Chris Bailey has been Chief Operating Officer at Centara Hotels & Resorts for all of three months, but he isn’t wasting any time in settling in to his new role. That’s no surprise as he’s been with Centara for over a decade in sales and marketing, so he already appreciates exactly what makes the company tick.
The first task, as Chris explains, is one of introspection. “Organizations should look at themselves outside-in,” he says. “Are we delivering the best return – are we doing what we need to do in today’s marketplace? A few years ago we did that, and that gave us a platform for significant growth, and now we’re taking the opportunity to do that again.”
This is no idle bluster – it’s well worth taking a closer look at what Chris is talking about when he mentions the strategies Centara has implemented in recent years. It takes a bold company to defy the industry consensus and choose its own path, but that’s exactly what Centara did when their analysis of market trends told them that the travel trade, especially in mature markets, was looking for suppliers of services who were easy to do business with – who could keep the cost of doing business to a minimum.
“We don’t feel we need to follow people – it’s about doing what we believe is right, so we brought in technologies and structures that made us very efficient and easy to do business with. The rest of the industry was perhaps more personalized – more cumbersome and labor-intensive, with document-driven process. We got rid of that to be cloud-based, all electronic, with no need for signatures. We did that several years ago and went our own way.”
Staying ahead of the technological curve is certainly one way to differentiate yourself, but there are several outstanding Thai hospitality brands in the market, so how can Centara continue to stand out? The answer was delivered with a refreshing honesty.
“I think most Thai brands do an exceptional job. I think we’re all really quite good at hospitality – there’s no stigma about service and hospitality in Thai culture. From our point of view, then, it’s how hard we work and how easy we make it to do business with us. I don’t think you can say our hardware is better, and to be frank our software probably isn’t either – we all do quite a good job – but where we focus is on trying to be very efficient in terms of our business process. People consider us as a good company that’s easy to do business with. And from a customer point of view we’ve tried to be consistent across our brands.”
It is clear that Thainess is still very much a part of Centara’s brand. As Chris points out, “When your homeland is the country that is most recognized for hospitality and service, globally, it would be foolhardy not to use that.”
“Our challenge is how we mix the Thainess. I don’t think it’s right and proper to recreate Thailand in another country. People want a blend of the benefits of Thai culture, but they want it merged with their own culture.”
While some Thai brands seem to base their image on exporting their Thai identity, Centara takes a more measured approach. The group has Thai staff in all of its properties, in Thailand and abroad, but there is no desire to force Thainess upon customers overseas, or simply to try to replicate what works in Bangkok. As Chris says of Thainess, “It’s almost subliminal if it’s done well. It becomes part of what you do.”
Of course, there are many other challenges ahead for Centara once the restructuring process is complete, and Chris highlighted a number of points that he’ll be attending to closely in the coming year. One weakness of the industry has been its reluctance to grasp technology, with the worst offenders hiding behind the claim that hospitality is a ‘people business’ so technology is unnecessary. Chris turns that excuse on its head, pointing out that “we’re in a people business, so we have to deliver based on people’s moods and needs. It’s about delivering choice.” He goes on to add that the best approach was “automating anything that’s not guest-facing” in order to cut down the administration and make people’s lives easier. After all, it’s easier to focus on taking care of guests when you’re not swamped with paperwork.
He expresses concern over manpower, noting that “we underestimate the requirements for manpower – in Thailand there are other service sectors growing very quickly that will take away our staff. It is incumbent upon us to develop talent.”
Finally, there is concern over sustainability in Thailand’s tourist industry. For all the talk of niche markets and the luxury sector, Thailand is a mass-market destination, and its natural environment is struggling to survive the impact. Chris observes that while the regulations exist to address issues such as filthy beaches and polluted seas, they aren’t exactly being followed. It is therefore up to the industry to step up to the plate and take action, he says, because “if we don’t, you know what? There’s somewhere better to go.”