With more than 24 years of experience in the hospitality industry, Paul Jackson took on a new role in August as general manager of Mandarin Oriental, Sanya. He began his career with Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group (MOHG; MDO.LSE, MO4.SGX) in 2006 as executive assistant manager of food and beverage at the hotelier’s Hong Kong property, and was then promoted to resident manager at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok in 2008. Previously, Jackson held a variety of roles at the Savoy Hotel Group, the Ritz London, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG.NYSE, IHG.LSE) and was also responsible for for the British Royal Household’s food and beverage service. He spoke with China Economic Review about MOHG’s mainland China expansion, and the internationalization of Sanya’s tourism industry.
Q: What has your experience at Mandarin Oriental, Sanya been like so far?
A: Obviously, the first few months of taking on a new role are pretty hectic. It’s a learning process that involves understanding the operation and most importantly, the market in China since it’s my first time here. It’s also my first time working in a resort environment. I’m enjoying this and the different kind of thinking that is required. I’ve been undertaking a review of the hotel’s products, processes, people and profits, and I have to say that the people are the most valuable asset in this destination.
Q: How so?
A: I think there are many great luxury hotels globally, and also in Sanya. Once you have your hardware completed, it’s the people who really help a hotel stand out and make a difference in guests’ experiences. This is especially important in a leisure destination like Sanya, where we’re more than a hotel. We’re kind of selling dreams; it’s more than just a hotel room.
Q: What kinds of incentives or strategies do you use to help motivate staff?
A: A lot of our employees are far from home. Many are recruited across the entire region, particularly China. They are in a resort destination, so it’s different from city hotels, where staff are able to go home to their families. Here, people go home to a dormitory, so it’s important to create a sense of community and a family environment. We also encourage strong, open communication – forums for colleagues to voice their input and concerns, and what they enjoy. Learning, training and development are critical, too. I was pleasantly surprised how keen our colleagues are to learn and grow. They really see tourism as a career and as an opportunity to develop themselves in the industry.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you have faced so far?
A: It’s really what’s happening in Sanya as a destination in general. There are 20,000 additional rooms being built in the next three to five years. As a result, there are two challenges: One, of course, is that demand needs to meet the new supply. And, obviously, all these new hotels will be looking for good employees. There are going to be difficulties in terms of talent recruitment and retention. Another challenge is that this is Mandarin Oriental’s first property in mainland China, so for us it’s important to gain traction and build brand presence. We have properties opening in Guangzhou and Shanghai in 2012, and then Beijing and Taipei shortly after that.
Q: How is this property different from other hotels you have managed?
A: This is my first time in a true resort. That said, my previous posting in Bangkok was at more of an urban resort and it was a good stepping stone for me. In a city hotel, you have a very precise physical working space – perhaps, a building that’s 20 storeys high, with restaurants and banquet space. Here, you have 12 hectares of beautiful landscape gardens and property, so there are more opportunities to create resort experiences for our guests.
Q: How has MICE business fared in Sanya since the economic downturn?
A: I think China as a whole has weathered the global recession extremely well. What impacted Sanya in 2010 was the Shanghai World Expo, as people were keen to visit Shanghai. But I think, overall, Sanya’s hospitality industry has been relatively recession-proof. The government recently announced that Sanya would be designated an international tourist destination. That created a lot of interest in the destination as a whole, so we’ve actually seen growth. I think we can expect a relatively buoyant market in 2011 as well, but in an increasingly competitive environment.
Q: How does this status help Sanya’s tourism industry?
A: Apart from things like infrastructure investment, it helps people see opportunities for international growth. Over the next few years, all of the major luxury hotel brands will be represented in Sanya. Even though it creates a competitive marketplace, I think that’s quite positive, because it will change Sanya. It will be similar to how Bali, the Maldives and Thailand have become international tourist destinations in the last 20 years. Currently, 75% of Sanya’s visitors are from the domestic market. I think that trend will continue, but as people discover how beautiful this destination is, they will become more favorable to it than elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Q: How does Sanya stand out as a MICE destination, compared to other Chinese cities?
A: I think, as with many resort destinations, it allows people to hold their meetings in a much more informal environment. The pace is more relaxed and you feel that as soon as you arrive in Sanya. Becoming calm, and having a balanced lifestyle, allows people to relax and be more creative. It’s an ideal destination for concentration and stimulation of the mind.