Extended Interview with the GM of Four Seasons Lana'i, Hawaii, Tom Roelens
By Dr. Lily Lin, Author of "Interviewing Successful Hotel Managers"
In 2008, Tom Roelens took over the reins at Four Seasons Resorts Lanai, where he now manages Four Seasons Resort at Manele Bay and The Lodge at Koele on the private island of Lanai, Hawaii.
- In 1922, James Dole, the president of Dole Pineapple Company, bought the entire island of Lanai and developed a large portion of it into the world's biggest pineapple plantation.
- In 1985, David Murdock, a wealthy American businessman, took over the ownership of Lanai as a result of his purchase of Castle & Cooke, then owner of Dole.
- In June 2012, Oracle Corporation CEO, Larry Ellison, agreed to purchase Castle & Cooke's 98% share of the island. The state owns the remaining 2 percent. The sale price was reported to be somewhere between US $500 – 600 million.
Tom Roelens is Belgian and has close to 30 years of hotel management experience. He has been with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts for the past 15 years. He appears to have acquired the typical islander mannerisms --- being relaxed and friendly --- he even wears colorful Hawaiian shirts and shell necklaces --- and greets everyone in two of the most important Hawaiian words: Aloha (Hello) and Mahalo (regards, thanks). Somehow he is able to combine his easygoingness and his super efficiency in a well-polished manner.
Tom Roelens sees himself as the leader of his team. He has a can-do attitude. He keeps a Ronald Reagan desk sign on his desk, which says: "It CAN Be Done!" He says, "There are no problems in life; there are only solutions." Like many of the top GMs, Tom does not like mediocrity! He takes pride in providing excellent services to his guests and a challenging work environment for his team and staff.
" There are no problems in life; there are only solutions."
You graduated from the Higher Technical Institute, now a part of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. You also studied at the University of Gent and held a Postgraduate Degree in Public Relations and Media Management. Did you always want to work in the hotel industry?
When I was still young, I decided that I wanted to be in the restaurant business. I found work at a local restaurant in Flanders, Belgium. My parents did not like it because the restaurant business is the busiest during the Xmas season. But I had opportunities to work for one, two and three-star Michelin restaurants in Belgium. I loved it and decided that it was the industry for me!
In 1995 you enrolled in the Cornell University Professional Development Program, Executive Education. In 2011, again, you enrolled in the Cornell University and studied Hotel Real Estate Investments and Asset Management. What made you decide to continue your education? Are intellectual challenges important to you?
I constantly challenge my team and myself, so that we would grow. Our managers just completed a 3-day leadership training so that we can work together to create a leadership team. It helps to achieve our goals and implement our service standards. It also helps our line staff to acquire the necessary tools to serve our guests with the service standards prescribed.
Were you a good student?
Yes. I was. At the age of 14, I was very passionate about the food and wine industry. It motivated me to be a top student. I won quite a number of competitions in Belgium. When you are passionate about something, you tend to do well, and you will succeed!
For seven years (1985–1992) you were very much involved in fine dining. What is your view on having a Michelin-star restaurant in a hotel, like the Four Seasons Hong Kong, for example, which has two Michelin-star restaurants?
It works beautifully in Four Seasons Hong Kong and Four Seasons Paris. The Michelin-star concept needs to fit the destination. We are a resort hotel. People come here to look for variation. We have a four-diamonds restaurant. Recently, we opened Nobu Lanai, which showcases a new style of Japanese cuisine that sources Hawaiian seafood. Whether there should be a Michelin restaurant in the hotel or not, really all depends on the guests' needs.
I love living here. Yesterday, I was out sailing and watching whales. People dream to come here, and I actually live here. I feel quite fortunate!
You have been a GM for a number of Four Seasons hotels for 18 years now. What is the most important lesson you have learned during this period?
The most important lesson I've learned, whether it is in Bali, Maldives, or here in Lanai, is about being respectful of the local culture. The second thing I've learned is that you will get out as much as you put in.
You are currently the Director of the Chamber of Commerce Lanai in Hawaii --- in addition to being the GM of three Four Seasons properties. Are you the kind of person who likes to keep yourself busy and takes on a lot of responsibilities?
I am definitely drawn to be a leader. There are two resorts on the island of Lanai. I manage both of them. I also manage a laundry and a bakery. There is only one economic engine on this island --- and that's us! We try to help the local community because we believe that their success is our success and vice versa.
