Chiang Mai’s Geordie At Home
The north of England and the north of Thailand may be worlds apart, yet there are similarities in the genuine warmth of the residents and their enthusiastic behaviour to other people. The deep-rooted culture and rich legacy of what was once the Lanna Kingdom – a land of a million rice fields – is alive and thriving as part of modern day Chiang Mai. And so, perhaps fittingly, a northern lad from Newcastle, England, a Geordie and authentic man, would come to call this his home.
Meet Anthony Gill, General Manager of Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai and Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, a passionate character who has travelled the world honing his skills as a hotelier of all seasons. Although Anthony has taken a somewhat roundabout way of reaching his present position, it is one that he relishes. After leaving his native Newcastle, he began his rise through the managerial ranks of the world’s leading hospitality companies. The likes of Chateau Elan-USA, St Andrews Bay-Scotland, Malmaison-Newcastle, Columbus Monte-Carlo, One&Only Maldives, Six Senses-Vietnam & Thailand and InterContinental, GHM and now Four Seasons, have all imprinted their DNA in his management style and it is now his time to start writing his legacy in Thailand.
“There were lots of movement early on in my career. I aggressively sought out new opportunities as I wanted to experience new environments and styles of operations. It is not my first time in Thailand as I spent time at Six Senses in Yai Noi in the south. However, I’m excited to discover the magic of Northern Thailand. Since I arrived almost two years ago, it is clear there is a depth of experience in Chiang Mai and the Tented Camp that is unique – something I feel very fortunate to be a part of,” he says.
Unfortunately for Anthony and his Saigonese wife Oanh, they couldn’t have picked a more challenging time to start building a new life. Just months into his new job, coronavirus was unleashed on the world and its frightening spread around the globe crippled the hospitality and travel industries. As country after country fell to Covid-19, hotels closed their doors, planes were grounded and countries slammed their borders shut. Today, after almost two years of strict controls, the green shoots of travel are once more spreading and life is inching back towards a new normality.
Challenging Times Fighting Covid-19
“It’s been a really challenging time since I moved here from Vietnam. But, it is great that we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel with the recent announcements to reopen Thailand. However, although the sandbox schemes in the south are proving we can open up, we need to wait and see how it works provincially in the north and with our airport. Will vaccinated travellers be able to arrive on international flights into Chiang Mai? Will those arriving need to quarantine? We are watching very carefully all the relevant information streams and keeping in touch with all of our contacts to see how it translates in an operational sense.
“I arrived here June 2019 and the first six months were great, but since the start of 2020 we’ve had to deal with the fallout of Covid-19. My wife and I moved here from Vietnam where I was the General Manager of the Nam Hai for 3.5 years before it was successfully transitioned to the Four Seasons Nam Hai Resort in 2016. This is my first transfer with the company and I’m really looking forward to getting to know the place.
“I intend to be here for several years as I want to be able to understand the unique experiences and the story behind Four Seasons Chiang Mai. My goal is to build on this story with my own ideas. How can I invest in the DNA of the resort, the existing concept and positioning of the property? What are the strong messages that are synonymous with the property and its positioning? And then, what new ideas can I bring? What new revenue streams and new trends we can adopt in terms of adding new opportunities, enticing different types of guests from different market segments by changing and upgrading the offering and adding new experiences as well as bolstering what already exists and what is successful?
“I’ve done almost everything in my career so far, from new openings to rebranding. But my perfect scenario would be coming to property that’s already operating successfully and looking at where we need to invest on the capital expenditure side. Focusing on the product and then putting plans in place for renovations or capital expenditure injection. My passion is to perfect things, to polish them,” Anthony says of his future plans.
“Without a doubt my biggest career test to date has been Covid-19. It has been a challenge to manage from the emotional state of our people; I think that has been the most trying aspect. I was saddened when we closed the resort as I love interacting with guests as well as the staff. Many of the staff have been at the resort since it opened 27 years ago. Covid-19 has been a huge challenge for the hospitality business in the north of Thailand. I’ve never seen anything like it throughout my career.
Glamping In The Northern Jungles Of Thailand
But ever so slowly, guests are beginning to return. Primarily these are Thai nationals who are looking to explore their own backyard given that international travel is no longer feasible. Also in the mix are the tens of thousands of foreign nationals who call Thailand their home and either work here or have settled down and retired in the kingdom. With big cities and provincial towns seeing significantly fewer tourists, there has never been a better time to see the natural side of Thailand. And in Chiang Mai, tourists have the luxury of Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai on the outskirts of the city or the legendary Tented Camp Golden Triangle to choose from.
“Our Tented Camp is incredible and the tents are really spacious and very luxurious; fully glamorous camping. They were created by the landscape architect and interior designer Bill Bensley, so of course they are amazingly decorated. We have 15 tents in total, ten superior tents and five deluxe tents measuring 54-square-metres each and every one is named after a local hill tribe. They are styled in a rustic yet elegant safari décor and we’ve used local materials such as hardwood, bamboo and leather for customised, handcrafted furniture. What’s more, each tent has its own distinctive colour scheme and handmade wooden bathtubs on the terrace.
