Dusit Thani’s top man Alex Willats goes back to the floor
CRAZY QUILT - Tanya T. Lara (The Philippine Star) - May 4, 2013 - 12:00am

One morning in March, hotelier Alex Colin Willats got dressed for work on the 17th floor of his building/residence and headed for his usual daily executive committee meeting on the third floor. His five-year-old son Thomas was delighted at what his dad was wearing while his five-month-old son Henry looked puzzled. 

“My youngest usually smiles at me when he sees me, but when he saw me that morning, he was a little bit frowning, like something wasn’t right here,” says Alex.

Alex was wearing a chef’s white uniform and a toque.

Alex is not a chef.

At least he hasn’t been for the longest time.

Alex Willats is Dusit Thani Manila’s new general manager and his five-month-old son instinctively knew that his dad wearing a chef’s whites instead of a suit and tie was very unusual.

But nothing was usual on that day in March.

Dusit director of finance Hermie Doctor didn’t wear a suit either that day; he put on a janitor’s uniform. Resident manager Salvador Cortez wore a housekeeping uniform; director of sales and marketing Norielle Roldan put on a Japanese restaurant’s waitress’s uniform; and executive chef Christian Werdenberg wore a bellman’s uniform.

It wasn’t as if they were at the end of their laundry lines and grabbed the first thing from somebody else’s closet. It wasn’t just about the uniforms either   they performed the roles of other people. Or, if you have been a Dusit fan for the past years, they sort of “crossed over”  and it wasn’t for a Sunday brunch. 

Alex arrived in Manila to helm Dusit barely nine weeks before when he and his executive committee did what he deemed was important for anyone who has been working in the hotel industry and has climbed up the corporate ladder: they went back to the floor, which means that the hotel’s highest-ranking officers perform duties that the rank and file do on a daily basis.

It was, from his standpoint, an important exercise. “It is a good way to know what other people are going through in other parts of the hotel. The idea was that we took the executive committee to go to departments they had no exposure to, listen to the staff and then debrief as a team about their experiences and how we could improve things from a staff, an efficiency and an equipment hardware perspective. I have to say it was a successful exercise.”

From 9 to 4 p.m. they performed roles they had very little experience in  or roles they might have started in as young graduates from hospitality schools at the beginning of their careers.

 â€œI positioned myself behind the grill section. It’s typically what a man would do, isn’t it  to barbecue!” he says with a laugh. He also cooked tempura and crepes, and served diners at Dusit’s all-day dining outlet Basix.

At the end of the workday, the officers reconvened in the boardroom and what Alex thought would be a half an hour of debriefing turned out to be two hours. “When you put people somewhere they have never been before, they look at it from a more objective standpoint. The idea was to put together short, medium and long-term action plans. We will probably repeat the exercise, but the next time it would be with heads of departments, like the room service manager goes to housekeeping, etc.”

It is clear that Alex’s attitude toward his Dusit family is very inward-looking. For instance, as the 538-room hotel recently unveiled the new Dusit Club Lounge, he says the staff facilities are undergoing upgrades as well.

“Our staff of 600 are our internal guests.  It’s important that we treat them well, that they are kept motivated and their positive attitude would reflect on how they serve our guests and how they care for the hotel,” he says.

Dusit, he adds, is also literally home to him and his wife Claire Stallwood, a former hotelier herself, and their two sons.

 

When Alex arrived in Manila to head the 40-year-old hotel on Jan. 7, Dusit was in the final stages of building its new club lounge. The next day, he started in his new role as general manager, which was an improvement on his previous first-day-on-the-job in Dusit Thani Bangkok, where, after arriving from an overnight flight from Bahrain, he freshened up in his room, and took over as GM after lunch.

“Dusit Thani Manila is very well maintained,” he says. “We are very pleased with the Club Lounge, which we pretty much delivered on budget and with very few tweaks to the initial design. That’s a testament to good planning, design and communication between the teams from the very beginning. The COO of the company, David Shackleton, came over and said it was one of the best he has seen because it’s so unique.”

In March, Alex launched Dusit Thani’s P55-million club lounge  a 900-square-meter space of indulgence, quietness, and privacy.  The space is an eye candy  a veritable showcase of Filipino design, incorporating the outdoor gardens, indoor luxuries and rare green views of Makati’s upscale residential area from its terrace.

Where most hotel lounges feature an all-day buffet, beverages, small hot meals and light snacks, and meeting rooms, Dusit’s club lounge offers a lot of extras. Apart from the spacious indoor seating area, there are three more spaces outside that can be used for private and quiet time: a meditation room (something Alex says is not a usual offering in city-center hotels), a reading room/library, a private dining space for eight people, and an outdoor bar that is built around a 30-year-old ficus benjamina tree.

“The idea is for people to come here to the meditation room, to chill out and relax. We may also use it as a small function space for meetings.  It’s kind of an organic environment and very relaxing.”

