. In conversation with Dusit CEO Suphajee Suthumpun | Meetings & Conventions Asia

In conversation with Dusit CEO Suphajee Suthumpun

Thai hospitality leader talks about meeting challenges head on and leading by example.

Looking to the future, Suthumpun has plans to continue growing lifestyle brand Asai, "or villas with personal services such as chefs and butlers, to expand the experiences and capture a wider audience".
Looking to the future, Suthumpun has plans to continue growing lifestyle brand Asai, "or villas with personal services such as chefs and butlers, to expand the experiences and capture a wider audience".

On a train headed for Hua Hin, the resort town 200 kilometres south of Bangkok, Suphajee Suthumpun has convinced the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau and the Thailand Hotel Association, to get on board — quite literally — to promote sustainable travel alternatives, including Thailand's underused railroads, rather than car travel that produces far more carbon emissions.

During a break on the leisurely journey, Dusit International's CEO spoke with M&C Asia about the group she has led since 2016, and how the approximately 40 hotels and 300 villas in 15 countries is facing the current situation.

Top on the list are health and safety protocols, vital as the sector recovers and the group was quick to produce manuals and implement training, these measures designed to bolster confidence in both customers and staff. “Our procedure is not just to address the guests, but to address our employees, too, so they know that we are taking care of them,” she said.

Staff didn't take much convincing. The group's core values that she defines as “care, commit and can do” meant that they were prepared to learn how to deliver gracious service despite the new restrictions. Training included scenario-based role play, such as dealing with a guest who refuses to have his temperature checked.

Preparedness will be crucial when international travel resumes. “If you want to go somewhere safe when the travel ban is lifted, we will be one of the destinations,” she said. These trainings have also become part of the hospitality and culinary curriculum at Dusit Thani College, which the group runs.

One of the biggest challenges for management was keeping personnel motivated. During the lockdown, staff were asked to take their annual leave, and when pay cuts became inevitable, only the management took the hit. “For rank and file we did not cut salary at all. They have already had a cut, as they didn't receive their usual share of the service charge.” That situation lasted two months.

“As a leader, I volunteered to cut my salary the most,” Suthumpun said. Another way of managing the pursestrings: food deliveries. “Even though the revenue is not that high, at least we could address some of the top line.”

With some revenue from F&B and education, she turned her attention to reducing costs — down 34% in Q2 and 20% in Q3 of 2020. Liquidating non-strategic assets was another avenue “because we don't know when we can come back so this is how we prepare".

Dusit Central Park which replaces the 1970-built Dusit Thani Bangkok, will open in 2023.
Dusit Central Park which replaces the 1970-built Dusit Thani Bangkok, will open in 2023.

Even before Covid struck, Dusit found itself in an awkward position of having no flagship property in Bangkok. The iconic modernist Dusit Thani Bangkok, built in 1970, was closed to make way for Dusit Central Park, a new development that will sit on the same site, slated to open in 2023.

Baan Dusit was open on the grounds of a nearby private estate to host the hotel's F&B outlets. She admits that profitability was not the first priority. “If you think of profit first, you probably wouldn't put in that kind of investment [to renovate a house that had stood empty for 30 years].”

But she sees it as a long term investment, to retain staff and maintain a presence of the brand in the capital. “This is a more sustainable business model. Purpose before profit.”

Her other initiatives include Dusit Events that has catered events like the ASEAN summit. Dusit on Demand outsources housekeepers and technicians to support 10 to 12 five-star hotels around Bangkok that are not part of the group. Dusit also offers consultancy, marketing and management services to hotels that are not under their brands.

Dusit CEO with graduates 2017
People matter to Dusit International's CEO, Suphajee Suthumpun. "If they stay, my job is to ensure they have something to do. I promise I am going to take good care of them.”

Redeploying staff was not without its challenges. “We kept all the staff but we had other things for them to do. Instead of having a dedicated sales or marketing in each hotel, we can cluster those people. In Hua Hin, we have three or four hotels that we manage, so we can cluster the teams. Covid has precipitated the process, and rebalancing has occurred both horizontally and vertically, creating a different environment for everyone."

The new conditions were not for everyone. “When I closed down the hotel in Bangkok, I offered to keep everyone but not everyone stayed,” she said. Of the 580 hotel employees, 180 took early retirement or couldn't adapt to the changes. “The choice is theirs, not mine. If they stay, my job is to ensure they have something to do. I promise I am going to take good care of them.”

Suthumpun is quick to point out that the challenges did not start with Covid: digital disruption, changing consumer behaviour, new business models like Airbnb and relations with OTAs all predate the pandemic.

“We need to expand not only the footprint, not just full service hotels, but also the lifestyle sector such as [the group's new brand] Asai, or villas with personal services such as chefs and butlers, to expand the experiences and capture a wider audience. That is the strategy.”

“I cannot make things happen myself. I can think of strategies but it has to be delivered by these people,” she says looking around the carriage. The trip was organised and catered by Dusit Events. “If they are not happy how can they make their guests happy?”