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
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
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".
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
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.
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
“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
“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?”