Updated: Jun 21
ID HOTELIER - We are very honored and proud to have a great opportunity to interview Mr. Herbert Laubichler-Pichler ; who was born into a hotelier family. He started out in the industry working at his parents’ guesthouse as a bellboy.
He later studied hotel management at the Hotel and Catering College Schloss Klessheim and became a certified chef before steadily rising through the ranks to become the general manager .
Please tell us about yourself and your hotel?
I started out working at my parents’ guesthouse in my native Austria as a bellboy at 10 years of age. I always worked during the summer season when other kids went on holiday, first greeting the guests, then washing dishes, cleaning the floor and, when I was 16, helping with the heavy dishes.
My father decided I would be a hotelier; he enrolled me into college, where I studied hotel management and became a certified chef. Born into a hotelier family, I had no choice and couldn’t run away from the field, but I also didn’t want to. It’s not like my father was a doctor and I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. I wanted to do this. I am so happy doing what I am doing.
After working in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, England, Cyprus and Malaysia for two decades, I first came to Vietnam in 2008. Just before I came to Vietnam, I worked in Malaysia for GHM Hotels and then when I moved to Vietnam I managed The Nam Hai, that was also then under GHM Hotels but is now Four Seasons. I had never experienced anything else like Vietnam when I first arrived. Vietnam seemed so exciting. It still is.
I have been given incredible opportunities to manage some of Vietnam’s most acclaimed hotels. After The Nam Hai, I oversaw The Reverie Saigon that debuted in 2014 before I become the general manager of The Anam in 2017. The Nam Hai, The Reverie Saigon and The Anam have all scored very highly in the prestigious Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards.
The Reverie Saigon was also recognized among Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List of the best new hotels in the world shortly after its debut. When I was the general manager at The Nam Hai, the property was the winner of the Leading Hotels of the World’s “Leading Quality Award” for 2011 as determined by mystery shoppers.
I was appointed to the helm of five-star resort Alma Cam Ranh in April 2019 before its debut in December 2019. We have a fantastic team and the resort’s facilities are unprecedented. Bold, spacious and emblematic of Vietnam’s maturation as a destination, the independently owned and operated Alma is the most incredible project I have worked on to date.
Commanding 74 acres of beachfront in Vietnam's new "it" destination, the 196-pavilion and 384-suite Alma Resort has unveiled an unprecedented array of world-class facilities including 14 sublime food and beverage outlets and a cascade of 12 beachfront swimming pools.
Luxury resort Alma is breaking new ground in Cam Ranh, a peninsula on Vietnam’s south-central coast that first found fame as Southeast Asia’s greatest deepwater harbor and is now rising as an upscale alternative to nearby Nha Trang.
Alma’s awe-inspiring host of world-class facilities include an eclectic range of restaurants helmed by leading chefs, a food court with an array of local and international cuisine, a classical bar, pool bar and beach bar, and mini supermarket. Other drawing cards include a science museum, art gallery, waterpark, 13-treatment room spa, cinema, convention centre, amphitheatre, youth centre with virtual reality games, kid’s club, water sports centre, gymnasium and yoga room and an 18-hole putting green.
Due to its broad spectrum of facilities, Alma is perfect for families and multigenerational travel. Alma has already clinched many accolades including:
One of “Eight of Vietnam’s Hottest New Hotels” for 2022 according to CNN Travel.
Top three “Best Family Resorts Worldwide” in the Australian magazine Holidays with Kids Readers’ Choice Awards 2021, that were announced early 2022.
Top three hotels in UK-based Luxury Lifestyle Magazine’s Readers’ Travel Awards 2022 “Best Hotel in Asia” category.
Top four hotels worldwide, and the winner of the Asian and Indian Ocean bracket, in US-based Luxury Travel Advisor’s World’s Most Instagrammable Hotel Award 2021, that attracted tens of thousands of voters.
Destination Deluxe Awards 2021 “Hotel Design of the Year” finalist.