Designed by Grace Eleazar of Green Works,  the Dusit Club Lounge takes a holistic approach toward relaxation, balance and aesthetics. Using rich fabrics and textures, narra wood planks, tracery reflecting Thai elements, bespoke furniture and lighting,  the lounge is set on a neutral palette with colorful accents here and there  including Isabel Diaz’s oil on canvas “Interiors of Flowers,” which spans almost the entire height of the winding staircase leading to the lounge. The greens in the terrace reflect the vertical gardens outside the hotel’s lobby  some 40 to 50 seasonal plant species.

Dusit isn’t stopping with its Club Lounge, it will also renovate the 156 executive-floor rooms and suites “to match the quality of the lounge” and in the next couple of years, the bedrooms.

 

The Dusit GM grew up in hotels around the world, so it surprised no one in his family when he decided to get into the hospitality industry.

“I’ve kind of had that expat child upbringing and I was exposed to hotels at an early stage. My parents, instead of coming back to the UK for vacations, would take the family to Asia and other parts of the Middle East and so we stayed in different hotels.

“My father was an expat, he was in construction. So I lived abroad from the age of one and a half till 16, when I went to boarding school back in the UK. In the early 1970s, my father moved to Nigeria and we lived there for three years, then we went to Qatar for 11 years, from ‘78 to ‘89. In ‘91, we moved to Indonesia for two years.”

To Alex, hotels were very comfortable places; he was at home in them. “Some of the early ones I remember was the first Sheraton in Doha, which was built like a pyramid and at the time, it was a unique hotel with an open atrium and elevators so fast. That one stuck in my mind. Of course, when we did Southeast Asia I loved Dusit Thani Bangkok, Raffles in Singapore, and Intercon in Manila because you sat in jeepneys for breakfast at the Jeepney restaurant.”

At 16, he knew that it was hotels he wanted to do. Before going to university he worked at Intercon in Hyde Park and Holiday Inn in West London for a couple of  weeks, working in housekeeping, laundry, the restaurants and cafés.

He finished his degree at Southbank University, which then had the relatively new National Center for Hotel Management. “I joined that because I wanted to stay in London, I felt that was where I would get the best exposure to the industry. After my first two years in university, I was accepted at Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch, which had 900 bedrooms.”

When he graduated with honors, he was accepted at Intercon Hotel’s fast track program  one of 10 associates out of a thousand applicants. Intercon had five hotels in London at a time and he was assigned to the Churchill Hotel.

“I had these illusions in my head that I would get a managerial position. I became junior conference banqueting waiter, which meant I polished cutlery and glasses. Then I went to housekeeping and made beds.”

Alex kept thinking, “This really isn’t as glamorous as it looked or that it wasn’t what it was like when I was a guest traveling with my parents.”

 But he put in the years  and “if you have perseverance and dedicate yourself to the tough times, it pays back later in life.”

So he began his journey up in hotels in the UK, from Millennium Gloucester to the Lowry Hotel, the Ritz (where he witnessed the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 80th birthday, which he counts as one of the best experiences in his professional life; the other is meeting former boxer-turned-super-businessman George Foreman) and Claridge’s.

In 2008, he headed back to the Middle East, in Bahrain. “When we lived in the Middle East and then Bangkok, my wife Claire basically brought up Thomas on her own. In Bahrain, she got so frustrated looking for online information about parenting that she instead built her own website. She put up mumsinbahrain.net and before she knew it, it kind of exploded. People were writing to her, they wanted to advertise on her site and it had 50,000 members across the Gulf States. It was the most active website in the Middle East. It’s now being run by a partner in Bahrain but it became difficult with the unrest in the region, so it was being monitored like most sites by the government.”

In 2010, the Willats moved to Bangkok when Alex joined Dusit Thani and became the general manager. “When we were in Bangkok, Claire asked to edit a magazine called Expat Ladies with all kinds of parenting stuff, and so she launched two print editions and three online editions.”

And now, Dusit Thani Manila, where the family is settling in nicely, he says. “I’ve got big plans for the hotel. We want to upgrade all our rooms and suites, our ballrooms and meeting rooms, our audio video facilities, strengthen our Italian restaurant Tosca, open an all-day dining concept restaurant…”

The list goes on.

Alex Willats has constantly surprised his staff since he arrived,  and it’s not farfetched that he would do the same for hotel guests with the new things he’s cooking up for Dusit Thani.

Why, there may even be a British film festival by the poolside with popcorn and barbecue!

And, yes, he is actually planning one.

* * *

For inquiries and reservations, call Dusit Thani Manila at 238-8888. Log on to Dtmn@dusit.com; follow it on Instagram and Twitter @dusit_manila; and add it on Facebook, Dusit Thani Manila.

 

ALEX DUSIT DUSIT THANI DUSIT THANI MANILA HOTEL LOUNGE MIDDLE EAST THANI
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