent have stayed here at least three times before. That is something we are very proud of,” says Sam-Erik.
Born in Sweden but growing up in Finland he entered Thailand back in 1992, initially hosting charter tourists (around 30 percent Scandinavians) at Regent in Cha-Am. Amari Boulevard in Bangkok followed and now Sam-Erik hosts business executives on their holidays.
“I have worked all my life at hotels, and we are a bit like ice hockey players or diplomats, we want to have a new team or a new country or an opportunity to climb a step up in the career. So then you jump on a new train. For me Dusit was coming back to a five star operation and to what I like the most – taking personal care of guests.”
A city hotel in comparison, he says, is more business, and a very different way to work.
“On a resort hotel, you are a host, where the guests stay for two to three weeks, and you get to learn them much better.”
To be able to deliver the expected service level demands quite a few challenges and duties though. Mainly, Sam-Erik has to manage 350 employees that apart from a few guest hosts, an Italian chef, a Swiss kitchen master and another Swiss as executive assistant manager, are Thais. And perhaps not surprisingly most of them are local employees with no knowledge of the difference between a knife and a fork.
“They have to learn everything,” says Sam-Erik who explains that the concept vacation does not exist to them.
“Normally they have never travelled outside Phuket and have no possibility of seeing another international hotel. My role is to show them that there is something else and raise the level. If they feel proud due to performance, then you can reach there.”
As an example he mentions that they recently invited the gourmet club Chaîne des Rôtisseurs from Paris for a dinner and worked very hard to get everything perfect, just to show for the service staff and chefs what it means to have world class service.
“We had a very successful night, and thanks to this they were so proud and now I notice around me that everybody try and lift their level one step.”
Clearly he has also understood how to win the hearts of his staff. He creates trust and warm relationships by involving himself in things of importance to them; like weddings, funerals or when relatives fall ill. And a monthly ‘open talk’, an ‘employee of the month’ award, as well as birthday parties for the staff helps in building relationships – vital for the hotel business to run smoothly.
“You have to consider these aspects very carefully,” says Sam-Erik about the cross-cultural issues and the difficulty in understanding Thai culture. He recalls that he experienced he learnt a lot very fast when he first came to Asia in 1984 but in fact did not understand much.
“Even now after 12 years in Thailand, I am the first one to confess that I understand very little actually. I am trying to cope with it. It is important to have the right attitude not to think that you understand clearly. Because in fact everyday there is something I don’t understand.”
Through this he has learnt to be much more sensitive. “Here I live in the hotel and when I have holiday once per year is the only time I can be relaxed. The rest of the time my antennae must be finely-tuned. I must be as close to my staff as possible, so that they can feel they can trust me. When they do, they tell me things that I would not get to know otherwise,” says Sam-Erik pointing out that he believes this takes longer to achieve in the south of Thailand where the people are harder by nature.
For Sam-Erik the hotel and its guests is a full time relationship with no difference between free time and work. No risk for boredom? “It depends on you. You must plan different things, one day check the garden, the next day sales etc. And when I walk around I do that at different times. The best routine to have is no routine at all.”
Then, also, staff knows Sam-Erik can turn up anytime, anywhere. It is the same with guests; speaking to different ones and not only those he already knows. “If you are curious about what you are doing, then it will never become routine. Curiosity is to learn something.”
Another important creative task is of course the need to promote Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket. Being a renowned resort with many returning guests does not give any guarantees for a constant stream of guests in the ever-changing world of tourism.
“You can not wait only because you have contracts with wholesalers or agents. There are marketing campaigns constantly and we are in contact with TAT all the time to see if they plan any campaigns where we could participate,” Sam-Erik explains.
A year contains a global gathering of guests and many different target markets: Europeans including Spanish and Portuguese, guests from Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Koreans, Japanese, New Zealanders and Australians. There are even guests from the United Arab Emirates coming to experience rain during August and September!
Add to this other new customer groups, such as the Chinese and Indians. Another circle of customers Sam-Erik especially mentions are people from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan: “Great potential and they are warmly welcome because they eat and drink and pay cash.”
Sales online is of course another expanding area with bookings online expected to be 20 percent during 2005. Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket has contracts with some ‘online operators’, like Expedia and Hotel.com, that they will collaborate closer with. The dramatic price difference that can occur on the Internet, Sam-Erik explains with a matter of availability.
“We don’t really know where from the smaller Internet booking websites in Thailand buy their rooms. We only know when they have been booked as we get a voucher of a pre-paid room.”
Those smaller operators certainly have no contract directly with Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket. “In fact they do not have any rooms themselves, but these rooms can go through two to three middlemen, and you must confirm at once and send your credit card details immediately to get the room,” explains Sam-Erik, warning people of scams that occur.
And on top of changing trends a hotel manager must at all times be ready for improvisation. Suddenly something unexpected and sometimes tragic happens, demanding extra attention. Perhaps all of a sudden many more guests want to come and stay at your resort!
“I came here in 2000 and that was the only normal year. 2001 started well but then came the September 11 attacks (9/11) that started the problems,” says Sam-Erik. “Later, after the Bali bomb we got a lot of business from there, because of re-routing of tourists that came to Phuket.”
To conclude Sam-Erik’s agenda there is also local charity work to manage. Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket looks after a poor school on Koh Khao island and Sam-Erik is also the co-founder of the Elephant Help Foundation and its mobile clinic that takes care of in total 360 elephants in Phuket and Phang Nga (awarded ‘Best Overseas Tourism Project’ by the British Guild of Travel Writers).
Recently the Danish pop band Michael Learns to Rock came and performed for a sell-out crowd of 800 fans, and the total proceeds of the ticket sales went to charitable causes in Phuket.
So, a typical day in the life of a hotel manager is maybe not what you think. As can be seen in Sam-Erik’s case his workdays are very varied, if not truly unique.
But what is his main challenge? “I have a simple philosophy: from the day I arrive until the day I leave, I hope the difference how the hotel is when I leave will have improved, not much but a little bit.”
Note: new photos from Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket in 2018 have been added to the story. All photos: Joakim Persson.