When General Manager Richard Schestak of Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh was working for the luxury Seabourn Cruise Lines, the vice president of sales and marketing came onboard the ship, and he asked one of Schestak’s colleagues: “What VIPs do we have on board?”
The colleague noted the identities of several important persons.
“Wrong”, answered the hospitality boss. “Your VIP is whoever stands in front of you,” he replied.
Schestak never forgot that answer and used the same philosophy during his career and today at Raffles Le Royal.
“It is very simple but it is true,” said Schestak, who describes Raffles Hotel Le Royal as “A residential sanctuary in the heart of bustling Phnom Penh.”
“This is a good place to pop in for afternoon tea,” he said “It is part of the landscape.”
The hotel was built in 1929, with a grand opening attended by then-King His Majesty SisiwathMonivong who reigned from 1927 to 1941. The grand opening took place on the evening of November 20th, 1929 and included a lavish buffet, dancing and performances by an orchestra brought in from Saigon for the occasion.
Charlie Chaplin, accompanied by his co-star of ‘Modern Times’ Ms Paulette Goddard visited Phnom Penh in April 1936 on their way to Angkor Wat. They stayed at the Le Royal with An entourage included Paulette’s mother, Mrs Goddard, and a Japanese valet and secretary.
“This hotel has a strong colonial feeling,” Schestak said.
“When I go to a hotel, I like to be recognised and the people anticipate my needs. During weekdays, we are mainly a business hotel here. I expect a precise, quick, handling of requests from our staff. Transportation, going into town, it is handled quickly. If we have a business lunch I want to be served efficiently, I don’t want it to be interrupted.”
“I really like guests to leave on cloud 9,” Schestak said.
“We get handwritten cards from guests and our staff is mentioned by name, for example, saying that our people took good care of a honeymoon request. These are things I can’t get enough of.”
For veteran hotelier Schestak, excellence in service starts at recruitment.
“Don’t hire for skills and knowledge - hire for attitude and characteristics.”
Another key is meticulous preparation for events.
“This is about being aware three or four weeks before an event that everyone has a good idea of what is being planned in advance so there are no hidden surprises. Everyone is learning how you can prevent unexpected events.”
Austrian Schestak attended the Krems Hotel Management School in Vienna before he took his first jobs at the Hotel Bristol Vienna, part of Imperial Hotels Austria. Schestak later earned MBA in International Hospitality and Tourism Management from University of Leicester, England.
Schestak remembers general manager from those days, a man named Andreas Voegl, who was from the “old school” of running hotels. It was Vogl who expressed the phrase “The best or nothing.”
“This is something I kept in my mind for all these years. I’m very thankful that I got those hotels as my first stint.”
He later worked in Austrian mountain region of Tyrol at the Royal Resort and Spa in a town called Seefeld. During that time, Schestak studied at the Wine Academy in Innsbruck, Austria on a two year course and obtained a wine sommelier diploma.
“What I learned back then really helped me train my staff and pass the knowledge on to my colleagues -- the tone set of the server going to the guest and being able to explain and recommend so the guests are going to have an enhanced meal experience - not just having a bottle.”
Between Austria and Cambodia, Schestak worked in France for Michelin star restaurants, a five star resort in Germany and later for 13 years with Fairmont Hotels &Resorts, first at Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, with stints in various locations throughout the US and Canada before landing at the Fairmont Dubai in 2001, kicking off nine years in the Middle East.
In 2006, Schestak was appointed as regional director food and beverage for the Middle East and South Africa, responsible for food and beverage at all existing, acquired and newly built properties from in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman and South Africa with a total of 118 outlets in 14 hotels, both operating and under development. Schestak learned a lot about how taste for food and wines differs from region to region during this period
“In Cambodia,for the French-oriented upper-crust Khmer people, Champagne is still the premier beverage.”
In 2008 Schestak moved to Abu Dhabi for a Fairmont Hotel opening and as hotel manager and director of operations and stayed on two years before moving to Phnom Penh in July, 2010 to take over management of Raffles Le Royal. Schestak has a wife Arminda who is from the Philippines and they have a 5-year old son named Rainer and a 3-year-old daughter named Kate. He met her at work in Dubai and fell in love with her.
Raffles Hotel Le Royal is owned by Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal through his company Kingdom Hotel Investments which is operated out of Dubai.
Raffles Le Royal is one of eight hotels with the flagship property in Singapore and other locations in Dubai, Siem Reap, Paris, Beijing, Tianjin and the Seychelles. Other Raffles properties under construction or in planning are in Istanbul, Jakarta and China’s Hainan Island.
Working closely with Schestak is Raffles Director of Sales and Marketing, Welshman Gareth Walters.
“Raffles has a very good way of measuring service called ‘Market Matrix’. Each time a guest checks out he leaves his email address. Once the survey is complete, it gets sent to all of us.”
Another company called Leading Quality Assurance conducts silent quality inspections.
“Somebody checks in and completely evaluates. Nobody knows who this person is, but then by the end of the stay theyreveals themselves.”
Schestak’s style is friendly but at the same time very much involved.
“I am not running it from the office. I really enjoy operations. “
Raffles implemented a butler service in January of this year and brought in a manager of Raffles Singapore to train local staff in Phnom Penh.
“We announced in hotel, anybody could apply for position. It was rewarding and really raised the morale.”
Raffles Hotel Le Royal in has 320 employees, 170 rooms, 6 restaurants and bars, including the famous Elephant Bar.
“We focus on way you are looked after, coupled with the historic elements of colonial grandeur.”
Schestak and the Raffles team have a major renovation of state rooms and as well as the ballrooms including The Empress Room is the smaller room ongoing. While the renovations are substantially complete, and ready for elegant weddings, conferences and big events of all kinds, the final touches will be done in October.
According to Sales Manager Walters, the Raffles Ballroom and Empress Room have been “completely transformed” with new carpets, wall panels, ceilings as well as state of the art AV and lighting systems.
“The upgraded facilities update the hotels’ much-loved French Colonial, Art Deco and Khmer style and ambiance and provide the ideal venue for weddings and social events as well as high-profile company meetings, signing ceremonies and conferences. Wireless Internet will also be introduced throughout Raffles Hotel Le Royal from October,” Walters said.
General Manager Schestak says a Raffles manager has to be “hands on”.
“You give direction and you have to have your finger on the pulse.”
Adding to the Raffles Le Royal excellence in service are meticulous ethics training programs, in Khmer, which all staff are required to understand, page by page.
“We have very strict policies and everything is covered from A to Z.”