Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer,
Dusit Thani Public Company Ltd
Many Thai companies – in particular Thai hotel chains – are now marching ahead and making their mark internationally. Dusit Thani Public Company, the pioneering Thai hotel company, is not only among the first ones to venture outside the kingdom but also among the most successful, with many properties in many parts of the world today. Behind this company is a soft-spoken, well-mannered man who is only the second CEO in the hotel company’s 60-year history: Chanin Donavanik.
“I think our company is still a small company,” says the man who comes off as very humble and very well grounded considering all his achievements and reputation. “We don’t have too many hotels. If every year we can open one or two we’d be happy.” Chanin, who holds an MBA from Boston University in the U.S., actually heads a hotel empire that consists of four brands: Dusit Thani, dusit d2, Dusit Princess, and Dusit Devarana, as well as operates the Dusit Residences and Devarana Spa.
His mother, Thanpuying Chanut Piyaoui, founded the company 63 years ago with a hotel named the Princess that opened on New Road in 1949. The flagship Dusit Thani Bangkok opened in 1970, quickly becoming a favorite of locals and foreigners alike as well as an iconic symbol of Thai hospitality. As is often describe by the media, “Dusit Thani Bangkok seamlessly fuses European sophistication with ornate Thai flourish.”
For Chanin, and justifiably so, Dusit Thani represents all that is good about Thailand. “My mother has always been proud of Thailand – it’s culture, its beauty, its food, everything that is Thai,” Chanin says. “That’s why when we built our second hotel, the Dusit Thani Bangkok, she decided on using a Thai name. The name takes not only its name, but also much of its character from the ideals of King Rama VI – whose statue stands opposite the hotel.
“Our hotel represents what Thailand is all about. Even our building – which was designed 50 years go — has that Thainess that few buildings in Bangkok today possesses. We represent what is good in Thailand.”
Indeed, that’s what the Dusit Thani group has been trying to do through the years. “Our company has undergone lots of changes, as in the way we do business. But our philosophy and beliefs have not changed in 60 years. Lots of companies in Thailand today tries to be farang (white-skinned foreigner). We don’t want to be something else,” he says.
“One of our achievements is stability of management. We have a clear concept of who we are and that is not going to change. I firmly believe that something that truly represents Thailand will always sell.” In fact he says that even if Thailand do not get help from the government agencies in marketing Thailand, “We can still Thailand.”
“I travel a lot and meet a lot of people who have been to Thailand,” he says. “Whether they’ve been here once or 50 times, they always say this is a special place. It is important not to lose that. We feel it’s important that we truly represent Thailand; that’s what we are trying to do.”
But Chanin admits that his company still has a lot to do. “One of my mistakes is that I did not push the company to extend farther earlier,” he says. “Much of our revenue today still comes from Thailand, thus when a crisis happens here we are severely affected. Also we did not diversify that much, that’s another one of my mistakes. So now we want to get more hotel overseas; we’re going to announce a lot more in the next few months.
“Our basic strategy has not changed but because of politics the country had become unstable, especially in the tourism sector. Five years ago, if you ask me to invest in Maldives, I would say ‘no.’ Because of the risks and having too many hotels in Thailand now we are forced to look overseas.”
The group is also trying some other things, still without changed its position.
“We are seriously looking at other complementary businesses such as hotel education,” he says. “We have the successful Dusit Thani College and Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School Dusit, and with more than 20,000 full-time students in these schools, our company is doing more than anyone else in hospitality education and now, we have to do even more, because I think that is what Asia needs. We are doing many things in terms of education.” As of interview time, he said they are finalizing things in Indonesia, have a team right now in the Maldives, and are talking to the Burmese government.
What makes the Dusit Thani group different from other hotel chains besides these? “With international hotels – lots of difference,” he says. “Again, we’re much smaller and I think that because we are Thai we have a different style.”
“About 60-70 percent of our 20 hotel properties here and abroad are owned by us,” he continues, “so we look at things from an owners’ point of view; we are more careful in spending; and we are always looking at the long-term results. Our family has been in the hotel business for 60 years but there have only been two CEOs. He became CEO five years ago when her mother relinquished the position to become Honorary Chairperson. We know the concerns of the hotel owners.”
