Interviewing Successful Hotel Managers: Peter Hildebrand, General Manager, W Hong Kong
By Dr. Lily Lin, Author of "Interviewing Successful Hotel Managers"Hildebrand is the General Manager of W Hong Kong. He is an ambitious and driven man, who would not settle for just an ordinary career path. He is from Australia and has spent most of his career in Asia. He has an indepth understanding of the Chinese culture and speaks the language. Perhaps, he understands the Chinese culture better than other Westerners who are living and working in Hong Kong or in the Chinese mainland. Peter likes nontraditional luxury hotels, which explains why he ended up leading the W Hong Kong.
Hong Kong with 393 rooms. W Hong Kong combines the personality and style of an independent hotel with the reliability and attentive service of a major business hotel. It mixes cutting-edge design with local influences, creating a place to play and work by day or to mix and mingle by night.
You graduated from the Rutgers University in New Jersey in the US with an MBA
I worked and studied at the same time. I've always had the ambition of wanting to getan MBA. When I was in my 30s, I was working in Shanghai as the Marketing Director at Hyatt. I thought it was the time to do it. I studied during the weekends and evenings. It was an Executive MBA and it lasted for 14 months. Professors would fly to Shanghai to give lectures. I won't say it was easy.
What motivated you to go into the hotel industry?
I was a typical young guy who didn't know what he wanted to do. I was rather naïve andimpressionable. I was interested in luxury brands in high-end retail and hotels. I went to work part- time in other luxury businesses but I didn't really like it because it was not what I had expected. The customers didn't seem grounded in most people's reality and were often simply interested in showing off. The next summer I went to work for Conrad Jupiters Casino on the Golf Coast in Australia as a steward. It was a terrible job! I remember I kept checking the clock hoping time would go faster. But the job did introduce me to the hotel business.
I was very lucky that the Chairman of my father's company was also the Chairman ofConrad Jupiters. He gave me a recommendation to be interviewed by the GM, Ron Hughes. He was an inspiration and one of the people who got me excited about the hotel industry.
When I graduated with my Bachelor's degree, I looked for the best hotel group thatcould provide young people with good career opportunities. I chose Hyatt because it had a good corporate training program which had a record of bringing young people into management jobs quickly. I started as a bellboy. When my fellow economics graduate friends came and stayed at the resort hotel on the weekends, I had to carry their bags... We all had a good laugh.
You worked for Hyatt for more than 15 years. Comparing Hyatt and W Hotel,they have entirely different brand images and possibly different target markets. What prompted you to work for W Hong Kong?
I left Hyatt to join Starwood (Sheraton Tower in Singapore). These are quite differentcompanies. Hyatt's culture feels more like a family, whereas Starwood measures everything, including your performance, which made things less complicated and there were also no hidden agendas. W Hong Kong is located next to three big banks, and they are our corporate customers. Many bankers like to come to our hotel after work. It's quite funny that you see them standing next to guys who are from the creative industry who have tattoos and body piercings everywhere. I think they enjoy seeing the diversity of guests, many of whom are from outside of their normal circles.
Our core business is the corporate market. Of course, many of them are fromcompanies such as Apple and advertising agencies. We also cater to smaller MICE (meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions) as well as the high-end leisure market. At W, we have to be able to cater to the traditional markets and at the same time, we have to be able to do the "W" thing with DJ music and big parties, where we collaborate with the fashion industry, music industry, design industry, etc. It's a fun twist on a luxury hotel. But that fun twist can be easily seen as a gimmick if we don't have our basic service standards in place, we don't have the right to do the fun things at the W. We are a luxury hotel and we need to deliver.
To answer your question, when I started working for Hyatt after my corporate trainingprogram, they put me in marketing. When I started as the GM of Westin Fuzhou, Fujian in China, they sent me to W, which is a very marketing-oriented company. I naturally drift towards marketing even though I am the GM...
You have spent nearly your entire career in Asia. What motivates you to stay inAsia?
I feel like Asia is the center of the world somehow. I am Australian. When you work inAustralia, you are dealing with primarily domestic businesses. When you are young, you want to travel and see the world. So, it was relatively less interesting to me to stay in Australia. I was also intrigued by Asia; I have mostly worked in China and Hong Kong. It is so diverse and so different. I have experienced so many years in one region, I feel that I have adopted some of the Asian values. I am married to a Korean.
But I don't think you speak Korean...
It's true. I don't speak Korean and I am ashamed of it. But I have never worked inKorea. I used to laugh at some of my colleagues who were married to someone from a different nationality yet couldn't speak more than a few sentences of their spouses native language, but I've become one of them.
You speak Mandarin and Cantonese (Chinese). Which aspects of the Chineseculture do you enjoy the most? Which aspects of the culture do you find most difficult to adjust to?
One thing about the Chinese is that they have this sense of loyalty. If you were theirboss, even after 10 years, they would still think of you as their boss. They feel that they have this commitment to you. It's one of the things I admire the most. The Australian culture is so different. We are very direct and not very self-conscious. I think trying to be self-conscious is the most difficult thing to overcome. Initially in Asia I had difficulty reading between the lines. People didn't understand when I asked: "Why can't you just come out and tell me?"
I understand it now. It is an aspect of caring: The fact that you bother to read betweenthe lines as opposed to just expecting people to tell you. It takes a lot to adjust to the sensitive side of the culture; to be able to read people's inner thoughts without being told explicitly. I think I have learned a lot. It has made me a better person; a more understanding person.
