Proudly independent

In a hotel landscape now ruled by giants, Thailand’s Royal Cliff Hotels Group is determined to stay independent in order to grow in her own way and at her own pace. CEO Vitanart Vathanakul shares his dreams and plans with Karen Yue.

In a hospitality landscape that is now ruled by giants, how do you feel about the way forward for players that have chosen to remain independent, like Royal Cliff Hotels Group?
I have nothing but admiration for hotel companies that have chosen to remain independent. Mergers and acquisitions have resulted in fewer and fewer hotel players, and stiffer competition.

Independent players like us believe that we can continue to offer something unique for travellers as the hotel industry continues to consolidate. Travellers seek unique experiences, and independent hotels can satisfy that on the accommodation side through our own style and service, and even promise a certain exoticness and local authenticity.

In contrast, travellers staying in a chain hotel can expect a certain standardised product.

Has the thought of not being independent ever crossed your mind?
Royal Cliff is not part of any hotel distribution or marketing networks, and we are not about to change that. We rely entirely on ourselves to get business in.

Staying independent grants us the ability to develop our products the way we want them to, that is to always retain a high-level of Thai heritage and hospitality. Furthermore, we can be as flexible as we want to when it comes to decision-making and problem-solving.

We are very proud of our brand and want to continue the legacy. We are planning to expand the brand in the near future, and make Thailand proud that a homegrown local brand can go global.

What’s on the expansion cards?
We are growing in Thailand first, but given the current situation (the Covid-19 outbreak which has slowed travel down), we have to wait things out. Timing is everything. We take bold risks, but calculated ones.

This epidemic hit us right out of the blue, and is further proof that VUCA is the new normal. How do you keep clear sight of the way the Group needs to take in such a business environment?
The corporate culture matters. We have been around for more than 40 years, and we can learn from how my mother overcame a number of crises, such as the Tom Yam Goong Crisis (in 1997 when the collapse of the Thai baht led to a chain reaction across Asia), and the (political) crisis in 2008.

We have the advantage of a very strong brand. I also believe that our culture of putting our customers first has helped us through tough times, allowing us to understand what is wanted of us and to spot traveller trends immediately.

It is our culture to listen intently to our customers. I personally read every hotel review, and so does my team. If there was any guest who wanted to speak to the management about her problems or ideas for improvement, I’d be right there.

We invite feedback from customers who had completed their stay, and I pay attention to all that is shared. I even write back for more information when reviews are mostly average. When guests realise that the hotel CEO is personally interested in how they feel, they become more confident in us. We’ve gained a number of loyal customers this way.

We also analyse traveller behaviour from external sources and spot top three or four trends that we can respond to in the best ways because there is no use being a Jack of all trades and master of none.

What are you doing to maintain stability within?
Continuous learning is a big part of the Royal Cliff culture. We also have a job rotation system, so that everyone is familiar with the various processes in the hotel. That not only allows us to deploy any staff for any role in times of need, it also ensures that everyone understands the challenges their colleagues face in their respective roles.

We have a robust CRM system that all sales managers access. When one of us is ill or occupied by a situation, others can step in and nothing is left hanging for the customer. We also stay up-to-date with customer projects through meetings, which I attend too.

In an interview last year with TTG Asia, you spoke about Royal Cliff pursuing an events route to raise its destination appeal. How is that working out?
The former minister of tourism rebranded Pattaya as a destination for sports and families, and we strongly believe in that vision.

We organise two tennis tournaments ourselves. One, a local tournament that draws players from across Thailand, locals and other nationalities. The other is the International Tennis Federation Grade A, the most senior tennis tour in Asia-Pacific. In our third edition last year, we had over 200 players of 50 nationalities. It helped with Thai tourism, as players and spectators also spent time in other destinations besides Pattaya.

We have great success with our squash tournaments, which have been replicated by other organisers and corporations to the benefit of Thai tourism.

We’ve done comedy festivals, operas and concerts. Instead of waiting for our venues to be rented for events, we choose to organise our own to draw people to Pattaya.

We prioritise activities that promote health and wellness, and those that are suitable for seniors. Ultimately, we want Pattaya to be recognised as the destination in Thailand for sports, wellness and lifestyle.

What else do you have up your sleeves this year?
We’ve won the bid for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Conference 2021.

We are continuing with the tennis tournaments this year, and growing the line-up with a seniors game. There are senior citizens who are active, have a lot of time on hand, and are hungry for events they can participate in too.

We are in the process of implementing Wi-Fi 6. By 4Q2020 when the installation is complete, our hotels will offer the fastest, most stable and most secure Wi-Fi among all of Pattaya hotels. This is in response to what travellers increasingly want, and to support our move into e-sports events.

Next, I’m looking to create an academy that combines sports with business. I’ve been in talks with coaches of top 18 tennis players on how they can bring that same motivation to company CEOs. The academy programmes will utilise Royal Cliff’s venues and facilities.

In terms of hardware, we are putting the finishing touches to our major renovations of Royal Cliff Beach Hotel. The hotel will get a brand new façade as well as interior.

The Honeymoon Deluxe Rooms at our Royal Beach Terrace, our most romantic product, will be renovated and we are pushing the envelop further on luxurious, romantic experiences for our customers.

We are building the longest infinity-edge pool in Thailand, which will take advantage of the spectacular ocean view we offer at Royal Cliff.

We are always tracking user experience in our digital arena, so we are redesigning our website to improve customer’s navigation and booking process. We have invested in a chat messaging app that is manned by an in-house service team. We are a luxury brand, so chat-bots are out.

In the same vein, we have also upgraded the benefits we offer for direct bookings.

Finally, we’ve got a big surprise coming up for our loyalty programme, which you will hear of later.

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