Tourist arrivals are growing and airlines are scrambling to Siem Reap, boosting one of the four pillars of Cambodia’s economy. The Post’s Anne Renzenbrink spoke to the senior vice president of Sofitel Asia Pacific, Markland Blaiklock, about doing business in a new segment of the industry: luxury travel.
Sofitel has one hotel in Phnom Penh and another in Siem Reap. Do you have any numbers on performance?
We’re a public company so I can’t get too specific on numbers. But we’re very happy with our performance and the evolution in our performance. This hotel is still relatively new, it only opened in 2011 and the performance has been growing year on year. So at this point we kind of compare our performance to the market. It’s still quite soft; it’s a new destination for luxury travellers. The visitor arrivals are growing significantly year on year but the occupancy rates are still in the 50 per cent range on average year round in Phnom Penh. In Siem Reap they are higher.
Do you have expansion plans within the country?
In Phnom Penh the site [on Sothearos Boulevard] can easily accommodate double the capacity that we have today. And if you look at property today, we have just over 200 rooms but we have huge meeting facilities targeted for social events, weddings and meetings. But they could also cater or support a higher room count.
The master plan of this existing property was conceived to facilitate adding another 200 room block as part of the Sofitel. As you come in off the road there are two vacant sites, on the left and the right. I think the current plan is possibly to put a combination Ibis Novotel. Ibis is our [parent company Accor’s] economy brand and Novotel is sort of a midrange brand.
The government is trying to promote coastal tourism. Is Sofitel looking at these areas of the country as well?
Sofitel is a management company, so we don’t invest. We purely manage. So we look for partners that will invest. And we have worked on some projects. We would be very happy to have a beach resort property in Cambodia, and [it] would sort of complement our trio of different experiences, the city one, temples in Siem Reap and then a beach resort. And we have pursued one opportunity. It hasn’t developed yet, but if other ones came up we’re actively in the country exploring these opportunities. So we would welcome that. The area we were looking at was a bit south of Sihanoukville.
Earlier this year, energy supplier Electricite du Cambodge sent letters to some of Phnom Penh’s four- and five-star hotels, asking that they switch to generators during the day for one month. What kind of challenges do these requests pose for doing business here in the luxury market?
We’ve been here for several years, we understand how it works. I believe our property in Siem Reap originally only operated on generator power because city facilities didn’t exist. Since then, the city infrastructure has developed. But it’s a developing part of the world and in developing parts of the world it’s not unusual that you would have interruptions in power, and it’s important in a luxury resort or hotel that that’s seamless to our guests. Yes, there are cost elements, but I wouldn’t think that the cost of operating on our generator versus buying the electricity from the city would be that different.
Have recent political demonstrations over Cambodia’s elections in July caused a decrease in hotel visitors?
Any kind of protest that gets into the media is not going to encourage tourism. Our experience is maybe you get more enquiries about what the situation is from travel agents.
Typically activities like that are contained to certain areas, the city, and can easily be avoided. There’s been more of an impact to Phnom Penh.
But in Siem Reap, there has been none. I think you need to inform your guests or prospective guests of what the situation is and as long as you are transparent and you let them know what it is, they make their choices. So it had some impact in Phnom Penh but nothing major. Hopefully it’ll be resolved soon.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity