One Step At A Time
In one of his first interviews since the reopening of SO/ Bangkok, Jean-Francois Brun, SO GM, SO/Bangkok goes one step at a time about the past, present and future.
Since its opening many full moons ago, SO/ Bangkok has been the destination of choice for tens of thousands of guests from around the world. Then came Covid-19, the closure of Thailand’s international borders and the decades-long party was over. As with every hotel from Chiang Rai in the far North to Narathiwat in the Deep South, the shutting of the Kingdom’s gateways to the world effectively put a stranglehold on hoteliers and their staff.
Although local travel restrictions have all but disappeared, the much-needed revenue generated from foreign travellers holidaying in the Kingdom is sorely missing. A trickle of domestic guests is hardly enough to keep hotels as exclusive as SO/ Bangkok in business for long but sadly that’s what Thailand’s multi-billion Baht hospitality industry has to face.
“We were able to reopen the hotel to guests on 1st September, however our food and beverage has been up and running since July. It was a difficult decision to close completely in April but those were the orders all hotels were given. During the shut down, I would come to the hotel and walk from top to bottom inspecting every room along with my team. There are hundreds of things that can happen when you suddenly shut down a building of this size. When we did start taking guest bookings, we used the upper floors first and now we’re opening a selection of rooms on all floors,” says Jean-Francois Brun, SO GM, SO/ Bangkok.
“One thing I’ve noticed since we reopened is that the guests here today are not directly our usual type of guest. Most of the people staying at the hotel are obviously from Bangkok, whereas before up to 95% of our guests were international visitors. I’m constantly looking to reinvent and freshen things up at SO/ during this time. You see, we’re a lifestyle hotel, we’re vibrant, we’re dynamic and we’re certainly not your typical city hotel. Saying that, I’m very careful when implementing new ideas. I always put my soul into everything I do, so I have to be 100% sure.”
Jean-Francois, who is playfully called SO/ Jeff at the hotel and by the guests who know him well, tells me he was broken-hearted seeing the hotel he’d worked so hard to brand one of the best in the City of Angels – if not Southeast Asia – in still darkness. The lonely walks through once thriving restaurants, pumping pool parties and busy bars became particularly eerie as the only light to go by was the flashlight on his mobile phone.
“It broke my heart to see the hotel in such a state; I could not tear myself away from the place I loved. The silence was pretty weird but we had to conduct maintenance rounds to ensure everything was okay. In an effort to clear all our food stocks, our chefs cooked between 250-300 meals a day, which we gave away to frontline workers and those in need. It was only when our food supplies were gone that the kitchens closed too,” he recalls.
As the lights went out in millions of rooms up and down the country, the only thing for hotel managers and their staff to do was to count the days, weeks and months as they slowly ticked by. SO/ Bangkok, once famed for its unique accommodation, vibrant nightlife, bustling lounges and daring pool parties, was gradually put into hibernation. The hotel had built up such as loyal clientele thanks to its unique guest rooms and suites that span floors 14 to 28 and ingeniously integrate four of the five Chinese elements. The fifth element, Fire, was reserved for open public areas such as bars and restaurants.
“The challenge when the property was in its initial design stage was to ensure the hotel gained a harmonious identity. We had a master blueprint for the hotel so we decided to turn to five talented Thai designers for their creative ideas. We gave them each a blank canvas to design one element. We were like ‘go crazy and let your imagination run free’.
“SO/ Bangkok was the second SO/ property to be launched in the world but we were the first urban SO/: the first property was SO/Mauritius. It was the creativity of former GM Gilles Cretallaz and French fashion icon Christian Lacroix who really put their stamp on the hotel. It’s not only the guest rooms that are different, even the hallways on each floor are different and offer guests something to talk about. For me, SO/ Bangkok really is the model urban product. It certainly has a clearer fit in Bangkok than it does as a resort,” adds SO/ Jeff.
With many SO/ guests coming from Asian countries such as Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China, I wanted to know if the hotel gets requests from guests for certain elements. “Yes, we get many bookings for specific elements because that’s one of the key strengths of the hotel. Some guests fall in love with one type of element and only want to stay there. Water is by far the most popular element, followed closely by wood, while earth and metal are either loved by everyone or sometimes completely disliked by guests who stay there. It’s not down to comfort or location or floor number, but really it’s the vibe and feel of the room. It really is a personal matter,” he says with a beaming smile.
“We’ve had guests who are very curious about the elements and have come back over and over again to experience a stay in every room style. Each element is to be lived and, of course, will evoke a different feeling day and night. Earth is the most standout element because the designer based it on a cavern in northern Thailand. It’s a beautiful shade of blue and the walls feature ancient cave drawings; it really is stunning. If you check-in during the day as opposed to at night, the first impression would be absolutely different. Each of our elements are connected to Lumpini Park, but here our elements are reversed with water (the lake) on top, then earth (the park), then wood (trees) and finally metal (Bangkok’s skyline).”
