Interview: Gerard Tan, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Sutera Harbour Resort Group in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
Singaporean-born Gerard Tan has been with the Sutera Harbour Resort Group four years, having previously worked in Thailand. His last job was at the helm of the Millennium resort, and prior to that, he was responsible for setting up the Racha, one of the top ten beach resorts in the world. Tan has been in hospitality since he was 16 years old. We began by asking him how he could best describe the Sutera resort.
The resort is about 21 years old and is the most ideal resort in Kota Kinabalu. It’s very big – over 155 hectares, facing the ocean. The most amazing part of it is the location is awesome – ten minutes from the airport and ten minutes to town. It’s an integrated property with two hotels, a marina, which can berth about 105 boats, and 27 holes golf. We have many facilities and amenities – indoor and outdoor – we even have a bowling alley, a theatre, indoor and outdoor tennis, squash, badminton… it is ideal for a family or even a couple.
What are your mission or goals with this resort?
Definitely our goal since we bought it over four years ago is to fill the rooms up and attract more tourists here! In 2017, Sabah achieved around 1.25 million international tourists, and in 2018 that figure should have risen to around 1.5 million, and the hospitality industry is consequently flourishing.
Tell us a little about the background to the GSH Group – owners of the property.
GSH group is owned by Sam Goi – who is very renowned in Singapore. Most of his business is diversified in properties. It started with industrial food, and four years ago opened up to hospitality, with this hotel. We are still in search of new areas to establish another hotel.
In Sabah or elsewhere?
Wherever the location is ideal. In fact, we are trying to look for some on the beautiful islands of Sabah, where we could promote a few nights in the islands and a few nights on the mainland. That would be ideal. We are also in search of new areas to buy more resorts/hotels in other places outside of Sabah.
Tell me a bit more about the sporting activities here.
Sporting activities can be diversified to the ocean, to the mainland and to the highlands. You can climb Mount Kinabalu, or even spend one or two nights up there and take in the pure air. The underwater world is a big attraction with great dive sites, and inland there have always been activities such as tennis, golf, and so on.
How do you work with travel agents and tour operators?
We work through a few wholesalers, depending on the country, for example in China, Korea and so on. Number one is the operators. Number two, we depend on strong GSA to fulfil our grounds, and the rest is bonding with FIT, with online bookings via OTA websites, and promotion through social media.
I notice you are using some kind of wireless sensor technology in your rooms so that if the door to the terrace is open, the air conditioning shuts off… Is this part of a broader plan for energy efficiency?
Yes. We have begun major renovations, two floors at a time, putting all the latest comforts and technologies into the new-build rooms. The refurb began in Q3 2018 and will be going on over the next two years. The total budget for this will be around 30-million Ringgit (eds: around €6.4m).
Many day trips are organised from here. Could you tell us a little more about these?
Yes, there are three main jetties in Sabah and we are one of the biggest. This is one of the main distribution points for all the boats, and we have a marina, with trips to all the small islands.
How does CSR fit in?
We are the first hotel in the region to have launched a major CSR programme. We do community rural services for the hospitality industry. We go to the rural areas, interview all the students who have interest to work in the hospitality industry, where we will guide them and train them and widen their scope of knowledge to ensure their personal dreams and goals can be fulfilled. Many young enthusiastic people had not been spotted, especially the talented ones, or the ones who dare to fly where no eagles dare to and fulfil their dream. This will be a perpetual project for us. We started six months ago and tookS 21 students on a six-month course, trained by us in front of house and back of house, especially in front office, food and beverage and housekeeping, and all passed with flying colours. Just three of them finally rejected our offer, because their parents, in rural areas, didn’t feel safe to have their daughter in the hustle-bustle of the city. So that was too bad, I couldn’t do anything!
What makes you the proudest here?
I am proud of the people. They are very warm. They really strive for what they want; they work hard. The characteristics of the different ethnic groups is what amazes me the most.
What is the biggest challenge for you at this place?
For me, I think life is full of challenges, and the greatest fulfilment for me if whatever barrier I have or any obstacle I have, if I am able to jump over that hurdle, it is an achievement for me. It is never easy to give someone a lemon and have them turn it into lemonade.
What’s the secret to running this resort well?
When you are running over a thousand staff, especially if you’re the new kid on the block, I believe you have to show your values first. The values are honesty, integrity, being willing to motivate and boost people, listen, give them inspiration and guide them, then you gain respect. And when you have respect it is very easy to get things done.
What are the key assets of Sabah?
Number one is the serenity of nature. We are proud to have one of the highest mountains in Southern Asia. We are generically eco-friendly, looking out to the ocean and the many islands. And most importantly this country has a characteristic of 35 ethnic groups, all with different languages, different cuisines, and they are always warm and willing to assist in any situation.