But here’s the thing: Aside from the local newspapers, there’s no obvious sign of turmoil. The City of Angels is as peaceful as it’s always been. And because crowds are still down, there’s no better time to visit than now.
That’s especially true of the Sukhumvit area, where well-to-do Thais and expats comprise the bulk of the residential mix. The result? An everything-at-your-fingertips destination.
Just ask William Haandrikman, general manager of the Sofitel Bangkok Sukhumvit luxury hotel. The veteran hotelier took the reins in January. But as the following interview attests, he already understands what makes Sukhumvit the heart of one of the world’s most compelling cities …
Q: You’ve been here a couple months now. What drew you to Bangkok, and specifically this property?
A: The opening of the Sofitel in Shanghai got delayed. So Accor asked me if I would be interested in an opportunity in Bangkok. I wasn’t all that familiar with the city, so my family and I came over and explored it for a while. In November I said yes. In January we moved here.
It’s very interesting. What I’ve found is that you need to know the city to really enjoy the city. It’s not like Paris, where you can just wander around and it all just sort of reveals itself. In Bangkok, you need to know where to go to get the best out of it. A lot of the good stuff isn’t as visible. It’s an awesome place to live in, spend time in. There are so many small, hidden treasures, everywhere.
To visitors who want to get to know it but don’t have much time, I would say stay with us. Our chief concierge is a fountain of knowledge about the area and can point you in all the right directions. Sukhumvit is where the people who live in Bangkok spend their time. Not the river, not Silom. This area is where everything happens. It’s the heart of Bangkok life for residents. People from other parts of the city will come here, but people here will not go to other parts. Sukhumvit people don’t really venture far from here.
Q: What was it like coming in here at a time when Bangkok was facing a ‘shutdown’ situation?
A: When I first got here, in mid-January, there was a lot of activity — protesting, cheering, that kind of thing. It was a challenging time. Especially in February and March, with the state of emergency, and the media basically making it sound like Bangkok was a war zone.
Fortunately, we have a very good owner. He supports us in a way that most hotel owners do not. He never encouraged us to cut staff, or tell anyone to take involuntary leave without pay. He said we are a humane company. Everyone appreciates that.
Q: What are your primary goals for the remainder of 2014? Anything new in the works that guests might want to know about?
A: I’m actually in assessment mode still. It’s clear that this property is already operating on a very high level.
But as with anywhere, there’s always room for improvement, for fine tuning. Especially in a city like this one, where new concepts pop up all the time. We don’t want to just keep up; we want to be the front runner. And the only way you do that is by adapting to the market.
Q: What makes Sofitel Sukhumvit different/better from other hotels in Bangkok?
A: According to the feedback we get from guests, it’s the people who work here. Our ambassadors. Their friendliness, their smiles, the way they welcome everyone who comes through the door. It’s unique. They love working here, and you can tell. That’s what both our new guests and repeat guests say. They’re what make the experience here so memorable.
A lot of it comes down to our French roots. We are the only 5-star hotel chain from France. And we manage our ambassadors slightly different because of that. Others might say we’re too lenient, too easy-going. But I think that French flair translates to long-term ambassadors. I think that’s one of our major strengths.
Q: What about this area? What makes the Sukhumvit neighborhood an ideal spot from which to explore the city?
A: It’s one of the most exclusive residential areas in the city, especially toward Thong Lor. So you have that aspect. And you have the expat community that views Sukhumvit as the heart of Bangkok. Put the two together and what follows are all the things that support such a population — high-end restaurants, shopping centers, hospitals, and so on. The street life is fantastic here, too.
Q: Do you have a favorite meal/dish in your restaurant(s)?
A: Personally, I like any of the dishes you can share. Family style. I like that concept. Always have. It’s a big part of what we do at L’Appart, the rooftop restaurant.
At Voila, on the mezzanine level, I like any of the spicy Thai salads. And at breakfast, the fact that we can prepare eggs in so many different ways. I’ve never been a breakfast person – I’m normally fine with a cup of tea – but I’m starting to become one.
Q: What’s the best thing about being the GM of a hotel?
A: I can share my knowledge with my team. Of course, you can do that whether you’re the GM or not. But as the GM, I have more of an overview of what’s happening in the hotel. I have what I like to call the ‘helicopter view.’
I’m always asking myself, ‘How can we make it all happen?’ I think everyone being in the know is important. Because if everyone knows what’s going on throughout the hotel, then the processes are much easier. There are lots of moving parts, and getting all the parts working well together is not easy.
Q: When should the defining moment for a hotel guest take place?
A: I think the first and last points of contact are tremendously important. The first impression sets the tone.
Same with check-out, really. If the bill is wrong, for instance, that’s the last thing the guest remembers. It has to be a stress-free departure. If it is, it’s like at a good restaurant — if everything was good, and the bill was right, then the guest is happy to pay and come back again.
Or Louis Vuitton, another French brand. They get it right. Customers will say that if you buy a bag there, you only notice the price once you’re asked for your signature on the credit card slip, because everything leading up to that – the process, if you will – was perfect.
That’s what we strive for too. A rounded experience, where the voyage is sharp from beginning to end.