Wachtveitl - Why don’t you do some work ?
From the book THE ORIENTAL, BANGKOK, the history of the legendary hotel, published in the library THE MOST FAMOUS HOTELS IN THE WORLD® by Andreas Augustin and Andrew Williamson
Why don't you do some work, for a change?
Chapter: Italthai 1967–1981
When businessmen take over an enterprise as promising as the Oriental Hotel one would imagine that facts and figures are all important. Not with The Oriental. Here management skills must be combined with a big heart. One of the most important players in the life of The Oriental, luckily, had both. He was a man of ‘first-class brains, a generous heart and on top of this great combination a sense of humour to go with it’ as Kurt Wachtveitl, longest-serving general manager of The Oriental, fondly remembers him.Giorgio Berlingieri, born in Genoa in Italy in 1922, entered The Oriental’s history book in 1967. His company ‘Italthai’ was well on the way to becoming one of the country’s most significant mercantile groups, eventually consisting of over 60 companies, covering almost all aspects of the Thai economy. Italthai was founded in the mid-fifties by Berlingieri as a joint-venture with Dr Chaijudh Karnasuta. This very Dr Chaijudh first called Berlingieri about The Oriental in 1967. Berlingieri later reproduced this conversation in An Oriental Album: ‘The first step leading to the acquisition was taken in mid-air, so to speak. My partner, Dr Chaijudh Karnasuta, co-chairman of the Italthai, put in a long-distance call to me, as I was on a business trip to Italy.“There’s a hotel for sale.”“Forget it,” was my immediate reply.“It’s The Oriental Hotel,” said Dr Chaijudh, a man of few words.“Why didn’t you say so?” I cried. “Of course, we’ll buy it!”“That’s what I thought you would say,” the good doctor calmly remarked.And that was that.’Berlingieri, an expert frogman, dived into new, unknown waters. He had graduated in naval and mechanical engineering with full marks from the University of Genoa. His work concentrated on ship salvage, clearing ships wrecked during the war. He was based first in Vietnam (where he met his wife Mimi) and eventually on the Chao Phraya River.If this seems an unlikely background, there was another side to the Italian who appeared ‘a gentleman all the way, toujours avec son cigare’, as Peter Bunnag put it in Berlingieri’s obituary book. The connoisseur of fine wines, the founder of the Bangkok Gourmet Club and the ‘man with something more’ as Charles Regnault, his assistant for over ten years, put it, Berlingieri had his own understanding of a grand hotel. His plans went beyond the horizon of the City of Angels. His aim was clear: The Oriental must become one of the best hotels in the world.
Berlingieri was far too busy with his various businesses (Nipa Lodge, a beach hotel; the Bangkok World, a newspaper; Siam Bricks, a factory producing hollow bricks from clay; Ital-Lao, his first venture outside Thailand) to take charge personally. He looked instead for an able lieutenant to run the hotel for him. Two years previously Surin, his secretary, had recommended a man she had met as a student in Switzerland to manage the Nipa Lodge in Pattaya. Later, 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. Giorgio’s widow, the late Mimi Berlingieri, later recalled the special bond between these two men: ‘They were not like son and father as my husband was too young to be his father, but he was like a guiding friend to Kurt.’Now down-to-earth Mimi, her entrepreneurial husband Giorgio, 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 again and again to the little inn by the river of the kings.’ In the 1970s, rooms at The Oriental cost 275 baht for a single and 390 baht for a double. The Royal and Thai suites in the old building were 1,000 Baht per night. At this point the owners of the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong decided to establish Mandarin International Hotels Ltd and expand into Southeast Asia. The Oriental matched their requirements in Thailand. The two companies entered into a partnership in 1972 which continues harmoniously to this day. The story of the deal was recounted by Berlingieri in An Oriental Album.
When Kurt Wachtveitl started his job at The Oriental, Ankana Kalantananda was already there. She was the first woman in Thailand working in the tourism- and hospitality industry, trained in Paris and other destinations. She is still part of the team, and so is "Khun Kurt", who is her 6th general manager.
We will continue to record the saga, read all about it in our book.