Hotel magazine caught up with Meliá Chiang Mai's General Manager, Edward E. Snoeks to talk about the challenges of opening a new hotel in the midst of a pandemic.
When people learn of the upcoming launch of the first five-star hotel to open in Chiang Mai since the onset of the global pandemic, the response is generally one of surprise, if not pessimism: "Wow, you're brave. It's a rough time to run a hotel, much less open a new one. Why, of all times, open a new hotel now?"
Despite the surprise, there's indeed a raft of compelling reasons behind the December opening of Meliá Chiang Mai. This 260-key urban hotel towers over the River Ping and Night Bazaar in the heart of Chiang Mai in Thailand's mountainous north.
But first, a bit of background: Chiang Mai hasn't welcomed international tourists for 18 months and counting. The devastation on the ground is palpable. According to the Northern Chapter of the Thai Hotels Association, a survey of some 40 hotels in Chiang Mai has revealed less than 10 percent occupancy throughout 2021. An estimated 70 percent of people in tourism-related businesses have lost their jobs, all of whom have mouths to feed and bills to pay.
Meliá Chiang Mai will open with about 150 employees and will eventually employ a total of 240 people. More than 99 percent of the hotel's employees are Thai nationals, and this hotel's employees are Thai nationals except for two foreigners; the F&B director and Snoeks.
"For the vast majority of the staff, employment with a new hotel has proven a lifeline. My assistant, Chutima previously worked at a Phuket-based hotel that temporarily closed, and as a result, she was lucky to start a new job with Meliá Chiang Mai. The new start also meant returning home to live with her family in Chiang Mai," said Meliá Chiang Mai's General Manager, Edward Snoeks.
The hotel's director of human resources, Sirinun, has a similar story. He worked at a nearby hotel in Chiang Mai and took a reduction in salary in the wake of COVID-19. According to Sirinun his appointment at the hotel has afforded him a rare opportunity to grow his career amid the battered tourism sector and support his family.
At present, there is not much else happening in Chiang Mai so word about the new hotel has spread like wildfire throughout the local hospitality industry. The hotel has received hundreds and hundreds of job applications from people locally and across Thailand, before any recruitment drive even started. Many people with strong hospitality experience have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and are seeking work, so the high number of qualified applicants is not surprising.
Admittedly there have been some issues opening a hotel during these unprecedented times. There have been delays with the shipment of construction materials and supplies that have to come from overseas. The pace of construction has also been impacted by interprovincial lockdowns, causing challenges in labour and the movement of goods. COVID-19's social distancing rules during recruitment also posed a challenge, however, the talent pool is immense and staff are readily available. People are keen to be a part of something exciting happening at the moment.
In addition to being hugely beneficial for local employees and their families, prompting a ripple effect for the local economy, something new happening in Chiang Mai with the launch of Meliá Chiang Mai is a morale boost for the local tourism industry. Sending a signal that things will get better, and they inevitably will. It's just hard at this stage to pinpoint when the goalposts are continually shifting due to COVID-19.
"The virus has shuttered many hotels and forced many hotel owners to put projects on ice," said Snoeks.
In a remarkable vote of confidence for a brighter future, the hotel's owner is very committed. Asset World Corporation's investment is a far-sighted commitment in Chiang Mai's economy and community for the long-term, with Meliá Chiang Mai, under a strategic roll-out of the Meliá brand in key destinations across Thailand that started with Meliá Koh Samui's debut in January 2020.
Opening a new hotel doesn't have to be an all or nothing proposition, particularly during the pandemic. A good understanding that business will be challenging while international travel is still restricted, with the bright side being that this will afford the team a unique opportunity that they otherwise wouldn't have. An excellent chance to fine-tune operations before many travellers return.
"Despite all of the research you do before a hotel's opening, there are always things you think will appeal to the guests that don't and vice versa.
"It's much more challenging to improve, for example, your culinary landscape and wellness offerings when you're focussing on the demands of the hotel's daily operations. Based on what we initially learn about our guests' preferences, we'll better focus on scrutinising and improving the guest experience relatively quickly wherever we can," said Snoeks.
As one of the most popular places to visit on any travel itinerary to Thailand, the team feels optimistic about the future of Chiang Mai's tourism industry. With its ancient temples, misty mountains, friendly locals, rich history and fascinating culture, Chiang Mai is such a charming destination that's been a magnet for domestic and international tourists for years. The global pandemic has lasted a long time, and there's a lot of pent-up demand for travel; Chiang Mai will one day again welcome many tourists.
"There's a lot of talk about "the lost year", which hasn't been the case for our hotel during our busy pre-opening stage.
"There's no playbook for launching a hotel amid a pandemic, and we're writing it ourselves as we go, all the while thinking about how we put it all into action.
"As the adage goes, fortune favours the brave," concluded Snoeks.