Seoul Man By Fiona Sanderson
Adrian Slater, General Manager of the Grand Hyatt in South Korea, talks to The Luxury Channel about life in the hotel and living in Seoul….
How long have you been with Hyatt Group?
Almost 30 years – it’s a great company. What it does extremely well is give everyone the opportunity to grow, and I think the hospitality industry is all about creating experiences for people as well as their guests. I have had so many opportunities – I have worked in the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, and now South Korea. I started working for Hyatt when I was 16. I was only going to work for a year as a waiter, then go onto hotel school in New Zealand and see what happened. Here I am 30 years later!
What is it like for a young person going into the hotel industry?
It’s not a 9 to 5 job. You have to be very flexible. But it’s an industry where you can see the world and there are opportunities, although maybe not early on in your career but later certainly. I think working in the hotel industry exposes you to a very multi-cultural society, understanding customers who are very different from you. That’s something you don’t realise until you have been through it. I had two roles in the Dubai Hyatt, and I really saw what a multi-cultural society is. I had 54 different nationalities coming through our hotel doors – you don’t get that in any other country in the world!
What changes have you seen in the hotel industry over the years, and where is the focus today?
I think the hotel industry has become so design-focussed – the importance of the interior designer, the space they create and the experience around it. It’s all about delivering the experience to the customer that matches the environment. I think technology within hotels has changed dramatically. From finance systems to check-in, to the telephone and internet. Consumers today are using technology more and more to find out things and the hospitality industry was very slow at first but is much savvier on that front now. You now look at the habits of the millennials and how they respond and behave, which can be quite a challenge, then you have the baby boomers who are a little bit more analogue in the way they operate. The millennials will just flick through and say, look we can get this deal. You have to be really up to speed with it to make sure you know what they are talking about and you can relate to their issues and their experience and market.
What’s the difference between a Grand Hyatt and a Park Hyatt?
Customer expectation is very high and can differ between hotels. When you come to a Grand Hyatt, you expect a grand experience. When you walk into the lobby, you are awed by the music, the ambience, and the sheer look and feel of the place. Our Park Hyatt brand is very personalised, but not so grand so when you arrive into a Park Hyatt, the lobby has a bit of a residential feel. They are all very different, though. Normally, a smaller hotel has a more personalised service than perhaps a Grand Hyatt like this, which has probably over a thousand people walking through the lobby every day. We have about a thousand staff. Koreans are fantastic in the service industry and they really pride themselves on this. I took a lot of Korean nationals with me to Dubai because they understand service and what is required to make it perfect, and they are very, very proud of that. This hotel is 38 years old and some of the employees have been here since the opening. They recognise the guests and that’s what the guests like. Recently, a guest returning after six years recognised the bell boy and gave him a big hug and said “its so nice; it’s like coming home!”
Why is Asian service known for its perfection?
If you teach a Korean how to do things well, they will do the same for the next 40 years and I think that’s a commitment. I think it’s in the culture, it’s in the history, how they strive to do better and how they are committed to making sure the guest experience is awesome. Korea is challenging but rewarding. I think there is a lot of history here, a lot of culture. They are very proud, particularly when you look at what it was like after the Korean war and what they have achieved since. I was away for five years and came back, and when I got off the plane, I said “I am home!” because relationships stick for a long time here. You can build solid relationships here but it does mean a lot of nights out getting to know people and building the trust.
What is the attraction of South Korea and who comes here as a tourist?
Our biggest market is the US. Lots of luxury brands are here. Korea is a market that is known for testing cosmetics; if it works in this market, it will work anywhere else in the world. Koreans know what they want. It’s a very dynamic city but you have to know where to go. As a foreigner coming here, it may not be as easy to get around like New York but it’s getting better. They are really committed to making it “user friendly.” I think you will find if you were lost in tourist areas and went looking for help, they would be more than happy to help and guide you where to go. The other thing is that if you have got kids, they really take care of them. If you are in a queue, they will bring you straight to the fore. Seoul is really amazing as you really have the four seasons to the fullest. The cherry blossoms are extraordinary – such vibrant colours and you see the reds, the blues – incredible! The infrastructure works, as they are all ahead of the curve.
The fashion here is amazing; you only need to sit in the lobby here and see what people are wearing. There is a real style focus here. It’s a fun city. With Korea, you either love it or hate it, and I love it. Once you know how to find your way around here, it’s amazing. If you want sophistication, it’s all here, with great hotels and restaurants. There is a big outdoor restaurant scene here, and the nightclub scene has really taken off. The Koreans are extremely well-educated with almost a 98% literacy rate. There is a massive focus from families on education, and it’s very competitive – getting into the top universities and jobs, and going overseas. They’ll speak a minimum of three languages. When I was GM of the Park Hyatt, I went into the restaurant kitchen and I was amazed; everyone spoke fluent Italian and the Koreans weren’t speaking in their own language, they weren’t even speaking English, but Italian! Korea is also quite health conscious – all the buses run on natural gas and electricity. People are recycling in line with Europe. There are vinyl bars here – like the old juke box cafes where you drink whisky, usually one or two bottles, and then it’s time to go home.
What are the defining features of this Grand Hyatt hotel in Seoul?
It’s all about giving the guest an experience which we hope we achieve. The staff are incredible. They care about their guests. At night time, the whole lobby transforms into the most amazing auditorium. We have a band and it is really an experience – the lobby lounge here is spectacular. In the summer, we have a barbeque by the pool. It’s amazing to sit out there in the fresh air and look at that view. The beauty of this hotel is that we are a resort within the city. This is the Beverly Hills of Seoul.
When you look back on your time in the industry, what do you remember?
I remember John Cleese was staying with us and he came into the hotel – where he was supposed to be being interviewed – wearing a dressing gown and slippers and I said, “Mr. Cleese, are you going for the interview dressed like that?” and he said, “yes, it’s only for the radio.” You see a lot of celebrities. The saxophonist Kenny G comes to Korea a lot. Last time I saw him, we got into the elevator and he asked me if I had heard his latest album, which I said I had not and he said, “it’s much better than my elevator music used to be!” We sit down and he has a glass of wine just like any other person, and then he hears some music in the bar and then just grabs his bag and decides to have a 45 minute jam session. It was a free concert in the bar! He wasn’t playing the saxophone, he was playing guitar and drums and it was just amazing. We gave our musicians the night off. This was not orchestrated; it was just, let’s just have a jam session. It was just giving something back to the people. So that was a big highlight.
The other person I loved was Tina Turner. She was really fit; she had her own chef who travelled with her and cooked for her. That was the key to her health. So, mixing with the celebrities and rubbing shoulders with these people is quite fun and rewarding. This hotel has been the host to four US Presidents, The Queen, and even Princes Diana. This hotel is iconic; it’s not modern or flashy – it’s a statement. Everyone knows it. If you travel around the world and say, “I work at the Grand Hyatt,” people know it. Last week, we had the French president staying – when these guys come, it runs like clockwork, all run by the Koreans extremely well. The streets are all blocked, and the police escort the whole hierarchy. It’s amazing.
What is your biggest achievement?
My biggest achievement in my career? I think it’s important as you go through your career to be very humble and realise you can’t do it alone – it’s about building a team to work with you to achieve the results. I think that’s something that only comes with experience. It’s a lot of posing the ideas but letting people run with them. The biggest satisfaction for me is seeing the team coming together to deliver the end product. My biggest wish is that I had more time going, to go around to thank everybody!