Luxury Lifestyle Awards 2021 “Best Luxury Family Resort in Vietnam” winner.
As a hotelier please let us know your values in service and human resources?
From my many decades of working in the hospitality industry, the biggest piece of advice I can offer is that if you ensure your staff are happy by developing and nurturing them, you will create happy guests on the back of excellent customer service and of course investors and other stakeholders will also benefit.
What has always been crucial to Alma is ensuring that our staff have an inspiring and supportive place to learn, grow and develop. In consultation with our staff, our executive committee introduced Alma’s five core values -- care, respect, integrity, responsibility and passion -- that are genuinely infused in everything we do in the Alma workplace, from the recruitment of staff and staff training to the execution of policies and procedures and the general operation of the resort.
As part of our resort’s vision “to become the first choice for a family vacation experience in Asia”, Alma’s mission is: “We commit to consistently care for our employees to create an environment that provides excellent services to each guest with worldwide facilities, driven by innovation and social responsibility to benefit all stakeholders”. Thus prioritising our staff above all else has been wired into the DNA of this resort since the beginning.
In the lead-up to the resort’s December 2019 debut we were fortunate to be able to hire and train the best team possible here at Alma with full support from the resort’s owner, and that also made all the difference. There is a saying that the fish starts to stink from the head, and when you want to create something really strong and long-lasting, you have to create it from the top to the bottom.
We think it’s also important to note that Alma is independently owned and operated, and this means we are nimble as an organisation and able to make decisions to the benefit of our resort. We were able to create, for example, our own vision and mission statements and core values, rather than having them come from a corporate office in Singapore or New York of a global hotel chain, that would most probably not be the right fit for us in the Vietnamese context anyway.
Please let us know if hoteliers really need to pay attention to the technology aspect to enhance the business and how the technology could contribute positively to the business?
When I started working at my parents’ guesthouse in my native Austria as a bellboy at 10 years of age, I nor anyone could have imagined, in our wildest dreams, what the decades ahead held for the hospitality industry. The technological changes have been profound and it’s imperative that hoteliers pay attention to technological advancement otherwise they will be left behind.
Somewhat akin to how the proliferation of technology has afforded everyone equipped with a smartphone the chance to go viral and become famous, the hotel industry is benefiting immensely from technology to reach and service hotel guests. These exciting opportunities are not limited to the remit of large, global hotel brands with huge resources to fund the implementation of technology.
Independent hotels are taking advantage of mobile technology and having their day in the sun too. So much so, mobile technology has helped level the playing field for the independent hotel movement in terms of harnessing technology to access and service guests.
All the hits on the board we’ve been achieving at Alma Resort, on Vietnam’s Cam Ranh peninsula, on the mobile technology front prove how an independently owned and operated resort can move ahead in leaps and bounds on the back of modest investment in mobile technology. I will elaborate further on the technologies we’ve introduced and how they support our business in the answer to the following question.
Please advise us on technologies used in your hotel ? And how are those technologies supporting your business?
Alma has created its own in-house app to promote a safe, contactless way of delivering important information to our guests. As an independent hotel, we fortunately had the autonomy to invest in the app and develop it ourselves. Alma’s IT director Hau and his team were actively involved in the app’s development, and we managed to keep our costs very low.
The ‘Alma Resort’ app cost no more than $5000 to develop. The decision to rollout the app swiftly stemmed from the necessity of helping our resort and its guests feel more secure during the pandemic. We could have decided to keep developing and developing or just release it and then upgrade it as we went along. We decided on the latter.
Developed by our resort’s IT team and available for download on Android, Apple, Windows, and Amazon devices, the Alma Resort app provides all sorts of information for guests, including menus, promotions, vouchers, recreation calendars and entertainment schedules, a resort map, resort regulations, livestream broadcasts, and a feedback section.
The app is a great promotional tool for our resort. In addition to menus, we deliver promotions at Alma’s various restaurants, bars and Le Spa to app users in real-time. They must no longer read a booklet upon arrival in their room to learn of the resort’s offerings and promotions – and, let’s face it, many a distracted guest never did as they, for example, made a beeline for their private pool at their pavilion.
