He also shares what he believes is necessary for Thailand’s recovery post-COVID.
By Ashima Sethi
Thailand is without a doubt one of the world’s tourism capitals, an accolade we’ve been able to achieve as a result of the famous ‘Thai hospitality.’ As someone who is privileged to have grown up witnessing this calibre of service you can most certainly call ‘the art of hospitality’, I was excited to sit down with Manish Jha, a man with a long and decorated career in the industry, so I could get into the nitty gritty of what it takes to succeed in one of the country’s most prominent businesses.
Currently working as Chief Hospitality and Property Officer at Boutique Corporation, a company that focuses on designing, developing, managing, and selling innovative real estate solutions in the hospitality, retail, and commercial sectors, Manish’s journey began decades ago in a city called Jamshedpur, in India. Born into a middle class family during a time in which the hotel industry was still emerging, the expectation to become a lawyer or engineer was ever present. Despite this, Manish decided to pursue hospitality studies after speaking to friends who had joined the field, discovering that the career path provided invaluable opportunities for travel and networking.
The Institute of Hotel Management, Gwalior was his first step into the field of tourism where he studied topics pertaining to the industry in order to begin his career. This decision stemmed from the belief that like all strong buildings must have a deep foundation, the same can be said about a career path, and so Manish laid his foundation with a job as a bus boy at a local Pizza Hut, after which he joined The Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra as a steward in 1999. The Oberoi and The Taj are two of the most well-known luxury brands in India and Manish was able to extract the best from both.
Working in Agra, which is the city of the Taj Mahal, gave him the opportunity to meet the best of the best in the industry. This opportunity coupled with his desire to learn more led him to take his first international step which took him to the sunny shores of The Taj Exotica Maldives. Because he was a fast learner, hardworking, and determined, he then moved up the ranks by joining the one and only Kanuhura, and later Minor Hotels’ Anantara Maldives. During this period, he was involved in opening hotels, reopening hotels, and relaunching brands, even overcoming the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami. All of these experiences fortified his roots deeper into the industry, and his love for the trade grew stronger.
When I asked why he decided to focus on F&B at the start of his career, Manish said, “A restaurant is a glamorous version of your home’s dining room, where you interact with people and share honest conversations. I have a love for both good food and interacting with people, where else would I find both at the same time? When starting hotel school, I didn’t have a mentor so it was a decision I came to on my own. I felt that F&B was very rewarding, it allows you to interact with people from all parts of the world. Nowadays, we learn a lot through the internet but a few decades ago, learning meant interacting with people, and sharing experiences.” Not an easy business for a young professional by any means, Manish explains, “F&B is hardcore, it’s not a six or eight-hour job, things will always come up! If you work front of house, you’re expected to come in smiling all the time, so I really think those of us in the industry deserve acting accolades because you have to stay switched on.”
After a successful tenure, Manish’s next move proved significant for the next chapter of his career and how he ended up here in the Kingdom. He had by now joined Thai-based Minor Hotels as part of the preopening team for the Anantara Resort Maldives and Naladhu Resorts Maldives. After both resorts gained success, he went on to become Resort Manager for Anantara Dhigu Resort & Spa and Anantara Veli Resort & Spa. Then In 2010, at the young age of 33, he was appointed General Manager of the Anantara Bophut Resort & Spa, Koh Samui, making him the youngest GM in the company.
Thailand, known for its hospitality, added more to his professional experience as he was determined to give the most in his challenging new role. As GM, he had the opportunity to meet experts from the trade and extract the best from them. In the interim he took up the project to relaunch AVANI Seychelles Barbarons Resort & Spa. However, after a year in the Seychelles he found himself missing Thailand and eager to return. The opportunity arose to move to Hua Hin to take over the famed Anantara Hua Hin Resort as GM, which proved to be a very successful endeavour that led to Manish and his team taking over the sprawling Avani+ Hua Hin Resort as well. Throughout his recollections, Manish speaks of his 14-and-a-half-year journey with Minor fondly. “I devoted more than 50 percent of my career to Minor and my time at the company really shaped who I am today. It was a great journey.”
Before he continues, I ask him what some of the biggest rewards of working in a leadership position in the industry encompass, to which he explains, “The amount of people I know through my network are my biggest treasure, this includes a wealth of people from the common man to celebrities, each with their own stories to learn from.” Now based in the city, I asked Manish why he left behind resort life in the pursuit of a career in Bangkok, to which he details that his family were based in Bangkok and he did not want to miss out on any more time with his daughter. The opportunity then came up to join Boutique Corporation, and considering the company was going public on the Thai stock market and had several exciting projects in the pipeline, the role proved to be a fitting next step.
As someone with such a breadth of experience under his belt, I ask Manish what is required to climb the ranks in the industry, what he hopes to achieve in the near future, and what is required for Thailand’s hospitality industry to recover after a difficult few years at the mercy of the pandemic. He shares his insights with Masala.
For a long time, we didn’t see many Indian GMs in Thailand due to a demand for individuals that looked a certain way or who were native English speakers. Did you face any challenges becoming a GM?
Indian GMs were seen in various parts of the world, but back years ago, India wasn’t a key F.I.T tourism market in Thailand. Now, Indian visitors make up the top 10 nationalities visiting, there are many destination weddings taking place here, more top-tier Indian restaurants have opened such as Gaggan, Gaa, and Haoma, so there is definitely more demand for Indian GMs now. If you look around the Kingdom, there are quite a few talented Indian GMs working in the industry now.
