Former FCC operations director Anthony Alderson talks about how Cambodia’s hospitality scene has changed since UNTAC days, where it’s heading now and his post-FCC plans
By Nathan Green
The secret is that if you are in first you have to continue to be the first in things.
You’ve recently sold your stake in the FCC Group having been part of the hospitality scene in Cambodia since the beginning. How did you end up in Cambodia?
I came overland from Vietnam on 14 June 1992 and arrived about 6 o’clock at night in a city that was pitch black. I think then you had maybe two foreign restaurants, neither of which are open today. My wife, Kellianne Karatau from New Zealand, and I arrived together for a two-day trip to see if there was something viable here, and we never went back to pick up our belongings.
You set up Cambodia’s first pizzaria and its first upmarket bistro on behalf of an investor. How did you end up at the FCC?
The irony was that the owner of BK’s Kitchen, which we set up, tried to run it himself when we went to Sihanoukville to open our own place and went bust. We realised that if we were serious about Cambodia, we needed to be in Phnom Penh, so we came back, rented the restaurant and renamed it Deja Vu. We had that for two years and got to know the guys from FCC, who set up the same week as Deja Vu in 1993. We did a deal with them because they weren’t doing very well at that stage, and closed Deja Vu to move across in December ’95.
And you took an equity stake in FCC?
Not initially, but we made a huge difference taking a loss-making business and turning it into a profit-making business in the first month by providing food and trapping all the journalists who would drink there but go elsewhere to eat. It was known as a great drinking den in the early ’90s but not for its cuisine, and we’d like to think we helped change that.
The FCC forged a reputation as a journalist spot, but would it be fair to say things have changed?
Obviously in the early ’90s there were a lot of journalists here. It was a time when everyone wanted to be informed of what was going on, and the journalists seemed to be very much that information link, so it all happened under the roof of the FCC. Then it got great write-ups in various guidebooks, it was voted one of the top 10 coolest bars in the world by GQ magazine in 1999, it got all this prestige and kudos as a result of our journalism associations. Phnom Penh was becoming a hip location at the time, we were open, so we were the ones that got talked about. A lot of those journalists have left and the local community has grown. People have all found their own places, and the FCC is no longer the local person’s hangout. But the FCC has developed a name as a tourist attraction, a place you have to go to see the view and experience the atmosphere.
How has the FCC Group changed to keep pace with that changing scene?
The FCC Group started as an idea for a bar in Phnom Penh, and it has very much grown into a hospitality group. [As well as the FCC Phnom Penh, the group also owns The Quay hotel in Phnom Penh, the FCC Angkor in Siem Reap, the Cafe Fresco chain, and other properties.] The biggest step was moving from being a bar and restaurant owner to becoming a hotelier, and our [FCC Angkor] project in Siem Reap was the big stepping stone that changed the direction of the company to some extent and the perception of the company.
With that entry into the hotel sector, how has the tourism downturn affected the FCC?
It’s affected everyone; you’d be silly to say it hasn’t. Everything is down, all numbers have dropped, but when you look at the downturn, it has hit the destinations more than the capital city, and I think it’s global in that respect. Wherever the business community is, even though they have been hit, they are still around, whereas the tourists just aren’t turning up. But one can already see when you look at the FCC’s rooms that bookings have been strong, and the market seems to be coming back towards the end of the year.
How is Fresco faring?
When we opened Fresco in 2002, we brought in baristas from Thailand and we imported Illy coffee, so we’d like to think we introduced the coffee culture to Cambodia. Cafe Fresco Beoung Keng Kang (BKK) particularly almost takes us back – without the journalists – to our positioning when we started the FCC in the early ’90s; it was the locals’ bar and restaurant. As BKK has grown as an area and become the suburb to live in, we are serving people who live here rather than tourists who are coming here.
At the same time, the number of bars and restaurants in BKK has grown massively. What’s the secret to staying ahead of the competition?
It’s someone else’s secret, as I am not part of it now, but the secret is that if you are in first you have to continue to be the first in things. The quality of products, service and decor will only continue to go up and up and up, and it’s all about keeping ahead of the game in that respect. Fresco is a coffee shop, so effectively they have to keep making the best coffee in town if they want people to come here. You have to establish a name for that, like the FCC has done as a tourist attraction.
What’s next for you?
I’m in the middle of renovating a restaurant and building in Yangon. While there are difficulties with the government at the moment, Myanmar is the lost country of Southeast Asia and one that effectively has more potential than any of them if you are looking at tourism, natural resources – the human resources are spectacular there as well. I see it as a coming destination and I feel a little like I did arriving in Phnom Penh in ’92 and doing things before others. I need to do that again in Yangon; I feel that is my speciality, getting there early and getting the platform in place before the country does actually take off. We are due to open on the 20th of November – a big opening party if anyone wants to come and see Yangon and experience a good party.
You are obviously a pioneer, but for people looking to walk in your shoes in Cambodia, does the country’s hospitality sector still hold potential?
There are huge opportunities still in Cambodia. If you look at the south coast, there really has been very little development there. If you look at anywhere outside of Siem Reap, there has been very little development there. When I arrived there, everyone just wanted to see where the country was going, then Angkor became the major focus for investment, and rightly so because of the magnificent temples there. But Phnom Penh almost became a forgotten city, like Angkor used to be the forgotten city.
People that come to Cambodia love it and tend to wonder why they have committed such a short amount of time to the country, mainly just visiting the temples and maybe a day or two in the city. As a result, Cambodia will have a very high return rate in tourism, but more pioneers need to come in and offer outlets for people to go to. The beach and the islands have a lot of potential, particularly for green investments. The natural competitor in the region is Thailand, but that developed from 25 or 30 years ago and will face big costs to implement green solutions now. Anyone starting here has an opportunity to really offer eco-tourism from the beginning.
Angkor Wat is also getting overrun at the moment, but there are 55 square kilometres of temples in the area, so there are plenty of other places you can offer the unique experience that I managed to savour in ’92 and ’93, back when you were often the only person in a temple.