Quick, succinct updates appear on an app users’ phone about promotions at, for example, the breakfast buffet at Alma Garden and/or a la carte offerings at our beachfront restaurant Atlantis, Alma Food Court with its six diverse food outlets, Italian trattoria La Casa, lobby lounge Alma Lounge, our new venue Chill’s Snack & Bar, the American Lounge and Bar, Beach Bar, and even our Karaoke Rooms.
Guests have immediate access to information ranging from Alma’s 24-hour in-room dining menus and wine list to our cinema schedule for both Alma’s 70-seat indoor Alma Cinema and an outdoor cinema, by one of our 12 infinity pools that cascade down to Long Beach. We regularly update our entertainment schedule featuring our three full-time resident musicians, pianist Ben and singers Engie and Rain.
At the click of a button or two, app users learn of our jam-packed recreation calendar that outlines the operating hours of, and various activities at, our Kids Club, Youth Club, Science Museum, and our 6000sqm Splash Water Park replete with a lazy river, wave pool, slides, and kids pool. The recreation calendar also informs users about Alma’s gym and yoga room, tennis, basketball, volleyball, archery, our 18-hole putting green, kite flying on our hill, and the array of water sports we offer, such as kayaking, bodyboarding, jet skiing, parasailing, and a banana boat.
As the app cost no more than $5000 to set up, investment in our app was a no-brainer. You can realise ROI in many ways quite quickly after launching an app. For example, take 10 restaurants, and in each restaurant you have to change the menu four times a year. For each restaurant you need 25 menus each quarter, so that’s 100 menus annually per restaurant, totaling 1000 menus a year across the 10 restaurants.
If you reduce the number of menus by 75% (as not everyone will want to use the app and some will still request a printed copy of the menu) you will no longer need to print 750 menus annually that each cost $10 to print. In one year you would have already saved $7500 and restaurant menus are only one facet of this. Other benefits include lessening your impact on the environment through less generation of paper and waste. You reduce the turnaround time of making changes; you can simply update the app’s menus instead of having to wait for the printer. We also offer guests tablets to check the menu if they want to read it on a bigger screen instead of on their smartphones.
We have constantly developed the app since we launched it and have consistently added new features. Generally about 75-80 percent of our guests use the app in addition to our staff. What we’re finding is that our guests don’t delete it when they check out; the app helps you stay connected with guests even when they have left your hotel, or even your restaurant or spa for that matter.
When the guest checks out, they still get messages via the app if they continue to keep the app on their phone and, as a result, they are still informed about our promotions. They receive messages about logging into our Facebook livestream and more. The app really helps to hold the guests’ attention for longer, especially a more localized audience keen to visit our restaurants or go to a Sunday brunch.
Every morning the IT managers report how many users there are and what features of the app they are engaging with and how. For example, in one day we may have 1000 guests at the resort and yet there are thousands of users.
We find the menus and schedules are popular with users, who also like to provide feedback to us. The Alma Resort app has a feedback section that helps us facilitate a two-way dialogue with our guests.
As the hotel industry strives to crawl out of the devastation wreaked by the global pandemic, Alma has signed up with Southeast Asia’s largest privately owned independent hotel management company to tap into its online distribution system. We have joined forces with Archipelago International to deploy its “Powered by Archipelago” system, which incorporates a suite of services, from booking engines to yield inventory, designed to dramatically increase online revenue.
The Powered by Archipelago distribution system harnesses a host of tools and systems to build awareness about hotels and generate online room sales, including channel manager software, rate shopping software, a rate parity checker and fixer, metasearch integrator, campaign performance analyzer, geographic market penetration analyzer, Archipelago’s website, membership programs, and more.
