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Hotel managers sink in Regent quagmire

Hotel managers sink in Regent quagmire

W

HEN Thea van Werkhooven and her partner Steve Holgate decided to accept an

offer to manage a hotel in Phnom Penh, little did they realize the difficulties

they would encounter.

Hired in Singapore by Benquen Trading Group to

manage the Regent Hotel in Toul Kok District they arrived in Cambodia in

January. Now, six months later they are $23,000 out of pocket, their $5,000

Nissan Bluebird is under armed guard at Pochentong Airport and van Werkhooven's

passport has been seized by police.

Van Werkhooven said: "This has been a

nightmare. I'd like other people who are thinking of coming to work in Cambodia

to know what is happening."

Dutch woman Van Werkhooven, accepted a

contract on behalf of her company Special Tours International to run the Regent

for three months and renegotiate the lease on Benquen's behalf. Benquen has

offices in Singapore and Hong Kong and is principally involved in

shipping.

Using her contacts from a lifetime in the travel and hotel

industry, van Werkhooven said she was quickly able to raise the hotel's

occupancy rate to 60 percent through corporate contracts for overseas customers.

However the couple say they inherited a number of debts, including a

sizable one to the landlord, they knew only as Mr Ang, of around $50,000. The

lease on the 45-room hotel was $18,000 a month.

They say that despite

numerous faxes and phone calls Benquen failed to deliver on promises of cash

injections to clear debts. The company had already invested $500,00 in

renovations after opening last year.

Then things went seriously awry for

the couple in April when the staff of 44 sensed some of the financial worries

after faxes were intercepted.

While the couple were away some of the

staff conspired to steal equipment and stock worth $25,000, including CD

players, the telephone and fax, satellite dish and receiver and all the alcohol

in the bar .

To add injury to insult the following day, when the staff

involved found out they had been dismissed, one woman who had been crying on the

floor stabbed Steve in the leg, inflicting a deep wound.

Despite the

thefts, Holgate and van Weekhooven decided to persevere. They flew to Singapore

to meet Benquen directors, where they say they received more assurances that

cash would be forwarded to Phnom Penh. An initial payment of $10,000 did arrive,

though that was quickly swallowed by the debts and to pay for new stock and

equipment. The couple say they continued to pay some debts and ran expenses out

of their own pockets.

Though the hotel re-opened, the couple say they

were then caught between the landlord and Benquen in an intractable dispute over

the drawing up of a new lease agreement. Mr Ang demanded that Benquen directors

fly to Phnom Penh to negotiate while they urged him to send a written proposal.

Benquen wanted to reduce the lease to $7,000 a month.

On the morning of

May 21 Ang, without warning said he was retaking control of the hotel and

evicting the couple.

They said that was only the start of their troubles

that day. Angry staff demanding redundancy money refused to let the couple drive

off in their car. The hotel's front gate was padlocked and glass was smashed in

the path. The standoff continued into the evening and was only resolved when

police took van Werk-hooven's passport as security for payment of the

wages.

Van Werkhooven said: "They could not understand that we were only

employees ourselves and the payment had to come from Singapore."

Since then

the situation has only worsened for the couple. Van Werkhooven said that Benquen

had told her that the owner had no right to shut the hotel. Benquen argued that

since they owed $50,000 the landlord and he possessed $310,000 worth of their

stock and equipment, he was liable for all debts including the money the couple

are owed.

The couple have now also found themselves in dispute with one

of the Regent's creditors, diesel supplier and four-star police general Chea

Yuan.

The general has decided to take the law into his own hands. When

van Werkhooven parked her car at the airport carpark on June 16 he had the tires

deflated and posted a guard, Not Sarai to prevent it being moved. Sarai wears

the uniform of a police captain.

Van Werkhooven claims Yuan has also

hampered attempts to retrieve her passport.

Standing beside the Bluebird

with its front tires still flat, Yuan told the Post that he felt justified in

what he was doing because Holgate had signed the receipts for the diesel. He

added: "The situation can be solved simply by paying me $1,600."

When he

was reminded that policemen were supposed to uphold the rule of law he replied

"that he's written to the court already". Since then van Wekhooven claims that

$500 worth of goods have been stolen from the boot of the car and two more

guards have arrived.

Yuan has also tried to serve what van Werkhooven

believes to be a court order but she has refused to accept it as she doesn't

understand Khmer.

The couple say they have made strenuous efforts to get

the authorities to intercede but as the Post went to press neither the car nor

passport had been returned.

Ang could not be reached for comment and

Benquen directors Adam Cheong and Ismail Kadir failed to respond to a list of

questions faxed to their Singapore office.

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