When people learn of the upcoming launch of the first five-star hotel to open in Chiang Mai since the onset of the global pandemic, the response is generally one of surprise, if not pessimism. But there is a raft of compelling reasons behind the December opening of Meliá Chiang Mai, a 260-key urban hotel that towers over the River Ping and Night Bazaar in the heart of Chiang Mai in Thailand’s mountainous north.
But first, a bit of background: Chiang Mai hasn’t welcomed international tourists for 18 months and counting. The devastation on the ground is palpable. According to the Northern Chapter of the Thai Hotels Association, a survey of some 40 hotels in Chiang Mai has revealed less than 10 per cent occupancy throughout 2021 hitherto. It is estimated that more than 70 per cent of people in tourism-related businesses have lost their jobs, many of whom have mouths to feed and bills to pay.
Meliá Chiang Mai will open with about 150 employees and will eventually employ a total of 240 people. More than 99 per cent of our hotel’s employees are Thai nationals. In fact, all of our hotel’s employees are Thai nationals except for two foreigners - our F&B director and myself as general manager.
For the vast majority of our staff, employment with a new hotel has proven a lifeline. Chutima, my personal assistant, for example, previously worked at a Phuket-based hotel that temporarily closed and her salary was cut. As a result of her new job with Meliá Chiang Mai, she has returned home to live with her family here in Chiang Mai but she admits they have to be very careful with their savings, as her sister and father’s business has suffered decreased orders as a result of the pandemic.
As there is not much else happening in Chiang Mai at present, word about the new hotel has spread like wildfire throughout the local hospitality industry. We’d already received hundreds and hundreds of job applications from people locally and across Thailand before we’d even had much of a chance to advertise positions and conduct recruitment drives. Many people with strong hospitality experience have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19 and are seeking work so the high number of quality applicants is not surprising.
Admittedly, there have been some issues opening a hotel during these unprecedented times. We have faced some delays with the shipment of construction materials and supplies that have to come from overseas. The pace of construction has also been impacted by Interprovincial lockdowns, causing challenges in regards to labour and the movement of goods. We have also had to abide by social distancing rules during recruitment etc. Overall, however, we have not had many problems as the talent pool is immense and staff are readily available.
In addition to being hugely beneficial for local employees and their families, prompting a ripple effect for the local economy too, something new happening in Chiang Mai with the launch of Meliá Chiang Mai is a morale boost for the local tourism industry, sending a signal that things will get better.
There’s no playbook for launching a hotel amid a pandemic. We’re writing it ourselves as we go, all the while thinking about how we put it all into action. As the old adage goes, fortune favours the brave.
* The writer is General Manager, Meliá Chiang Mai
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