You have been working in Hawaii for nearly five years. Besides the fact that Hawaii is known as a "paradise" in the US, what keeps you there?
Four Seasons is one of the most respected and recognized brands in the world. I've traveled and lived all over the world. Here in Lanai, we have 90,000 acres of a pristine and unspoiled island! I love living here. Yesterday, I was out sailing and watching whales. People dream to come here, and I actually live here. I feel quite fortunate!
As the GM what are the most difficult or challenging issues you've faced or are facing at the moment?
Lanai is an exclusive, one of a kind destination. It's a small place. A few years ago, the island was purchased by a new owner. There is a lot of speculation over what will happen next. At this point, we have an unemployment rate that is less than one percent. As the leader, it's my responsibility to keep everything running smoothly during this transition period.
In the haste of their daily lives, what are your employees not seeing?
Sometimes we take the beauty and uniqueness of this island for granted. When you live here, you get used to the scenery and the surroundings.
In your opinion, what is the single most important issue in hotel management?
The single most important issue in hotel management is that we must adopt innovation to meet our guests' needs. For example, social media has changed the way we communicate with our guests and employees. In fact, we have a company Facebook account for our staff, so that their voice could be heard. It's all about tuning into what our guests and employees are saying.
Managers do things right, which is tactical thinking. Leaders do the right thing, which requires strategic thinking.
I've learned that the best GMs are usually highly motivated individuals. What keeps you motivated?
First of all, I have got the best office in the world! Nothing beats looking out of the window and seeing a white sand beach, humpback whales, and dancing dolphins. We are listed as one of the Top Ten Resorts in the US. Also, I work with the best people in the world. We challenge and motivate each other to provide the best guest services. It's gratifying to read feedback from our guests. Creating memories for our guests is powerful stuff!
If you had to make a choice as the GM, would you do the things right or would you do the right things?
I would do the right things. Managers do things right, which is tactical thinking. Leaders do the right thing, which requires strategic thinking. Actually, you need both. But given the choice, I would always do the right thing.
Some time ago, I posted a question on our Facebook page: "Why do you think your GM is important to you?" Someone answered: "I don't think my GM is important to me, but he might be important to the company." Do you agree with this statement?
As the GM, it's my role to be the leader and a mentor to my employees (and a host of my guests). We have a great team, and we pride ourselves on the open dialogue we create with our staff. We communicate with them both in and outside of the office.
How old would you want to be, if you didn't know how old you are?
I would want to be around my current age. Over the years, you become more confident about the things you do. It allows you to take bolder actions.
What would you regret most: not fully being, not fully doing, or not fully having in your life?
Not fully being! I live life to the fullest. I enjoy each moment. I love to travel and learn from different cultures. I like to experience everything in life.
What is your leadership style, and what makes you an effective leader?
I have a very positive personality. I am demanding but fair. I ensure that I provide the necessary tools for my team so that they would be successful in carrying out their daily tasks.
What are your strengths? Do you have weaknesses?
I have a positive attitude. The way I see it, there are no problems in life; there are only solutions. In fact, I have a desk sign that says "It CAN Be Done!"
I have a strong personality. I move really fast. At times, I need to stop for a minute to make sure that everyone is on board.
At work, what puts a smile on your face?
A wow moment, created by a member of our staff, who has gone beyond his/her duties to create an unforgettable guest experience – that puts a smile on my face. It's magical when you hear that from the guests' feedback!
What puts a frown on your face?
Unsafe work practice! When an employee is doing something that puts him in an unsafe situation --- that puts a frown on my face. We put in a lot of time and effort to educate our employees to practice safety rules at work. For example, our laundry staff does stretching exercises to keep themselves fit for the job.
Life is too short to tolerate __________________.
Mediocrity! We demand the best! We deliver the best! As far as I am concerned, we will provide 100% of our core service standards to our guests. That is how we can deliver the wow moments!
What advice would you offer to those who are inspired to become a GM one day?
My advice is to pursue your dream! If you are passionate about service, people, and traveling, the hospitality business is for you. I've traveled to more than 40 countries and worked in six of them. For me, it continues to be the most challenging adventure every day.
You are only as good as the last breakfast you served! :) Every day you can become better than the yesterday's you. I would like to create the Number One Destination in the world!
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