He knows Mick Jagger speaks French and likes French breakfast and calls on Phnom Penh residents to visit and not be frightened of the luxurious surroundings.
For Charles-Henri Chevet, General Manager at Sofitel Phnom Penh, it all started when he was a young man in France, acting in theatre productions.
He got the feel for the backstage preparations, the sets and the costumes and the backdrop. Then came the show. He liked the process.
Later in his studies he went to business school and then management training and finally an internship. He immediately fell in love with the hospitality business.
“In the theatre we had rehearsals and when the clients arrive, you have a process, and voila,” he said.
He finds the same is true in the 5-star hotel business.
Born in Brittany in 1972, Chevet turns 40 on June 24. He represents the fourth generation of a French family that made leather accessories for horse-drawn carriages. He decided he didn’t want to join the family business, and neither did his two younger sisters.
His internship employer offered him a job and that was in 1994 at the Sofitel at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Thus, he’s been with the Accor Group, which owns the Sofitel brand, for 16 years.
Next, he worked at a Sofitel in the La Defense district before moving to the famous Metropole Hotel in Hanoi in 2002.
“This was a big change from Europe to Asia. Metropole is a legendary hotel and at this time, Vietnam started to bloom, with more and more motor bikes, hotels and opening to the world.”
Chevet said at the time Vietnam had about a million visitors every year, a figure that today hovers near six million.
During his four years Chevet had some extraordinary experiences with the kings and queens of Sweden and Spain, the French President and Mick Jagger.
Jagger spoke French, albeit with a British accent and Chevet enjoyed conversing with him, noting his taste for traditional French breakfast.
“Jagger left after three days for Siem Reap.”
The Metropole in Hanoi is an exceptional hotel where you have people traveling to stay in the hotel. There is a beautiful garden and a legendary chef. This is really a magical hotel.”
When the Prince of Orange came, Chevet wore his flashy orange tie.
Another famous visitor was US Senator John McCain, who Chevet welcomed to the Metropole.
“After his experience in the Hanoi Hilton, it was interesting to see him come back.
“There were a lot of Americans wanting to come back to Vietnam,” Chevet said.
In 2006, he transferred to the Sofitel Beijing, a giant hotel complex with 417 rooms, large meeting spaces, four restaurants and a huge spa complex.
“It was challenging because it was China. The language was difficult. This was challenging and stressful because the Olympics was on the horizon and we wanted to make sure we were open before the Olympics and we did. We opened a year before, in August, 2007.
“The size of Beijing was impressive, with the traffic and the massive square heavy buildings. After Hanoi it was quite a change.”
Following Beijing, Chevet arrived in Shanghai for a year at the Sofitel in the famous area of Shanghai’s Bund, near the Peace Hotel.
“In China the demand still is extremely strong, and in all segments, especially in big city centres, and exhibition districts. We just opened a Sofitel in Guangdong, and six months later we were operating at 75 per cent capacity. There’s no reason not to succeed in China,” he said.
Following Shanghai, Chevet arrived in Siem Reap in 2009, where he replaced Didier Lamoot, who then came to Phnom Penh to open the Sofitel in the capital.
Once the opening was completed, a few months later, Chevet arrived to replace Lamoot once again. Lamoot then moved on to the Sofitel in Bora Bora, the paradise island in the South Pacific.
Chevet recently saw Lamoot in Bangkok and commented “I won’t be replacing you in Bora Bora”.
Chevet says Cambodia is a challenging market and a “bit softer” than China.
“Cambodia is very dynamic and innovative, easy to invest in and in a nice way it is open to entrepreneurs and business people. Where the limitation is, the overall market remains moderate in terms of size, population is moderate,” he said.
Chevet describes Sofitel Phnom Penh as “an oasis inside of a busy city”.
He’s proud of Sofitel’s variety of restaurants.
“We have a variety of culinary experiences. No other hotel has this choice and this quality. After more than one year, our Japanese restaurant, Hachi, is our number one,” he said.
“We have slightly adjusted our rates, especially for lunch time and it has worked out very well. The quality we offer in food and beverage is quite unique. Our clients are very happy to have this kind of variety.”
Chevet is in charge of 420 people working at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. He enjoys working with Khmer people.
“Khmer people have naturally a great advantage of their kindness’ most Khmers are very genuine and naturally nice. In our industry this is much appreciated,” he said.
The challenge, however, is the growing number of Asian customers and getting local staff to remember that the treatment of Sofitel guests is the same, no matter what their ethnic background.
“This is where I train our team. The Asians look at efficiency. It is always interesting how Asians do not treat each other the same way. In my back office I have a poster saying SAME SAME.”
For Chevet, that’s a key element of Sofitel hospitality: being consistently and equally polite, gracious and attentive to all comers.
“Asia is the business of today and the business of tomorrow,” he said.
He also likes to make Sofitel staff ambassadors, as he calls them, extra efficient.
“This is what business travelers are looking for, fast service, fast check-in fast check-out. Smooth transactions without delay.”
Chevet says the majority of Sofitel’s customers are coming from Asia, with China the number one source of arrivals, probably followed by Hong Kong, and many of them business travelers.
“Today we have 26 Sofitel hotels in China, all nearly brand new. Chinese know Sofitel. This was very obvious in when I was Siem Reap.”
Another thing Chevet noticed was that Chinese people had really become international travelers with credit cards and an increased level of sophistication.
“The Chinese know how to travel, there is no issue at all. Now everybody has a credit card and it is not an issue. Chinese have become really international travelers. I think at some stage they will be guides on how to travel. I have lived in China. Like every customer when you give him what he appreciates he will be happy.”
He has also noticed more people from India coming in, along with Americans, French, English people, Northern Europeans and Spanish people, especially during the season from November to March.
He said the Japanese are also coming back strong, and mainly for business.
Since Chevet arrived at Sofitel in July, 2011, he’s been satisfied with the growth of the brand new hotel.
“We’ve had some very good months and overall pretty positive, but not as fast as we would like.”
Public holidays are a problem for business hotels because everything’s shut down and business travelers taper off.
However, Sofitel’s restaurants did well during Khmer New Year.
While Chevet sees more and more Khmer people coming to Sofitel, he wants to reach out to the growing middle class population and tell them to feel welcome at Sofitel, even we have more and more local Khmer people coming to Sofitel and having a look, even if they don’t spend money.
“Don’t be scared to come to Sofitel. Come with your family. We treat everybody exactly the same. By our smile and by our warm, genuine welcome, we can give you guidance.”
Recently Sofitel’s Fu Lu Zu Chinese restaurant hosted a birthday party for 130 people.
“I would like to see more of those,” he said.
“Please come to discover the hotel, we want to show you around, the club floor, it costs nothing and we would be happy to show you around our beautiful property. Our luxury is not to be snobbish. It is to be open to welcome people in a certain way and with a certain flair. All people are welcome in our hotel,” Chevet said.