Can you explain what your role at Boutique Corporation entails, and what some of your goals at the company are?
The impetus to join Boutique came from my curiosity to know more about the industry. Up until this point, my experience was strong from a management perspective, but to be a complete hotelier one must also understand the owner’s side. A strong, established brand could not have given me this opportunity so I wanted to work in an upcoming brand so I could really grow my understanding, and Boutique opened the door for me.
Boutique are also into retail businesses, so my role has definitely broadened. I was a Cluster GM managing two hotels, now I’m a Chief Hospitality and Property Officer managing nine hotels, three community malls, and three hotels under construction in their pre-openings. I’d say my short-term goal is to maintain where we are, and my long term goal is to get the company’s stock prices to go up, and to get to a level where people all over the world are familiar with the company.
In addition to that, it was set to launch its own brand, which is always an interesting thing to be part of as you can compete with the big brands and see how you stack up. The brand is called JONO—‘Journey of Nomad,’ which is targeted at millennials. Everything works with tech, from the keys to the lights, everything is controlled via an app. The plan is all on paper but unfortunately the pandemic has delayed our openings.
We definitely want to go global. Prior to the pandemic we had actually gone to the Maldives to look at a few islands but COVID-19 forced us into being cautious with our expansion plans. We’re currently taking thoughtful steps moving forward because I believe the hotel business will take some time to recover.
As someone who has worked in a range of roles, what skills are required to find success in the industry?
- Adaptability and respect: When I had to move from working in the Maldives to Thailand, I had to change my strategies to match the destination and culture I was immersed in. When I moved here, I knew I had to adapt and rather than expecting everyone to adapt for me. I strongly believe that respecting a culture allows you to adapt faster.
- Hard work: When your team can see you are there for them, you foster respect and you can really elevate yourself. You cannot carry any ego. Hard work does not only mean doing the job, hard work means sacrifice, commitment, dedication, passion and presence.
- Be open: Learn from those around you, whether it is your junior, senior, or colleague. You’ll never succeed with a fixed mindset and thinking you know better than everyone.
- Stay on top of trends: Experiencing new things and reading will keep you on top of trends, things change year on year, especially with the rapid evolution of technology.
- Networking: A very important skill, I believe this got me where I am today as most of my jobs were secured through my network.
COVID-19 remains a big talking point in the industry. In your opinion, what needs to be done to set the country on the path to recovery?
The worst is over and we’re beginning to move on, but realistically, I think we’re looking at 2023 before we’re settled. First things first, we need to work on bringing back people’s confidence to travel along with lenient and safe entry requirements. The smaller the entry fences, the easier it will be to boost tourism. Tourists are already reluctant to travel, and by adding restrictions to existing visa requirements and RT-PCR tests to enter the country, it will make travellers hesitant to travel. We should leverage technology and make it easier for tourists to enter and exit.
Despite the government trying their best, we haven’t been bold in the reopening for the international market, which is understandable with the introduction of new variants. If you look at the big picture, we’re essentially behind a full year compared to other parts of the world like the USA and Europe, but I still think we’re on the right path in comparison to many destinations in SEA. I think we are lucky, honestly, that we are open for domestic tourism so there are still a lot of positives to appreciate. If you look at hotel numbers now compared to three months ago, there is at least some momentum. Occupancy rates are going up. Flight arrivals are going up. We’re definitely moving in the right direction.
Speaking of the Indian market, Thailand was a big Indian wedding destination pre-COVID. Do you think we will see the return of these weddings in the near future?
Thailand is definitely a popular wedding destination, so there is definitely pent up demand but it’s evident that everyone wants to stay safe and make good decisions, so once the pandemic situation subsides we will see things getting back to the pace it once was. Q1 is looking challenging to have couples from abroad host their weddings here, but I see Thailand recovering quickly and weddings returning for Q3 and Q4 if the situation is under control with no new variant threats.
As someone who loves travelling, what has kept you in Thailand all these years?
What can you fault about Thailand? It has a great geographical location that allows you to travel to the rest of the world easily, it is blessed with diverse natural landscapes like beaches and mountains, the people are friendly, and the food is fantastic. Also, why do tourists like coming here so much? For the service! Here, people go out of their way and the service is top-tier. I’ve spent more than half my life here so I consider Thailand home, and if you ask me, I feel at home!
Many young Indians choose to join the hospitality sector after completing their studies, do you have any advice for this next generation of potential hoteliers?
Thanks to technology and the internet, the world is condensed and the new generation know more than what we knew about the industry back then. However, there is no shortcut to success, and as I said, you must have a strong foundation. You might have the knowledge, but you also have to understand the practicalities of the business, get your hands dirty, and be ready to start from the bottom.
When I was in hotel school, only 10 percent of students continued, the rest all quit because they simply could not handle it. So I think patience is key for the next generation. Nowadays I see people jump from one job to another for the smallest raise in their salary instead of staying at a company and looking long-term about where you can reach. This is what I don’t see the young generation doing, they want quick results and quick money, when really there is no shortcut way to the top in the industry. Give heart and soul, learn, and know that in time it will pay off.