What are the most challenging issues you are facing on your current position?
It took me over one year to adjust to the W brand concept, which means constantlytrying to invent new and different ideas. Although W offers a high-level style of service, the service is not always formal. Often, it is more casual. It is much easier to be formal. We often have events such as pool parties with 300 or 400 guests, loud music and dancing until midnight. At the same time, we have to adjust to other hotel guests' needs. For example, a banker tries to check in at 3:00 in the morning and sees a wild party in full swing. It's difficult to adjust at times.
What do you do at work that you enjoy so much you actually lose track oftime?
Being on time and planning well is important to being successful in our business. I don'tusually lose track of time. I think the only time I lose track of time is at the end of the day, say 7:00 PM, I start to work on things like answering e-mails, signing checks, etc. That's when I could lose track of time.
If you could relive one day of your life, which day would you choose?
It may sound like a bit of a cliché but it would be my wedding day. It was a great day!
In the eyes of your employees, what is the single most important quality youshould have?
I think I have to have understanding because it is difficult to make judgment calls whenyou are leading several hundred employees. There are a lot issues going on everyday and you need to have feedback in order to understand the circumstances. It's not just being an understanding person; it is about having the information to know what is happening: What challenges my people are facing and how we can help them. I guess a lot of it is about talking to people at different levels in the organization. In our hotel we have an annual program in which every manager must work one day in a junior staff's position, and it could be housekeeping, a pastry chef, or an engineer in order to understand how difficult some of the jobs are.
In your opinion, what is the single best quality your employees can possess?
Curiosity! They need to be hardworking and disciplined, of course. But first of all, we likeour employees to grow. The only way you can grow is taking interest and being curious, so that you can learn and grow. Also, people in hotels tend to form tight teams. They need to be curious outside of their teams. We always encourage people to take interest in how other departments work and learn how to work with them.
What are the things that you do not like to do?
I don't like to do the same old thing over and over. That's something that has grown onme since I joined the W brand. We always reinvent things. I encourage my people to do things differently internally and for our guests. You could do it in every hotel but at W, it is easier to have this approach. You have to look for something that will elevate the brand by capturing people's interest and generate profit at the same time. There is a trade off though. For example, when a team has been serving Japanese cuisine in the same restaurant, in the same way for 10 years, they become really good at it.
Some people say that a GM is not important to his frontline employees. Doyou agree?
If the GM is not important for the talent, something is wrong. The GM often makes thefinal decisions because he provides the direction for the steering committee, although it may not be obvious. Maybe if the GM was more understanding and showed his face more frequently, he would make a better impression on his people. The GM must be relevant and important to his frontline employees.
If you must make a choice, would you do the things right or would you do theright things?
Do the right things! As the GM, your role is to always be a figurehead and the leader.You have to do yourself proud. Doing the right things is a matter of integrity. If you do the right thing, people will follow.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I am more of a big-picture person. I don't mind digging into details to find out what'snot working but I would much rather come up with new concepts and creative ideas. For me, if I have to study a spreadsheet trying to find out what's wrong, it's not my strength. It's my weakness.
As for my strengths, I am not afraid to take chances. Also, emotional intelligence is mystrength; I trust my gut feeling.
At work, what puts a smile on your face?
When our team comes up with an innovative idea to organize an event, and it's reallyworking and you can feel the energy of the event. It puts a smile on my face.
What puts a frown on your face?
People who are inconsiderate to guests and talents put a frown on my face. In the hotelbusiness, you do have to deal with difficult guests. I think it's ridiculous when people rely on their seniority or status trying to get things done. It will never work.
If you didn't know how old you are, how old would you like to be?
I am optimistic. I believe life is going to be better. I am 45 now. Of course, it'swonderful to be young. I could do a lot of sports that I am not able to do anymore. But if I have to pick an age, I think 55 will be a great age as my career will be at another level. By that time, I will be doing something very interesting but I don't know what yet.
How have you changed in the past five years?
I've been humbled --- not that I was arrogant before. I moved out of marketing andinto operations. It has been five years since I became a GM. When I was the GM of Westin in China, there were young department heads who were willing to go anywhere in China in order to get better opportunities. I'd never come across anything like this before. It humbled me. I learned a lot!
Also, I went through a very tough leadership role that required operational focus inChina to open the hotel. Then I was given the opportunity to work in this amazing and stylish hotel here in Hong Kong. After working in two extremely different environments, I've learned to appreciate working with different people and gained some strength along the way. I've learned the reality of hotel operations. It doesn't just happen. It takes people to make it happen.
What advice would you offer to those who are inspired to become successful inthe hotel industry?
Be curious because it's too easy to keep doing what you are doing. If you keep doingthe same thing, you won't learn as fast as you could. Ambitious young people who are waiting for being promoted tend to get frustrated. I was the same way. But sometimes you are not ready. So, I think you have to have faith. I think you have to take a chance. You can't be too conservative and afraid that your decision might be wrong. If you feel like you want to do it, you better get on and do it!
I'm not sure. I'm sure things will come along. I love the W brand. It's a great brand towork for. I am looking forward for the "right challenge" within the brand. I'm addicted to the nontraditional hotel concept.
My next step will be something nontraditional but in a higher end hotel. The decisionsare more and more centrally controlled. We are here to execute the brand created by someone else for the benefit of the company. I would like to create something. I don't know what it is going to be yet. I am not saying that it will be the next thing I do. Maybe it will be something within the framework of a big company...
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