Arthur Kiong has a habit of being in the right place at the wrong time – and that’s a good thing. Over the course of a three-decade career in the hotel industry, a career he got into more by accident than by design, Mr Kiong has had to deal with disaster on an epic scale (think war and pestilence) that drives management to drink and occupancy rates to historic lows. But some people have a knack for turning adversity into opportunity, and he can safely claim to be one of them.
Mr Kiong, 58, is CEO of Far East Hospitality (FEH), a homegrown hotel group (under the Far East Organisation umbrella) that is by far the biggest player in the mid-tier market, with some 20 hotels and serviced residences in its portfolio, representing multiple brands. FEH is also affiliated with about 70 hotels outside Singapore and manages in total more than 14,000 rooms in seven countries.
By the middle of next year, the company’s profile will be raised further with the opening of three properties on Sentosa, comprising a flagship Village Hotel (606 rooms), The Outpost Hotel (193 rooms) and the boutique Barracks Hotel (40 rooms). The hotels, in a cluster on a prime site overlooking Palawan Beach, are targeted at a broad customer base and appear well-placed to cater to growing demand for resort-style accommodation.
Mr Kiong is a shining example of the if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed-try-something-else school, not letting a lack of academic qualifications get in the way of a strong determination to succeed. An uncanny ability to improvise on the run doesn’t hurt either, although he likes to attribute his remarkable success story to divine intervention. It’s been that way since he was a 21-year-old rookie in the workforce, when he applied for a job as a stagehand and ended up as a radio announcer and DJ instead, thanks mostly to a random voice test and an ability to enunciate “Thursday the thirteenth” correctly on air.
It’s seven months to the first of the Sentosa openings and many challenges – predictable and otherwise – still lie ahead. But for this industry veteran, when the going gets tough, you can expect him to get going.
You got your start in the hotel industry in 1986 as a management trainee at the former Westin Stamford hotel, rising through the ranks and working for a number of international hotel brands. How did luck play a role in your career?
I started at the lowest rung – I was a greeter at (Italian restaurant) Prego. We had to prove ourselves but our business does offer opportunities. I worked in F&B outlets and moved to marketing communications at the Hyatt at a time when the group was opening Grand Hyatts in the region. I then went on to become leader of the sales team at the Mandarin Hongkong. I got the job through the Hand of God. It all started because my dog Silky was sick. My wife didn’t go to work that day and a head-hunter happened to call home. I was on a business trip to San Francisco but was in my room when he called, and I happened to be on the way to Chicago where the prospective client was. After the interview process, they took a chance and gave me the opportunity to lead the sales team in Hongkong where the hotel’s market share had eroded. I was in my early-30s and director of sales – it was daunting because I spoke no Cantonese. I did two extremely meaningful years there before moving back home because our first child was born.
You were on the opening team of the Ritz-Carlton in the mid-90s and spent the next decade working for some of the biggest names in the industry, then came back to eventually take the helm at FEH. Why?
Someone told me that if I could keep my job as director of marketing at Ritz-Carlton for a year I would prove my worth because it was such a tough and challenging position. Five years later I was sent to open the Ritz in New York. I did two openings then 9/11 happened. (He was responsible for instigating a successful campaign that announced the hotel group’s return from the tragedy). When you work for large brands, you hide behind the success of these brands. Now, I have the opportunity to create a brand. When I was with the large brands, everybody wants to be your friend – here, you have to create something. It’s a meaningful challenge.
From a hotel perspective, how do you define Singapore-style hospitality?
Singapore doesn’t have a hotel company of note, one that exemplifies Singapore. I use the tagline ‘inspired hospitality’. We cannot be lumped under a one-size-fits-all description of ‘Asian hospitality’ – there is American, European, Japanese, Australian hospitality. So, what is Singapore’s inspired hospitality? It’s hospitality that mirrors the Singapore story and there are four key facets to it:
First, comfort without excess – basically cheap and good and value driven, moving from Third World to First in an efficient manner. Then, aesthetics without ostentation, another Singaporean value. Next, being attentive but not pretentious and finally, being relevant with elegance. These are key attributes that tell the Singapore story. Despite imperfections, the things that our government has achieved is based on these tenets – I saw a lot of parallels.
You’ve proven yourself more than once in a major crisis such as 9/11 and SARS. Disaster seems to bring out the best in you.
In our careers, we sometimes think that it is our own effort and ingenuity that differentiates us, but often it’s just luck. I was given the opportunity to open the Grand Hyatt Bali as marketing communications manager in early 1990. It was my first outing in marcom, I was rather daunted by the task and took a long time to sort out our strategy. The competition had already started their campaigns and had reservations on the books, while we had nothing. Six months before opening we had no campaign yet and the likelihood of my being fired was extremely high. Three months before opening, we still had nothing. Then, the first Gulf War broke out and I had the chance to get my act together. The competition had expended their budgets and my war chest was still full. In three months, our plans were ready to launch, the war ended and people said, “This guy is a genius.”
What did you learn about crisis management?
I learned to say, ‘don’t panic, it’s only a crisis.’ When I was director of marketing at The Peninsula (Hongkong) in 2002, the SARS epidemic broke out and occupancy plunged to single digits – and I don’t mean nine. We came up with a three-phase campaign, took advantage of pent-up demand and bookings skyrocketed – I had carte blanche after that. One makes a mark not when times are good and things are peaceful but when our back is to the wall and things are in crisis. Don’t shy away from a situation because in every crisis, there is opportunity.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.