PURSUITS
Expat hospitality
Vir Sanghvi
Friday, June 29, 2012

Top jobs in the hotel industry in Asia are going to ‘foreigners’: is that good for expatriates or does it indicate a bias against locals?

I was reading 
about a banquet being held in Bangkok, Thailand, to benefit underprivileged children. Chefs from the city’s top hotels were coming together to cook for free and Thailand’s popular princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn would be the guest of honour. I ran an eye over the list of participating chefs. It was an impressive gathering headed by the legendary Norbert Kostner, chef at the Oriental Hotel for many decades now.

Other famous Thai 
hotels were also represented: Chiang Mai’s Dhara Dhevi, Bangkok’s Intercontinental, Grand Hyatt, Shangri La, Siam Kempinski, 
St Regis etc.

Then, I looked closely at the names of the chefs. Among those taking part were Michael Hogan, Michael Gremer, Domonique Bugnand, Philippe Gaudal, Spencer Kells, Nicolas Schneller and 14 others. I looked more closely. Some of the chefs were well-known. Others were those I had not heard of.

But here’s the thing: there was not one Thai chef!

Thailand has one of Asia’s best-developed hotel industries, partly because it depends so much on tourism. There are probably many more five-star hotel rooms in the city of Bangkok alone than there are in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh combined. Many of these hotels have been in existence for decades. The Oriental traces its history back to the turn of the last century. The Dusit Thani is one of Thailand’s oldest local hotel chains. At the Oriental, its general manager used to boast that the average member of staff had worked at the hotel for at least 15 years.

We are not dealing with a new business or a new sector of the economy here. So why was it that not one Thai chef made the grade?

The answer was simple. Rare is the five-star hotel in Thailand that has a Thai executive chef. Rarer still, is the five-star hotel that has a Thai general manager. Even food and beverage directors tend to be imported from abroad. The highest a Thai employee of a hotel can hope to get is sous chef, restaurant manager or front office manager. The top jobs nearly always go to foreigners. Or, to put it more crudely, they go to white people.

Lest you think that I am singling out Thailand, let me assure you that pretty much the same situation prevails in the rest of Asia. Singapore has had the odd well-known non-white general manager (Jenny Chua who opened Raffles after its renovation is probably the most famous) and so has Hong Kong. But if you were to draw up a list of Asian hotels, you would discover that something like 80 to 90 per cent of general managers and executive chefs were foreigners. Locals are never allowed to get that high.

I can understand the appeal of expatriates in cities where there isn’t a sufficiently large pool of labour. In many cities in the Middle East, locals either have little interest in entering the hotel business or there aren’t enough of them. So, it becomes inevitable that top hotel jobs will always go to foreigners.

But, in Asia, where there is a long tradition of hospitality and no shortage of qualified locals, why is it that only expatriates tend to get the top hotel jobs?

I have spoken to people in the business about this phenomenon and I have been offered a variety of answers. One version is that Asian hotels tend to appeal to ‘foreign’ tourists and that foreign tourists like dealing with white people because they are themselves white. This may or may not be true. But the reality is that the average guest in an Asian hotel does not actually deal with any white people at all. The points of contact for hotel guests — front office, restaurant staff, room service waiter, airport rep, concierge or housekeeping personnel — all tend to be locals. Most guests are not even aware that there is some expat sitting in an air-conditioned office lording it over the local employees as general manager or executive chef.

The other explanation I get is that Europeans are better suited to the hospitality industry. Even though there is some merit to this explanation in the sense that Europe has always depended on the Swiss for hospitality, the French for food etc, it does not explain why the expatriate syndrome goes beyond particular nationalities and beyond Europe itself. These days, an Australian or an American will get preference over a local Asian for a top hotel job. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Australian or American’s chief qualification is the colour of his skin.

Besides, I challenge the explanation that local Asians do not have what it takes to run five-star hotels. The celebrity chef Ian Kittichai was executive chef of the Four Seasons in Bangkok before going on to carve out an impressive reputation internationally. And even in Thailand, Lebua owes its reputation to a pair of Indians: chief executive Deepak Ohri and food and beverage supremo Nishant Yadav.

But why search so far for examples? The best argument against the cult of the expatriate chef and manager is the Indian hotel industry. Few people in the business seriously dispute that Indian hotels rank among the world’s finest. They routinely make it to the top of lists of best hotels internationally. And in every Indian city, the top properties are still those that are run by Indian hotel chains and not by the many foreign companies that have opened in India over the last decade.

If there was to be a celebratory dinner by top chefs in Bombay or Delhi, the list of participants would be very different from Bangkok’s roll call. That is not to say that there would be no expatriate chefs on the list; only that they would be a tiny minority. The majority of chefs would be Indians who had come up through the ranks and who would easily hold their own when it came to competence.

So it is with Indian managers. The Indian hotel industry has benefited enormously from some expatriate general managers but they have been exceptions rather than the rule. The best Indian hotels are run by Indians at all levels. Just as Indians have demonstrated that they are as good as anybody else when it comes to the hotel business, I am sure that other Asians would do the same if they were to be given the opportunity. The problem is that nobody gives them a chance.

Colonialism is not dead. It just calls itself the hotel business.

 

(Vir Sanghvi is a celebrated Indian journalist, television personality, author and lifestyle writer. To follow 
Vir’s other writings, visit 
www.virsanghvi.com)

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