Antje Sahling, General Manager
Crowne Plaza Phuket Panwa Beach Resort
We all have a dream — about the work we want to do, the things we want to have, the life we want to live. Very few of us get to live the dream. But some people, like Antje Sahling, are not quite far from it. By her own design, available opportunities, and personal abilities of course, she was able to realize her dreams, achieve her goals, and live a life and work many of us would easily envy.
The dynamic general manager (GM) of the newly opened Crowne Plaza Phuket Panwa Beach Resort would probably be as successful in another career. But she chose to be in the hospitality business. We can say that she’s in the prime of her career, enjoying not only a challenging work she is so passionate about, but also the perks that go along with it.
Antje, a 15-year hotel industry veteran, has been with the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) for eight years now. She has worked and lived in three continents, starting in Europe, then moving on to the Middle East, enjoying a couple of years in China, Bali, and Vietnam afterwards, and now she’s in Thailand But, that’s getting ahead of her story.
It began quite predictably. “As a teenager you do these odd jobs to make money on the sides, so I did waitressing in Germany,” she said. “In fact, my first dream was to become an architect. But early on –when I was 13 or 14 maybe – I decided I can’t sit down on the board forever drawing lines.”
She tried the restaurant business, but after two years she told herself: “There must be something else in this world.” So she went back to school, studied hotel management, and after graduation, worked in Berlin.”
But then again the bug bit her. “There must be something else outside Germany!” So she went to work in Ireland in what she describes as a beautiful green golf resort, which made her realize even more that she was meant for this career.
Soon she was already in Egypt, spending a beautiful time in a Red Sea resort that was fully booked all the time, doing front office, reservations, and other things during those busy times. Antje said she enjoyed Egypt a lot, she even learned how to dive there, but she soon said: “Enough sunshine – now let me go to a city.”
So to London she went. The hotel was in a city center in Picadilly, just across The Ritz , with the rich and famous staying with them. “It was very interesting and I fell in love with London. You have all the theater life, entertainment, and you can just drive outside the city for one hour to go to Oxford; fantastic!” she said.
Then after three years, she said again: “Let’s have a little more sunshine in life” and off she went to the Middle East, which she again fell in love with. She worked as front office manager for Le Meridien (Starwood Group) in UAE, another beautiful resort by the beach. That was in 2002, when the Emirates was still developing as a major tourist destination. “It was a very energetic time,” she recalled ”and business was pouring in dramatically year-on-year.” It was there that the IHG first approached, her for a job opening in Cyprus.
“My first job with IHG was with a fantastic newly built resort set in the middle of a green-orange plantation, with horse stables, golf course, spa, etc. — perfect for European clientele. It was another interesting time for her, and getting used to the Greek Cypriot life made her experience all the more enjoyable. “The Cypriots were so friendly, Every Saturday you have to go out, there’s lots of music, food, dancing – it is a very nice culture.”
Then IHG approached her again for an opening in Adu Dhabi and since she has been there before, she agreed to “go back in the country of sunshine, deserts, and camels.” Career-wise, the move was great for her; it was there that she first got into the mold running around in jeans and with a construction helmet to get a hotel ready and organized.
The prestigious 22-year-old Abu Dhabi InterContinental was up for refurbishment and it took their team nine months to make it completely new. She was still in rooms divisions then but the experience set her career in its present direction. After that, another opportunity came up – another IHG resort was opening. “I said: I am not really putting my hand up for this, but I would love to do it because it’s in China, which I have never been to,” she recalled.
She spent three “very unexpected” years in China, working in a beautiful resort, and even picking up some Mandarin but as Bali later beckoned and she said “yes.” After, all, “who wouldn’t want to go to Bali?” she asked rhetorically. “Plus, the Bali InterContinental was one of the group’s flagship hotels, a place everybody would love to work for. The 18-year-old hotel has such a good reputation, with beautiful gardens, amazing beach, and stuff. I worked there for one year as resort manager working on guest experience and different projects. We were constantly building on guest experience because the hotel – being a grand dame as such – you have to keep going, going, going.”
And then another opening: in Danang. “I don’t know why,” she joked, “but people think I’m good in opening hotels. Danang was a developing destination although there are already five-star local branded hotels on a most beautiful sandy beach there is, and connectivity is easy.”
Vietnam is certainly worth a journey. “I was pleasantly surprised by the food, by its freshness, the herbs, and the salads – I had a fantastic time,” she said. “Also the project was designed by Bill Bensley. It was a great experience. InterContinental Danang is real wow resort. You cannot stop looking at it from any angle; there’s always something to surprise you; it was fantastic to run.”
And then they told her: “You have always wanted to work in Thailand, well there’s an opportunity in Phuket – for a first Crowne Plaza resort in Asia. “Since I have never worked for a Crowne Plaza, I grabbed it.” she said. “And it was time for me to become GM.”
Looking back, she admitted that it’s not just about the destinations. “It’s really always about the opportunities. I look at the challenges ahead of me and see what I can do. Plus I was lucky to be in a company that really thinks of developing their people.
“IHG has a great program for developing its people, she pointed out. “We have training programs targeting specific development needs, succession planning and all that. I have received lots of mentoring from other GMs before me, and was made ready for the challenge. Being a GM is a challenge but I have been very well prepared by the company.”
It’s been hardly six months since the Crowne Plaza Phuket Panwa opened but Antje said they’re on the right track. “In our first two months, we already received good feedback from Trip Advisor and other websites. More importantly, we’re already welcoming returning guests.
“One of the greatest moments in our job is when a guest comes to you and says I had a great holiday, thank you. I’m feeling recharged and relaxed, I will come back for sure. Or when you receive a similar e-mail, and adding “my kids did a drawing for you as a measure of thanks. These just balance the long hours and preparation, the working behind the scenes, the time and effort that you and your team have put in to get the experience right for the guests
“We have been really fortunate with actual property; Crowne Plaza Phuket Panwa is a stunning resort,” she said. “ We’re on the eastern side of Phuket in a very lush green environment, which is more like the countryside so it’s not crowded. The hardware is fantastic with a great sense of arrival.”
“You’re arriving and you see a beautiful lobby designed as homage to Phuket with staff who presents themselves beautifully and confidently. And the wow element grows as you walk through. We have our own private bay – there is only us – so there’s no selling of items on the beach, no crossing of roads to get to beach, which is unique in Phuket.”
She sums it up: “Crowne Plaza Phuket Panwa is very much about seamless service: making sure everything is ready and available when you arrive; that there is great connectivity – in technology and with other guests; and also that you have a holiday that you or your family expected. It’s all about recognizing who are guests are and what they are about, and providing touch-points to exceed their satisfaction at all times.” Of course, there’s more to the resort than that.
Obviously, she’s enjoying her time. “It’s pure pleasure to be in Phuket,” she said. “It’s a very well developed, very well connected destination. You have all the conveniences you need and getting around is easy. I haven’t really seen a lot yet — opening a hotel keeps you busy; I need to go out a little bit more. But I have been eating lots of Thai food, breaking to tears from time to time when its too spicy; I still have to get used to it.
“Professionally, I’m very pleased to be here because of the natural hospitality of the Thai people. For them nothing is too much, and there’s always a smile. They go the extra step all the time and you don’t have to ask at all – and as affirmed by guests — you know they do it from the heart. This alone makes working in Thailand so great.”