Hotel boss has no check-out plans

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 April, 2006, 12:00am

InterContinental managing director Jean-Jacques Reibel happy to stay in HK

Jean-Jacques Reibel is not one of those classically avuncular hotel general managers with big hands.

While undoubtedly welcoming, the managing director of the 700-room Hong Kong InterContinental in Tsim Sha Tsui exudes a professional bonhomie that also brooks no nonsense. His eyes roam the room and it's easy to imagine the imposing Frenchman needing to raise no more than an eyebrow to indicate approval or displeasure.

But then you don't get to be one of the hotel industry's most senior and respected figures running the jewels of the InterContinental empire without a natural air of authority.

Born in the Champagne region of northern France, Mr Reibel cut his hospitality teeth working on a Norwegian cruiseliner, before spending five years on the London Hilton management training programme. A stint with Hilton International opening a property in Washington came next, followed by the switch to InterContinental and a five-year stint as director of food and beverage at that grande dame of hotels, the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco. Then it was back home to spend three years as resident manager of the InterContinental next to the Jardin des Tuilleries in Paris. His first general manager's job came next, in New Orleans, followed by his second in Miami. Hotel general managers naturally move around every three to five years, he explains.

Then, with the Willard InterContinental in Washington came his big break. '1601 Pennsylvania, one block from the White House and hotel of presidents,' he recites wistfully. This is the hotel which inspired the phrase 'lobbying', he explains, where people hovered hoping to influence presidents, politicians and visiting international delegations. 'It was very unique, probably the only hotel in the world to have received so many political figures.'

But don't expect any revelations about Tony Blair or the Bush clan. In answer to which was his favourite Potus, as the US president is known to his staff, he replies: 'It wouldn't be right for an hotelier to say, but it was politics breakfast, lunch and dinner.'

After seven years at the Willard came the offer of Hong Kong. So now, with 21/2 years on the clock here, is he likely to move on soon? 'No, no, I want to stay here. I do have some control over it!'

As to what makes a good hotel general manager, he thinks hard before answering: 'Probably the genuine interest in meeting people from all over the world and being a global citizen if you work for a global company.'

He's very hands-on. 'Very. I will check everything. I discuss the menus with the chef down to the soup. I can tell you they were upholstering that sofa down there earlier today, and I checked the fabric to make sure it matched as closely as possible,' pointing through a glass wall to the lounge below.

He knows his individual managers and their personal objectives down to whether they want to stay put or travel in two years' time. And he is always aware of what the competition is doing.

Hot topic of the moment is the relationship between form, function and finance when it comes to trendy designers let loose on hotel interiors. Mr Reibel is not about to stand back and let some creative torpedo his bottom line with some unworkable idea. 'When we did the presidential suite, I told him I wanted it fabulous, state of the art, latest technology ... with an Asian touch so you knew where you were when you woke up. I told him what feeling I wanted and then he came to me with the blueprint.'

When he sees a design his critical faculties kick in, thinking, will these suede headboards or white shagpile carpet be practical? If the design is going to cause operational, maintenance or laundry headaches he doesn't beat about the bush. 'I say very nicely this will not work. Then if he is an intelligent designer, he will make it work, as long as his ego is not involved.' You can't have a designer who does not understand the demands of hotel service - or a general manager who thinks he's a designer. 'You must work as a team - with no egos.'

If all this seems obvious, he agrees that often it is not what happens. 'In hotel design you need both form and function to be successful and you cannot sacrifice either one.'

The subject of free time brings a wry smile. It's spent practising yoga, going to the gym or walking. He lives in the hotel, by choice, he stresses. 'It's convenient,' he interjects firmly, heading off any question about the shortcomings of this arrangement. 'It's a very nice apartment and you can't have everything in life.'

On the subject of why he is regarded as one of the world's great hoteliers, he's matter of fact. 'My success is based on putting a great team around me. If you motivate and take care of your staff, they will take care of you.' He gathers as much advice and information from colleagues before making a decision, in case they have spotted key details he might have missed.

He is, he admits, 'very results-orientated, honest and frank with the people who work with me but I am very careful of people's feelings. People will make or break you - your reputation is what is said about you.'

He would like his reputation to be one of 'honesty, being loyal to your word, transparent and able to learn'. Working in the fast and unforgiving pace of American hotels had honed his skills in many of these areas. 'Then you come to Asia and see everything can be made to happen in a more subtle way.'

There's nothing unique about the Asian concept of losing face, he believes. 'It's simply causing embarrassment and whether you are in London, New York or Hong Kong, no one likes to be embarrassed.'

Isn't it lonely, always being the boss? He pauses. 'No, it's like any senior position. No, not when you meet so many wonderful people.

'Leaders cannot always be popular, they have to make tough decisions and sometimes you can't explain to people at the time why you did something. But lonely? No.'