The Bangkok-based group’s Senior Vice President for Hotel Operations in Asia shares his thoughts on health and safety protocols, regional reopenings, and Avani hotels in the pipeline.
How is the recovery in Thailand going so far?
The majority of our hotels—with the exception of one or two—are operational, but we are marketing them solely to domestic travelers. I view ourselves as being fortunate to be based in countries with tens of millions of inhabitants, but in terms of rates, experiences, occupancy levels, it’s a completely different operation. Early on, when we opened our hotels within driving distance from Bangkok, in Hua Hin and Pattaya, that helped us to gain a level of credibility with customers. They saw that we have a safety protocol which works, we have systems in place, and once guests have passed all these hurdles, they can have a very enjoyable and relaxing stay in our hotels. At the time there were no flights, so people had to drive some hours to reach our properties outside Bangkok; I think that helped our guests put things in perspective. Now, there are about 18 flights a day between Bangkok and Phuket on three different carriers, Krabi has flights, Chiang Mai has flights, Hat Yai has a few flights, and almost every week is a little bit brighter.
How do you balance stringent hygiene and cleanliness measures with the need for human contact?
It’s a fine line that everybody is treading. If we compare things now to six weeks or even two months ago, everything has developed and improved. We have very strict SOPs and guidelines for the operations in our properties, and we divide this into different areas, so it’s front office, food preparation, stewarding, restaurants, bars and so forth. We have taken a step back and analyzed every touchpoint we have with the guest during their stay, changing things where possible to limit or reduce this contact. So now, you can give your passport details in advance and tell us your preferred mode of payment before arriving. But there are two key contacts or interactions we can’t change. By law, you need to sign the registration card at check in. We need to give you a pen. So, what we have in every reception is little UV disinfecting boxes. They are 30 centimeters long, five centimeters wide, eight centimeters deep, and they’re connected to power. For signing the registration card, we present you a pen from the box. These pens are sanitized and UV cleaned, as are plastic key cards.
Our team members are wearing their normal uniforms with a mask; front desk and F&B service also wear gloves. We have sanitizers that are prominently displayed for the use of everyone, and we strive to ensure that every team member sanitizes his or her hands every 30 minutes or less. One interesting thing that we noticed is this: in the past, the cleaning would be done at nighttime, or you would hide it. Now, we do it publicly. So, when you arrive, you don’t mind seeing a receptionist sanitizing her hands, because it makes you think, “that’s perfect, I’m just about to check in.”
What is the new arrangement for breakfast buffets at Avani and Anantara hotels?
There are two fundamental changes: one is that what you see visibly presented is probably less than before. There is distance between each plate, and in front of the display we have installed big plastic panels to protect the food. Everything will be served to you. So, you’ll say, “I’d like two slices of watermelon and pineapple,” and the team member behind the screen will put that on your plate. Secondly, most hot dishes are offered à la carte. Psychologically, it’s a bit of a change, because a lot of guests who come to the breakfast restaurant like to see 20- to 25-meter-long buffets. They’re still there, but as I said there is probably less food on display. It’s very important you can eat as much as you’d like, there’s the same choice, but each dish comes to you in the most efficient, most hygienic way and we serve whatever we can directly from the kitchen to your table.
Judging by what you’ve seen so far, are meetings in China and Thailand making a comeback?
If you look at the Avani Riverside in Bangkok, which has a convention center attached to it, we do get events that are organized from and within the country. We do have restrictions in terms of the number of attendees per venue, and we also need to make sure the social distancing is in place. In Thailand that means keeping people one meter apart from each other, so if you have a classroom-style setup for 300 guests you can imagine it uses more space than previously. The business is back on a smaller scale, we do have weddings, but instead of having guests sitting at a table of 10, it’s a table of four or five. We’re just fortunate because we have large facilities that we can set up with more space in between each person and table. China’s busy. Our hotels there are in operation, China has some travel restrictions between certain provinces, but by and large they’re back to normal.
The Maldives is one of the few Asian countries that is welcoming international tourists. What is the status of Minor Hotels’ resorts there?
When a destination like the Maldives is opening up, the important thing is to consider how much air links it has, because that’s how 99.9 percent of our guests arrive. The number of flights has been relatively limited, partially owing to the fact that many countries still have travel restrictions. Since the air links are not as strong as everybody would have thought, we are currently working on reopening our hotels in the Maldives on the 1st of October.
What projects has Minor Hotels carried out during the hotel closures around Asia?
We have been completing renovations or fast-tracking them at hotels where they have started, so for example, the Avani Sepang has finished a large portion of the villas’ refurbishment, and because the hotel sadly had to be closed, we were able to get the contractors in quicker than planned. The Avani FCC in Siem Reap has been completed, so when it reopens later in September, all the room categories will be available. The Avani in Seminyak has just been upgraded, and that will also be opening in September. In Sri Lanka, we have finished room renovations at the Avani Kalutara.
Avani is planning to open 11 new hotels by the end of 2024. Are there any specific properties you are most excited about?
First and foremost, we are excited about every hotel opening. But what’s always very exciting for us is introducing our hotels, bringing our brand to new destinations where we don’t have a flag. So, if you want to single out two in particular, I think the Avani Fares Island in the Maldives and the Avani in Muscat, Oman, are a little bit special.
Avani+ Koh Lanta is slated to open later this year. Can you tell us more about the resort and its location?
The hotel has both rooms and villas, so that gives the guests a choice. I think Koh Lanta is a bit of a hidden gem in southern Thailand. In terms of accessibility, the opening of the airport of Krabi a few years back really helped to make it easier to reach the island. So, now you can have people coming from Singapore, from Jakarta, from Hong Kong for a long weekend, whereas before you had to fly to Phuket and transit from there. Getting into Krabi, you’ll transfer to the port for a quick ferry crossing to Koh Lanta, which is a real holiday destination. We do have a spa in the hotel; we have two restaurants that we can’t share too much about yet, but I can assure you we will have very unique dining experiences. One is very much focused on fresh produce, obviously from the sea, with southern Thai cuisine, and the other one is a bit different. Once you’ve had two or three lovely Thai meals, maybe you want to have something Western – we want to be able to provide that as well. There is more news to come, and we are working toward an opening in the festive season or very late this year.
Is Minor Hotels involved in the Safe and Sealed Plan for Phuket?
In terms of the various campaigns and travel bubbles, we actively work closely here with TAT [Tourism Authority of Thailand] and the respective provinces. Phuket is identified as a bubble. If you look at it on the map, an island lends itself very well to that, so the same could work for Samui. I think it’s still a little bit early to give estimates on dates and say which countries have been singled out to be part of this bubble, but the government is working actively to make sure that, if and when this becomes a reality, we are ready from a logistical point of view. So, that means the airports are open, ground transfers are taken care of, and Phuket has certified hotels where these travelers can quarantine and then enjoy their holiday.
Finally, what trips are you looking forward to going on after this pandemic passes?
Zoom, Microsoft Team, FaceTime, and WhatsApp calls are all great, but when we are able to travel again to our properties in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, we are really looking forward to reconnecting with the team on a face-to-face basis, with the leaders on the ground who have been running the hotels during these difficult times. On a personal level, I certainly look forward to hitting the slopes in Switzerland during the winter. Every year I make it a habit to spend at least a week, or hopefully a bit longer, on skis somewhere, so while I’ll probably take a break this winter, I want to make sure that we uphold this tradition in the years to come.