Back in business
One of the industries hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic was hospitality. The Peak Malaysia speaks to two hotel general managers about the pandemic impact and the challenges of recovery. In the second series, we speak to Meera Raj.
The first local woman to head an international hotel in Malaysia, Meera Raj, General Manager of the InterContinental Kuala Lumpur, talks about her journey in hospitality.
The journey that brought me to the InterContinental Kuala Lumpur actually began when I was a kid. My dad worked in Malaysia Airlines and we used to travel extensively, and I always loved the hotel environment and hospitality. I come from a Chinese-Indian household and when I did well in school, I was steered towards medicine, which is typical. I started doing my A levels but I just didn’t enjoy it. I spoke to my dad, who suggested I try hospitality instead, and that’s where it started.
Leading the Team
I’ve loved every single moment of it. Of course, my job has morphed from ensuring guests enjoy their stay to my current role, where I work a lot with people and help them excel in their roles and achieving the potential that they didn’t even know they had.
I think I’m like the glue that keeps everything together here. There are so many parts to the hotel – operational that serves guests, commercial and support. Then you have the stakeholders, like owners and the management. It’s really about keeping everything together so that it moves cohesively. That, I would say, is my biggest role right now.
Before I came to the InterContinental Kuala Lumpur, I was the General Manager at the Holiday Inn Bangkok Sukhumvit. I took over in early 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. That experience was like being in a war – I was really just trying to keep things going. Trying to keep the hotel open and help staff keep their jobs. I wasn’t just responsible for myself but also for the 200 people working there.
The experience here in Kuala Lumpur has been very different. We’re ramping up to recovery, going from a deficit, coming back into the playing field and then excelling. And that brings with it a different set of problems. Right now, we don’t have enough staff – people don’t want to come back to the industry, so how do you inspire and convince them that hospitality is getting more stable?
I think conditions have changed in the hospitality industry. This is not a blanket statement but at our hotel, we are much more flexible these days. We need to acknowledge that the people working today are totally different – their motivations and expectations are different. We are much more flexible in terms of working hours and when we interview them, we try and find out what they like and match that with the right job. It’s no use trying to force them into something they don’t enjoy doing. Hospitality is not an easy job, especially if you don’t love it. I mean, you’re dealing with people and, honestly, people can be the worse.
Revamping Towards Recovery
I’ve been lucky enough to work abroad, and I think, first and foremost, before you go, even though it’s just a neighbouring country, you need to go with an open mind. Just because we’re neighbours, it doesn’t mean that we’re the same. For example, I found the Malaysians, Thais and Indonesians more family oriented, while the Singaporeans
are career driven. So, motivations and expectations from work are different. I also discovered that language barriers do not matter as people can sense your sincerity. And I experienced this in Thailand, when we had to tell the staff that we were shutting down and they had to take pay cuts. Even though we were speaking different languages, they still sensed that we had their interests at heart.
In all my roles, I always aim to have a sustainable plan in place so that it doesn’t just die off if I move on. For the InterContinental Kuala Lumpur, the first thing is to re-establish the brand in this city. We are not there yet, but it’s a work in progress. The next step is re-establishing our service to true luxury standards, which is little bit difficult considering the challenges with manpower, but I’m sure we’ll get there. We already have great staff here and our Club InterContinental is the best. And you have to try our hot chocolate – it’s really good!
The Future of Hospitality
Business is getting better here. Last year was still a little bit unstable but hopefully, 2023 will really be a revamp year for Malaysia. I think it’s going to be very competitive but we’re ready to put up a good fight.
Gender isn’t something that I worry about. Growing up, there was never the suggestion that there are things I can’t do just because I’m a girl. When I joined hospitality, I started in F&B and my first director didn’t care about gender – all he cared about was performance. Which is what we’re focused on: if you can do the job, it’s yours, regardless of whether you’re male or female, or what your age is. As long as you can perform, we really don’t care about anything else.