By Colin Hastings
In an industry renowned for chopping and changing its senior managers with bewildering regularity, the reign of Richard Chapman as General Manager of the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit for the past 20 years is really quite amazing. By a fairly wide margin, he’s now the longest serving GM in any of Bangkok’s five-star hotels.
Long gone are the days when Bangkok hoteliers were awarded favorable long-term contracts that helped some of them to attain celebrity status on the local social scene. Legendary GM Kurt Wachtveitl, who spent 40 years at the Oriental, naturally comes to mind, but he wasn’t alone; many of his peers also became household names. By comparison, sadly, the majority of today’s GMs are reclusive bureaucrats who are rarely seen greeting guests in their hotel’s public areas.
It’s a phenomenon that’s not lost on Richard. “The role of a general manager has changed so much in recent years. It’s more business focused than in the past, and less about the hospitality side of management,” he says. “Most hotels are owned by big corporations, so they’re only interested in the bottom line, which is perfectly understandable.”
In his case, however, old habits die hard, for you don’t get far in the Sheraton Grande without bumping into him. His understated style relies on “management by walkabout” and he dislikes spending too much time behind a desk. Instead, he prefers to talk with colleagues, and to meet guests in person to find out what can be done to enhance their stay experience.
Richard has also witnessed the loosening of ties that once bound the city’s five-star GMs together. In the past, members of this elite group would meet regularly over dinner to discuss business, which invariably but probably quite innocently led to an exchange of inside stories about each other’s hotel.
“That rarely happens nowadays,” adds Richard. “Meetings of general managers tend to be discouraged because of anti-trust regulations.”
But these changing times probably won’t bother him for much longer. At 74, retirement is surely imminent, though he’s not telling when.
When that day comes, it will bring down the curtain on a long and distinguished career spanning more than 50 years in at least nine countries.
His life as a hotelier seems to have been preordained, with five generations of Richard’s family being involved in the hospitality business, starting with his great, great, grandfather back during the Austro-Hungarian Empire who ran an inn, helped by his son.
Richard’s father, who came from the former Austro- Hungarian Empire, immigrated to England in the mid-1930s and eventually became the managing director and major shareholder of the Imperial in Torquay, one of only two five-star hotels in the UK back in the 1950s.
It was here in this famous Devonshire seaside town that Richard was born and schooled. After leaving university in London, Richard joined Hilton in 1970 as a food and beverage trainee, and subsequently became the F&B manager at both the Kensington and Stratford upon Avon Hiltons.
Three years later, he got his first “real break” with his appointment to the hotel chain’s headquarters in New York as assistant director of F&B development worldwide. In 1976, he moved to Hong Kong as area director of F&B for Asia-Pacific. Working under Ken Moss, a key figure in Hilton’s expansion in this part of the world, Richard spent the next four years gaining valuable insight into the region’s exciting challenges.
Richard’s second “break” came, when in 1980 he was appointed as general manager of the Manila Hotel, where he recalls a frightening moment. “When we had a shoot-out in our hotel. So we had to put up signs telling guests to deposit their firearms with our staff before entering the bar. A couple of times I had a gun pointed at my head.”
Richard’s Asian odyssey continued in 1988 when he teamed up with Robert Burns, founder of the Regent chain of hotels, and opened both the Regent of Taipei and the Regent of Kuala Lumpur.
Having earned a reputation for taking on tough assignments, he was approached by the Shangri-La group to become its vice president for sales and marketing in Indochina. Success in this role led to his first post in Thailand as GM of the company’s flagship Bangkok property, which was ailing at that time.
“The hotel was losing market share, I was told to urgently turn it around. I cut expenses and reduced the workforce from 1,200 to 800 employees, and built up a strong presence in the MICE market and provided one million baht sponsorship to help launch the Thailand Incentive & Convention Association (TICA). “One year later, the Shangri-La doubled its profit” he notes proudly.
But rather than keep Richard in Bangkok, where he had performed so successfully, Shangri-La insisted he move back to Hong Kong to run their Kowloon property as well as take on an area responsibility. But he and his family missed Thailand and in particular the warmth of the Thai people so he left the company to take up his present job at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Bangkok.
This proved to be a defining moment for the property and under his leadership it was transformed into one of Bangkok’s leading five-star hotels. Throughout his tenure the hotel has consistently won industry awards and clocked up an impressive figure of over 60% of returning guests. It was also the first hotel to have a direct connection to the BTS Skytrain system and was the pioneer of the Sunday brunch concept, now a popular feature throughout Bangkok.
Despite a well-deserved reputation, Richard is modest about his accomplishments. “The focus must remain on the guests and my associates. It is this that distinguishes a truly outstanding one from a good hotel. After all, we are in the hospitality business and engagement with our guests is the key”, he says. When retirement finally comes, Richard is clear where and how he will spend it. “My wife Romana, who is Austrian, and I own a house about 30 minutes outside of Salzburg in an area reminiscent of scenes from the movie the “Sound of Music”. “Romana already spends most of her time in Europe, and we both love gardening and trekking. But we want to have a base here in Thailand as well.”
The couple also plan to spend more time with their children. Stefan, their 35-year-old son has his own law firm in Yangon, while daughter Hannah-Sophie, 33, is an equine surgeon in the U.K.
Richard’s personal approach extends beyond the confines of Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit and he is known for his humanitarian work. Over the years, he has initiated numerous events at the hotel, raising funds for many worthy charitable causes and is also the Thailand based director of “Hands Across the Water”, a charity, providing a life and opportunity for underprivileged and orphaned Thai Children in homes across Thailand.
Renowned throughout the industry for his professionalism, Richard is one of the last old-style GMs in Asia who leave their mark on a hotel through sheer hard work, dedication and genuine loyalty. That retirement is certainly well-deserved.