Home Is Where The Heart Is
Sitting on the former site of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC), the elegant Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers dominates the skyline in this historic riverside neighbourhood of Bangkok. Soon to celebrate its 40th year of operation, the resort-style hotel continues to lead the way in terms of guest offerings, fine cuisine and cultural attractions, here General Manager Michael Schlueter talks to Punch Media Digital about the past present and future and that home is where the heart is.
A seasoned veteran of the hospitality industry for over 30 years, Michael’s career has taken him to some of the world’s largest cities including Moscow, Warsaw, Istanbul, Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich where he worked for many of the most prestigious and leading hotel brands. He and his wife bid adieu to their European lifestyle 2012 when they moved to Malaysia and the tropical island of Langkawi where he took the role of general manager at a luxury resort and as managing director of St. Regis Langkawi.
“I’ve been at the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers for six years now having arrived from Malaysia. I love life in Thailand for many reasons. There is the friendly Thai people, the lovely weather, the wonderful cuisine, so many places to visit, lots of golf courses, a fantastic healthcare system, and it is all made better by having such wonderful and friendly hosts. Everything together makes Thailand very special. The country has a rich history and fascinating culture and for first-time visitors to Thailand I think it is important they visit the Grand Palace, Wat Arun and the Emerald Buddha. In fact, there is so much amazing culture visitors need to see.
“Thailand is so unique and very different from Western cultures. I recommend visitors spend a day visiting temples and other attractions, before they go shopping or dining or even take a river cruise. There are a lot of things you can do in Bangkok. Some 25 years ago, when I first came here, Bangkok was an Asian city, but today I would describe Bangkok as a world class city. It has everything from street food up to Michelin-star, fine dining,” says Michael.
“While we are based here at the river, our focus is more on leisure visitors because most business travellers tend to stay in the Sukhumvit area. Before Covid began, the occupancy at our 726 room hotel was always very high. Of late, Iconsiam has been a huge boost for the riverside community both here and on the other side of the river. Guests can take our boat to Iconsiam or to Saphan Taksin where they can catch the Skytrain. Alternatively, we are only a ten minute walk from Chinatown and the metro.
“It is really beautiful to walk around the Talat Noi area in the evening and it’s even more fun to take a bicycle tour with Co van Kessel Bangkok, which operates tours from River City. The bicycle tour gives you a whole different aspect on Bangkok and the riverside communities. You ride down small lanes that are only the width of your bike’s handlebars and you can see directly into the homes of the Chinese community or the people working at the flower market. It is really amazing and the bicycle tours are a beautiful addition to the city,” he tells me having taken several tours himself.
The Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers is a historical and architectural landmark in a riverside community that’s rich in history and culture. Inside the hotel, guests young and old marvel at the elegant interior of the golden lobby with its high ceiling and impressive Pra Kaew Morakot Buddha. Meanwhile, outside the area was one of the first places foreigners settled in Bangkok and many buildings dating back centuries still exist such as the Portuguese Embassy, Holy Rosary Church or Kalawar Church as it’s known locally, House Number 1, which used to be the French Distillery Company office and a rather forlorn-looking warehouse that once belonged to Louis T. Leonowens.
“The Portuguese Embassy is our neighbour and many of our guest delight in seeing the peacocks which jump between the embassy and our big pool gardens, which the hotel rents from the Embassy. There are now five peacocks walking around the pool and gardens and if you are lucky enough they might show you their feathers. The embassy was one of the first parcels of land in Bangkok that was given to a foreign government by the King of Thailand in 1820 and the ambassador’s house has stood there since around 1860.
“We are a hotel that is very international driven with foreign guests coming from all over the world. So, when the borders closed because of Covid, we needed to entirely change our view and start focusing on the domestic market. We worked with food delivery companies and all of a sudden it was like all hotels were working with delivery companies to send out their F&B menus to homes.
“The whole world came to a standstill after a few months and this was amazing to see. We are still not over it yet and while many countries are lifting restrictions, some other still have them in place. Covid and all the issues that came with it has been the biggest challenge of my entire career. Saying goodbye to people who worked here, was heart-breaking as they were hardworking associates. We totally closed our hotel for four months and this was something that I have never had to do in my entire career.
“The whole travel industry stopped functioning in 2020. There were no planes in the sky, no one was travelling and people were scared as nobody knew what was happening. At that juncture, we were yet to see the first vaccines. We always thought that the pandemic would be over soon, within a few months, but we had to keep watching month by month as the situation got worse.
“We tried to stimulate the local market with many different offers but it was slow at first to bring our domestic guests back. I think many people got a little stir-crazy staying at home and after a while we did see an uptick in guests especially from our F&B offers. We still had restrictions such as social distancing, no banqueting, alcohol consumption was banned, many such things. It was definitely a big challenge,” he remarks about the past two years.
“I’m pleased that Thailand has continued to reopen to the international travel market as millions of people in the hospitality industry have lost their jobs. This has been nothing short of a disaster for countless people. Hopefully, we can build on this influx of tourists so that we can recover a little bit more because many people depend on hotel work and the service charges their receive. We need to keep on moving forward; we can’t keep closing the country. The tourism industry in Thailand is huge and millions of people rely on the whole supply chain.
“Previous situations where Thailand had some kind of problem, the recovery was always very fast and took only a few months. But now, I personally think the recovery will be as far as 2023 or 2024. We are talking about the whole world being affected. On top of this, we have a war in Europe which is affecting the Russian market and also driving up fuel and cost of living prices. Then there is the situation in China, which was a big market for us. So, people are thinking twice about whether they can afford to spend money on a vacation. Some are staying at home and many are travelling regionally in Europe and America and avoiding Asia,” he points out.
“Now that the country has reopened, I think we need to divide Thailand’s hospitality into two parts. First of all, ecological resorts need to be promoted and preserved whereas cities like Bangkok can cope with millions of people that attend fairs, meetings and other events. Eco-tourism needs to be encouraged so we don’t damage the natural environment as this is one of the main reasons why people come to Thailand. If we have over-tourism this will not help anybody. This is the future for generations of Thais, so it’s very short-term thinking to destroy the natural world.
“We’re starting to see some new hotels open, which is positive as competition keeps us on our toes and keeps us moving forward and looking fresh. Every hotel is trying to find its market segment depending on their location. Our location is excellent on the river with Iconsiam, Chinatown and lots of other activities. We have shopping malls, two swimming pools and lovely, tree-covered garden. We are a city resort and the only Sheraton on the river, but our location comes with responsibilities. Part of our corporate social responsibility programme includes regular river cleaning and street cleaning days.
“Internationally with Marriott, we participate in Operation Smile, collecting money and fund-raising and taking doctors to the countryside and holding blood donations in partnership with other hotels. We also celebrated International Women’s Day this year. We have more than 7,000 hotels around the world and when each hotel does something positive with objectives and goals we can make the world a better place,” he informs me.
Having welcomed royalty, dignitaries and well-known personalities to the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers over the years, I finish our interview by asking Michael who he would like to spend an hour. “If there was one person I could sit down with today, it would be a guest speaker called Captain D. Michael Abrashoff of the US Navy who wrote a book called It’s Your Ship. He took over one of the worst performing ships in the US Navy and turned it into one of the best. When you hear him talking it is amazing and you can see many parallels to our industry. I would love to talk to him.”
If you would like to talk to Michael Schlueter, General Manager of the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers, then get along to Captain Bush Lane and check-in. I am sure the congenial hotelier would love to welcome you and your family to an engaging riverside vacation.
For more information and reservations, call +66 (0) 2266 – 0123.
Source: Punch Media Digital.