The group would like to get more into management of hotels and Chanin sees a lot of opportunity. “Asia as a whole should do well in this regard in the next two years, in particular Vietnam, Indonesia, and Burma. We’re already in India and Sri Lanka. We’re trying to finalize things in China – we need to be big there because it is a big market. In the Middle East, we’re active in about five hotels.”
The next step, he said, is to see if the group can get to have something in places like Los Angeles (USA) and London, “Cities,” he says, “that if we go in we can really make a difference with our Thai product. It would be wonderful for our brand; it would be great for Thailand.”
Unlike other hotel group, Dusit Thani doesn’t want to create a value brand. “We have done a lot of branding in past; we have create a cheaper brand before,” he says. “But today I’m not sure we want to invest more in Thailand especially on mid-priced brands. Mid-scale brands are not very attractive to us this time. I prefer to go out and do a five-star brand overseas to give more name recognition for our brand.”
That’s why most of their new hotel openings overseas such as the recently opened one in Maldives, are branded Dusit Thani. “But the one in New Delhi (India) is called Dusit Devarana because it is a bit more luxurious.”
Chanin thinks it is good that many Thai companies are expanding their horizons abroad because “I think there’s no country in Asia who can do what we do in this industry; we are making it more interesting for the customers.”
Despite their push overseas, Chanin reiterates that the idea remains, “We still want to be who we are. What we try to push is the unique brand of Thai hospitality everywhere we go. If we can open three to five hotels a year, we’d be happy as long as they are hotels that truly represent who we are. He said they will do well with 50 hotels in 17 destinations, but “We are not going just for the numbers.”
What he is trying to do, Chanin said, is to make sure that when he leaves the hotel will be in a better position. “My mother did so well,” he says. “I want to make sure that when I retire, the company’s position — financially, branding, and otherwise — is solid and stable. Maybe not the biggest or the most profitable but something for the next generation to continue to do well.”
He said he is trying to work very hard, pushing very hard, because it is very competitive, and they’re not even competing with other Thai brands but with “the big boys” everywhere they go. For example, in the Maldives, they are competing with the Four Seasons, in India, they area competing with Oberoi. “It’s difficult because we are small, don’t have that big budget nor that big customer base, But we need to keep pushing,” he says.
As one of the pillars in hotel and travel industry – he has held various top positions in related organizations and associations through the years — Chanin is outspoken when it comes to its concerns. “The industry has changed a lot since the early days of Dusit Thani Bangkok. Before, everything is centered in the hotel, the hotel GM is very well-known and very well respected in the community, and lots of people have a relationship with the hotel,” he recalls. “There were just about five to 10 hotels in those days. Now there is just too many hotels in the city, and if you have too many hotels, the relationship with local people with the hotels change accordingly, the importance of hotel has changed a bit too, which is sad in a way.
“I think right now – with so many brands – we are creating more confusion in the public’s minds and makes it difficult for many, more so for smaller Thai hotels unless they find a niche.”
That is not so easy considering that the number of hotel rooms in Bangkok is almost equal to the number of hotel rooms in the whole of India. Bangkok officially has 100,000 rooms – and there are another 20,000 unlicensed hotel rooms not to mention the serviced apartments. There are 140,000 hotel rooms in the entire India. Singapore has 55,000 rooms and Hong Kong, 60,000 rooms so the total number of room in Bangkok just equals those at the two destinations already.
Still, he adds, “Thailand is doing well. Now we’re aiming for almost 20 million visitors. But there are certain things we have to do if we are not to sell ourselves at the cheaper end of the market. For example, Phuket is building a new airport to accommodate 12 to 13 million visitors. But if you have that what will happen? Quality will go down. Room rates and everything will go down and in the end country suffers.
“Of course, with what Thailand has, the country will still do well, people will still come. But we are reaching a level where we are becoming more like a mass market destination; not that it’s all bad — but I’m not sure –that’s the direction Thailand wants to follow.
“Lately, I am getting more concerned about Thailand,” he concludes. “It’s a beautiful, wonderful country with a rich culture, gracious people, and other precious qualities. We should not lose them. Many countries have already lost them and even when they try to revive them it’s not the same. In our own small way we need to preserve what we have. “