DIDIER Lamoot is general manager of the new five-star US$50 million 201-room Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra hotel. He has opened hotels across the world – in countries as diverse as Mauritius and Tunisia. Ahead of Sofitel's soft launch on Saturday, he talked to The Post about Cambodia’s potential.
What do you think about Cambodia's hotel industry and what is your general perception of the Kingdom?
In 2004 to 2005, a lot of people were asking ‘why build a luxury hotel in Phnom Penh?’ All upscale hotels were losing money by that time, as occupancy and room rates were really below average.
But by 2007 to 2008, all professionals from our sector of activity were pushing us to open, as they needed more luxury rooms. Times are changing fast and Phnom Penh is following the trend, maybe more than anywhere else in the main Southeast Asian capitals.
What potential did hotel investors see in Phnom Penh?
Confidence in the future – Phnom Penh is on the map to attract more businessmen, investors, and tourists.
It is the domestic hub of Cambodia.
As a newcomer in the capital, what is your strategy to gain market share?
Since 2009, we noticed a change in the way people were using hospitality. The habits and expectations of the different type of clients are not so framed anymore.
A businessman will need all the corporate and exclusive services, especially high and efficient [internet] connectivity, but also all resort facilities in one – colonial style with high technology combined together.
Also, the hotel must have space. Our location by the river, in a beautiful park, makes our hotel very attractive.
What do you think about Cambodia's hotel services compared to other countries in the region, such as Vietnam, Thailand or Laos?
I’m used to saying that the first wonder of Cambodia is the Khmer culture. The people are very service oriented. In 2007, we were awarded at Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra [in Siem Reap] 100 percent for service among a list of the 500 best hotels over the world. Only 10 hotels worldwide were ranked 100 percent. The Kingdom of Cambodia can be proud of this achievement, due to the kindness and professionalism of its people.
Do you see any effort by the government to improve hotel services to meet international standards?
The Ministry of Tourism under the leadership of Dr Thong Khon is very active in helping and structuring our sector of activity. The private sector works very well with the public sector to achieve the classification of the hotels and restaurants, strategy, marketing, communication.
The concept of a clean city, clean hotels and good service raises the quality level to international standards for all.
In the first six months of 2010 just 37 hotels in the Kingdom’s had registered for a star rating following a 2004 sub-decree. What do you think of this, in comparison to the region?
Our industry has started to be structured in the right way under the Minister of Tourism orientation. This takes time.
Even if we are a little bit behind, we [will] go very fast.
Very soon we will be at the same level, even above that of the other countries in ASEAN.
Can you compare the hotel market in Cambodia to Thailand and Vietnam?
Khmer culture makes the difference from a service prospective. In addition, our neighbours are more targeting mass tourism and we cannot compete with this strategy.
Cambodia is a luxury destination. We must target this segment as a priority.
The people, the history, the archeology, the seaside and the quality of natural agriculture – like rice from Battambang, pepper from Kampot, the sugar palm, the freshness of the fish from the Tonle Sap – the biodiversity, not having polluting industries, is what people is expecting.
We have all [these things] in one and we must communicate that. The upgrade of the infrastructure will contribute to attracting travelers.
How did the economic crisis affect the sector and what are its future challenges ?
We had the economic and a political crisis at Preah Vihear at the same time … the average spend per visitor decreased a lot. Also, the market changed in 2008 to 2009. Many professionals could resist [booking] thanks to their ability to use better distribution channels, mainly through internet. But the appropriate answer was to maintain quality and consistency of products and services.
The most important [challenge] is to develop to coast to become a full destination.
We need our tourists to book one week at the beach and to do an extension to Siem Reap all year long. Air France will fly next March to Phnom Penh – this is fantastic news for the future. We need to have domestic flights with proper services, schedules and destinations, especially to Sihanoukville. That is the priority.