Of all the aspects a hotel business needs nowadays, distribution is the most crucial one and deploying Powered by Archipelago, where distribution costs are based purely on production, is a huge advantage for a standalone property such as Alma. It’s important, particularly for an independently owned and operated resort like Alma, to partner with a system that effectively supports distribution without paying fixed and sometimes high monthly retainer fees.
Hoteliers need to be careful as fixed fees and monthly retainer fees could potentially cost far more than the business they bring in. Powered By Archipelago is specifically designed to support independent hotels and resorts and thus helps our resort excel at bolstering online room sales post-COVID. Speaking of online room sales, following Alma’s connection to the system, the first signs are very promising, as we are directly benefiting from up to 20 bookings a day for an average length of two nights via Powered by Archipelago. I can see a very positive change in the number of bookings and in average rates.
Archipelago International recently moved into the Vietnamese market with the launch of Archipelago Indochina in partnership with Vietnam-based asset management and hospitality consultancy firm Optimum Hospitality. The group has signed up independent hotels in Ho Chi Minh City, Phu Quoc, Nha Trang, Cam Ranh, Hanoi, and Ha Giang. Under its distribution and revenue management services, Archipelago Indochina connects the hotels to the Powered by Archipelago system, automating their distribution processes and connecting them to more than 3,000 partners. In addition to leveraging longstanding relationships and arrangements with OTAs (online travel agencies), Archipelago Indochina also trains and monitors the hotels’ reservations teams.
We have also used technology to invest in Alma’s greatest asset, our staff. What has always remained most important to me is ensuring our staff have an inspiring and supportive place to learn, grow, and develop. To this end, we have partnered with Australian-founded company Typsy, a leading global digital hospitality training platform. With Typsy, our team has access to a curated library of over 1,000 expert-led short, bite-sized video lessons and earn industry-endorsed certificates that are recognized globally by the industry.
Based on my love of e-learning, I invited Alma’s managers to join me and study how improved management accounting can add value to Alma. As the saying goes “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. Together we studied six courses over four months as part of a certification program with eCornell. The program gave us tools to develop key performance indicators (KPIs) and reporting systems to boost our performance as managers of units across the entire organization.
We learnt to view our organization through a prism of managerial and cost accounting principles and vocabulary, and solve business problems with a competitive edge. We thoroughly benefited from developing our business skills and steering our organization to success by delving into this MBA-level content from the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. It was an interesting and very rewarding learning experience.
In more general terms, technology helps in other advantageous ways, such as reducing strain on our employees as human error and misunderstandings are reduced because you can track everything. With that said, technology will never completely replace that all-important personal touch that comes with a high-end hospitality experience. Despite the proliferation of technology, I don’t think that, for example, the hotel lobby will ever be rendered redundant, particularly in high-end hotels. Guests still need and prefer access to a human, and not an app or robot, to ask questions.
The hotel lobby will never go away. It’s much quicker to ask a person a question, such as where’s the bathroom? When is the cinema open? When is the next shuttle bus leaving? People also still often need to clarify their bills with someone.
If you could change two things about how hotel should do business, what would they be?
We need to provide technical solutions where possible yet still provide good ol’-fashioned hospitality, underscored by a handshake and a smile. I think an increased focus on robots and the like in our industry means the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction for my liking.
I also think the hotel industry must take more meaningful and thoughtful action to genuinely protect the environment and avert greenwashing. Alma is implementing an ambitious solar power project that proves lessening your carbon footprint makes good business sense. Engaging staff in sustainability measures, transitioning to paperless solutions, a back of house tour for guests and more help contribute to the “triple bottom line”.
Please describe major changes you have seen in the hospitality industry and what is your suggestion to the hotelier?
As I outlined earlier, the technological changes in tourism and hospitality have been profound and it’s imperative that hoteliers pay attention to technological advancement otherwise they will be left behind.
Hotels are benefiting immensely from harnessing mobile technology to reach and service guests and this trend will continue with gusto into 2023 and beyond. At Alma, this is evident in the implementation of our Alma App, partnership with Powered By Archipelago, partnership with Typsy and more.
