Kurt Wachtveitl’s idea of luxury made The Oriental in Bangkok the hotel of everybody’s dreams. It also made him the most famous and respected hotel general manager in the world – and he is now retiring
The news that Kurt Wachtveitl is retiring as General Manager of the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok will mean virtually nothing to most readers. But to everybody in the hotel industry all over the world, this is an epochal event.
Kurt is quite simply the most famous hotel General Manager in the world. He is probably also the most respected. And he belongs to that rare category where the adjective most often employed to describe him is ‘legendary’.
There are many reasons for this, one of which is sheer longevity. Kurt became General Manager of The Oriental in 1967 and there cannot be many managers in this business – other than hotel proprietors – who have stuck to one property for that long.
But Kurt has been content to define himself solely in terms of The Oriental. With his reputation, he could probably have any job he wanted anywhere in the global hotel industry. Or he could have moved up the ranks of the Mandarin Oriental chain, part owners of The Oriental and one of the world’s most highly-regarded hotel companies.
Alternatively, he could have used the reputation of The Oriental to create a mini-chain in Thailand, where tourism has boomed in the last three decades. In fact, he has been reluctant to open other properties with The Oriental name and when such properties have opened anyway, he has been sceptical about their future.
Though rumour has it that he now owns 10 per cent of the equity of The Oriental, his great strength has always been that long before he had any stake in the company and even in the days when The Oriental was a fairly crummy hotel, he always acted as though it was his very own.
Kurt is German. He met his Thai wife at hotel school in Switzerland, followed her to Thailand, and ran a small hotel in Pattaya. That hotel was owned by an Italian construction magnate, who bought The Oriental in 1967. He shifted Kurt to Bangkok to run the hotel and left him pretty much on his own to do as he pleased.
Kurt’s experience was in the grand hotels of Europe. He had worked briefly at the London Hilton and had hated the American-style of rough and ready hoteliering. His ambition was to turn The Oriental into Asia’s equivalent of a grand European hotel.
At the time this seemed plain silly. The Oriental was reasonably well-known because it was one of Bangkok’s oldest hotels but few people believed that it had much of a future. Fancier, more modern hotels, had either opened or were said to open (among them the Dusit Thani and the old Siam (InterContinental) in Bangkok. Nobody thought The Oriental could compete.
In retrospect, the secret to Kurt’s successful reinvention of the hotel did not lie in the brick and mortar part of the strategy. Of course, he built more rooms, a new swimming pool, a new wing and renovated the rooms and the public spaces. But investment and renovation were not enough. This was the time when everyone was opening fancy new hotels in Bangkok.
The secret lay in the state of mind. He convinced himself that it would not be enough for The Oriental to be a fancy, modern hotel. It had to be the epitome of old-world luxury, blending Thai traditions of hospitality with the best of European hoteliering.
Kurt is fond of saying now that luxury is a state of mind. You don’t sell the room or even the property itself. You sell the dream. Guests must believe that they are entering a different world where everything is of the best possible quality, where armies of staff exist only to pamper them and where every moment seems special.
By the late 1990s, as the world entered a boom phase, everybody was talking about luxury. But in the 1960s, such sentiments were rare. Even the European hotels that Kurt so admired traded on their heritage rather than the peddling of the dream of luxury.
Worst still, Kurt was talking about imitating the values of the Savoy in London and the Beau Rivage in Lausanne in a Third World city where he was the manager of a crumbling property.
The fact that he pulled it off tells us something about the essence of hoteliering. It’s not about the hardware or about computer systems or about imported ingredients. It’s about the philosophy and about the dedication an hotelier devotes to ensuring that every detail in his property accords with his basic philosophy.
The Oriental became a grand hotel for two reasons. Partly, it was because Kurt wished for that to happen so much that it became an obsession with him. And it was partly because the hotel became his life. He lived on the other side of the river from the hotel (he moved out a few years ago, when his house became part of the hotel spa) and stayed at work till late at night every single day.
In retrospect, one of the surprising things about The Oriental’s turnaround was how quickly Kurt pulled it off. In 1976, he was still opening the new wing that contained the bulk of the hotel’s rooms. But by the 1980s, The Oriental had already begun to appear on lists of the world’s finest hotels and in the 1990s, The Oriental actually topped many such lists.
If you doubt that Kurt’s essential success lay in dreaming so hard that the dream became a reality, then you should visit The Oriental. If you look at it from the outside, it’s not terribly impressive. It does not have the grandeur of, say, the Bombay Taj or Madras’s The Connemara. Most of the hotel is contained in a squat, modern building that seems much less grand than the Shangri-la next door and the Peninsula across the river. There is an old wing, called The Author’s Wing, which was quietly rebuilt around 40 years ago after a fire, but it is a tiny part of the whole hotel.
And yet, the moment you check into The Oriental, you are transported to another world, where service is charming and impeccable, where the staff know your name within minutes, where rooms are understated but elegant, and where the quality never shouts but softly whispers.
Everything about the food is world class. Because the chef, Nobert Kostner, a near-contemporary of Kurt’s, is as obsessed with quality, The Oriental makes nearly everything itself: its own jams, its own chocolates, its own ham, its own sausages, its own sauces, and its own juices. Of course, the hotel will use imported ingredients but only when it can’t do a better job itself.
One of Kurt’s early maxims was that the difference between a good hotel and a grand hotel is the food. He turned Le Normandie, the hotel’s French restaurant, into the Far-Eastern outpost of the Michelin Guide to France. Each year, a steady procession of Michelin starred French chefs makes its way to Bangkok and takes over the kitchens at Normandie. For part of the year, the Tour D’Argent, the Paris restaurant famous for its duck, turns Normandie into its Asian branch.
It is for such reasons that hoteliers all over the world admire Kurt so much. No General Manager has ever created so much from so little. Handed a run-down, old, fleapit he turned it into one of the world’s best hotels.
In recent years, the competition has been growing. The Peninsula across the river has average room rates that are only a little lower than The Oriental. And the Sukhothai has developed a market of its own. In food terms, Normandie has been challenged by the restaurants at the Dome, which charge more but do better and often serve superior food.
None of this has affected Kurt’s reputation or his standing. The Oriental still commands a premium in the market because of the intensity with which he pursues his dream.
The challenge before Mandarin Oriental is to attempt the impossible: The Oriental without Kurt.