Thailand-loving Swede Advances His Career at Le Meridien, Borneo

For his continuing hotel career the Swede Patrik Ilstam chose Thailand – a destination seeing immense growth since lately. But opting for Southeast-Asia also means – at least within the hospitality sector – great possibilities for job opportunities in the entire region. The Malaysian part of the island of Borneo is such a place, which is also seeing unprecedented growth since a few years back.

Hotelier Patrik Ilstam, at Le Meridien hotel in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Photo: Joakim Persson.

While Thailand is ‘home sweet home’ for Patrik Ilstam he has been stationed on this up-and-coming tourist destination since the launch of Le Meridien’s new hotel in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah in 2005.

Here Patrik holds the position as Rooms Division Manager within Le Meridien, having spent eight years in Thailand, and where he also married a Thai lady he got to know on one of the international hotel brand’s two Phuket resorts.

“I was offered a good position on Borneo and sometimes you have to be prepared to take on new places and countries. It’s good for me too to see something else than Thailand which will always be there.”

Having a new-born daughter together with his Thai wife he naturally plans to return to Thailand later on and with Le Meridien due to open a number of new hotels in the next two years there will be plenty of opportunities even within the same hotel brand.

How it all started

Patrik’s hospitality career already stretches over 18 years, which started at Sheraton in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he worked for ten years.

Then he opted for educating himself further, choosing Bangkok and the International Tourism Industry Management School, which took two years including two periods of practice at hotels.

By the time he went to Bangkok he had already gained a genuine interest in Thailand and its culture.He had travelled a number of times on long vacations to Thailand which he spent upcountry among the locals. For Patrik staying three months in a village in the northeast was genuinely interesting. He had a friend married to a Thai and was nearly fluent in he language.

Ocean view from Le Meridien hotel in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo – Malaysia. Photo: Joakim Persson.

Back in Sweden Patrik decided to learn Thai himself so he took six terms at Folkuniversitetet (attached to universities in Sweden).“I learned to read and write, seventy-five per cent, before moving down to Thailand.”

By now he feels very Thai and “almost one hundred per cent confident in the language.”

When his second training period at Le Meridien’s Phuket Beach Resort was done he was offered an extension to go to the five-star chain’s second resort on the island – Phuket Yacht Club. There he later got the offer to continue as assistant front office manager and stayed on for nearly three years. Then he continued to Le Meridien’s former Samui resort before the Borneo (East Malaysia) offer came up.

“I have been lucky, being on the right place at the right moment, and taking the correct decisions. Before I went to Samui I was offered to start up Le Meridien’s new Khao Lak resort. I remember when the tsunami came. I was slotted to start there, but chose Samui instead,” Patrik recalls.

Culture shock in Malaysia

Coming to Malaysia, he says, was something of a culture shock in the beginning.

“It’s different here; you have so many different cultures living together. It is almost like a school example with nearly no conflicts at all regarding religion or race; very interesting. But there are no Buddhists here so you can’t find the Thai style which I had come to like very much.”

Working life he thinks is almost the same. “In a way it’s more effective here as they speak very good English. Despite I spoke good Thai in Thailand, the communication with people here is much better.”

Working on a city hotel he says he has also become accustomed to having lots of functions and hosting official events at the hotel. Another thing he has noticed is how signs of the former British colony still exist today through various occurences.

Those interested in history will find Kota Kinabalu interesting; especially what happened in recent times and how the town was invaded by Japan during the second world war and bombed to pieces.

The new hotel is increasingly attracting also tourist visitors along with Borneo’s increasing attraction as a destination, and benefiting from being a downtown venue while still so close to nature.

“When you arrive here to Borneo there are so many things to do; like diving, hiking in the mountains, seeing monkeys and exploring nature. But in order to see all this, you must reach those various places so it doesn’t matter so much where you stay. We are a very good base for doing excursions. In the evenings after having been out in nature a whole day, you have shopping and nightlife nearby us. We are trying to tap in to this market.”

Kota Kinabalu also has another highly interesting nearby attraction, in the form of a number of golf courses; with the nearest one only a few kilometres from Le Meridien.

So the Sabah province in the north-eastern part of Borneo, and also Sarawak further to the west, offers several five-star establishments along with golf courses, and even the property market for upscale residential homes is seeing the light of day. Painting this picture is probably not the common perception of this rainforest island.

“If you mention Borneo to someone on the street in Sweden they’ll think of blow pipes, Tarzan and jungle, but that is far from the case,” says Patrik who thinks people in Europe in general don’t know yet what the island has to offer.

There’s much more to Borneo Island

He thinks Borneo as a destination has incredible capacity for westerners.

“What is a great advantage here is the enormous variety of destinations. You’ve got perfect diving, mountain climbing, the Mount Kota Kinabalu and other national parks etc. There is something for anyone. And they still find new species here on Borneo. So absolutely great potential!”

“During the two years I have been here the city has almost doubled in development. We are in the middle of a huge expansion. So many new shopping centres have opened and the airport is being extended – it almost feels like Phuket did say 15 years ago.”

In that comparison Patrik Ilstam also says that the luxury hotel rooms are nearly four times cheaper on Borneo than in Thailand.

“Where I worked we had an average rate of 7000-8000 baht, while here you have an average of maybe 2500 baht. But shopping is more or less the same as in Thailand pricewise.”

With such rates and increasingly easier access by air to get to Borneo, one can only wonder what we are waiting for! Next up: Borneo!

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