Vitanart Vathanakul

The next generation is now running the Royal Cliff Hotels Group and Pattaya Exhibition & Convention Hall. Raini Hamdi speaks to the 30-year-old striker in the family, executive director Vitanart Vathanakul

Are you and your brother now running the business completely?

What’s happened is, mum (Panga Vathanakul) has taken the managing director/chairman position. Think of it as a football team – I’m in the forward position, the striker; my brother (Vathanai Vathanakul, 36, vice president) is the defence.

Our responsibilities are clearly defined: I look after sales and marketing, business development and investment. My brother looks after operations, service, maintenance, engineering, etc. Sometimes there are overlaps of course. For example, business development needs to contribute to design, so if we’re building a new restaurant or improving on our design, I would give input based on market feedback, recruit an interior designer, then my brother would take over the responsibility for the contractors, engineers, etc.

So where’s mum in the football field?

She’s the coach, the manager. She’s very involved, i.e., she also plays as well, in fact sometimes she comes in as the striker.

My mum has always been a hands-on kind of person and has always taught us of the need to be so. As owners, we can’t take the position of just standing back and letting the general managers do their thing. We’re owner-manager, so we’re very involved in the day-to-day management, sales, reservations, etc.

Why are you the striker and your brother, defender?

My strengths are in presentation and sales skills. I enjoy meeting people. I’m energetic and an extrovert. My brother enjoys sales too, and he’s not an introvert, but he prefers not to travel too much. He likes the service and operations part of the business and he’s careful and detailed in the way we provide our service.

It’s funny: growing up, I was actually shy and introverted. For some reason, this changed as I grew. I’m still shy at heart though.

Are you close to your brother and do you work well together?

Oh yes, he’s very supportive. I’m blessed to have him as a brother. He’s the trailblazer for me; he led the way for many things in my life. I studied in the UK because he went there first and told me how great it was, that it wasn’t just the excellent education, but learning multiple skills – sports, making friends from all over the world, understanding different cultures. He went when he was 11 years old; I went when I was eight.

You’ve been in the role for three years now. Is it difficult being back in Thailand, then holding the fort as striker?

Yes, the transition was quite challenging. My education was not in hotels at all. I graduated in electronics engineering from Cambridge and my Masters degree was in physics.

Did you want to be a hotelier?

I always wanted to be a hotelier, but I always enjoyed those subjects – math, science, technology – and my parents let us do what we wanted in college/university; we just had to make sure it was a proper subject, challenging and taught us analytical thinking. So when I chose electronics engineering, they said that’s fine, you could use the math skills and apply that to the business environment. I chose physics for my Masters because studying science in Cambridge was a dream.

How was the transition challenging?

When I came back, it was quite difficult to acclimatise in every sense of the word.

I have to use different skills now. While analytical skills still apply in decision-making, people skills are definitely needed. The biggest challenge is managing the team.

I also need multi-tasking skills and prioritising skills. Every day in a hotel is different. For some jobs, it’s different days, same things. For hotels, it’s different days, different things.

Another challenge is delegating and trusting, because I want to do everything myself. But sometimes, you have to say to the team, “Help me with this”, and monitor their progress. It’s a steep learning curve.

My mother also always throws me in the deep end, giving me the most difficult job as that’s the best way to learn.

So what’s the biggest goal you’ve scored to-date?

The biggest thing I did was set up our Internet marketing team. It was an area we lacked in. Of course our sales managers were developing OTA distribution, but I needed fresh eyes to look at this in totality. I needed the young generation who were experienced in digital marketing to look at social media, OTAs, search engine optimisation, website optimisation, email marketing – the whole arena. My team of 12 staff in this department is the youngest in the whole Royal Cliff.

Our online sales rose in the first year by 30 to 40 per cent. I remember we had K-pop (Korean pop) idols staying here in (January) 2011. Once we knew there were going to be over 20 bands, with the most famous K-pop stars coming over, we marketed it  through social media. Within five hours of announcing it to the online community, we had over 500 rooms booked.

I had to go to the reservations room and tell the staff to relax – he was so tired because the phone calls kept coming in. Our fan base was 1,000. By the end of the K-pop programme, it was 5,000.

I think I’ve put more youthfulness into Royal Cliff. When I came in, I also initiated projects such as our new restaurant right on the beach, Breezeo, offering ‘be yourself’ dining with fun things like a menu of over 100 cocktails. If you don’t like the 100 cocktails, there’s also a menu from which you can create your own cocktail, choose your own liqueur, glassware, decoration, even ice.

I always emphasise the importance of creativity, being adventurous and taking risks.

And what’s a big mistake that you’ve learnt from?

Once, we had a lot of requests from bloggers to review Royal Cliff. I declined and I regret it to this day. I didn’t think I could get the best ROI from it. Some also felt the way I declined was rude, though I’m never rude to anyone. I learnt from that mistake, redeemed the relationship and they all came back.

Sometimes I can also get impatient with business partners and we have unnecessary arguments. But I’ve learnt to be more patient.

Do you see a younger clientele now at Royal Cliff?

Yes, we’re trying to tap the younger generation. I had a problem in that a lot of them felt Royal Cliff was unreachable – ‘a five-star plus product for my parents’. We’re saying, no, this is for young, sophisticated business travellers or for people who want to reward themselves and their families, and that it is reachable.

We’ve done a major rebranding exercise, from Royal Cliff Beach Resort previously to Royal Cliff Hotels Group, to emphasise that we have four different hotel products, one convention centre and 11 restaurants. And far from just a name change, we followed through with a one billion baht renovation and an investment on human resource training.

(The four hotel products are: the 544-room Beach Hotel, pitched as “casual luxury”. Aside from new, modern Mini Suite Plus rooms, it has a new infinity-edge pool and the beach restaurant, Breezeo.

Do you meet other young hotel owners and how are you all different from the older generation?

Oh yes, there are lots of them in Bangkok and Pattaya. The younger generation is starting to take over from their parents. I studied with some of them and we now exchange notes. In Pattaya, we meet for dinner sometimes, exchange ideas and do partnerships as well.

I don’t see them as competitors. If I’m hosting a 10,000-pax convention, no way can I accommodate them all at Royal Cliff, so I always recommend this and that hotel and ask them to send me their contract to send to the MICE organisers.

The younger generation of hotel owners are very driven. We want to do a lot in a very short time.

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