'My hotel is a magical place'
Sometimes, when Rainy Chan happens to be in Central on her day off, she will wander to the waterfront and spend a few minutes looking across the harbour. Each time, the focus of her attention is The Peninsula Hong Kong. Whenever she performs this small ritual, the same thing happens.
'It gives me goose bumps,' she said. 'I still can't believe I'm the general manager and that is 'my' hotel. No matter how tired I am, the magic is still there.'
Her sense of pride and achievement comes in part from being the first woman and the first ethnic Chinese to hold the position, but also from having guardianship of a tradition of excellence that stretches back more than 80 years and, for many people, has become a symbol of the city.
'I am very conscious that we are not just a hotel; we are a part of Hong Kong,' Ms Chan said. 'I'm definitely very proud of that and my priority is to keep the highest standards possible. It comes with pressure, but that motivates me to do better.'
Running the day-to-day operations, she oversees 875 staff in everything from food and beverages and front office, to public relations and the spa. She is also in charge of the shopping arcade and office tower. Getting things right, she has found, is all about anticipation, preparation and good communication within and between departments. However, given the very 'human' nature of the business, it is also important to accept that something will always go wrong.
For example, a morning check of the logbook might show a guest was waiting for a doctor's appointment, had wanted twin beds or thought their food was cold.
'We've got to be very good on service recovery, to follow up in a timely manner and on a personal level,' Ms Chan said. 'We are honest about our mistakes but know we have to be as close to perfect as possible.' What annoyed her most, she said, was any hint of an attitude-related mistake. Everyone could have a bad day, but the job was a lot like going on stage, so staff had to know how to leave certain problems at home.
Her own approach is to begin each day with a briefing to confirm when VIPs are arriving and which events are on, and to 'walk the hotel' talking to staff and checking the smallest details. That might be the aroma in the pastry department, lighting levels or the choice of music for afternoon tea in the lobby.
'I have an eye for every detail - that is what we are trained to do - and I'm a very thoughtful person,' she said. 'You need that, especially in a luxury hotel where you are creating experiences for guests all the time. But, for example, I don't go into the kitchen and tell the chef what to do. I surround myself with people who are very good at their jobs and give my contribution through a customer's experience.'
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Ms Chan got her start in the hotel industry in Hawaii in 1989. She had moved there for family reasons and, five years later, received a call out of the blue asking if she wanted to join The Peninsula Hong Kong as front office manager. With a new tower about to open, the hotel wanted a Chinese speaker, familiar with Hong Kong, who could update procedures, introduce a more modern approach and take care of inevitable teething problems.
'I couldn't say no,' Ms Chan said. 'Moving to Hawaii taught me how to adapt and I gained confidence and knowledge but, looking back, I suppose I had underestimated the cultural differences in coming home. People expected a western male manager, and it took a year to prove myself.'
The next few years saw her alternate ever higher positions in Hong Kong with stints in the group's properties in Chicago, New York and Bangkok. It was all part of building a profile and learning that the way to fit into the culture of a hotel and a city was to change your approach, but not your standards.
'I loved every city that I lived in and wished I had more time there, but each move was good for my career,' she said.
Since assuming her role in 2007, the long-term objective has always been to hand over a better hotel to the next general manager. That means enhancing the product, by keeping the traditions and culture intact while blending in new ideas and technology, and ensuring staff are well trained, experienced and happy.
'I am not trying to change things, but 'refining' is part of the fun of the job,' Ms Chan said. 'We want to add to our existing facilities, create opportunities for people to celebrate special occasions and make staying here more of a lifestyle experience.
'As a GM, you have to train yourself to like things you don't and show an example, but I genuinely love what I do.'
This is the third article of the eight-part series on influential women in their chosen fields
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