“Guests have the option of tents with views overlooking the Ruak River, Burma, the mountains of Laos, the jungle or the Golden Triangle. As we are situated on the peninsula of the Golden Triangle, when you sit looking out over the grassland you can see all three countries converge. It really is a very special view. For comfort, our tents are all air-conditioned, but they also have a heater for when the temperature drops as it can be brisk during the winter months.
“The tents easily sleep three guests, but for those who are seeking something more remote, then we have the Explorers Lodge, a two-bedroom suite up in the jungle that can sleep up to six guests. At an amazing 232-square metres, the lodge is situated at the far end of the Camp and offers complete privacy. Overlooking the dense jungle, it has ensuite bathrooms, showers and bathtubs in each of the two rooms while the central deck serves as a relaxation area and has its own custom jungle infinity pool,” he says.
While many tourists once sought out Thailand for its often hedonistic nightlife with Full Moon parties on its islands or raves in the clubs and pubs in the big cities, many others seek a more temperate holiday. Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai and Tented Cam Golden Triangle provides relaxation and privacy in spades with guests able to decide their level of enjoyment. In fact, if you are looking to escape lockdowns and prefer a little digital detox, then this could be the place you’ve been looking for.
“While the tented camp is secluded, our accommodation is fitted with all the mod-cons, including Wi-Fi. Many guests think they will come and get away from it all and get ‘off-grid’ but here we can dial that up and down as much as guests want. People might need to receive emails or take phone calls and get messages and although we are in a remote and isolated area, if you want to switch off the service we can do it.
Wellness & Wildlife In The Wilderness
“There are a number of local experiences which do allow guests to go off-grid during the day and these include riverside picnics, fishing with the locals, bicycle and motorbike tours, adventure hiking, visiting an elephant camp or cocktails in the jungle. We also have camp breakfasts, lunches and dinners, camp dinner talks and many other experiences on the F&B side. If you are looking for a digital retreat, we can provide it. When you want to get busy, our exclusive experiences present the uniqueness and the beauty of the area.
“I like to think of us a bucket list destination, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. We’ve always been extremely popular with North American/Mexican guests. The type of guests we have don’t have access to elephants and are prepared to make the journey whether it is a unique visit to experience the camp or part of a Southeast Asian journey. We do have guests who stay in both properties as well as series guests who stay in Four Seasons properties in the region as part of an extended vacation around Southeast Asia and Indochina.
“The camp attracts mostly active adults and some families with older children. We do have an age restriction due to the fact the tents are elevated and the nature of the camp. I’ve also seen a lot of honeymoon couples: it definitely is a bucket list destination. In Chiang Mai we have herb and vegetable gardens and cooking schools. You can do a cooking class in the camp, but at Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai we have a proper kitchen set up in Rim Thai cooking school,” Anthony tells me.
Thinking of jungle treks, you kind of get the idea of Indian Jones coming face to face with natives, fending off snakes and riding on elephants. However, Four Seasons presents a more genteel introduction to Thailand’s lush jungle starting with nature walks where guests get to learn about the unique flora and fauna of the area. So, I ask Anthony, how close do guests get to wildlife?
“In both properties we have wildlife all around as we are in the jungle. But you get more of a sense of nature and wildlife in the camp because you are closer to the elephants, the insects and other animals. Guests can feed elephants at breakfast, help give them a bath or join the My Elephant & I experience. This is a very close proximity activity and guests get up close with these gentle giants. Whilst guests really get to see the elephant’s daily life, we don’t offer any elephant riding. All the elephants are retired and are part of the Elephant Foundation. Four Seasons provides a window on to this amazing sanctuary for our guests.
“When you are double-zipped in the tent at night, you really become aware of the abundant wildlife around. You can hear the sounds of the jungle at night, which is mainly a crescendo of small creatures. Then when it rains, you can hear the drops failing on the tent and you’re cozied up in the bed. It is a magical experience,” he says with obvious joy.
Building Back Stronger After Lockdowns
Back closer to civilisation at Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai, the resort’s food and beverage outlets are abuzz with regular guests. Throughout the pandemic, Anthony and his team have been thrilled by the faithfulness of their clientele who love the culinary creations cooked up for them. Even the Sunday Brunch has become a hit, albeit without alcohol being served.
“We didn’t have very many domestic guests for quite some time as Chiang Mai was a Red Zone and Bangkok was a Purple Zone. August this year was a very tough month and for a while it didn’t seem like there was any light at the end of the tunnel. But now, things are looking up with the reopening planned for November. We’re staying positive and keeping people’s sprits up but we don’t want to think too far ahead as we could be perceived as being disconnected from reality.
