by L. Aruna Dhir, Featured Contributor
Part One – Whys, woes and wherefores of Relocation
WORKING WITH international hotels brings in the attraction of having to deal with a multiracial, multicultural set of people, from all corners of the world. There would typically be a European General Manager, an American Rooms Division Head, a German Executive Chef, a French Sommelier, a Chinese Senior Sous Chef, an Indian Financial Controller, a Singaporean Head Concierge, a Thai Director of Spas that would form part of your cluster of colleagues. I know, I am listing out a stereotypical scenario so go ahead and jumble up to bring out as many permutations and combinations. But it does not take away from the fact that your country’s flag sways with several others on the post at the Hotel porch!
It is always fascinating to deal with such a wide group that brings in its culturally vibrant facets, unique personal styles and country moorings to the organization which is governed by its pre-set, template driven philosophy. Such unity in diversity is both a challenge and a charming work setting.
I have always looked at my international colleagues with a lot of admiration. I have admired that they have lived and worked as world citizens. I have been envious of their fascinating travels and personal knowledge they have of the way the other half in the world lives.
The international jet-set crowd in our work places always stands out. They are the ones who can easily tell the difference between a Tamari and a plain soy; have relished hot stone cooking long way back when we thought it was some kind of torture; have quaffed the best of wines in the very vineyards they are produced in; know how to roll Peking Duck in a pancake along with the accoutrements, knife through a rare steak with as much panache and appreciate that a Tomatillo will never do for a lush tomato in the Gazpacho; have liked to sip their shot of Ristretto when most of us have just about begun to catch up on mocha, latte and cappuccino; have actually worked in places such as the Bellagio in Vegas, de Crillon in Paris or the Amandari in Bali – places we thought were dream vacations.
So is it all a rose-petal strewn garden path for these folks or is the road thorny, unstable with physical and mental boulders along the distance? Or a bit of both! Well, it indeed is a giant wheel ride with its share of vicissitudes, the proverbial ups and downs, which are a prerequisite in any work life. Just that in this case it is a lot more challenging, colourful, cumbersome and colossally fun, all at the same time.
I decided to quiz some of my hotel and industry friends to find out what it is like to live from Delhi to Damascus, Scandinavia to Shanghai.
The first thing that everybody unanimously agrees on is that “relocation” comes with the territory of being an Hotelier.
“One of the fascinating aspects of our business is having the ability to work globally. The most successful Hoteliers, and business leaders for that matter, understand their customer’s respective cultures intimately. It helps to have lived in various countries and continents, especially in today’s world with its global affluent tribes, “ says Timur Senturk, presently the Managing Director of Shanghai based J Hotel Shanghai Tower and a consummate hotelier who has worked with the finest of hotel chains in the best of locations from Claridges in London as a rookie, Food & Beverage professional and General Manager with the Hyatt, Oberoi, Mandarin Oriental and Ritz Carlton in the United States, India and Thailand.
Biswajit Chakraborty, currently the General Manager with Mövenpick Hotel & Spa in Bangalore, India and formerly with the Oberoi, Taj, Yak & Yeti and Leela Kempinski Hotel chains gives two thumbs up to the integral aspect of ‘relocation’ in a global hotelier’s scheme of things. He offers, “I think relocating is absolutely essential for all round development/exposure for anybody. For an hotelier it is exposure to different products, brands (when jobs are changed), cities, countries and cultures. This adds to the diverse experience and knowledge which definitely helps.”
Perry Garfinkel, the veteran journalist with The New York Times, hotel and travel industry trends watcher and commentator, media consultant to a number of 5-star and heritage hotel groups, industry speaker at Leading Hotels of the World and the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and acclaimed author of “Buddha or Bust, says in his characteristically witty style, “When I look at the resumes of hotel executives, I sometimes feel like I have to take a Dramamine reading them just to avoid motion sickness. That’s how much they move. I have seen a lot of resumes and I can tell you that hoteliers relocate for work more than a majority of other professionals.”
