Kurt Wachtveitl has most probably been the longest-serving hotelier in the world as he ran one of Bangkok’s most prestigious hotels for 42 years – the Mandarin Oriental. Retired at the end of May, the hotelier shared, at a private evening at Bangkok’s Foreign Correspondent Club, some of his memories about his job and his vision of the future of Thailand’s travel industry. Here are a few highlights of his speech.
In 1965, Wachtveitl took over the position of GM of the first western-style resort in Pattaya at the Nipa Lodge. “It was a rough time,” he recalled. “But I was lucky, as we suddenly got the contract to accommodate all the US engineers and planners building the new military air base of U-Tapao. Our hotel was full, and we had to expand to 150 rooms. It was a very good experience: my exposure to [the] US military for 18 months was challenging, and when they left, I had the feeling that I finally had served myself in the US army!”
In 1967, Kurt Wachtveitl then became general manager of the Mandarin Oriental. As a GM, he presided over the transformation of the property into Bangkok’s most glamourous hotel address. The Oriental has, over the years, been constantly ranked in surveys and polls among the top world hotels. “What is the secret to good service? The most efficient and cheapest way for a hotelier to provide excellence in service is just… to listen to our guests and to acknowledge their desire,” he said. Another key to success is a good chemistry between staff and management. “You must treat people fairly. We were, for example, among the first in Thailand to really give the service charge to our employees. Today, the Oriental has 850 staff with a turn-over among the lowest in the industry at just 3 percent. And our employees work on average 16 to 17 years for the property,” he said.
The Oriental’s reputation has translated into many celebrities and VIPs being guests in the hotel. “Generally, celebrities will always feel [at ease] if they exactly get what they want,” he said. Asked about which celebrity was the most difficult to please, Wachtveitl replied without an hesitation: Elizabeth Taylor.
After more than four decades watching the Thailand tourism industry, Kurt Wachtveitl sees, however, little to get optimistic about in the kingdom. “Business is very bad, with occupancy for many hotels around 20 percent. This is the consequence of the economic crisis but also of local politics.” According to him, the only guests currently in Thailand are the ones who have been there before and do not feel deterred by political turmoil. In the longer term, Wachtveitl estimates that Thailand will only remain attractive for tourists with little purchasing power: “Many people come here because it is cheap and cost[s] less than staying at home. And if 90 percent of travelers come here only because it is cheap, the remaining 10 percent with a real purchasing power will not come anymore!”