Richard Chapman is the General Manager of the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit hotel and is one of the most respected hoteliers in Thailand. He’s been in the business for three decades and knows how to combine the best of Western systems with the best of Asian hospitality while optimizing his staff’s efficiency. It is hard for many Western managers to leave their Western methodologies behind and adapt to Eastern cultures, but Chapman has done it so well, that now he has many wondering what kind of magic he weaves to serve up the results he achieves.

Elaborating on his management approach and what makes a hotel successful these days, he says, "When I arrived, the hotel was not performing as well as it could, and I saw lots of opportunities. I knew I had a core of good people around me and I saw that if I worked with them to strengthen their teams and to inculcate a service culture that we could grow the business. Emphasis was placed on creating on environment of caring – caring for the customer, caring for the associate and for the business. As a consequence, we have crafted a service attitude and a superior customer experience.

"We are in the people business; what makes a hotel truly successful is the service it provides and the interaction between the customer and the associates (employees) of the hotel. It is very important that all my senior management maximize the time they spend on the floor with their staff and the customers.

"In the old days with the European style of hotelery, emphasis was placed on being a mein host, or patron, and entertaining customers. Now, things have changed. With the focus on the bottom line, hoteliers must somehow strike a balance between being a businessman with a lot of time spent in front of the computer screen and being on the floor with their associates providing service to their customers.

"That’s why I believe that ‘management by walkabout’ is an absolute key, and I try and practice it three times a day. I walk the public areas and the ‘heart of the house’ areas (the laundry, the linen rooms, the kitchens, the engineering plant rooms, the upholsters’ room and the flower rooms) between 7:30 and 8:30 every morning. Then I walk them again, at lunchtime and in the early evening/dinnertime. And then again, if there’s a special occasion that requires my presence, I will meet with the organizer(s) of that event.

"What do I do during my walkabout? First, I check the hardware, the cleanliness, the maintenance and the freshness of the hotel areas as I walk through them. Are the plants looking tidy? Are there any dead leaves around? Is the carpet spotted? Is there a stain on the baseboards? Is there a light bulb missing in the ceiling? Checking up on the associates is also very important; are the ladies properly made up, do they have their name badge on, and do their uniforms fit properly? I ask if they are ok, if their family is ok, or if they have any problems. The heart of the house to me is as important as the front of the house and should be in equally good condition. If the heart of the house isn’t properly maintained it’s very difficult to expect associates to go out front and give their best.

"We try and make each individual customer feel really special. We want them to think, ‘I’m a VIP, I’m really being cared for.’ The genuine caring provided by every staff member, both in the front of the hotel and the heart of the hotel is what I believe has helped make the Sheraton Grande very successful. Caring about the customer, caring about our associates, and caring about the business is the foundation we have built our service culture on - making people feel they are special and they are the most important person at that particular time.

"Last year, we started a program to transform the service delivery from good to great. Everyone became excited, passionate, and energized to improve our customer interaction. Bangkok has many great hotels with superior design, Italian marble, quality furniture, beautiful lighting, plush carpet etc., so what makes the difference between a good hotel and a great or outstanding hotel? It is simply the service provided by the associates. What we focus on is the interaction with the customer, not just professionally serving the coffee, and putting it down in the right place, but equally important is making the customer feel that they are special. And if the guest is not heavily engaged with someone else, they will try and engage the customer to see if there is anything else we can do for them."

The hotel also has a program called "Lobby Lizard" whereby every night one of the management team will do a walkabout from 5-8pm. Their assignment is to walk around, talk to customers, introduce themselves, and ask customers if they are enjoying their stay, or if there’s anything the hotel can do for them. They solicit feedback, and naturally if it’s feedback where a customer is disappointed, or needs something, then the manager tries to take care of it on the spot. Afterwards, they report back to senior management in the morning briefings. Another type of feedback the hotel gets is written questionnaires. Mr. Chapman says he gets about five a day, 95% of which are helpful and valid. They are both qualitative and quantitative; in that there is a tickbox on all the basic services we provide in the hotel (the guest can mark off "delighted", "satisfied", & "disappointed"). One section is devoted to the guestrooms because that is where a guest will usually spend half their time; the other section focuses on the restaurant and bars, Business Center, spa and other guest services.

Every month the hotel has at least one mystery guest shopper, where certain people go through the whole process of making a reservation, being picked up at the airport, checking in and then experiencing their room, the restaurants and the spa. They provide Mr. Chapman both quantitative and qualitative feedback. The idea is to try and find out if the hotel is delivering the same consistent level of customer service and interaction with everybody.

The hotel has quickly built a reputation as a great jazz venue. "When I arrived the ‘Living Room’ was an empty hotel lounge," says Mr. Chapman. "But we have slowly built it up to be one of the premier jazz venues in Southeast Asia. Many hotels don’t put enough emphasis on hiring great musicians, or great entertainers. We did that and suffered as far as the bottom line was concerned for the first year, but we’ve turned it around and are now making a profit while providing Bangkok with a growing number of world-class musicians. Some of whom are Grammy Awards winners like Eldee Young and Carmen Bradford. So along with Riva’s, where we offer a different type of entertainment, we try and cater to everyone’s tastes. We do this with our restaurants as well, as both Rossini’s (Italian) and Basil (Thai) have been voted best in their fields by various publications over the last few years."

Thais are known for being very caring people, but Mr. Chapman seems to have really tapped into their emotional psyche. "Thais work from their hearts, so I try and touch their hearts by demonstrating that we care for them, that we are one big family with Father Richard and everyone in senior management really watching out for them," he explains. "We believe that the same degree of caring will then spread from our associates to our customers. To drive this we have recognition programs awarding the associates who demonstrate great examples of caring."

"We also have a Welfare Manager, whose job it is to support our associates outside of their work environment. Their focus is strictly staff welfare, whether it’s looking after a staff member who has a special problem, or organizing social/recreational activities. Every month we have a bowling evening, where everyone’s invited to go bowling. We also have a soccer team, which plays every week. These types of activities help to break down barriers and emphasize teamwork. For example, if "The Living Room" is very busy, associates will come from Rossini’s or Basil to pitch in and assist. In some hotels that wouldn’t happen, the staff would just keep to their respective areas. But here we all have a common focus, or objective, and that is that our guests are not just to be satisfied, but that they are to be delighted. So we measure ourselves not on customer satisfaction, but on customer delight."

Good managers are able to attract good people and Richard Chapman has demonstrated this time and time again. Renaud Mahe is a case in point. He works in the hotel’s Marketing & Promotions section and sees Mr. Chapman as a consummate hotelier and the type of manager he would like to pattern himself after. "He loves his job, and he is very human, and very patient. He is always asking for feedback and his door is open to everyone. He knows what he wants, and he knows how to explain it. He’s involved in every single department of the hotel," says Renaud.

How does one measure the success of the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit? Based on an industry performance measure known as RevPar (Revenue Per Available Room – the balance between occupancy rates and the average rate per occupied room), the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit was number six in its competitive set of leading business hotels in Bangkok when Mr. Chapman took over as GM. Today, it is number one.

So it really isn’t a magic elixir after all, Richard Chapman knows his hotel and he knows his staff. He knows how to optimize both to delight his customers. He does this by making sure his staff is happy and cared for and that their hearts go out to taking care of each and every customer.

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