General Manager Alex Porteous On Steering Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur Forward In The New Normal
Alex Porteous was supposed to arrive in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year but then the world went into a lockdown. When he finally landed in the city in September, he had to be quarantined for 14 days as per government SOP for travellers from overseas. He remembers how he could see Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur (FSKL) every day from his room in the quarantine centre (which was a four-star hotel nearby). So near yet so far.
By the time he formally assumed his role at FSKL in October, the luxury hotel had been without a captain for 10 months. Former general manager Tom Roelens left at the end of December to pursue a new opportunity in Dubai.
"The leadership team here has been extraordinary," notes Porteous, 53, who relocated from Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto. "The operation is already a well-oiled machine, and the foundation that they have built is solid.
"What the team has done in the last two-and-a-half years is amazing. The hotel's Bar Trigona just became the number 44 bar in the world. FSKL was voted the number one hotel in Asia outside Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler."
His immediate goal is to maintain the momentum, global pandemic or not. "When you’re at the top, sometimes it’s quite difficult to stay at the top. So let’s make sure that we're constantly fine-tuning and engaging guests so that they feel like this is a home away from home."
Despite changing jobs and countries in the middle of Covid, Porteous, who has been with Four Seasons for 27 years, appears remarkably unfazed by the uncertainties of the time. Looking firmly ahead to the future, his priority is making sure everyone in his team is well taken care of.
"Twenty-nineteen was a record year (for hotels) around the world, and suddenly we have nothing. So how do you mitigate the losses? How do you make sure the employees are retained, how do you make sure that they are motivated, and how do you make sure that they are engaged and communicating?"
The last part proved to be the biggest hurdle because everyone was in isolation and working from home. "In our business, we draw our energy from people. The coronavirus is one thing, but I think the deeper issue is its impact on our mental health. How are people reacting to the situation? And that's just the tip of the iceberg. So we spend a lot of time engaging with our employees, staying very close to them."
Is keeping everyone feeling motivated and positive your biggest challenge now?
I think so. The important thing is to keep them engaged and informed, and be honest with them. Employees don't want to be kept in the dark; they want to know the good and the not-so-good news. At least we can be prepared and be supportive.
At the end of the day, the people are our greatest asset. That’s crystal clear. We take care of the people, they take care of the product. They take care of the product, it takes care of the profit. That’s how we operate in Four Seasons, and that’s the mantra we're sticking to.
What is your management style?
I’m a huge fan of resonant leadership. You want to be around people who are happy.
I call every employee on their birthdays; absolutely every employee get a phone call from me. I write notes when they do something good. I do something called 365 letters a year, which basically means every day I will write a note to somebody. When somebody gets promoted, they get a letter from me. I send it. It’s difficult to keep up sometimes, but you don’t want to get an email or a Facebook message or a text. I will always call you or I will write. And I always prefer face-to-face. The pandemic has only made me even more empathetic.
Let's shift focus to your guests. How do you make them feel at home in the new normal?
They want to come here and know that they are going to be safe in a hotel. The way that we space out the seating, the way that we take care of you. Everything is sanitised properly. We work closely with John Hopkins on the best practices. For us, the health and safety of our employees and our guests are paramount.
What is your immediate task as general manager?
My short term goals would be to get to know my team members. How I can assist them in their career aspirations. How I can support them in maintaining our position in the city, and—if new competition comes along—how we can stay ahead of the game.
Even among competition, we sell Kuala Lumpur. If I travel anywhere, I will be selling Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur, and that’s important. Similarly when I was in Kyoto, I represented the city and Japan when I travelled. I'm not too worried about competitors. What we need to do now is stimulate the market and bring back tourism.
Maybe we should come back a little bit and support domestic tourism. The key thing for me is how to curate something for our Malaysian guests to come and enjoy. Why shouldn't we start to enjoy the country we're in?
Do you think that was a bit lacking in the past, the focus on domestic tourists?
I just think that people always put off from visiting their own country.
There's no question that the pandemic has taught us to better appreciate what Malaysia has to offer travel-wise.
No matter which property I'm with, the most important clients to me are the clients in that city or that country. They are the ones who are going to support my food and beverage as well as weekend vacations. International tourists may come once, maybe two or three more times. I think it’s wonderful if a Malaysian can come into the city and feel like they can come to the hotel. I think we’re extremely well-priced for the level of service we offer.
With occupancy rate down, how are you making up for it?
We actually took the opportunity to put rooms out of service; that’s been able to help us mitigate some of the expenses. We also get an opportunity to retrain and obviously training and learning are all online these days.
We’ve maintained our rates and that’s important. If you start dropping your rates, then how are you going to pay for your expenses? When the good times return, you can keep your rates going and that keeps us ahead of the competition because we're quicker to rebound.
And, you know, when you value service, you get what you pay for. You come to the Four Seasons, and you know you're going to get an incredible experience.
What do you think are FSKL’s best assets?
It’s all about location, location, location. We’ve got an incredibly well-designed and well-built hotel. It's architecturally designed to be very iconic. The service is warm and engaging—it's a very Malaysian culture but it's also the Four Seasons culture, which is to treat everyone like they want to be treated and respecting them.
What are your plans for FSKL. For instance, Bar Trigona is in the Top 50 now. Would you want it to break into the Top 10?
The number one task for me right now is to immerse myself in this hotel, understand the opportunities, working with my team, and what I can do to support them and make them entrepreneurial. The focus should be on the craftsmanship, the people working in the background like our chefs. I would call them the heart of the house.
And also to make sure that we have a solid business and marketing plan, which we believe we have.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learnt from the pandemic?
That life could change in a single moment. So, carpe diem—seize the day!