The Regent Bangkok was purchased
six years ago by the Four Seasons chain of hotels, a Canadian management company
that also operates the Regent Chiang Mai. The Four Seasons is based in Toronto,
and is the largest luxury hotel company in the world with 39 properties in 16
Canadian Bill Black is the
hotel's general manager. He lives out on Chaengwattana Road with his wife Deide,
and their son, Jonathan, who Black kiddingly says is `fifteen going on
twenty-one' and attending ISB. Bill and Deide have known each other since high
school and Bill jokes that he doesn't remember being single.
After being at the Regent for
eight-and-a-half years Black took a brief hiatus from his post in Bangkok three
years ago as he went to manage the Regent Singapore for a year-and-a-half, but
fate and circumstance brought him back to Bangkok.
Bill is a native of Vancouver,
and he studied architecture at the University of British Columbia. So how did he
end up in the hotel business? "Not being a good architect," he jests.
(it's really hard to have a serious conversation with Bill Black). "It
wasn't by a design, but I wouldn't change it for the world. When I graduated I
wanted to take a year off, and I ended getting a job with the Hotel Vancouver,
but when it came time to go back to school I decided that I liked the hotel
business and I wanted to stay in it. My first job was actually as a `convention
coordinator' which was really just a fancy name for a houseman but since I had a
university degree I needed a nice title.
"I then worked in sales
with the Hotel Vancouver for a while before I became Resident Manager at the
Harbor Castle Hilton in Toronto. I stayed at that post for five years. But I
really wanted to come to Asia, and an old boss of mine referred me to a friend
of his who was running the Regent Hong Kong. So I went there as the resident
manager, originally planning to stay for two years, but I ended up staying for
five years. That was a tremendous experience. It was a great, great hotel and I
had a great time.
"I came to Bangkok at the
beginning of 1987, and my arrival coincided with `Visit Thailand Year' when the
hotel, Thailand, and the market just took off. We rode the wave of success
claiming it was all great management. I experienced the coups, the Gulf War, and
the democracy demonstrations, and I really became very very attached to the
hotel, the employees, and the country.
When he was Chairman of the
Community Projects Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce, Black
co-founded the Thailand Business Coalition on AIDS (TBCA). This was back in 1991
when Bill was asked to attend a conference put on by the United Nations
development Program (UNDP) entitled `NGOs and the Private Sector' and it
involved NGOs from all over South-East Asia. Part of the conference included a
panel discussion that Black participated in on how NGOs could improve their
communication with the private sector. All of the NGOs involved happened to be
in the field of HIV-AIDS.
Black told the participants that
the difficulty NGOs have with the private sector is that they just don't speak
the same language. "They must understand that the private sector is judged
on profitability, and that just doing good deeds is not necessarily paramount on
Also at that conference was Jim
Reinoldt of Northwest Airlines, and Steve Krause of the UNDP-AIDS section. The
three of them decided to develop a questionnaire that went out to all of the
American Chamber members that asked if they were aware of the issue, had they
done anything about it, and if information was made available would they be
interested in knowing about it?
"The end result,"
Black says, "was that we learned that no one had done anything about it,
but that yes they were aware of the problem but they wouldn't know what to do if
an employee approached them who was infected.
"We thought, therefore,
that there was an opportunity to develop an organization that would respond in
terms that the private sector would understand. So we formed the Thai Business
Coalition on AIDS (TBCA) to be a private sector response. We addressed our
attack on business saying it made good business sense to have a workplace policy
and an education program. "It's been a good exercise and we were able to
find a niche in trying to develop and work forward the issue of workplace
policies on dealing with HIV-AIDS."
But has it been successful?
Well, Black says the TBCA now has a permanent staff of nine people in their
office on Rama IX Road and "it has a recognized global effect because it is
set as a standard for private-public sector co-operation in the field of
"I was in Manila last
November though attending the World Conference on AIDS of about 7,000 delegates,
and I got up and said `I think I'm the only businessmen here.' So we still have
communication problems. All the NGOs speak a language which is very different
from that of the business community, and I think we need to do a better job of
facilitating communication between the two."
As a result of that meeting in
Manila, Black recently completed a workplace policy manual for the International
Hotel and Restaurant Association (IAHA), the largest global hospitality
organization. The manual is globally distributed and funded by UN-AIDS.