J. Bruce Tracey, the award-winning Professor of Management at Cornell University and the Editor-in-Chief of the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly presents the base logic that intertwines relocation with hotels as a line of work when he opines, “The willingness and ability to relocate is a high priority for being an Hotelier, both domestically and on the international front. Change is constant and quite dynamic in our industry, so effectively managing change means that firms must be able to move people where they are needed most. Thus, it is critical that firms can attract, develop, and retain individuals who are mobile.”
From my own experience, I can tell you that not willing to relocate on three different offers, both within and outside the country cost me a smooth stepping up on the corporate ladder and forced my head against a glass ceiling. I have had to make a tough decision between the two equally important choices – promoting my career and moving up the hierarchy or being happier with family in the comfort of my home and hearth and then striving like a fresher to test new avenues.
It has been widely established that ‘relocation’ – the requirement for and ability to – brings with it the prospect of career growth and advancement. In my personal opinion, willingness to relocate is directly linked to upward mobility. Christian Clerc, General Manager and Regional Vice President, Four Seasons Hotel George V concurs with my point of view. “Yes! Of course there are always exceptions but the willingness to relocate is definitely a key component to upward mobility and can significantly accelerate a career,” says Clerc.
Jean-Philippe Beghin, General Manager & Director General with Princess D’Annam Resort & Spa in Vietnam, is a seasoned hotelier with several decades of experience with brands such as Mandarin Oriental, Oberoi, Hilton, IHG, Raffles and has lugged his luggage and loved ones across the globe from London through Belgium, Paris, Germany, Brussels, Amsterdam to India, Jakarta, Cambodia, Thailand, Australia and now Vietnam. A veritable expert on relocation then, Beghin advises, “I absolutely believe that promotions are obtained quicker for professionals ready to move where the new challenge is offered.”
Chakraborty says that “staying in one place means longer periods in a particular role and slower promotions.”
Timur Senturk likens “willingness to relocate with greater opportunities in our business.” He says, “It enables leaders to gain valuable skills and global competencies which are essential to move up the ladder.”
Tracey strongly feels that “just as mobility helps firms effectively manage their competitive environments, willingness to relocate provides individuals a much better chance for upward mobility taking away the step-up-on-the-ladder prospects drastically from those who are not.”
But relocation is not a smooth ride with promised attractions of picnics under the tropical sun, squishing lazy sand on exotic beaches and unbelievably great perks to ease up seemingly hardship postings which come attached with mental balms of fatter pay cheques and physical pomp and pleasure of a battery of servants to help you adjust better.
The aspect of relocation is beset with challenges at all levels – Physical – will the country suit your personality and predilection; Emotional – can the family accompany? The family pet too? Will they adjust? Psychological – will mental adjustments be made without many ensuing issues? Here’s hoping that the new stressors will not hamper the overall performance; Social – will new friends be easy to make? Will they be a likeable set and will they like you too? Will the family have enough to occupy and engage them productively, safe-guarding mind, health, emotions at all times? And finally financial – will it garner material gains, ensure commercial success and promise that easy to navigate ladder up the corporate stairway at the end of the relocation tunnel?
So, what are the predominant challenges for the hotelier-on-the highway? “From adjusting to a new environment to getting familiarized to a new local culture, learning a new language and, on the personal side, leaving behind a support system and having to build a new one (finding a new doctor, a new bank, grocery store, coping with different local laws and regulations, etc..),” says Christian Clerc.
“Every new environment has a set of challenges which includes physical adaptation to the work environment, understanding and adapting to the people, local culture, language, pace of life and most of all understanding the new work environment, market, customers, expectations and fine tuning ones external nature to the local environment,” adds Biswajit Chakraborty.
