From polishing silver to leading an iconic hotel
Alex Willats, Dusit Thani’s new general manager, cuts an imperious figure in the lobby, keeping a watchful eye on everything.
“I like to spend time around the hotel. It’s important as management to have some visibility.”
As big hotels can get impersonal, Willats hopes to bridge the gap between the staff and guests and between associates. Two months since he arrived in Makati, he introduced lobby management wherein two managers meet and greet guests attending functions.
“I like to be around and see people. It’s important particularly with a big hotel. We’ve got an imposing hotel with black marble and gold columns. It’s nice for someone to warmly welcome guests and escort to the restaurant,” says Willats in an upper-class British accent.
“When people ask my leadership style, in this industry, it benefits that you lead by example. I have no qualms of picking up luggage; stripping beds or helping people check in and out of the hotel. It’s a hands-on industry. Even if I’m the front man of the property, it is only as good as the people that run them. I like to try to work alongside the people.”
Paying his dues
Willats’ practical approach was ingrained in his youth. “I was an industrious child. I used to do chores for pocket money, help my father clean the car. At 14, I had a Saturday job in a shoe shop before I could work in a bar or restaurant.”
His father worked in the construction of hospitality institutions which took the family to different countries.
He recalls visiting the Philippines as a child with his parents, the jeepneys in Hotel Intercontinental Manila’s Jeepney Room and shooting the Pagsanjan rapids.
Being exposed to hotels at an early age, Willats developed an interest in working for the industry.
“Before I committed to my life of servery in hospitality, I went to get work experience,” he says. He explains that servery is an archaic term for a life of being a servant to aristocrats. “I don’t pertain to do that now.”
Nonetheless, Willats paid his dues. He started working in hotels at 16 in the laundry department and working in the all-day dining restaurant.
“I realized that waiting was not my strong point,” he says.
After graduating with honors from the National Centre for Hotel Management in South Bank University, Willats applied for the fast-track management program at the Hotel Intercontinental Group. Only 10 out of 1,100 applicants were accepted.
As one of the chosen few, Willats ended up as a junior conference and banqueting waiter at the Churchill IHC Hotel in London. After two months of polishing silver and cleaning glasses, he was transferred to housekeeping. He recalls standing underneath the laundry chute, waiting for the maids to feed the laundry from the bedroom floors. As the linens and towels dropped down the shaft, Willats would sort them out. He then became a floor porter to deliver the clean laundry and a room attendant, cleaning the room and tucking hospital corners of the beds.
His lucky break was becoming the Churchill’s night manager at 23 years old.
He moved up the ladder working for the Millenium Gloucester and the Montcalm Nikko Hotel. One of his early challenges was returning to Millenium but in the Mayfair property during the 9/11 era.
The American general manager was seconded to New York to help Millenium properties near the World Trade Center that were affected by fires and falling debris.
Since there was no resident manager, Willats, who was the front of the house manager, looked after Millenium Mayfair for six months. “There were layoffs and no inbound flights from the US. The Japanese, who formed a huge part of our market, were not traveling. It was interesting going through those scenarios.”
From London, Willats moved to The Lowry in Manchester as resident manager, meeting celebrities and athletes. Returning to London, he worked for two historic hotels, The Ritz and Claridges.
“Older and established hotels have a real personality about them and grandeur. When I walk into a hotel I want to get a sense of arrival that I feel like I’m stepping through time. Dusit Thani, Ritz, Claridges and Mayfair have such a long history of people who have come through those doors. That’s what I enjoy about hotels. There are many stories. What those great hotels create are experiences” he says.
In Bahrain, Willats worked briefly as resident and acting general manager for The Diplomat Hotel. As a consultant for Al Areen Palace & Spa, the second largest spa in the world, he rebranded the property and linked it with leading hotels.
Since many of the staff were Filipinos, Willats recalls serving Filipino food in the cafeteria and playing basketball and soccer with them.
“These guys would share their homemade creations,” he says.
Asked if our cuisine made an impression, he replies, “I have to be careful of what I say. I do think you’ve got the best pork I’ve ever tasted.”
His foray into Asia was working as resident manager for the original Dusit Thani in Bangkok. When he became the general manager, Willats led the renovations and beefed up hotel’s eight restaurants which consequently led to more profit and industry awards.
“My aim was to be a GM at 35. I was 38 when I made it—a little behind schedule. It doesn’t get any easier as you get further up the ladder,” says the 40-year-old hotelier.
In Dusit Thani’s move to reposition three GMS, Willats was transferred to Manila.
“I felt it was a great opportunity to come over and continue the good work of Prateek Kumar (who is now GM of Dusit Thani Dubai) and the team and make a few positive changes to uplift the property.”
The 538-room Dusit Thani Manila is the largest among the Dusit hotels and is also one of the most profitable.
This March, Dusit Thani will relaunch the Club Lounge. It will have a stylish meditation room that overlooks the scenery and a private dining room tucked behind the hanging garden.
Then there’s the refurbishment of the rooms, enhancement of the much-awarded restaurants and creating a new night life concept that will be the talk of the town.
“The objective is to have full renovation in three years. It is one of the older properties in Makati and more hotels are coming up. We want to make sure Dusit Thani Manila remains at the forefront of people’s psyche and give the choice and variety that people demand.”
On the management side, Willats is introducing a fun activity with a cause. “Each of my executive team will go to a department at entry level and will work for the day laundry, housekeeping, restaurant, kitchen and bar, and spend a day working alongside the staff, serving, bussing, folding napkins,” he says.
“It allows the staff to bond a bit with the senior managers. It becomes a motivational exercise across the hotel. You get to look at processes. You talk to people and find out how to do things in a better way.”
Willats implemented this bonding exercise in Bahrain, London and Manchester with success.
“People often see senior managers as aloof. At times, we have to be. We have to detach ourselves from the organization to make a more strategic decision. But this is a hands-on industry. You need the trust and understanding of the team and staff. We break the barriers and understand the staff better, understand what they are going through. You experience it yourself.”
Even students undergoing practicum will receive a structured learning experience in order to become good hoteliers, he says.
For his part, Willats will never stop rolling his sleeves. “I have no problem to take the jacket off. I live at the hotel. I treat it like my home. That’s how I want everybody to look after the hotel as if it were their home. Even if I’m off duty at the pool with my 5-year-old son, I see light is out or someone waving for service. It’s a 24-hour job for life.”
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