My suggestion to hoteliers is if you can’t find anything suitable to meet your needs, create it yourself with your own team. You may all be very surprised with the results!
The idea for the Alma App was put forward in a heads-of-department meeting and came from our resort’s director of culinary and F&B operations Ingo. I directed our team to search for an existing hotel-related app that could be adapted to our needs but, finding nothing suitable, we then opted to create it ourselves in only two months under the proficient stewardship of Alma’s IT director Hau.
Owners are always driven by their return on investment, and an app increases awareness and brings down costs, so it’s not difficult to convince the owners of a hotel to invest in such technology. These technologies are not expensive; you don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. You also need to ensure that the technology is set up in a way that it is not a money pit; you don’t want to be continually spending a lot of money with a third party every time you need to make an update to the app.
It pays to shop around. We found there were start-up companies that were keen to get ahead, willing to invest some time, and use our resort as a testing ground before then selling their app to other potential customers.
Please describe major challenges in the hospitality industry which need to be addressed?
The tourism industry is still struggling from the huge impact of COVID-19. We have learnt some big lessons. In addition to leveraging technology to better communicate with guests and increase room sales, the hospitality industry faces numerous challenges in a post-COVID world.
Whatever we did in the past -- that was always based on steady growth, with more ups than downs -- went out the window due to COVID-19. The era of COVID-19 has been so unusual, and so immense a problem. As a result, you can only think big and only think completely out of the box if you want to survive. If you think like you did during the “old normal” you just cannot cope with the “new normal”. You have to challenge all of the things you have learnt in the past and reinvent your knowledge, and then some.
The hospitality industry is in desperate need of a different investment model. Alma is based on an excellent timeshare model, a first for Vietnam, that has helped seriously underscore our long-term survival. Our timeshare model did relatively well during the global pandemic, compared to the more traditional hotels and resorts, as we have a loyal pool of customers who will return year after year.
Another challenge, for the industry generally, is retaining your staff members and this can be achieved through quality training. There has been so much instability in the tourism industry over the past few years so as a hotelier you need to ensure your staff members know that you care for them and are investing in their development and career. At Alma, we believe we’re ahead of the game in terms of how we genuinely care for our staff members and this has an array of benefits ranging from reducing costly staff turnover to bolstering the quality of our guest service.
Typsy has helped lift our efforts to look after our staff to a new dimension by offering peer-to-peer learning in a contactless manner and developing a culture of up-skilling at our resort. We felt this effort to invest in our staff signalled we were serious about retaining and developing them.
What do you want to share with the hospitality industry and your clients in Indonesia?
We plan to launch an uber-luxe resort within our resort and establish Cam Ranh’s most luxurious and exclusive holiday experience. We will open an executive lounge, accessible to guests who stay in our extensively renovated ocean front pavilions with private pools. We will also offer a host of high-end experiences including an all-day breakfast at our beachfront restaurant Atlantis.
We are serious about sustainability and will install Vietnam’s most ambitious solar power project yet for a hotel. The project involves the installation of 5634 solar panels totaling 12,500 square meters on the roofs of the resort’s 196 pavilions, two V-shaped towers housing 384 suites, lobby lounge, spa, gymnasium and staff building. With a capacity of 2480 kilowatts peak - the rate at which it generates energy at its peak performance on a sunny day – the system will fuel between a quarter to almost half of Alma’s energy needs, depending on occupancy.
It's estimated this system will save Alma up to USD 16.85 million (VND 390.85 billion) in electricity bills over the next 25 years and reduce Alma's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by up to 72,670 tonnes over a 25-year period.
We have also appointed Alma’s first sustainability officer to track the property’s energy use, resource conservation, recycling, pollution reduction, waste elimination, transportation, education efforts and building design. The role also involves creating sustainability programs, budgets and schedules, evaluating the success of sustainability initiatives, and managing three staff committees focused on ‘green products’, ‘innovation and solutions’ and ‘people and partnerships’.