"We try to influence
companies by making them more enlightened about the issue. And we present the
issue in a very non-threatening way. Our basic approach is that it makes good
business sense to be involved, and many companies especially hotels have been
very responsive to the program. If I have an employee who is infected I hope
that I have a group of employees that would realize that the employee concerned
can still be a positive contributing employee and may show absolutely no health
"We want to try and
eliminate discrimination, and the negative stigma that can be associated with
being HIV positive. It's not a disease that can be "caught" and the
workplace is the best place to educate people about the problem.
"More and more
organizations quietly, and in their own way, are developing a workplace policy
that eliminates discrimination and gives some sense of security to their
employees. They are also developing programs that can not only educate their
employees but their employees' families as well. If the workforce is educated
then there should be no fear and the infected employee should be treated just as
if they had any other life threatening disease.
"People ask me why I got
involved in the TBCA. I'm not a crusader, my brother didn't die from it, and I'm
not infected. It just seemed like the right thing to do, and I did it with
people I have a great deal of respect for.
"If someone is infected at
the Regent, there is a procedure that the hotel will follow that will protect
both the hotel and the employee and give both a sense of security. The policy
states that someone who is HIV infected can stay on as an employee as long as
they can perform their duties then they would go on a disability program when
they become too ill to work.
"And what does a program
like this cost you? Nothing. Understanding of the issue has come a long way
since it was just associated with homosexuality and drug use, but we still need
to get more senior management people to understand that its a good thing to put
a workplace policy into effect."
Changing gears slightly the
Regent Bangkok has sponsored the Terry Fox Run for three years running (The
Regent Chiang Mai has done it for two years). "There is no corporate policy
on the Run per say," says Bill "but our company globally has taken up
the challenge that Terry Fox initiated. Our chairman, Isadore Sharp, had a son
who died of cancer, and when Terry was doing his `Marathon of Hope' across
Canada, Sharp supported him and he rallied other business executives to do so as
well. As a result of that there has always been a close association between the
Four Seasons and the Terry Fox Run.
"The Run gives us an
opportunity to be involved in the community. The focus is on public awareness,
and cancer research more than just being a physical race. We call it a `Fun Run'
and whole families participate, from the whole spectrum of the community. I
think it's great for the Canadian community in Bangkok, as everyone including
the Ambassador participates. We've raised Bt2 million so far, and the money
stays in Thailand (the money always stays in the country where the run is
What about Black's thoughts on
the Canadian Community? "I was here when David Solaway founded the Thai
Canadian Business Council which was the forerunner of the Thai Canadian Chamber
of Commerce, and I think the profile of the Canadian community in Bangkok has
grown remarkably. There is very
good leadership within the Canadian community. We as a group are very
conservative, and we counterbalance the Americans. The longer I stay here I see
the Canadian business community (especially people like Sean Brady and Don
Lavoie) making greater inroads and having a stronger voice, and a stronger
I couldn't leave Bill Black
without asking him why people should stay at his hotel, and why it's so
successful? Location is an advantage he says, and the consistency of the quality
of service offered which is delivered with a Thai flavor. "The Regent also
has a good place within the community. It is looked upon up by the locals as
being part of the community, and ultimately for any hotel to be successful it
has to win acceptance from those in the local community so that they can look
upon the hotel as theirs."
Annabelle Daokaew, the Regent's
lovely Filipina P.R. co-ordinator, describes Bill as having adapted to Thailand
very well. "He gets along with all kind of different people from the maids
to the people in the executive office. He doesn't discriminate, and he's a nice
person. He doesn't force you do anything and he isn't aggressive, and I think
that's why the Thais like him so much. When he originally left to go Singapore
we had a going away party for him, and there wasn't a dry eye in the
His superiors have said Bill
Black is more Thai than the Thais. He takes this as a compliment. It's hard not
to like him. He's a good guy that cares about the little guys, and he has indeed
proved Thomas Wolfe wrong. You see, he came home, at least to his second home.
When he originally left the Regent to go to Singapore three years ago he had no
intention of coming back to Bangkok. He did, however, and he has done so with
grace, dignity and aplomb.