Meeting the Swedish resort manager of Sunwing Resort Kamala Beach and Sunprime Kamala Beach Resort, Phuket it soon becomes clear that Johan Magnusson feels blessed. Blessed to be working among happy holidaying people and with great colleagues. And just as grateful to be alive; Johan was caught by the tsunami wave on Sri Lanka but survived. Unsurprisingly that experience has shaped him; his character is very positive-minded and open. The feel-good factor is a driving force for him.
Johan says that he often reminds himself that he is privileged to be working where he is – in a resort environment, overlooking pools, lush gardens and smiling people.
He is also practicing Buddhism after many years in Asia so it appears he has found his place.
A sort of homecoming
He indeed confirms that the arrival to Thailand slightly felt like coming home – entering an entirely new role and seeing that he could benefit so much from what he had learned previously in training his staff and bridging the gap between Asian and Western cultures.
“This country that has been much more exciting than I anticipated before arriving. I was sceptical. But after many years one can see that tourism is big, and yet so much of the Thai way still prevails, just around the corner basically. A fascinating culture still dominates Thai life.”
The particular day for ScandAsia’s visit also happens to coincide with the day when the hotel gets its occasional blessing. So nine monks arrive and take the stage in the ballroom, where the hotel owner family and Johan along with many of his associates partake in the ceremony.
Johan’s favourite hobby is anthropology, he discloses, which connects to his background as a round trip guide for many years – from where his interest in cultures have just grown. Also in Thailand he really loves to observe the local culture and attends local ceremonies and events as much as he can.
“And then being able to use it in my work I can see that I win respect with my staff when I know the code of conduct. They see I respect their culture and religion.”
Walking and talking
After the blessing his day continues with a walk around on the hotel premises. He is a people’s person and adheres to management by walking, and also talking to guests as much as he has time for; which also gives him valuable direct feedback. In doing these spontaneous walks he can discover small little details that his staff do not see as a problem.
Then follows the daily matter of going through the list of issues from the front office desk which shows solved and pending matters, the majority of them concerning guests..
Johan has instilled a sense of responsibility with his associates to always strive to achieve that little extra, which turns the vacation for the guests from good to great. It can, for example, be a gesture as compensation (for example a free dinner) to reinstall the good vibe for the guest when some kind of dissatisfaction has arisen.
The full focus is on happy guests during high season, and come February the second peak begins with the winter holidays in Europe.
Being charter hotel brands belonging to Thomas Cook, Sunprime and Sunwing in Kamala are occupied by an average 30- 40 per cent and 75 per cent respectively of guests coming from Scandinavia (the majority being Swedish.)
Bridging the gap
With this in mind Johan was contacted in Vietnam where he was then tour leader for Ving’s special round trips, soon after Sunwing had opened its first resort on Bang Tao beach on Phuket.
They wanted Johan to step in at the then brand new Sunwing, as assistant resort manager, and build a functioning team. There were some struggles to establish their European concept in a Thai setting and make the staff fully understand it.
This certainly seemed odd to some employees within Thomas Cook – that a round trip guy from the jungles of Asia, sort of, all of a sudden would be hired to manage one of their branded hotels.
But those who had asked him knew his background; that he had worked previously for Sunwing abroad in Europe, that he had been a restaurant manager within entertainment in Stockholm, Sweden and on top of that his vast experience of Asian cultures.
“Those three components would be a good combination, they thought, whereas I was very hesitant to give up what I was doing. I saw it as a privilege to be in those countries and doing that job. In retrospect I can see that they had picked me for the right reasons though.”
It was agreed that Johan would first help them for one season. But here he still remains on Phuket after six and doing his fourth year as resident manager of the Kamala beach properties.
“It was such joy to lead the hotel and work with so may associates, and to see that I could benefit a lot from what I had learned over the years in my daily role coaching my managers to become popular and capable. I could put myself in the shoes of a guest and what’s important for her.”
Cross-cultural training has been a big part in his management roles and bridging the gap when guests raise any issues. Johan can teach his staff European do’s and don’ts while also explaining to guests the things about Thais that does not always make sense to foreigners.
Grooming the next managers
Motivating and coaching are core duties in his role and after having worked a number of years with many of the same people the atmosphere is relaxed these days. Department managers give input and ask questions – which was not the case at all when they began the journey.
Johan has worked hard to eliminate any element of fear and to become ‘you’ with the staff and build the confidence of the service manager, restaurant manager etc. so these guide their associates and all grow in their roles.
This is also essential in order to groom the next generation of local leaders, nurturing those on level two and three within the management.
“One of the tasks is to pave the way for that it could eventually be another person running the hotel and making it easy for that person to enter. I say to my department managers: if one cannot be away and cannot replace a person – then one has not succeeded fully, ‘cause you should eventually build future managers within the team.”
Hoping for another hotel in Thailand
His own transformation from guide to hotelier went more smoothly than he would have thought and developed step-by-step.
Entering as new and at a new hotel, as assistant and then opening a hotel as resort manager, has been a school.
Due to increasing demand a second Sunwing was built in Kamala and opened in November 2009, with Johan at the helm.
“After two years I got an entirely new role and then after two years again I was assigned to become double resort manager. Had I not been able to move on, I would not have been here still today as assistant resort manager. I feel I could develop further all the way up to now.”
“Now, with my fourth high season I think there is room for at least one more year to take this as far as I possibly can.”
His relation to the hotel owning family having grown stronger year after year, loving Asia and working in hotels, and with six years gone by, the idea of going back to doing round trips is put on hold indefinitely.
“I’m hoping they will open another hotel here, the optimal would be that these two partners would build one more hotel; if not in Phuket be it in Khao Lak or any other place. That would be a welcome new challenge for me.”
As for Kamala Beach being something of a Swedish settlement these days, he agrees to that but with a significant difference compared to Koh Lanta.
“Kamala is not like Lanta where you walk around in areas and feel you’re in Little Sweden or so. If you walk around on the markets here you still feel you’re in Thailand and on the beach you feel like being in an international environment. There are not only Swedes around.”
He thinks Kamala is much appreciated for its laidback vibe and local village society. Families he personally knows who have stayed at the resort have turned into residents or ‘long stay’ guests who ended up renting or buying property. Swedes are also lucky as there are several Swedish schools established in Kamala.
“I live here myself and feel at home.”