Garfinkel holds a mirror to the end of the stick submerged in deeper, less comfortable waters when he puts forth his emphatic point of view, “While it could appear to be a glamorous lifestyle to others – richly rewarding culturally, expanding one’s world view, enhancing one’s appreciation of the differences and similarities between and among people throughout the world – it takes a toll. I have not seen statistics on this but I wonder what the divorce rate is among hotel general managers; such is the stress on a marriage of so many moves. I wonder how their children adjust. Do their grades drop? Do they develop social phobias? I wonder how it affects hoteliers’ efficiency and their effectiveness on the job. How long does it take to really adjust? How do staff adapt to a new leader every few years?” These surely are some of the needling important stuff an hotelier-on-the-move’s nightmares are made of.
Senturk feels that “adapting to a new environment is never easy, let alone in a new country. Effective communication is the key and you want to find ways to cross the language barrier.” With Beghin, “ensuring that the family is well looked after and the security of tenure,” are of paramount importance.
Bruce Tracey addresses the issue, elaborating some of the key elements that dot the hotelier’s decision to move from one end of the globe to another. He explains, “Challenges faced by mobile hoteliers are multifaceted. One must first learn about and adjust to the more objective facets of the new setting on a broad, general level – finding a place to live, addressing transportation needs, finding out where to buy groceries, setting up bank accounts, and so on. There may also be legal (e.g., labor laws that are unique to the location), cultural (e.g., views about women and religion), and similar kinds of concerns. In addition, one must adjust to the new job assignment – new role responsibilities and work priorities, working with staff that may or may not be supportive and/or cooperative, etc. And finally, there is a level of psychological adjustment that takes place. Even the most seasoned hoteliers wonder if they are going to fit in and be successful. Thus, the ability to manage the stress and anxiety that comes with change is a really important concern.”
At the risk of sounding a stern sceptic, Garfinkel presents a side that is not confronted often. He asserts, “These relocation trends also raise questions and fly in the face of what many hotels tout: that many of their staff have been with the same hotel for many years. How can a hotel maintain consistency from GM to GM? What about the guest who has developed a close working relationship with a GM, who likes returning to that property to be met by the same smiling face and may even benefit from that relationship with up-sells and other advantages?” An extremely pertinent point given that adherence to brand personality and philosophy is a cornerstone for testing the strength and success of the brand.
Relocation is never an individual’s decision alone. Several precious hours go huddled up on the kitchen counter debating the pros and cons of the big move that threatens to become a part of a long chain of international movements. More so, because it impacts the lives of wife (spouses, partners) and children as much or even more than it does yours.
“What I worry most about is how they and their families cope with the adjustment of uprooting themselves every two to three years, finding the proverbial new butcher, baker and candlestick makers, how they must adapt to new languages, new currencies, new social and cultural norms and new workplace personalities while still maintaining the corporate step style and ethos of their parent company,” wonders Garfinkel.
I asked my interviewees (surprisingly all were men, perhaps because males find it far easier to move than their female counterparts, more often than not, especially in the upper echelons. Isn’t it a fact that there must be one expatriate woman executive for ten men movers?) about the challenges faced by their wives and children. Christian Clerc echoes my sentiment when he says, “Relocation is definitely easier for me than it is for my family as my position gives me instant recognition within the work organization while for my wife and children, they must “rebuild” their professional and social network – make new friends, find a new school, look for a new job etc…”
For both Beghin and Chakraborty “Quality and cost of education, housing, living conditions and social environment” are the key challenges faced by the family.
“Relocating to a new environment is a significant emotional experience for everyone in the family. We often take the simple convenience in life for granted and if you start in a new environment you realize how important it is to get into your life’s routine quickly. That means, making new friends, figuring out a good school for the child, getting comfortable in your respective neighbourhood, finding the good places to go food shopping, knowing where a good doctor is, dentist, etc. Essentially taking on a new challenge is a family decision and everyone has a say,” asserts Senturk who with his wife Deon and now a little daughter has traversed the length of the globe several times trying to seamlessly blend in both eastern and western cultures.
