Cottan’s out to transform Shang KL(1)

These are not the best of times to be managing a five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur, a city that is still trying to find its feet in the aftermath of September 11. For Michael Cottan though, who arrived in Malaysia?s capital city in January to lead the Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur as its general manager and area manager for West Malaysia, it is a challenge he is prepared to meet head on.. Corinne Wan finds out what Cottan has up his sleeve.

1 March 2002

It was the seventh day of the Chinese New Year or "yang yat" (everybody's birthday) when this reporter met Cottan. He had to excuse himself for a "loh hei" at a "yue shang" (raw fish) lunch with his management staff. As all true-blue Chinese will attest, "loh hei" (Cantonese for "mix and rise") is a must if one wants to be blessed with good luck and good fortune in the year ahead. The higher you toss the raw fish, the greater your fortune will be.

Obviously, Cottan's three-year stint in China has taught him well in the ways of the Chinese. And luck and fortune is probably what he needs in Kuala Lumpur.

Fresh from his stint as general manager of Pudong Shangri-La in Shanghai and area manager of South China, Cottan's main mission is to "make Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur the number one hotel in the city".

When asked whether Shangri-La has slipped as Kuala Lumpur's leading hotel, Cottan said, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating. In people's terms, we are still number one, but we cannot be complacent as new properties are coming up. A hotel is not just 'bricks and mortar' but people too."

Primarily, a hotel needs to be proud of its position, Cottan says. "Occupancy and room rates are by-products of good service and that's where the profits come from. The way to get there (be profitable) is through service."

Cottan counts himself fortunate in that the Shangri-La is already known for its good service.

"The natural hospitality comes from the hotel's core group of 700-odd staff. The rest is in the hiring process. We will employ people with the right attitude, teach them the skills and combine them with intensive training. We'll be spending a lot of time in training. I am a big believer in training."

Another factor in Cottan's favour is the major re-imaging programme the hotel is undertaking. The estimated RM100 million (US$26.32 million) exercise sees almost the entire hotel given a new look. The number of Horizon Floors will be increased to five from three, with a total of 107 rooms.

The exercise is expected to be completed this month.

"There is a lot of excitement among the staff as it's like waiting for a new hotel to emerge without actually opening a new one. This 'new' product will definitely give us a competitive edge."

Cottan disagreed that such a massive renovation could be considered extravagant in the current business climate.

"It's good timing to carry out the renovations to get the product in its proper standing. We will be ready when the good times return. Moreover, the decision (to renovate) was made before 911."

Cottan said that business and leisure traffic has dropped from the US and Europe markets. "We're not so tied up with the US markets; we're more concerned with the European market. It's not just the issue of customers avoiding this region; rather it's airlines pulling out. For example, the pullout of British Airways from Malaysia has hurt us a bit.'

About 22 percent of its business mix is from Europe and 12 per cent from the US.

On the positive side, 911 has opened up the hotel to new shorter haul markets such as the Middle East. Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur will join its counterparts in the group on a roadshow to the Middle East after ITB in March. To shore up its European markets, the hotel will intensify its participation in key European events.

On lessons learned from 911, Cottan said, "Never underestimate the security situation. As a public establishment, we have a high responsibility for the safety of clients. Most companies also learned how fragile business is. We have to re-emphasise where we are and how small the world is and how quickly we can be exposed to difficulties."

About 70 percent of the hotel's mix is from the corporate sector. As this segment has also been badly affected, it will make a slight shift to concentrate on leisure traffic. For this, it will look to the Middle East, Australia and Asian countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

Another area Cottan is looking at is the meetings segment. Having worked in Shanghai for three years, he witnessed the city's swift transformation into a MICE capital.

"We can learn from Shanghai and bring some MICE business to Malaysia, specifically to Kuala Lumpur. I plan to work more closely with other hotels in the city to nurture the MICE business."

Cottan believes there will be no significant increase in rates until year end in Kuala Lumpur. "The whole city will then move towards a rate increase. This is based on the current high occupancy in January and February of around 70 percent, which is good by regional standards."

One potential glitch could be the opening of the Westin Kuala Lumpur later this year, which could put pressure on rates again.

Of course, at the end of the day, it is still the man at the helm and his working philosophy that will make the product stand out in a city full of deluxe properties.

"I run a hotel with heart. I spend a lot of time with the various departments, talk to the staff to break down barriers, foster good internal customer relations as this will then extend out to our external customers. People make the product and it's all about teamwork and communication." Cottan also describes himself as a believer in changes. "I am not afraid of upsetting the status quo and breaking the mould."

Changes he's now planning will involve a re-imaging of the hotel as well as changing its style.

"For the Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur, the F&B outlets will become the 'shop window' of the hotel.

"This has never been the approach of Shangri-La hotels and they have not been known for their restaurant concepts. The whole hotel will be different in looks and feel. We will give it more flair and make it the 'happening hotel' in its F&B concepts."

For example, the award winning Restaurant Lafite will be given a whole new look. Top designer Adam Tihany, the man behind the successful creation of Le Cirque and Spago, has been brought in to remodel the restaurant, making it more stylish and contemporary.

Changes will be in a walk-in cigar humidor and a dedicated wine-tasting room.

"Each F&B outlet will offer our guests something different and contemporary, for the avante garde as well as for traditional diners."

Cottan is confident the new image and style will stand the hotel in good stead in such trying times. This confidence is boosted by healthy forward bookings.

"We're full in March due to strong bookings for the Formula 1 Grand Prix and as the host hotel for the conference of the Society of Petroleum Executives."

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