Doris Goh on changing the culture in hospitality – and going for eco luxury in China with Alila

The hospitality veteran talks about her roundabout route into the hotel business, and why she always makes a point of talking to her drivers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 12:32pm

Doris Goh, chief marketing officer for Alila Hotels and Resorts, took a circuitous route into hospitality. She talks about what her career of more than 20 years has taught her – and where she’s heading with her current role.

You’ve worked in hospitality for more than 20 years. Were you passionate about the industry at a young age?

I never thought I’d work in a hotel, to be honest. My background was in building sciences, and I was trained in understanding construction, building and materials. At that time, I just stopped short of being a quantity surveyor, and was also considering whether I should continue my studies to become an architect. I quit my job, and it was when I was travelling in Japan that I noticed that there were job vacancies in the industry and people looking for hoteliers. I said that maybe I should try it out, even though I didn’t know what the jobs were about. Also for many years, my experience of hotels came from the outside in. However, I wanted to understand how they worked from the inside out.

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What were your first impressions of the hospitality world?

My first impression was it’s not a nice industry as the people can be quite horrible! When I was in the building trade, people might be a little rough but they were very honest. To me, the hotel industry can be superficial. But I told myself that if I’m going to make a difference, I want to make sure I don’t turn out to be those kinds of people. So I learned to stand my ground.

What was your biggest challenge when you joined Alila?

Because it was new, nobody knew about us. On top of that, all my friends – especially my friends at Mandarin Oriental – thought I was crazy. They all thought it was related to Alibaba. Nobody understood what I was doing, but now they do. Sometimes it makes me laugh when people say, “Oh Alila, I love the brand!” I’m like, “Ha! Tell me that eight years ago, when people knew nothing about us.” This experience has taught me that branding is so important.

What struck you most about the culture at the company?

The thing that stood out the most was that the people there are so real. Coming from the hospitality side where everyone is a salary person, suddenly these are the people who have the money where their mouth is. The president Mark A. Edleson and CEO Frederic Flageat-Simon are so humble. When I joined them in 2003, the Bali bomb had happened the year before. Alila wanted to launch, but the bomb had happened so there was obviously a delay. However, Alila just didn’t have the heart to lay their staff off, even though there was no business. So they took a pay cut so that they could keep them. After, they gathered all staff teams together, shared with them the bottom line, how much the company needed to break even, and what part they can to help Alila grow. No company has ever done that, and that is where the Alila experience was born.

Alila now has Alila Anji in China. What’s so special about it?

Alila Anji is a rustic experience. In Shanghai, Beijing and all these big cities, you’ve got the most beautiful hotels. Each one is more luxurious than the other. What makes Alila Anji special is that we are a green area, since Anji is China’s first ecological zone. We developed this place to bring people back to the country. We wanted there to be more family bonding and a place for people to understand how fragile the ecosystem is. In Alila Anji, we eat things that are grown there. And the view is amazing, the air is fresh, and the food is organic.

What is your number one tip for getting local insider knowledge?

When I travel, I always talk to my driver. The driver is the best source of information of the local area. You learn things that you’d never know. When I’m in Hong Kong, I learn a lot about local politics from the drivers – same in Taiwan.