Speaking his mind

Chanin Donavanik might be impressed with the Thaksin administration’s vision for improving Thailand’s tourism industry, but he’s not happy with the way things have gone so far. "They have a good vision but they have not implemented the vision well. Instead of trying to solve problems, they’ve made them worse."

So what has the executive director of Dusit Thani PCL and president of the Thai Hotels Association done? "I have complained to the government already," he says.

Going on Chanin’s past experience, they would do well to listen. A willingness to constructively criticise — and get positive results – has been a leitmotif of the 45-year-old’s life. "A lot of my problems are created because I don’t try to please people," he confesses.

At first it seems difficult to imagine this softly-spoken, unassuming man breaking with entrenched Thai traditions. But Chanin thinks deliberately and chooses his words carefully before speaking; it’s easy to deduce that he?s been a persistent voice of reason in business rather than a young and loud upstart.

And his persistence has pulled the company through hard times.

Chanin had originally embarked on an academic career at Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of commerce and accounting, after spending ten years studying in the UK and the US, where he completed an MBA. He returned to Bangkok in 1979, aged just 22. Soon the recession of the early 80s hit, and the business founded by his mother, faced with the competition of new international hotels, began to flounder. Filial duty called.

Was it a difficult transition from academia to the business world? "A little bit," he says. "I had been teaching a lot of theory about what to do and what not to do in business but the real world is different — especially in Thailand."

The biggest challenge he faced, however, was overcoming prejudice about his age. "It was difficult to make older people — not just my mother and the board, but anyone who had twenty, thirty years experience – realise that someone young can still contribute."

Chanin took control of business development, and with the help of hotelier friends in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan, he began to see the Dusit’s future taking shape. "[These friends] saw me as someone young and when they travelled to places sometimes they’d invite me along. I learned that the Dusit would have to change if we wanted to improve ourselves."

The company focused on improving its food and beverage services, and increased the size of guests’ rooms. By 1985 the hotel had opened a branch in Chiang Mai, and Pattaya, Phuket and Chiang Rai soon followed. In 1992 the company bought into its first overseas hotel, in Texas; Indonesia, the Philippines and Europe came next.

"We made a few mistakes," says Chanin. "Here in Thailand we know the mentality of the people. Overseas, when we went to these new places, we were blind: we didn’t know the local customs, what kind of service was expected, what kind of restaurants local people liked. There were always new things to learn. But that made life fun, also."

The 1997 crash saw various partners pull out of deals and the company’s operations were substantially curtailed. Chanin doesn’t think the crisis period is over yet; in fact, he sees business as being one ongoing crisis period. "There’s always some crisis in a business. The crisis of 1997 was financial; today the issue facing the Dusit is working out which way we are going. Would we like to be a small but international-standard operator based in Thailand, or would we like to be a regional player? Should we be competing at the Marriott level or the Hyatt level or the Mandarin Oriental level?"

At the moment, the Dusit faces a few specific difficulties. One is a well-publicised court case over land ownership problems with their Pattaya resort. "We are one hundred per cent — or at least 99 per cent — confident that we should win," says Chanin. Another is negotiating with the Crown Property Bureau to extend the lease on the land underneath the flagship Dusit Thani. "We are having some difficulties talking to them because what they want is very high. We need to negotiate."

But Chanin brushes everything off as manageable. "With any company, there are always problems. The issue is how to make sure that you are working well together, moving forward together."

Chanin warms to a discussion of how Thai organisations can improve themselves. "The trouble with Thai organisations is that a lot of decisions are in the hands of the boss — the top one or two people. We don’t allow our young people to make mistakes; once they don’t know how to make mistakes, they are afraid of making decisions."

As well, Chanin says that senior people are too sensitive of criticism. "That’s why I always fought with a lot of people much more senior than I am: they could never take even a constructive criticism of what they did. It’s always a one-way communication, and it’s wrong. This is what’s destroying Thailand."

Chanin is equally candid when discussing the tourism industry’s problems today, criticising both hoteliers and the government. "Those who want to do well must travel quite a lot, but Thai hoteliers don’t like to travel. And when they do travel, a lot of them stay in hotels that aren’t expensive, and they usually go for Thai or Chinese food when they go to restaurants."

Chanin argues that this is a false economy; instead they should experience top hotels and a variety of restaurants, so they can come back and make improvements themselves. "A lot of people think that I spend too much money when I travel – but it?s the cheapest learning experience there is."

He also believes hoteliers have failed to target themselves to their customers. "The owners have built hotels for themselves – so you see a lot of funny looking hotels everywhere! If they had asked customers what they wanted, they would have told them, something Thai."

As head of the Thai Hotels Association, Chanin has been trying to talk to the government for the last four years. "But the government has not been a very good listener," he laments. "A lot of people think that hotel industry is doing well, but in fact hotels are doing well in seven destinations only: Phuket, Chiang Mai, Samui, Bangkok to a extent, Pattaya, Hua Hin and Krabi. Only 30 per cent of hotels are doing well. Seventy per cent are bleeding very badly."

Chanin believes a major objective of the government should be to solve the internal problems of Thai International, the Tourist Authority of Thailand, and the various aviation authorities. "Unless these tourism-related organisations are working together well, then nothing else will work."

When he’s not thinking up constructive ways of improving his industry, Chanin says he likes to read. "I like to read about what people have done. And philosophy – not business anymore." He’s also been learning golf.

Would the father of three — he has two daughters, aged 12 and 14, and a 16 year old son – recommend this industry to his children? "I like the industry because you meet a lot of people, and you have the opportunity to travel a lot. But if they prefer something else – I’ll leave it up to them. For me the most important thing is that they are happy and really enjoy what they do."

As for his own future, Chanin believes that turning fifty will mark an important step in his life. "In five years, I would like to see us being a good regional hotel company. Then I would like to step back a little bit and hopefully there will be other people who could take care of day-to-day affairs. I would like to work more on policy and strategy; a coaching role."

He would also like to teach more. "But, you know," he confides, a little weary perhaps of the battles he has been fighting for so long, "my dream one day is really to become a monk."

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