Ong Chin Huat talks to Alex Porteous, the new GM at the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur to find out how the hotel is coping amid the evolving pandemic and what’s the one thing most guests look for when they check-in.
With some of the worst operating conditions in recent memory, the hospitality industry is currently navigating uncharted waters amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With the third wave of the coronavirus ravaging communities, cities and countries, the after-effects of the pandemic are being felt across all businesses and industries, not least the hospitality and tourism sector.
Taking up the mantle at such a challenging time is the new incoming General Manager of the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur, Alex Porteous. As a seasoned hotelier, Alex comes into his newest role with more than 36 years in the hotel industry of which 27 years are with the Four Seasons; he served as the GM at the Four Seasons Kyoto in his previous post.
With a CV which includes seven Four Seasons properties including three hotel openings and numerous industry accolades, Alex brings with his extensive hospitality expertise, but even he would be the first to say he’s facing unprecedented challenges dealing with the pandemic and its effect on his business.
Over lunch at Yun House, the new General Manager of the Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur discusses the changes the hotel industry has had to undergo in light of the pandemic and where his favourite place is to dine in the hotel.
Luxurious Magazine: How does the Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur differ from the other Four Seasons properties you have worked in?
Alex Porteous: Every of the 117 Four Seasons properties is uniquely designed with a great sense of place. One thing we know which is very important when you built a hotel is its location and the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur, which is right next to the iconic Petronas Twin Towers in KLCC is a great plus for us. But at the end of the day, having a great building or property is one thing, however having the team inside with the unique Malaysian culture, tradition and genuine warmth makes this hotel exceptional.
LM: What plans do you have for the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur for the coming year?
Alex Porteous: First of all, I have an incredible foundation to work with. We were preparing to go into 2020 firing on all four-cylinder and then came COVID-19 which no one has experienced before in my or my parent’s generation. So now, we are really recalibrating the new norm—building upon what we have established.
But I feel very proud of my team because, despite all this, we still achieved the number one hotel in Asia outside Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore in the 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards by Condé Nast Traveler as well as obtained the coveted 44th spot in The World’s Best Bars 2020 for Bar Trigona.
We also won the Best Hotel Development in 2019 at the PropertyGuru Asia Property Awards and Best Bar in Malaysia by Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2020. I just want to enhance and add value work with my team on their leadership skills and grow I their career and do what I have had the opportunity to do.
I always want my colleagues, and guests feel safe when they come here. We have put a lot of health and safety protocols in place. All our health and safety protocols and policies have been sent from our head office, which works closely with John Hopkins Medicine International. The Four Seasons policies will always be the norm unless the local policies are greater.
LM: What does the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur offer guests to make their stay memorable?
Alex Porteous: We operate with the three C’s at the Four Seasons, namely the character, the craftsmanship and the connection. The character not just of the hotel but of the people who work here. The craftsmanship consists of services such as food and beverage, and the connection is what we have with our guests. A building is just a building without the people making it come alive.
I don’t call our staff who work behind the scenes back of the house; it is the heart of the house. Its where everything is pumped from, and the most important restaurant in this hotel for me is Flavours, our staff dining room.
LM: In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, what measures has the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur put in place to ensure the safety of guests?
Alex Porteous: Upon arrival, our guests will get a letter to inform them of the safety programmes and policies implemented in the hotel. For example, in the guest rooms, we sanitise the telephone, remote controls and frequently used and touched surfaces and then put seals on them. Our team wear full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and all employees and visitors need to wear a mask when they enter the hotel. Otherwise, they are not allowed in.
Their temperature is taken, and then they will have to register with MySejahtera (an application developed by the Malaysian government to assist in monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak and provides the Ministry of Health to plan for effective countermeasures against the pandemic.)
There were stringent health and hygiene practices in place already, but we have enhanced them. For instance, you cannot go into the kitchen without a hairnet on, and everyone wears gloves and the attendant press the elevators for you, so you don’t have to touch it. And when we catch our employees doing something right, they become our ‘Lead with Care’ heroes for the day.
(Editor’s note: The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts has entered into a consulting agreement with John Hopkins Medicine International to inform Four Seasons health and safety decisions during the evolving COVID-19 pandemic. The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts have implemented the Lead with Care global programme in all their properties which enhances health and safety protocols in all Four Seasons properties around the world.
A dedicated COVID-19 Advisory Board has also been established by the Four Seasons which brings together Four Seasons leadership and top experts to inform health and safety decisions based on the latest scientific knowledge.)
LM: With all your years 36 years in the hotel industry, what do you think is the one thing guests look for when they check into a Four Seasons hotel?
Alex Porteous: For me, the best surprise of all is no surprise. So we make sure the guests get what they booked. And if the guests are surprised, then it has to be something better than what they booked.
Simple acts of kindness in recognising a guest’s need and personalising someone’s stay makes their stay more special. But you have to balance that with guests’ privacy as you don’t. Personalisation is very important, in my opinion.
We teach our staff to respect every guest and to use their EQ to gauge what kind of service each guest likes and understand their emotions. And now there is DQ which stands for decency quotient – not doing things right but doing the right thing. Applying DQ, our staff can bend the rules for guests if it is not against the law or anything serious.
LM: Going forward, what challenged do you see the hotel industry facing with the pandemic, and how would they overcome it?
Alex Porteous: First. I’d like to say kudos to the Malaysian Ministry of Health as they have done a fantastic job with managing the pandemic in this country. There is a very fine line balancing the health and safety of your citizens with that of the economy, as well as the mental wellness of people.
I have 380 employees in our hotel, so not only do I have a responsibility to them but also to their families. We have to consider the new norm. Things might look different in our hotel, but it will feel the same.
LM: Being in a people industry, how do you motivate your team to bring out the best in them?
Alex Porteous: First of all, I care for them. I treat my employees like I treat my children. I keep my door open and am approachable. My message to them is always very clear. I tell them what we want and why we want it. But how they get there is up to them. I let them know I am here to guide them.
I am a firm believer in authenticity. I am not immune to making mistakes, and when I do make any, I own up to them as I believe showing vulnerability on my part is a good leadership trait to have.
LM: What do you think sets the Four Seasons Hotels apart from the rest?
Alex Porteous: I believe it’s our training and learning accessibility. We have Harvard Business Reviews as well as Cornell University courses online which every single Four Seasons employee has access to. We invest in our employees and build a strong foundation and where we hold our leaders accountable for. The core culture and golden rule is a very important one which is that we treat people the way we wish to be treated ourselves.
I see myself and a member of the team. To jump in and walk a mile in my employees’ shoes and being emphatic is what the Four Seasons is all about. If I didn’t believe in the corporate culture at the Four Seasons, I wouldn’t have stayed 27 years. Another factor is that the Four Seasons work with incredible developers and business partners where we build a long-term relationship with.
Before we agree to partner with them, we make sure they are on the same page as us. We don’t rest on our laurels either. We have to adapt and change with the times and to do this; we have to be agile, creative and innovative.
For further information on the Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur please visit www.fourseasons.com/kualalumpur.
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