A Melange of Experiences – Advantage Expat GM!


Its all about differences…about diversity…that colour the experience which a hotel delivers to its customers. Every competitive advantage begins with people; people are different; differences create opportunity. That’s diversity.

At the helm of this diverse workforce for a hotel is the expatriate General Manager. The word expatriate traces its roots to the medieval Latin expatriatus, which means to leave one’s own country. For the hospitality industry, embracing diversity becomes all the more relevant because hospitality is truly a people business. The convergence of customers, employees and the community creates effective synergies. One of the most important benefits is superior financial performance.

There are as many differences between people as there are similarities. The richness of differences shapes the experience that a hotel provides to its guests. It is our individual differences that help each of us make a unique contribution to the workforce. Race, gender, age, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, abilities and disabilities, and even life experience – all contribute to the valuable, distinct perspective each person brings to their job. The vast, untapped potential of this range of abilities and experience is a potential asset for any hotel. In a nutshell, it is about the strategic advantages that come from incorporating a wide variety of approaches and perspectives. Says Ed Rabin, President, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, “diversity is one of our company’s core values. As such, it is a very important component of building our company’s future. Many resources have been devoted to our diversity initiatives and programs.

The expatriate general manager is the preferred choice in the Asian hospitality sector because of the broader range of experience and skills that such GMs have assimilated in their personalities. According to Scott Wilson, General Manager, Park Royal Intercontinental, New Delhi, “to have an expatriate GM becomes essential in a hotel’s evolutionary process because of their ability to integrate western management skills and systems with a holistic home-grown cultural ethos.” Joerg U Limper, General Manager, Full Moon & Baros Resorts, Maldives, expresses a similar thought, “each continent has different work ethics, leaving a different imprint on the mind and soul of a General Manager, thus equipping him/her better to handle the complexities of working in a different cultural set-up.” Mr Limper started his career in Europe, moved on to UK, then America, and finally to Asia.

Improving bottom lines have shown that expatriate heads are a good option for a hotel. Expatriate GMs bring in with them a sense of responsibility and standards, usually along with a strong operational background. Together with this management experience is all the learning that has come from traveling across the world and working with varied cultures, systems and people. This global exposure makes the expatriate GM appreciative of the individual differences at a macro and micro level. Limper continued, “We are all a part of the diversity mix. At an individual and a group level, we all have unique skills and perspectives.

The advantage of expatriate GMs extends beyond effectively managing people and processes. According to Chris Sedwick, General Manager, Rydes Beach Resort Phuket, “expatriate GMs with European nationalities almost always bring their sales and marketing contacts to the properties they work for.”

Moreover, expatriate GMs are also known to be efficient in succession planning. They are often able to impart the knowledge of operating a hotel to local employees with great success. A striking example is that of Mauritius: Mr Frederic Chretien, General Manager, The Residence Mauritius, foresees that this island would slowly have less expatriate GMs in future. Erstwhile GMs have trained the native population to take on the challenges of managing the properties on their own.

What exactly is it that motivates a hotel GM to leave the ‘safe haven’ of his homeland and venture into a new country? It could be simply a matter of supply and demand, or it could be a situation where an existing GM within the group is moved overseas to manage the opening of new group property in another country.

The challenge of successfully managing a property in a new country, in a different set of cultural and market conditions is, by far, the most dominant reason inspiring GMs to make an overseas job move. This was revealed in the interviews that we had with several GMs in the Asia Pacific region. Moreover, all GMs interviewed unanimously agreed that the intricacies and uniqueness of a local culture, its work ethics and social structure and the way a country and society operates in terms of systems and procedures, all lend their personality a different flavor, besides giving them diverse skill sets enabling them to operate under a myriad of situations. They emerge more learned, more aware and a more assimilated personality with each international assignment!

Another reason that emerged was the “adventure ” or the “fun” aspect of working amidst diversity. This view was voiced dominantly by Geoffrey Alan Bennun, General Manager, Evason Hua Hin Samui, Thailand and Peter Ulf Nilsson, General Manager, Central Samui Village, Thailand.

Also, in comparison to Europe or USA, managing a hotel comes at comparatively lower labor costs in Asian countries. As Mr Bennun says, “I could manage to hire twins to be at the door of the hotel for just US$90. Where else in the world can you have two identically dressed twins opening the doors for the guests at such low prices?” Low costs allow the GMs to be more creative and innovative with the resources at their disposal. Mr Bennun goes a step further, saying that employees of Asian origin are the “nicest staff” in the world.

The prospect of learning new languages is yet another charm that draws GMs to new countries, according to Roberto Pellicia, General Manager, Le Coco Beach Hotel, Mauritius. Quite clearly, an assignment in a new country opens up a whole new vista of learning opportunities.

Significantly, in none of our interviews did compensation feature as a determining factor influencing an international move. But as Mr Wilson best clarified, if a GM is single then compensation is a “pulling factor”, but if he has a family, then the entire set-up of the assignment matters!

All the attractions of an international assignment notwithstanding, there is no denying that working and living amidst new cultural conditions is a trying experience. In Mr Wilson’s words, “what we do not bring on to the table is the in-depth knowledge of culture or, rather, the unspoken things” which are ingrained in the social fabric of the country. Mr Bennun brings to attention yet another revealing truth – “there are times when we do not get accepted as family, we are only professionally accepted.” The language barrier sometimes also hinders the communication process and adds to the “stranger” factor that these GMs face.

And, of course, the real adjustment issues are dealt with by the families that accompany the GMs overseas. The GMs themselves often work till late; and much of the work they do is often similar to hotels in other parts of the world. The spouse and children, on the other hand, deal with the nitty-gritties of living under a new set of conditions.

Keeping all perspectives in mind it’s a win-win situation. The expatriate GMs strike bonds of relationship with people they work, impart an extensive range of cultural, social, managerial and technological experiences and in return evolve into a personality that is appreciative of the differences that exist in this world!