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Enjoying Chiangrai

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Chiangrai is rising up to its tourism fortunes, and Le Meridien Chiangrai’s new GM wants to get the word out.

By Percy Roxas

The north of Thailand is opening up to tourism. Chiangrai, the northernmost province, in particular, is increasing in popularity among those in search of new travel experiences in the kingdom. Not that it is already transforming into a luxury travel destination. But with more and more international hotel chains being built, signs are that Chiangrai is finally rising up to its tourism fortunes. At least that’s what the new general manager (GM) of Le Meridien Chiangrai, Stephen Morahan, sees.

“Chiangrai is certainly improving in popularity,” says the 38-year-old Stephen who assumed his first GM position in March. “This is reflected in the number of people now coming into the area, the infrastructure being built, the emerging new developments, the spiraling land prices – these kind of indicators. Chiangrai is changing very quickly and becoming a much bigger city than in was in the past.”

Stephen has been in Chiangrai for just a few months, but is already head over heels about the place. “I think its fantastic; I don’t know why I am not here sooner,” he says. “The climate is wonderful, the natural scenery beautiful, and the people are just delightful. Chiangrai is also rich in culture and history; it’s quite amazing.”

Stephen noticed that, “From a people perspective, Chiangrai folks have a great sense of ownership of their community, which is different from what I have experienced in other places. They have so much passion and pride in where they live and they want to have a say in the way it moves forward. That’s one thing I very much enjoy. From a personal perspective, Chiangrai has a beautiful natural environment; somewhat a jewel of Thailand, although not a lot of people know about already.”

On the business side, he says he wants to see it get busy, “but on the other hand, who would want to change it?,” he continues. “It has a beautiful river, a rich history and culture, and the local artists are absolutely fabulous. And if you drive around, which I’ve done a little bit, there are just so many magical places that you don’t get to see anywhere else. I hate to see these things change. I don’t get a lot of days-off but when I do, my wife and I try to visit all the unique places.”

Stephen has been with Starwood for 10 years now. Prior to his Chiangrai assignment, he was at the Westin Siray Bay in Phuket, and prior to that in Sydney, Australia. “I have come to the business predominantly from the F&B side, and I did a diploma in tourism and hospitality management, as well as hold a degree in advertising and marketing in Australia,” he says. He is currently doing his MBA.

He’s been in the industry for 20 years now, having worked his way up from clearing glasses to working in restaurants and bars and so forth through his present position. Very candidly, Stephen admits that the decision to enter the hotel industry was inspired by the fact that his marks in school were not good enough for him to get into the university. He said he wasn’t sure what he was going to do then, until his grandfather told him about a family member who works in hotels. “He asked me if would I like to come down in Sydney and have a site inspection,” he recalls.

But instead of meeting the GM he was only able to meet the gentleman in charge of the bars. That chance meeting put him on the F&B direction, “and from there on I just worked my way through until I could study in the university, which I did,” he says. “I continued working in the industry, moving from state to state, depending on where I was asked to go at the time, and building my skills.” Through it all, Stephen always thought that if he was committed enough and work hard enough, he would be able to make it to GM. “My goal was to be one by 40,” he says. “I made it at 38, which is relatively young for a GM. But if you work hard and learn as much as possible, you can do it.”

As a first -time GM, Stephen said he is very excited but nervous at the same time because of the “awesome” responsibility. But he welcomes his new challenges wholehertedly.

“My main focus is to create a vision for our team and ensure that we’re all headed in the same direction,” he continues “Whenever there’s a new GM in a property, there’s always uncertainty. So, you want to take all the great work of the people before you and then create your own vision and direction and have the team go the same way with you so you can achieve and continue what others have done before you. And we will do that.”

His open management style seems to blend well with Thai culture. “I very much prefer to take on the approach of coaching and mentoring than telling and getting enforcing,” he says. “I would rather ask my people and help them get to their own personal goals, which then eventually will get to the company goals. I understand that we all make mistakes and that we won’t ever be perfect, but as long as we continue to learn from those mistakes and teach each other to be better, then we will succeed.”

Stephen doesn’t hide his pride for Le Meridien Chiangrai. “This property is quite magnificent; beautifully done and beautifully made. A lot of care and consideration was taken in building the property that fits in with the region and the destination in Chiangrai,” he says.

“The brand was specifically chosen to fit with the culture and the discovery of the destination. A lot of foresight has gone into using local art, culture, and history; and in tying the property into the destination rather than the property with the destination. So my first impressions were that somebody has done his job, somebody has taken the care to think about it and understand that the property is part of the culture and the community. It’s not just another 5-star hotel in the region. It’s very unique.”

As for the opening up of tourism in the North, Stephen says, “we’re all benefitting in terms of growth. There’s no new supply as such but I think that will happen in the next couple of years or so when they open the new artery road and when the Asean Economic Community comes into play. There are a lot of smaller properties and we’re considered the bigger although we only have 159 rooms. So in terms of luxury upscale, we’re probably the only one that fits the bill in the area. The rest are a couple of small boutique hotels.

One thing he’d like to tell visitors is that one night in Chiangrai is not enough. “Many guests tell me how they regret haven’t realizing early the many wonderful things around here,” he says. “There are just so many things to see and do, to explore and enjoy. So we need to get the message out there that if you’re coming to Chiangrai, you need to allow yourself more time. As a destination, we need to start communicating the value of Changrai. The best part of Chiangrai is not only the Golden Triangle; it is all those other things.”