An invited crowd of around 200 movers and shakers from the tourist industry and Phuket society gathered in the resort’s huge ballroom to savour cocktails and wine, graze on canapés and honour the retirement of Rudy, who has served as GM of this iconic property for 16 years, firstly from 1996 to 2000 and again, from late 2005 until now.
In fact Rudy has spent nearly all of his stellar 50-year international career with Le Meridien at properties in many colourful locations such as Kuwait, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Martinique, Seychelles, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Sham El Sheikh, Chennai and Singapore prior to completing his illustrious career in his truly beloved Phuket.
I was fortunate enough to be one of the invitees to Rudy’s leaving party and able to witness the outpouring of affection and good humour which Rudy engendered in his colleagues, staff, long-term repeat guests, friends and fellow tourism professional alike.
Rudy is an almost legendary presence in the Pantheon of Thailand’s tourism professionals and so I asked if we could have a meal together and if he would be willing to give an interview for this series “A Meal with…”.
As a man who historically has given few interviews and prefers to let his work and reputation stand testament to his many achievements rather than talking about them, I was grateful when he suggested we have dinner at Le Meridien’s fabulous Ariake Japanese restaurant which sits next to the resort’s huge swimming pool.
It was a Tuesday evening at about 7pm when we met and walked along beside the terrace overlooking this huge aquamarine swimming pool thronged with happy families and visitors enjoying the resort’s many other enticing restaurant outlets.
Of course Rudy was welcomed with open arms and beaming smiles in Ariake by Chef Manee Emamorn and his team of consummate professionals.
We settled into seats beside one of the sizzling teppanyaki griddles with its toque-wearing chef flipping Wagyu beef, Phuket lobster, fresh Andaman fish and most amazingly of all, a single, shelled egg, with great dexterity and aplomb much to the delight of the assembled diners and their laughing children.
Settling into our chairs with glasses of traditional Japanese fermented rice sake, I asked Rudy what had first attracted him to the hospitality industry.
“I was just a naive 20-year-old starting out in the hospitality business when I started working in the Rooms and F&B departments of various hotels at home in Holland and then in Germany, Spain and Switzerland," says Rudy.
"I enjoy people and as a natural extrovert who wanted to travel, this seemed the perfect vocation for me. After a couple of years I realised I needed to formalise my training in this arena and so enrolled at hotel school in Switzerland.
"After graduation I managed to get more managerial roles and postings further afield such as in the Middle East. It was there, in Kuwait in fact, that in 1981 I first worked as a Hotel Manager for Le Meridien Group and the rest, as they say, is history.”
As we enjoyed a fine selection of fresh sashimi, I asked Rudy what was the key to successfully managing a huge iconic property like Le Meridien Phuket?
“Hotels and resorts are of course people-orientated businesses, both in terms of ensuring the customer experience is exceptional and also that those delivering that experience are well trained and motivated. So I think the training and professionalism of our team here in Phuket is an absolutely vital part of our success.
“We have many repeat visitors who come back to Le Meridien year after year and when they see the same smiling faces of our staff and are greeted by name and asked how their children are doing… these things really set us apart from our competitors and humanise the holiday experience.
"While we are now owned by Marriott International, I believe it is these very human, very personal Thai touches that will continue to be the essence of Le Meridien brand as our customers actually experience it.”
We finally walked down to the beautiful beach upon which the hotel stands and sat outside having a nightcap overlooking the appropriately named Relax Bay and I asked Rudy where he thought Phuket was heading in future.
“While we can control the microcosm of our own resort grounds and this wonderful beach and headland, the real challenge is what is happening outside our gates within greater Phuket environment that we cannot directly control.
“Obviously, traffic density, uncontrolled construction, urbanisation, road works and environmental degradation are anathema to time-starved tourists seeking a relaxing escape from their daily existence. Clearly, if Phuket cannot solve these developmental problems, then in the longer term, guests will choose somewhere else to vacation.”
It is perhaps noteworthy that Rudy himself has chosen to split his well-earned retirement time 50-50 between his home in the Laguna area of Phuket and back in Holland.
Phuket and Le Meridien have benefited greatly over the years from the energy, foresight and enthusiasm of Rudy Borgesius and we can only hope that many more such insightful individuals will steer our island through the turbulent waters of its current challenges.