Sabreena Jacob reflects upon her past and present as she reveals her journey into the world of hotels.
By Krishna Mawani
Finding success in a male-dominated industry may seem intimidating. But Sabreena Jacob, one of the few female General Managers in Bangkok, opposes this popular belief. The 47-year-old climbed up the ladder of success with patience and hard work. Her foray into hotel management began 23 years ago when she worked as an Executive Housekeeper for The Oberoi Group of hotels in India. Today, she is the General Manager for Marriott Executive Apartments Sukhumvit Park, overseeing one of Bangkok’s finest luxury residences with 300 suites over a total of 34 floors.
How did you begin your journey into hospitality?
People ask me how I got into hospitality and I always say I got in by mistake. I was supposed to pursue medicine and join the Armed Forces Medical College in India, since my dad was also in the Forces, but things didn’t work out. I decided to get into hotels instead; it wasn’t a career that everyone was getting into at that time. And from what I could gather, it was a career where you could stand on your feet faster compared to doing a master’s degree. Looking back, I haven’t regretted a single day since. It’s been a challenging journey but I have really enjoyed the travelling bit. When you move around and meet different people, it enriches you. It changes your perspective on everything.
After eight years of working with The Oberoi Group, how was your transition into Marriott Hotels?
I moved to Marriott Hotels in 2003 when I joined JW Marriot in Cairo, Egypt as Director of Services — a role similar to an Executive Housekeeper. Initially, it took me a couple of months to decide whether or not I wanted to move from a luxury boutique hotel concept [The Oberoi Group] to an international chain [Marriott]. I am glad I did because that move was a game changer for me. Marriott is a people oriented company that focuses on training its people. Their philosophy is about putting their ‘associates’ first and embracing change. It taught me to look at things from a different perspective. Along the way, I met a few mentors who pushed me to get out of my comfort zone. That’s when I thought, why not me? Why not me as hotel GM? That question has stayed with me because those are the same words I use to challenge my associates. When you grow into a certain role, it is your inherent responsibility to train and help your junior associates grow.
As General Manager, what leadership style do you embrace?
I have an open door policy 90 percent of the time. Whenever there is a decision to make, I always ask my team for their opinions. There are so many people who have great ideas we could utilise in the workplace. They say the boss is always right, but many times they may not be.
How do you handle negative or difficult situations?
I personally believe that every situation can be handled, provided that you spend time listening to the party concerned. It’s all about the attitude. Some time back at one of our properties, we had a major electricity breakdown — even the generators didn’t work due to a technical fault and we didn’t have power from 10.30pm to 5.30am on a Sunday. We were in absolute darkness with no elevators or emergency lights operating. We had to use candle lights. The moment I got the call, I made my way to the hotel. I was number two at the property then. However, when you are responsible for a property or a team of people, you need to put yourself out there. You need to make sure that you bear the brunt of your guests, not your junior associates who are doing the best that they can. If people see you walking around and trying to figure out a solution, they will appreciate it. We were amazed to see that the amount of written complaints by our guests was less than what we could count on one hand. As a GM you can’t keep thinking about ‘what if’s’ but rather look at things that are in your sphere of influence.
What is it like to work in a male-dominated industry?
I have been asked this question several times, but to be honest, I have not felt much of a difference. The hotels I have worked in have had a fair ratio of male to female employees. I have never felt discriminated as a female. If you look across our hotel workforce, you’ll see that we have many female heads in different sections. The possibility for them to climb up the corporate ladder is high. The lack of female GMs could be because of the amount of travelling and time required on the job. It can be challenging if you don’t have a supportive environment back home.
Is your husband supportive of you?
I am very lucky to have an understanding husband. He used to work in the same industry, and so he understands the demands. We also came to a sensible agreement early on in our marriage. Whoever earned more would lead the work and travel plans. We agreed never to act on our egos, and obviously we have had our ups and downs, but these few unwritten agreements between us helped. When I initially relocated to Egypt, my husband had a good job in India. I was struggling to look after my daughter while overseeing a new pre-opening property at the time. We talked about the direction we should take and he ended up moving with me. We have never regretted that decision.
In your 23 years in the hospitality industry, you have relocated from India to Egypt to Dubai and now Thailand. Did you ever face any challenges in adapting to a new country?
I must say I have been very lucky. Wherever I have moved, the transition has been absolutely great! My move to Thailand was one of the easiest in fact. Everyone is so down to earth here. It is great that after spending a whole day in a business suit, you can come home, put on your shorts, T-shirt and flip flops and get away with doing anything you want. On the contrary, adjusting to Dubai’s culture took me a while. Dubai is a fantastic city, but everything is about what you put out there and being seen in the right places. It didn’t come naturally to me, which is why I found it difficult initially. Meanwhile, many people perceive Egypt to be unsafe, particularly for women, but I had the most amazing time there. We were there before the revolution. It was safe, and the culture and people were absolutely wonderful.
You have worked for the Marriott group for the last 15 years or so. What attracts you to stay on?
The Marriott group has a whole window of opportunities. And now with the acquisition of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, the amount of opportunities have doubled. The fact that you can see yourself grow is an important factor. It’s a people-oriented company that takes care of its people, widens one’s horizons, and the most amazing thing is you learn something new every day.