“It is definitely a challenging time for the hospitality industry in Thailand and beyond, but vaccinations are going up and people are slowly coming back to the country. So, there are lots of things to be positive about. The vaccination roll out is going quite well and Chiang Mai’s inoculation programme is about 61.40 percent of the population now, which is very encouraging.
“Of course, we implement best practices in terms of Covid-19 awareness. Internally, Four Seasons has Lead With Care, our global Covid-19 hygiene and health policy and procedures which has been created in partnership with John Hopkins Medical Foundation in the United States. They have been guiding us on phasing in our procedures and each month they look at each property, they talk to the general managers and we fill in checklists.
“Each property is classified in a traffic light system which mirrors what’s happening at local and national levels. In most cases, our Lead with Care policy and procedures are more stringent than the local measures. But I’ve decided that we will follow whichever policy is the strictest and offers the best protection for our guests and staff. We’ve achieved our SHA Amazing Thailand certification and now we’re working towards our SHA+ certification,” he says reassuringly.
As with so many managers of hotels and resorts before him, putting your fingerprint or stamp on a property is something to be proud of and Anthony has ideas of his own as well. During the forced closure, the hands-on GM set about restructuring the rice terraces that surround the resort. These age-old farming methods are not for show, although they are beautiful to look at as the rice plants sprout from the watery soil to form lush green carpets. Over the course of a year, the gardeners at Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai harvest more than half a ton of rice, plus countless kilos of herbs, vegetables and fruits from the surrounding gardens.
“The two pillars of this property are its fresh produce and our approach to wellness. The fact that Chiang Mai is the vegetable patch of Thailand is evident here as we have a fully functioning rice farm. Most people think our rice paddies are purely decorative, but we actually produce over 600 kilos of rice a year, all of which we donate. We have a big team of farmers and gardeners from the local village to help us. The property’s rice terraces were redesigned during the lockdown earlier this year. We knocked several smaller paddies into bigger ones to create more space for our rice crop. We’ve also become more professional in how we harvest the rice to maximise output.
“All the rice we grow is donated to the local hill tribes as part of our corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme. We also created a miniature herb and vegetable garden. Apart from donating the rice we grow, our primary objective is to support the elephant foundation and we hope to welcome many more guests to come and experience this with us in the near future.
“We’ve seen a huge interest in the rice farm from our domestic market. We have many Thai families coming from Bangkok who want to learn about rice and they get involved in rice and vegetable planting. They learn how rice and vegetables grow. We also created a clay studio with a pottery wheel where guests can make their own flatware. Products such as cups and pots are glazed in our on-site glazing oven. Other activities we have rolled out include our own indigo tie and dye studio.
“Since arriving, I’ve looked at the local experiences and invested in the agriculture message. We’ve elevated these offerings so they have become synonymous with Chiang Mai. Prior to Covid-19, we were positioning ourselves as the leading wellness and well-being property in Asia-Pacific within the Four Seasons group. Our plant-based, low salt, low sugar cuisine is very popular and we provide a very balanced and comprehensive approach to nutrition. We’ve also partnered with a full-time naturopath for wellness consultations so guests can fully immerse in a natural lifestyle here.”
As the November 2021 opening date draws nearer, the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on the hospitality industry for a living are holding a collective bated breath. From social media and TV screens, Thais have seen other countries take the first tentative steps to reopening and dream of the day when they can reclaim their lives and their livelihoods.
“We need to see how the reopening works at the provincial level like here in Chiang Mai. Everyone is hopeful. Thailand has been so resilient in the past. Having worked in Vietnam and watched Thailand from a distance, it was always amazing to see how the country rebounded from adversity. The demand for Thailand in terms of a destination, for the richness of its cultural offering, and the perception that it is an all-round destination that can offer everything, is still strong.
“You can go to the beach or the jungle; visit all these wonderful cultural sights; and get a taste of the atmosphere in a huge Asian mega-city like Bangkok. So, I think the recovery for Thailand should be faster than the rest of Southeast Asia. Lots of people still want to come and vacation here, so I think we should see a strong recovery,” he adds.
But with so much on offer from idyllic island escapes to city hotels, why would guests who are not familiar with the Four Seasons brand choose the remoteness of Chiang Mai or the Tented Camp, I ask.
“With the backdrop of Chiang Mai all about well-being, the area offers serenity and a clean, fresh environment. Chiang Mai is also a very spiritual place. The agricultural learning component is woven into the lifestyle here, plus we offer so many unique local experiences. Our tented camp really is an aspirational bucket list experience. The proximity to the elephants and the great work that the elephant foundation is doing is a major draw. But then also on top of that, all the other local experiences we do up there, all the food and beverage experiences, those are the really strong messages,” confirms Anthony.
For more information on Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai and Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, call +66 (0) 53-298-181. Alternatively, go to www.fourseasons.com/chiangmai/ and www.fourseasons.com/goldentriangle.
Source: Punch Media Digital (www.punchmedia.co.th).