Natapree Pichaironarongsongkram, or Pim, is the Managing Director of Supatra Real Estate and is responsible both for Tha Maharaj, which is a community mall and pier on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, and the Riva Surya boutique hotel. With a sister property, the Riva Arun due to open later this year when renovation work is complete, and another retail project under construction, business is expanding rapidly for the young American-educated hotelier.
Hotelintel.co had the chance to meet Pim recently to talk about the boutique hotel sector and learn more about her own ideas on how to manage small independent properties in today’s market. A bachelor’s degree in hospitality from Cornell, followed by a master’s in real estate from Columbia would appear to be the ideal preparation, but Pim is well aware there is always more to learn.
“As a new graduate you’re trying to apply everything from the books, but sometimes it’s not applicable when you’re educated so far away in the US and then you’re applying it to Thailand. I learned a lot and it definitely helped, but now it’s all about adapting and learning from the people who are living it.”
The ability to listen and learn, and make the most of horizontal communication channels has clearly earned Pim the respect and loyalty of her staff and colleagues, and helped forge a strong relationship with the management company which handles the day-to-day business of operating the hotel.
“Even though I graduated in hospitality, it doesn’t mean that I can run a hotel,” she explains. “*But the management company we’re working with is very easy to talk to. We’re only 68 rooms at Riva Surya, so we were not looking for big chain management companies as they often set a minimum of 120 keys or more – but with this company *They are more flexible on standards for sizes, facilities and amenities – they are more family oriented.”
This notion of family is reinforced by Riva Surya’s charitable initiatives. “At the hotel, we aim to give back to society, so we look for CSR activities where we can involve everyone in the company,” says Pim. “This is the first year of our project to clean the river. It’s been very successful, as over half of our hotel staff and executives joined in on that good cause. We took 15 boats and we went in the canals to collect all the trash. We’re trying to understand how the people by the river live, as we too are on the river and we’re also responsible. We also work with other organizations. Right now we are working with an orphanage. We are always looking at what’s missing and what they want.”
One important aspect of running a boutique hotel is to pay close attention to detail and to motivate those all-important staff members to deliver. “It’s very people-oriented – it’s not like you’re running a factory. And now, internet reviews are very important, so you always have to review yourself – how are you doing against competitors and how are you doing against your customer feedback. You always have to improve yourself.”
For Pim, guest relations should supported by design and personalization, but comfort is the key. “You can’t compromise comfort and quality, so even some hotels have smaller rooms because of locations or other constraints, we can’t compromise on the quality of the linens, the power of the shower, and staff training.”
This emphasis on quality can also be extended to Food & Beverage. Apart from the need to provide a good breakfast, Pim says: “It’s always a challenge to operate F & B in a hotel – people think, ‘why should I eat in a hotel when there are so many options?’ We only have one outlet and guests come for good Thai food. We started with a mainly western menu because that’s what I like – some of my favourite dishes from New York – but now we aim to have 50% Thai dishes.”
The final challenge for boutique operators is to become well known. You have to get yourself online – make a very good website and reservation system. You might pay the OTA’s but that’s perfectly fine because you need the exposure. If you’re not relying on Thai clientele then you really need to know your target market. We attract Europeans, Australians and Americans, but not so many Asians, mainly due to our location in the old town by the river. More Europeans like to come to the old town. Once you know who your target markets are, you can do more micro marketing locally in their language.”
Achieving success in any field takes a combination of talent, experience and hard work, and Pim makes it abundantly clear that it’s essential to abandon your ego and learn how every aspect of the business works from the bottom up: “You can’t just manage at the macro level and point fingers! ”