Ong Chin Huat sits down for a chat with Blaise Montandon, the new General Manager of the Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur, over lunch and learns about his challenges in the past two and a half years and the common thread he has found in all the countries he has worked in.
Blaise Montandon is a man who has spent his entire career in the hospitality industry and is the new General Manager of the Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur, bringing with him a wealth of experience in luxury hospitality.
Arriving in Malaysia just as its borders have opened to international travel, this significant timing bodes well for the Four Seasons Hotel as well as the hospitality industry as a whole.
Hailing from Fleurier, a small town in Switzerland, Blaise graduated from the Hospitality Business School in Lausanne and has worked all around the world, from Europe, Africa and Asia, with his last posting being as the General Manager of the Four Seasons Resort Hoi An in Vietnam.
Luxurious Magazine: What was your first impression of Kuala Lumpur when you arrived?
Blaise Montandon: I’ve been in Asia for a long time and the first time I came to Kuala Lumpur was 15 years ago, but I’ve never worked here. Coming back here, what struck me was the changes. It has grown a lot, and it’s now a very vibrant city with a lot of contrast, making it very interesting. Another thing I couldn’t help but notice is its food and bar scene, which seems very exciting.
LM: Every Four Seasons property is different, so how is the Four Seasons KL different from the others you have worked in?
Blaise: I previously worked in two Four Seasons properties; both were resorts. (His most recent stint was at the Four Seasons Resort Hoi An in Vietnam.) A city hotel is very different from a resort. Regardless of the location, we have the same DNA, which is the Four Seasons’ golden rule of treating people how they want to be treated and certain things we at the Four Seasons live and breathe every day during the good as well as the challenging times. Our strong culture enables us to deliver memorable experiences to our guests.
LM: What plans do you have for the Four Seasons KL now that the country has opened up and people are travelling again?
Blaise: Business is picking up, which is excellent for everyone. I always believe that a city hotel should be a meeting point for the local community. We want to ensure that the locals have a place they are proud of and to show their guests from abroad. We want to embrace the local culture, too, but you cannot do that if your property is only seen as catering to just people coming from abroad. A hotel should be all-inclusive for both locals and tourists.
I don’t believe in making changes just for the sake of it. If things have been done in a certain way, there is a reason for it, and one has to understand that and then adjust or improve on it with one’s team. The hospitality industry is an evolving business, and whichever market you are in, you must study it to understand it better and implement the Four Seasons DNA.
LM: What new protocols have the Four Seasons KL implemented with the new normal?
Blaise: We have a corporate program at the Four Seasons called ‘Lead with Care’, which incorporates medical institutions and various other protocols that we adjust regularly depending on the situation. We must protect our guests and team members by strictly following the health and safety protocols. We follow all the legal requirements of the country we are in and then adjust it where we see it necessary.
LM: You came from the Four Seasons Resort Hoi An in Vietnam; how different is managing a resort as opposed to a city hotel?
Blaise: In a resort, guests tend to stay longer, and multi-generational families travel together, so we have to develop different activities and programmes for the different age groups in a family. In a city hotel, even though there are tourists, they don’t spend so much time in the hotel.
If anything, this pandemic has shown how important family bonds are, especially in Asia. In a resort, guests want to discover the place’s culture, so we have to be creative in curating our guests’ experiences. In a city, this is also important but at a lesser level. In a resort, there is also less of the local community coming to visit.
LM: Having lived and worked worldwide, what is the common thread you have found in your line of work?
Blaise: We are in the people business, and it is the people who make the difference. Some say it’s challenging to move from one country to another, but I say not really because you are essentially dealing with people and human beings are basically the same everywhere. There are, of course, cultural differences, but I think we have more similarities than differences.
If you are a foreigner, I don’t think you should try to be like the locals; you just need to respect them. I always remember I am a guest in someone else’s country, just like if I visit a friend’s home. You need to adjust, not change things. Both sides can learn from each other; that is how we make things happen.
LM: What are the biggest challenges you have experienced in being the GM of a hotel?
Blaise: The pandemic is probably the biggest challenge I have faced in my career thus far. That and how we ensure the livelihoods of our team members. We had the support of the owning company, who showed they truly cared about the team members during difficult times. If you treat your employees well, they will, in turn, treat guests well. Treating them well creates a positive experience. Managing through fear doesn’t work. Employees must be happy for them to deliver their best to the guests.
LM: What do you wish for a guest to experience while staying at the Four Seasons KL and take away with them when they check out?
Blaise: I want our guests to feel the Four Seasons style of hospitality that we are proud of, coupled with a Malaysian touch, because we don’t want them to feel something robotic. There is such a strong and diverse culture in Malaysia, and we want our guests to truly embrace Malaysian hospitality, which is unique and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Local culture is essential for the Four Seasons, and we embrace it wholeheartedly.
LM: Coming from Switzerland and having worked in Europe and Asia, what are the hospitality differences between European and Asian hotels?
Blaise: My first visit to Asia was as an intern in Taiwan. The most significant difference I found was the staffing was so much bigger here than in Europe. In Asia, you can deliver services which you could never deliver in Europe. But things are changing, and there is now a big discrepancy between certain cities within Asia.
I’m not one to generalise, but in Asia, there is a lot of passion, and people are eager to learn and grow. They want to push boundaries and try new things, which is more difficult in Europe. The hotels are very traditional in Europe, and things have been done the same way for a long time, so changing is a little more challenging there.
LM: Having studied hospitality, do you think practical working experience or academics are more important when one enters the workforce?
Blaise: I’m from Switzerland, so I always sit in the middle! But what is important is that if someone is more practical, his colleague should be more academic. There should be a good balance. There is no right or wrong, but you need to have passion. Your academic qualifications will help get you your first job, but after that, attitude, experience and mindset will carry you forward.
For further information on the Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur, please visit www.fourseasons.com/kualalumpur.
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