Hotelier's Experience Gives Conrad a Competitive Edge


If it's true that a hotel is only as good as its GM then the future bodes well for Bangkok's newest five-star property, the Conrad. While, it's widely established that the Oriental's Kurt Wachtveitl is the premier hotelier in town, the Conrad's Gregory Meadows is part of a small group of knowledgeable and capable hoteliers forming the next tier in the pyramid of hotel leadership in Thailand. It might seem fitting to learn then that Meadows served under Kurt, being the Oriental's Resident Manager from 1980-85.

Meadows does indeed come from an old school background who trained by getting their hands dirty. Born in South Africa and raised in Norfolk, England, he attended hotel school in Norwich before joining the prestigious Savoy in London in their trainee management program back in 1968. The grime came from the coal he used to have to shovel to heat the Savoy's cooking ranges.

He eventually moved out of the Savoy's kitchen to work in the hotel's bar and then the control office, handling accounts, before the Savoy shipped him off to Switzerland in 1969 to work as a waiter for a year. He then returned to the Savoy to work as a receptionist. This was another 'work your way up' position, because just as he had started in the kitchen by shoveling coal, he started in reception by sharpening pencils and making sure the stationary stall was stocked. In 1971 he left the Savoy to go work in Bermuda as a Junior Manager. Then the Savoy asked him to return as head receptionist and he stayed until 1976.

"That's the way it was, you started at the very bottom, and I agreed with that," Gregory recalls. "It sounds silly in this day and age, and when you tell people, they laugh. But it was like public school training; you had certain rules and regulations, which you couldn't get away with today. We had to wear lace up shoes, we couldn't wear slip-ons; we couldn't wear a shirt and collar, it had to be a shirt with a separate stiff collar. We couldn't wear belts; we had to wear suspenders. So the uniform in those days was the stiff collar, the black waistcoat, the tailcoat and the striped trousers. And in those days there was no air-conditioning, so we used to sweat to death wearing all those clothes in the lobby in London in the middle of August."

He worked at the Savoy until 1976, and then moved on to Grosvenor House in London where he was the banquet and conference manager. He came to the Oriental in a roundabout way: he had applied to be Resident Manager for the Mandarin Oriental in Jakarta, didn't get that job, but when a similar position cropped up in Bangkok he was contacted again. One of Kurt Wachtveitl's friends in London actually interviewed him, reported favorably to Kurt, and Gregory was given the job with the Oriental in 1980 without even having had to come to Bangkok.

He stayed until 1985 when he left to go work in Antigua, where he was the GM of the St. James Club Resort/Hotel. In mid 1987 he returned to Asia to run the Hong Kong Club, a private members club. He didn't like it much though and the following year took a job as the number two at the Conrad Hotel in Hong Kong under Dario Regazzoni. In 1993, he returned to Bangkok, managing the Grand Pacific (Westin Sukhumvit) until 1996 and then the Sukhothai until 2001 when he accepted the position at the Conrad.

Why did he leave the Sukhothai? 'It was a case of 'been there, done that.' I had achieved what I personally wanted to achieve for the hotel and myself. It wasn't an easy decision, but I had been there for five years and the opening of a hotel always presents a challenge. You need challenges to stay fresh, and to keep you up-to-date on what's going on."

Gregory jokes that he first arrived in Bangkok in 1980 with one suitcase, left in 1985 with a suitcase and a wife, and then returned in 1983 with a 20-foot container, the same wife and two children. He met his wife Sivaporn, when she organized a number of functions at the Oriental for her job as the Executive Secretary for the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce.

How has being a GM changed? "In those days in a hotel like Savoy the General Manager was thought of as a God, he was a personality, he was expected to be very visible, be very close to the guests, and make decisions. These days, in a lot of hotel companies, you are certainly not a God; anonymous people in head offices hundreds of miles away tell you what to do and how to do it. It's rare these days to be able to stamp your identity on a hotel. But I've been lucky, I've been able to do that in all my hotels, and my input has been used. Even with the Conrad, which is a small company within a big company (Hilton USA) the manager is still allowed his freedom to give his input."

What else has changed about the way you do your work? "E-mails are an instant form of communication but by God, they can take over your life. This is the first hotel I've had a computer on my desk, priors to that I've done my best to keep it out of my office. But there are so many people to communicate with, especially in a larger company like the Hilton, but it's a manner of managing your e-mail, not letting it manage you."

Are you more tied down to administrative tasks these days? "The hotel business is a people business, the people being your staff and your guests. So if you are a GM and you are staying in your office and remaining anonymous then you are not doing your job. You have to have the discipline to get out there and do your rounds. One of my mentors was Kurt and you could walk into his hotel at lunchtime and he would be in the lobby. You could walk into his hotel at dinnertime and he would be in the lobby, and if you were sitting in one of the Oriental's restaurants you know he would appear to check the restaurant. He practices the basics; there's nothing fancy or scientific about running a hotel. He's the sort of person you watch and learn from, there aren't many people like him left."

Is there room for another high-end hotel in Bangkok? "There has been an oversupply of rooms in the hotel market since I returned to Bangkok in 1993. The corporate market isn't growing that much, if at all, and a hotel like ours becomes established by enticing people away from our competitors, not creating new arrivals to Bangkok. If you have the product, and you back it up with the service, and offer a good price, people will come and they will try it, and if they like it, they will stay."

What are the perks to staying at your hotel? "Conrad Hilton used to say 'location, location, location' and this is very important in Bangkok, where getting stuck in traffic can ruin your day. Our location on Wireless Road is right in the middle of the downtown core and diplomatic row. And All Seasons Place is 'the' office address for Bangkok, we have three office blocks, a retail sector, a large amount of parking, a condominium block, and a hotel."

What about the design of the Conrad? "We've broken the mould in terms of design, atmosphere and feeling. It's very different from what you'd expect of a five-star hotel: this is a hotel for the new millennium."

Gregory Meadows has managed a resort hotel, a club, a four-star city hotel, a five-star boutique hotel and a five-star city hotel. The Savoy's motto was "for excellence we strive." It's a motto Meadows has always stood by with each new position he's taken, and you can be sure that it's something the staff at the Conrad has taken to heart.

Ed note: While inspecting the hotel, I found no evidence of coal burning stoves or minions cramped over sharpening pencils by the thousands in a basement room somewhere.

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