Perth, Western Australia, is often cited as the most isolated major city on Earth – a place which sits a very long way from civilization – so for Perth native Nick Downing, the journey to Bangkok and the sophistication of his current posting at The Siam has been quite the adventure.
From learning the ropes in Australia to taking on his first GM role in the Maldives at the opening of Per AQUUM’s Huvafen Fushi in 2004, Nick gained a deeper appreciation of what it takes to thrive in the refined luxury segment.
His next move was to Siem Reap in Cambodia and the Hotel de la Paix, where his role as Director of Operations for Ativa Hospitality gave him the opportunity to assist with the openings of a number of boutique hotels around South East Asia including Hansar, 137 Pillars Chiang Mai, and Kiridara in Luang Prabang.
An older and wiser Nick was now the perfect choice to lead Per AQUUM as Vice President when Minor Hotels took over the brand in 2013, but just three years later, the opportunity presented itself to join The Siam – the most exclusive address in Bangkok. Famously designed by Bill Bensley and owned by the Sukosol family, The Siam is recognized among the world’s top independent hotels, and Nick’s mission today is to keep that reputation flying high.
What’s the most challenging aspect of running your hotel?
Hotels are ultimately about people and relationships. The hotel owner, the hotel team, the partners with whom we collaborate, and most importantly, the guests. My passion is to create the best experience for our guests which will lead to success on many levels in terms of both reputation and results. Every day we spend time constantly reviewing what our guests are doing, what they may require, and how we can go a step beyond to ensure we impress on every level.
Additionally, as The Siam has only 39 suites and private pool villas, we are essentially a luxurious resort on the banks of the Chao Phraya River so of course our other huge challenge is to ensure we live up to our promise, positioning, and reputation. It’s a never-ending challenge to ensure we keep the buildings and gardens looking sparkling and fresh.
Our latest challenge (as with many hotels nowadays) is how to focus our efforts and energy towards sustainability causes. Being based on the Chao Phraya River, it is troubling to see what ends up as day to day pollution. Most recently, we are focused on collaborating with other Bangkok River Partners to launch RefillAsia; an offshoot from the successful campaign RefillNotLandfill in Cambodia, which promotes refillable water containers to be used with a verified network of refill stations across the area. This will help us eliminate all single-use plastic water bottles from our hotel and those of others. I am excited to see large organizations such as major shopping complexes and international hotel groups keen to join this cause. We will be announcing more in the coming weeks and I feel confident this will roll out across the country in the near future.
There are many hotels coming up in your area. What makes your hotel different? What kind of opportunities do you see here?
It’s true that there are so many hotels opening in Bangkok. While many will try and compare one hotel versus another, The Siam stands out in so many unique ways.
Our owners, the Sukosol family, have created a hotel unlike any other in Asia. Our founder and creative director, Krissada Sukosol Clapp, is both a movie and rock star with a true passion for collecting and design. His collection of art and antiques, combined with the hotel design by fantasist architect Bill Bensley has created a living art museum which guests spend hours exploring.
I often say, however, that it truly is the team that brings a hotel to life, and I am proud to say that The Siam family always strives to impress. As an example, after receiving so much feedback from our guests, I created a term to describe our butler’s approach to service; ‘invisibly present’. As if by magic, they are there to help guests whenever needed but never overly intrusive to the guest experience. It’s a fine balance which I believe The Siam has perfected over time. The word “butler” is quite a generic term thrown around by many. It’s true to say that most of our guests are not interested in having their cases unpacked or having silver service during their room service delivery. What they truly want is someone to help create a seamless and memorable experience while with us. Our approach to training is to do whatever it takes. Think about what the guest wants or needs before they need to ask. Surprise and impress. If asked for something, say yes first, and think later how to make it happen. But do it quietly, professionally and seamlessly. Most importantly, do it with heart. This is what will truly set us apart.
And of course, many discuss our location. Many people think you have to stay “downtown”, and that may suit many visitors to Bangkok. However, The Siam is another world from the typical five-star high-rise hotel amongst the office buildings and mega-malls. Our riverside location in the Royal District of Dusit is the key to our guest experience. Using our private launch, we escort our guests to any number of cultural and experiential locations such as the Grand Palace and Wat Arun, the creative art district and of course, even ICON Siam for those requiring a little “retail therapy”.
What’s your favorite thing about your hotel?
Since its opening in 2013, I can suggest that the “The Siam” is now established as a world-class brand which is constantly recognized locally and internationally as a standout in terms of reputation, guest service, design, and style. I regularly spend hours of my day engaging with guests from around the world and it is uplifting to see how guests react to the experience we create.
Having worked in some world-class iconic resorts, I can also share that The Siam has one of the best teams of people I have ever been privileged to work with. No General Manager can be a success without their team’s support, dedication, and passion and I am very proud of The Siam family.
It’s also exciting to work in a hotel which breaks so many traditional rules. As an independent family-owned hotel, we have the flexibility and support to change direction and do whatever it takes to get the job done.
Oh… and lastly, I love the fact that I don’t have to wear and suit and tie to work!
You have been in the luxury segment for a long time. What kind of changes have you seen in this segment in the past 10 years?
I suppose the thing that stands out to me is the corporatization of the hotel industry. The mega mergers and the lack of quality independent hotels in general.
Many small groups start with a unique premise, amazing concepts and ideas. What I often notice is that they grow over time and then somehow they lose what made them stand out initially. It is like looking at something rare, like a beautiful, unique piece of jewelry that is truly special. However, if it were to be copied a hundred times, it would not have quite the same unique value.
I believe guests are often looking to be surprised by the rare and the unique and for an experience which is ultra-personalized. In the end, I consider true luxury is about time and space. If you look at many successful top luxury hotel concepts, they somehow try and deliver on this. Larger rooms, places to relax or engage, and concepts creating more flexibility in how guests spend or maximize their time.
You have been in Asia for a while now. What are the pros and cons about the Asian work environment?
Having come out of Australia I’ve been fortunate to work in some incredible locations over the past twenty years such as Maldives, Seychelles, Cambodia, and Thailand, and also with experience in destinations such as the Middle East, Sri Lanka, and even Zanzibar.
I love Asia and Thailand as I believe you can provide a level of authentic and genuine service unlike other countries. The people make the difference and there is a deep motivation to go above and beyond to impress.
I also think many of the successful concepts have originated in Asia. There is a true energy and excitement in Asia unlike other regions, a desire and culture to experiment and to try new ideas.
Disadvantages? That’s a harder question. Yes, there are the cultural and underlying issues. However, as long as you’re aware of this and do your best to align yourself with the culture, you often find yourself warmly welcomed. Of course, learning the language helps and this is something I have never been successful at doing! But I haven’t given up yet, even after all this time.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a successful hotelier in the luxury segment?
Be willing to learn from the ground up and don’t expect to be GM in five years. Find mentors and people to look up to and collaborate with. Most of all, be passionate. Being a hotelier is something you are born to do. You either have it in you or you don’t.
Personally, I have made sacrifices to be where I am today. However, it is my life and I wouldn’t have changed any of it to be where I am today.