Kurt Wachtveitl– 40 years with The Oriental
Picture: "Khun" Kurt, as he is respectfully addressed in the original Thai way with the hotel's Executive Chef Norbert Kostner, 60-year Oriental veteran Ankana Kalantananda, Guest Relations Consultant, and his wife Mrs. Penny Wachtveitl.
Why don't you work for a change?
2007: Kurt Wachtveitl, 70, 40-years at The Oriental
by Andreas Augustin, Pictures by Michelle Chaplow and Pairoj Kuljaratsutee
In 2007, Kurt Wachtveitl, the world-renowned general manager of The Oriental, Bangkok, celebrated his 40th anniversary at the hotel - four faithful and passionate decades at the 130-year-old Grande Dame of Thailand. The occasion was feted amidst colourful fanfare, auspiciously coinciding with Thailand's most beautiful and celebrated festival - Loy Krathong. Born on 31 July 1937, it was ten years after the traumatic World War 2 that he was called for service in the newly formed German army. He had little ambition to serve under 'the most stupid of instructors one can imagine'. He had a different mind set: 'I wanted to do something sensible, not to be trained to crawl around in the mud. I heard about Lausanne's hotel management school. My chance to escape the compulsory military service in Germany was to spend three years abroad. Hence I chose hotel-business as my career.'In 1961, he graduated. Now his artistic senses drew him to Rome, where he read History of Art and Literature. In Spain he read Philosophy. However, hospitality industry got him back and he started his training tours. Treadmills included the greatest names of the trade: Trois Couronnes, Vevey; Beau-Rivage Palace, Lausanne (where he met his wife Penny); Suvretta Haus, St Moritz; and the Park Lane Hilton, London.In 1967, Giorgio Berlingieri, the owner of a certain Nipa Lodge, a beach hotel in Thailand, looked for an able lieutenant to run a hotel for him. A hotel he just had purchased. It was called The Oriental in Bangkok. He had this tall slim German managing his Nipa Lodge in Pattaya. In November 1967, Berlingieri said to this man: ‘Why don’t you go to Bangkok and do some work for a change?’
The tall, slim man was Kurt Wachtveitl, an individualist from head to toe, accepted the offer at once. The young and motivated Kurt Wachtveitl and his elegant wife Penny teamed up, giving the hotel an irresistible driving force that would lead it to international renown. Kurt Wachtveitl looks back: ‘Berlingieri was extremely critical about the hotel’s restaurants. So his first step was to change the Normandie Grill. “People always judge the hotel by its restaurants,” he said. Of course he was right. Although the guest-rooms were a little outmoded at this time, by January 1969, people were flocking to the little inn by the river of the kings.’
Only Long Term Strategies pay off
'We were - and more than ever still are - thinking on a very, very long term base!' Wachtveitl reveals parts of the secret of his success: 'To open, say, a restaurant, and to expect an immediate return on investment means that you must be full from day one. The handicap is well-known: you make mistakes, you get complaints, you are empty after two months. We do things totally differently. We think in years. We know that we must not make any mistakes. That we want to be there in two, three years, that we want our guest to say "This is flawless, it is fantastic what you have given us!". Only then we have succeeded.'Khun Kurt, as he is respectfully addressed by his Thai staff (he has 1200), recalls: 'When I started, at the Beau Rivage or at the Suvretta House, our key staff knew everything about all their guests. They addressed everybody by name, knew what the guest preferred, his habits. Today I have sometimes over 600 guests in the house. We need to address our guests by name. We have individuals who are coming here for over 30 years. We have the same owners for over 30 years. We have staff who are here longer than I am - and that's 40 years now. You see: when I say "we think in long terms", I mean that sort of "long" terms.''A gust told me yesterday, that what's so special at The Oriental is the attention to the individual.' That is a great compliment. It hits the nail on the head. Attention to detail is of course paramount and the basic condition. But here we look after the individual. Wherever the guest is, at one of our nine restaurants, in one of our 400 rooms, at the pool, at the spa; he has the impression he is our only guest, our eyes are only on him.'Wachveitl addresses one of the most frequent mistakes of today's hoteliers (managers): 'Sometimes I feel hoteliers are hiding in their offices to avoid guest contact. They are afraid of complaints. But how do I get my feedback from my guest if I don't talk to them. I always listen to my guests. I learn from them. They tell me what they like. They tell me what they dislike. And they tell me what they would like. I got most of my ideas from them.'Kurt Wachtveitl has finally become the most legendary and longest serving hotel manager in our fast-paced hospitality industry. He is a man with a vision. And, in case you ask: he is not going to retire in the foreseeable future: 'Not in 2008!' he laughes - and off he runs, to attend a press conference with some 300 reporters for a wedding of tennis star Paradon Srichaphan and his trophy woman, the former Miss Universe Natalie Glebova. Business as usual. At The Oriental, on 29 November 2007.
'How do you achieve this supreme quality here at The Oriental - countless times the number one in the world?" I asked Wachtveitl, once upon a time, waiting for the extraordinary explanation.Smiling about the continued success of The Oriental "Herr Hoteldirektor" replied.'It's very simple,’ he explained. ‘We tell our staff exactly, what to do.' 'And that's all?' I asked, a bit disappointed.Smiling, he paused before adding: 'And we tell them what again week in, week out'."
The secret of his success also lies in the dedication of his long-serving staff - here, for example, Ankana Kalantananda. She was the first ever Thai woman to enter the hotel business. She trained in Paris. Khun Ankana, The Oriental’s Guest Relations Consultant, had worked for five Oriental general managers until, 40 years ago, number 6 entered the hotel.