Bruce Tracey nails the issue backed by a formidable study which he cites saying, “research has shown that the top two reasons why expats fail to complete their overseas assignments is one’s own failure to adjust to the assignment, followed by the failure of one’s family to adjust.”
Though relocation to new places teaches a lot about different cultures, societies and the world at large to the children, it plays havoc with their minds, social networks and school systems. A lot of times, hoteliers have had to resort to boarding houses or grandparents’ places for their kids who could not be carried in tow.
I have seen wives of some of my international colleagues quit their hectic jobs to become accompanying spouses and make the best of the new situation. Some have been lucky to find suitable jobs in the new place; while there have been others who have had to amuse themselves with Monday – food shopping, Tuesday – local language lessons, Wednesday – Bridge, Thursday – local charity, Friday – Mall or local crafts markets trail and Weekend – local sightseeing or a short trip around. In a lot of cases, hotels have a policy of not hiring both the partners in the same establishment and letting someone join the Competition is like allowing for unwanted intelligence escaping from your hotel into theirs. If they have been lucky, the wives have found roles in the Sales, PR departments or the Spa. Otherwise, the Country Wives Clubs have offered them not just the much needed refuge but also the comfort of being amidst their own in the foreign land.
For relocation to be succumbed to and embraced with a winsome attitude it has to be viable and impacting on four basic parameters –
Biswajit Chakraborty states categorically, “I avoid relocating unless there is economic gain.” Christian Clerc is on the same page as he feels, “Usually as relocating is often linked with a promotion or achieving one’s full potential it generally is beneficial from an economical perception.”
Jean-Philippe Beghin presents a more pragmatic view. He says, “Usually one moves for more… but not necessarily at the end of one’s career, sometimes for less but for better quality of life or less stress.”
“Why do hotels move their top people so much,” questions Garfinkel. “Sure, the hoteliers gain vast experience, but at what expense to the hotel’s continuity and seamless service? Add the cost of moving these folks, and I began to doubt the wisdom of their relocation policies,” Garfinkel offers his take from the other side of the lens.
Though rewarding and enriching as a gestalt experience, relocation is a tough call and harder than a standard new job. Beghin maintains that “the first year is truly demanding.”
Christian Clerc feels that “an adjustment is always needed as the local food and culinary traditions will vary greatly between locations. Local climate and weather conditions are also an important factor not to be underestimated.”
Biswajit Chakraborty has a fairly balanced opinion. He says, “Relocating does take a toil when you set up a new home, organize new schools for children understand your way around in the new city etc. However it instils a deep sense of confidence which remaining in one place for years does not instil.”
“Not just the newness of the job and the country, pressures from the family can be as stressful,” explains Beghin. “Adapting to a new work environment or a social environment is definitely challenging. Wherever there are people interacting with other people there is a give and take psychologically, therefore this needs to be addressed and adapted to,” avers Chakraborty.
Timur Senturk offers a wise, sage-like advice that will stand many an on-the-move hotelier in good stead. Taking a leaf out of his rule book, he shares, “Relocation is never easy; it puts a strain on your life – both at work and home. The key is to become familiar with your new environment quickly and settle back into your own positive daily routines. Be it personal or professional. Proper preparation will speed up this process.” Christian Clerc fears that “being disconnected from your support system can be challenging. Starting a new network of friends and contacts can be overwhelming and lead to isolation and loneliness.”
“Each member of the family reacts differently in terms of relocation based on their arena. Hence it is very important to consolidate as a family and give each other the strength to cope emotionally,” suggests Chakraborty. Jean-Philippe Beghin, with years of travel and international stays under his belt – from cruising in slow boats in the backyards of Asia to jet setting in high speed jets across the face of Europe, sums it up well when he adds, “Changes are interesting times.”
In the second part of the article, I would like to present the “How to cope with relocation” strategies that have been time and again tested and mastered by these hoteliers and industry stalwarts.