“If a guest does not ask for a specific element we don’t go to the extent of looking up their birthday and then suggesting they stay in a certain room. That could be somehow intrusive,” he says as if talking about a taboo subject.
Whether in the heat of summer or the coolness of a Bangkok winter, guests would flock to SO/ Bangkok once a pool party was announced. There are hundreds of references to these famous (or infamous, depending on your age) events on websites such as TripAdvisor, Google and Agoda.
“Yes, our pool parties were always very popular with the local crowd and really a trend setter; it would sell out within days. Now, unfortunately it is all so different and even though we’ve thought about hosting another pool party the downside far outweighs the upside. It will be back for sure! Pre-corona almost every guest was from overseas – UK, Europe, USA, Australia, Korea, you name it.
“In the present circumstance it is very easy to draw criticism if an event gets too over-crowded. We have drawn a line under pool parties for the time being because profit is not the most important factor for us; we truly consider the health and wellbeing of all our guests. However, we are hosting a number of exciting events over the coming months and culminating with Christmas. Of course, we respect the rules on social distancing and health and safety, but we also try to accommodate our guests and business partners.
“We’re going to host a slightly different version of SO Chefs this year as we can’t bring in our usual international masters of culinary delights. This year, we are working with famous Thai chefs to satisfy the taste buds of our fans, while SO Fashion and our traditional Christmas tree lighting will also be great fun. We are even collaborating with a famous designer for our Christmas tree lighting; this will be absolutely fantastic…. Stay tuned. It’s going to be really exciting,” adds SO/ Jeff.
With time running out and SO/ Jeff looking down at his watch – he was being presented with yet another hotel award in a few minutes – I asked for his honest opinion on when Thailand’s hospitality business could start picking itself up off the floor.
“For me, I’m looking at Q2 to Q3 2021 to see if there is an uptake in bookings. Usually at this time of year, most city hotels would be running at over 70% capacity, for us it would be 80-85%. However, due to the closure of the international borders every hotel is losing money if they are open for business. It takes years to build up the image of your hotel, so we’re reluctant to start giving huge discounts just to take a fraction of a very small market. We’re not in the business of giving rooms away as there is always going to be another hotel close by that is prepared to offer rooms at even cheaper rates.
“For our reopening in September we advertised a promotion on our micro-site with a special rate of Bt3,999 per night with Bt4,000 hotel F&B credit. Within days we’d hit our target and the hotel was once again buzzing. I hope to run this special offer again and again until the international borders reopen.
“Over the years, we’ve faced all types of upheavals from global and localised recessions, diseases like Avian Flu, SARS and MERS and disasters like 9-11 and the Asian tsunami. However, I’ve never witnessed anything like this before. I, like many others at first, thought coronavirus would be like a little cold or seasonal flu. But we’ve all been proven so very wrong,” the veteran GM laments.
“It’s certainly been the biggest challenge of my career and I’m constantly pushing myself to see if I can do better. All hotel managers have to draw up budget plans for their owners or brands. I’ve been very transparent with my owner but I still expect to be in negative territory at the end of 2021. The government’s proposal to allow 1,200 tourists a month to visit the country from October onwards is just a drop in the ocean and cannot all at once save the majority of hotels despite the very good intentions. I see more opportunity with travel bubbles between Thailand and Singapore and other countries with low transmission rates. I totally get Thailand’s position not to open up until there is a vaccine even though so many people are hurting financially,” continues SO/ Jeff.
He knows time is quickly ticking down and yet another interview, appointment and award ceremony awaits – almost like the good old days I remind him. His parting shot is to tell me his innermost feelings about the brand that has captured his heart and burned its image on his soul.
“We are definitely your most vibrant lifestyle hotel. I’ve never seen a hotel so unique as this. For example, just a few days after I took over as GM, I welcomed back a guest for his 100th stay at the hotel. Since then we’ve had customers returning for the 70th, 57th and 25th time. That is brand loyalty at work. We’re here to stay Covid-19 or not. There is total resilience from my owner, myself, my teams; everyone here is working their hardest and doubling their efforts.
“Finally, my last message would be to say we’re not just a hotel, we are a place to hang out, a way of life. SO/ is a fantastic brand and very unique. There are lots of properties in the pipeline and you’ll see new SO/ hotels in Paris, Dubai, Melbourne, and right here in Thailand. So make sure you keep following us,” he says as he rises to shake my hand and rush to his next appointment.
And with that he’s gone. The spring in his step definitely back to its former self.
Source: Punch Media Digital.