The Other Lotus
From time to time I encounter an exceptional business on my travels. Last year it was in Peru. This year it was on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand. There are certain environments in which it is difficult to find talent let alone retain it. Even if you can find good people, the challenges of then producing highly effective employees within a system that results in an exceptional product are great. A remote island is one of those environments, but efficiency, high quality service, punctuality and consistency are exactly what the owners and manager of Kamalaya Resort on Koh Samui Island have achieved and I was determined to find out what their secret was.
So I met with the General Manager, Clive McNish who was kind enough to sit down with me and share what makes them such an exceptional place. I was amazed to find even the largest multi-national organization could learn a lot from this small business.
Most organizations would see working in multi-cultural teams a challenge, but Mr. McNish sees it as one of their primary strengths.
“We are lucky to have a large mix of cultures, which is rare in this part of the world,” he responded. When I asked how he kept everything operating so punctually. “Part of the quality of what we are doing is about the consistency of what we do. It’s no good being good on one day and the next day not. You can see a lot of this in Asia.”
The founders are Canadian and Mexican. The other co-owner is Swiss; the site manager is Hungarian; the chef is from Hong Kong; the Naturapath is S. African. We have an English sales and marketing manager, an Indian web manager, and in the wellness center we have Chinese doctors, a Latvian manager, Indian therapists…we are a mixture.
This all sounds great, but so many businesses struggle because of their multi-national team and he was saying that they were thriving as a result of it. What gives?
“We invest very heavily in training. Time Management is part of training. The most important thing here is the good nature and the ability to be in service of the individual. The skills for our therapists come from our academy that we opened last year. We over hire, so that someone can always be in education, if you like, so they are not actually working all the time.”
He shows me a 177 page manual for wait staff and then, as if he knew I was coming (which he didn’t), he pulls out a stack of laminated flash cards from his desk that represent the Service Standards of the various departments.
“Each department has a set of Standards and each card has a visual picture that goes along with the Standard so employees can internalize the learnings, both visually and verbally, which is key when working across languages. There are language gaps, so we have to be creative about how we get things to stick”
“Also, we have two full-time English teachers on staff. This is very different from a lot of resorts that will have a roving English teacher who will go from resort to resort, here we have made a major investment into that.” That explains the garden staff who greeted me in English so confidently and with an eagerness to continue the encounter to its conclusion. I remember walking away impressed, but also scratching my head a bit as to where he learned such good English.
“When people know what they have to do, they feel much more confident in doing it and then it’s all measurable. But having said that, without taking away that beautiful Thai culture. That has to be allowed to flourish. In the background we are doing what we can for that to happen.”
And this was evident in every encounter I had with staff. I was continually greeted with hands together raised at the heart, often with a Thai greeting (except for the delightful gardener)!
“When we hire a member of staff they have a buddy trainer as they go through the process of learning. It is not a skill that we necessarily look for, it is more about finding a service individual and then we train them. When we hire a member of staff they have a buddy trainer as they go through the process of learning.”
I have heard this many times in the past – companies that would rather hire for attitude or ambition in place of specific skills. Now that may not always be possible at certain levels and in certain industries, but often recruitment processes focus on job descriptions alone without an organization having a philosophy about what immeasurable qualities a potential employee may have.
“We also give the therapists a long time between appointments for turnover. Now when I have run hotels and spas in Europe, the turnover time between treatments is five minutes. Here the turnover time is 30 minutes between treatments. So that also allows for us to absorb when people come in late. It means that we aren’t driving them at 100%, which gives them the ability to be a bit more relaxed and give nicer service.
“As a mathematical model, someone would say you are crazy, that is not efficient enough, but we would rather have a few less people and have everything work a bit more nicely.” But they don’t have a few less people. In fact, appointment slots are fully booked and a hotel that only a few years ago was easy to get into is now at full occupancy.
Time and time again in my trainings I see corners being cut for the sake of the bottom line and a strong training focus on quality initiatives with fancy names, but that focus tends to be on finding the root causes of problems and cutting out inefficiencies. Here he is telling me the opposite and it is resulting in a higher standard of service, which is resulting in a full roster of treatments, fully booked rooms and multiple awards in their industry.
Their philosophy on team building is not mutually exclusive of their philosophy on training. “We have 3-4 team building outings a year. Water jousting, treasure hunts, spider webs they have to get the teams through, water volleyball – classic team building stuff outside of the resort.
“We also allow them to use their own creativity. The first day we did an Iron Resort activity where teams of 20 were told they had to create a restaurant or spa based on our standards. Some became chefs. Some designed menus. Some designed the restaurants. With 250 staff members there are weeks of training that culminate into an annual staff party.”
Investing in People
“The culture of looking after the team is very, very strong. That has been important throughout my whole career. The more time you invest in people the happier they are and the more turnover is reduced and that is one of the biggest challenges in the hotel industry throughout the world, so if there is anything you can do to reduce it.
“It isn’t always about money though. It’s also about those small benefits. Sporting activities, sponsoring certain things, hospital visits, medical insurance and all that stuff that goes with it are all part of the package that makes it more attractive for the team.
“They are very well looked after. We do as much as we can.”
Such factors aid tremendously in holding on to valuable employees. Over the past ten years I have heard retention come up over and over again as the number one human resource challenge. One can look to external forces such as globalization. We are in a unique moment in history where the global employee market place is going through a significant transition. When people are able to make ten times what their parents made each time they change jobs you can’t blame them for shifting from place to place.
“There is a huge family culture here, but it doesn’t mean people don’t leave because the guy up the road opens up and offers them more money, but the turnover has definitely gone down and people are invested into Kamalaya. If you look at the length of 60% percent of them it is long – 6-7 years. That is exceptional for this market.” And it isn’t only this market. Large multi-nationals in big cities with highly educated workforces are also struggling with this issue.
“Still it’s difficult to keep people. Samui isn’t as attractive as some places like Phuket or Bankok. 90% of the staff is Thai. Many Thai want to go overseas – the Middle East or to work on cruise ships. The funny thing is, a lot of them come back and I open the door immediately because they spread their stories about the hardships. Working 16 days, no place to eat – oh actually it isn’t so bad here. In fact, we have a lady coming back from the Maldives in a couple of weeks.”
“My philosophy is and a philosophy for them is, if you aren’t making a difference here or doing something that you can leave behind that will actually help people in the future, you probably shouldn’t be here because you are doing nothing but drawing from the environment.
“We are driving for those five star standards and I think that comes from a shared responsibility towards something beyond just a job.”
Founded by John and Karina Stewart, Kamalaya started with a vision that is carried on even in their absences.
“Many places like this are a business first and a concept second. Here we are a concept first and it is the passion of John and Karina that created this place and doesn’t go away. Even as it gets bigger and expands, that passion of John is still here. It is really amazing how he talks about this place and what drove him to have it.
When John comes to town the staff looks forward to it.
The Other Lotus
So why the lotus? It is a symbol of something beautiful emerging from the murky mud below the surface of the water upon which it sits. Not only is it a symbol of strength, beauty and perseverance across many religious philosophies, but also the logo of Kamalaya. Here is an example, which has risen from the classic murky challenges of multi-cultural teams, isolated location and global transition into a visibly exceptional product that is firm in its roots.
In conclusion, I couldn’t help but ask about Cross-Cultural Training – that is what I do after all, so I was wondering if it played any role.
“Yes, last year we did something on being an expat in Thailand and some people thought it was risky to do. We talked about how Thai people do things differently and in the end it was an absolutely brilliant day and then we could go out for a night afterwards. It was good. We will do it again.”