At the base of a mountain and on the shores of the sea, InterContinental Phuket Resort boasts an impressive range of views and dazzles visitors and guests with its architecture and design.
Behind the scenes though, is a dedicated hospitality team led by a certain Bjorn Courage. Speaking with this personification of calm confidence, we learnt of his journey from hotel school in Holland to General Manager, and his belief in the people he leads.
Where are you from, where have you been?
I’m Dutch. I was born and raised in Holland. I’ve been on the road for a while. I graduated from hotel school in the Netherlands and started my career back in 1996. First London, followed by the Maldives, followed by my first post in Thailand 2003-2005, followed by Japan, Guam-Micronesia, Japan, China, Japan again before returning to Thailand to take on my present post as General Manager of InterContinental Phuket Resort, which is a true privilege.
Have you always been with InterContinental?
I’ve had the pleasure to work for different companies. I started my career with InterContinental in London, followed by Six Senses, Hilton, Mandarin Oriental before returning home to InterContinental about 6 years ago, I truly enjoy working for this iconic global luxury brand and the people throughout our organization.
Why did you choose to work in hospitality?
Different reasons. One was I love to travel and immerse myself in different cultures. When one works in hospitality and is welcomed to reside in a foreign nation, one needs to be respectful, grateful, humble and always find ways to add quality value to the surrounding community as a good and trustworthy citizen.
For me, hospitality provides the opportunity to give back to the community. As a hotel we naturally make profits but we also have a social responsibility to support the local community. I thrive in this environment of being able to make meaningful differences and that greatly motivates me to wake up in the morning and give it my all; to know that what you do helps people and contributes to their lives in a small or big way is a wonderful feeling.
And on the other hand, hospitality is intellectually stimulating because it is a competitive business in which we are given the freedom to develop experiences which attract people from across the world wanting to enjoy. To be a General Manager comes with responsibilities though, as colleagues, business partners, owners, etc rely on me to lead a capable and engaged senior leadership to make wise and meaningful business decisions to ensure a stable business climate is established on which people and communities can thrive. This is one of the key challenges I welcome in my role working in this incredible industry.
What other roles have you had over your career?
Quite a few, but all within hospitality as I’ve been working in hospitality my whole life. I graduated from hotel school, a university degree back home, and commenced my hospitality career immediately. I’ve never done anything else and I can truly not see myself doing anything else either.
I worked myself up the ranks, from the room accommodation side, where my roles were concierge, guest relations, reception, reservations, etc. From room accommodation, I directed my career more towards the commercial side, first revenue management and quickly to sales, marketing and PR. Eventually, I found my true destiny to become a General Manager, my childhood dream, back in 2014.
What are your main character traits, in two words?
Respect and Fairness. This applies not only to work but to my life in general. One has to have respect for one and another. Fairness, whilst similar, relates more to being understanding, patient, giving opportunities and ready to listen to & learn from anyone within the organization.
Often people believe people from different countries must be different and even though each culture is unique in its own way, I also believe people are deep inside quite alike, everyone likes to be listened to, encouraged, respected, etc. Being respectful and fair makes being accepted when welcomed as a visitor in someone else’s country a lot easier….
What pisses you off?
I supposed being Dutch, I’m pretty easy going so it takes a lot for people to get me upset, I normally try to keep a positive and fun environment. I am not a fan of taking the easy road or taking things for granted. I expect my team, including myself, to reach our full potential in delivering excellent service & experiences.
Being in a beautiful environment like the InterContinental Phuket Resort it is our responsibility to make it as special, beautiful and unique as it can be for visitors to enjoy and leave beautiful Thailand with equally beautiful memories. It’s important to take pride in what one does.
What’s your favourite place, or destination?
That’s a difficult question. Hospitality is very much a gipsy lifestyle, so somehow I feel at home and happy wherever I am & work. But I’d have to say that having worked in the Maldives, it has a little bit of an edge out of a location point of view. It is really where mother nature went out of her way to create something so beautiful and perfect it almost looks surreal that one has to pinch oneself to believe it is real.
However out of a “people” point of view, nothing beats Thailand, the people are incredible and needless to say Thailand is amazing, from culture to food, to nature, to history, it’s truly heaven on earth, including right here being surrounded by the beautiful Andaman Ocean and beautiful Kamala mountain as a backdrop. Beauty comes in so many ways.
What are your hobbies, or what is your passion?
If you meet hoteliers, you often find that we don’t have that many hobbies, work seems to have become our hobby or at least a place we spend time when others enjoy their hobbies. But I do like to play golf, love to travel, occasionally scuba dive, love good food & good wines. But if it comes down to passion, it has to be my family, my children, that’s really where my heart goes and where my passion lies.
What famous people did you meet while being in the hotel business and who made the strongest impression on you?
Well, this is something that should remain confidential… But two famous people who are very similar in many ways are 2 ladies, 2 queens. I had the privilege of meeting Queen Rania of Jordan, as well as my own queen, Queen Máxima from Holland. These are two very strong, influential women. I admire people who are in positions of influence and use it to inspire and benefit the good of the people. I love people who can change the world and actually do it.
Of course having worked in places like Tokyo, London and Shanghai, many people came through the hotels. From Heads of States to people in the Sports, Entertainment, etc. Making “a difference” motivated me to hospitality, being able to give back to people & communities is very satisfying. Therefore seeing other people who do that on a much larger scale inspires me to continue what I do and try to find ways to do more.
Hospitality is often about story-telling and sharing experiences, for example, I like to inspire my department heads that at the end of the day, leaders are teachers. Once you “learn” something you need to “teach”, but also once you “get” something you have to “give” back as much as you can. As people get more successful in whatever profession they’re in, it simply means they had the right guidance, training, support, mentors and opportunities for them to make their careers flourish, it then becomes a responsibility to return the favour and educate the next generation to take over from us, therefore nothing satisfies me more to find, guide and challenge local young talent and give them the opportunity to reach their full potential.
This creates meaningfulness, without meaningfulness it is hard to get out of bed in the morning, at least it is for me…
Give us your 3 top tips for a GM that’s just getting started.
You could have said 4, you could have said 5. I would have given you the same answer, which is People, people, people. It’s all about people. Many moving parts drive the hospitality industry.
When I look at a hotel, it’s not a “dead” thing; it’s a living, breathing creature that’s alive. It has good times and bad times, it has quiet and busy times, it goes through change like a living being. Like our resort, we just opened, it’s just starting to crawl and quickly trying to learn to walk in order to take on the world. It will evolve as it matures, and as the economical markets go through cycles, what will get it through is “the people”. Getting the right people, developing them, motivating them, engaging them, challenging them, empowering them and listening to them is the only way forward.
Like all businesses there has to be a financial result in order for the organization to survive & thrive, but financial results are always an outcome of what people do or have done. If you get the people part right, the results will come naturally, even though this is very easily said it is so difficultly done, trust me that I’m still learning myself…
Tell us a joke!
Even though I like to smile, I’m not really good at telling jokes… If I have to tell a joke, I’ll keep it close to my profession. To those who aspire to work in hospitality, trust me it is a beautiful profession, but we have a saying that goes: “We live a rich life without ever being rich”. If that qualifies as a joke then I’m off the hook! Luckily richness comes in many ways, I wouldn’t have mine in any other way…