IT has been over a year and a half since Dusit Thani Manila welcomed a new general manager, Alex Colin Willats, to the landmark hotel in Makati City. Though a first-time expatriate to the Philippines, the Englishman fell right at home in the five-star premises since he had just come from the same posting at the international chain’s flagship hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. Dusit Thani, after all, has truly become this world traveler’s home—and family—away from home.
Family, according to the respected hotelier, has always been a priority in his life, even if it has taken him all over the world even at a very early age. In fact, in embracing his professional family at Dusit Thani, so have his lovely wife Claire and sons Thomas and Henry, whom he brings with him from posting to posting.
Willats first set off on this grand adventure when Thomas was only a year old. Together with his wife and baby boy, the brave little family left the United Kingdom in 2008 when Willats landed a job as executive assistant manager and acting general manager at Bahrain’s The Diplomat Hotel Residence & Spa.
As word spread about the very competent work of Willats in the hospitality industry, Dusit Thani Bangkok offered him the hotel’s top post in 2010, which he gladly took on with his growing family. Soon after moving to Thailand, Henry, who is turning two in October, was born.
Willats admits that raising a family can be tough as a traveling hotelier, but that they would not have it any other way. Besides, he—as well as his wife and kids—feels fortunate to be given the opportunity to experience different cultures and to meet so many different and interesting individuals while earning a living.
“My wife and I are resilient people,” Willats told The Manila Times in a one-on-one interview. “We made the decision to move from the UK to the Middle East in Bahrain [and stayed there]three years before moving to Thailand. For me it was easy because I was an expat child and I was out of the UK until I was 10 years old, so I was comfortable in that environment.
“I think it was tougher for my wife in the earlier stage. But you become adaptable, and now this is our third country in the past seven years, and each one has something [different]to offer.
“The important thing is to look at the positive. We feel very blessed and privileged to be in Manila—not only working here but also [to be]living in a fabulous hotel. I consider my family and I to live a privileged lifestyle for which we are very grateful.”
Willats fell in love with hotels as a very little boy. His father was in constant transit because of his work in construction, and also took his family with him wherever he went.
Willats was just a year old himself when he moved with his family to his father’s posting in Nigeria. They spent three years in the West African nation, and went on to live in the Middle East for the next 11 years.
“I spent most of my growing up years there, and instead of going back to the UK for vacations, we would go to Jakarta and different parts of Southeast Asia,” Willats recalled.
Remarkably, his most memorable hotel stay as a young globetrotter in Dusit Thani Bangkok, where he would always marvel at the grand waterfalls that enveloped the entire lobby.
“It felt surreal to have been there as a child and come back there as a GM,” he related. “Walking through the doors of the hotel, I can remember the waterfalls. Having sat at a terrace there as a child, and then as a GM, I felt that a sense of achievement.”
With his exposure to the hospitality industry, it was easy for Willats to decide on a career path when the time came.
“My experience as a child helped me understand a lot about hospitality industry. It’s an area I felt comfortable in and I tended to gravitate towards that,” he continued. “So when I was in the UK, I did trainings when I was 16 years old—one with Inter-Continental Park Lane and another with Holiday Inn in Olympia. I spent two weeks in each hotel and that gave me an overview to see if that’s what I wanted to do.”
Willats pursued a degree in Hotel Management and graduated with honors. Immediately, he built a career in the hospitality industry within the UK for over a decade. His impressive experience came from such world-class hotels such as The Ritz London and Claridge’s Luxury Business Hotel.
“I didn’t really want to work overseas at that time. I was keen to getting my experience in the hotel market in UK. After some 12 to 13 years, I got to a point in my career that I thought it was time to move abroad and gain some international experience as well. We never set out to stay away for a long time and it just organically happened,” he shared.
“At that time we only had one son who was one year old so he didn’t really understand what was going on. My wife will tell you that we’ve gotten further away from home, but I had the opportunity to go to the Middle East before, and growing up there, I was comfortable going back to the region. Thankfully it was an easy transition for the family.”
His stint in Bahrain resulted in three different offers from three top hotels, but that of Dusit Thani’s in Thailand stood out from the rest because of his memories as a child.
“And of course, it was grand opportunity to head their flagship property,” Willats expressed.
As Willats raised a growing family in Thailand with the arrival of a second child, so too did he begin raising his new Dusit family.
Bringing in his English background to the Asian hospitality industry, he set about to establish standard, structure and strict systems, which he had all been accustomed to while working in the UK.
He emphasized the need for “discipline and consistency” in bringing a quality experience for all hotel guests, be they a celebrity, diplomat, or a frequent traveler.
“Things are different in each culture and place, and I have learned that in Asia, there is not much emphasis on standards in structure and consistency. People need to be more empowered. In Europe it’s natural for people to be decision-makers and to make decisions on their own,” Willats observed.
“I think it’s just about being comfortable to take ownership and responsibility. They’re not natural traits [in Asia]but I think that’s developing with the hospitality schools. What needs to develop is a level of consistency. Those in this industry need to set their sights and the bar higher and become more aggressive in their approach. This will all develop in time,” he added optimistically.
What has impressed him most, however, both at Dusit Thani in Bangkok and Manila, are the strong family ties that the Asian culture nurtures. He appreciates this because he is foremost a family man.
“What I’ve really enjoyed in the four years [with Dusit Thani]is that I’ve been able to have some input in the developing and shaping of the company. The CEO and his family have strong family values, and we consider the staff members as family, so when a part of the Dusit family leaves, we genuinely feel that a part of our own family leaves,” he said.
“This is the big difference [of Dusit]compared to other hotels, that all the staff bond and band together. There is genuine warmth, which is nice for me and my own family as we are away from home.
“I’ve met people and their families, held their babies, and been to the funerals of family members. Each hotel is a small community of its own, and it is special and to be part of that,” Willats touchingly shared.
With a solid support system from both his personal and professional families, Willats is ably heading Dusit Thani Manila’s renovation program, starting off with the Club Lounge, whose revamp has been completed.
June will see the beginning of the 200-room renovation, phase by phase, while the end of the year will also bring in a brand new resturant for the hotel.
Willats further revealed that as Dusit Thani has succeeded in establishing and running two hospitality schools in Bangkok, the company is planning to open a third in Manila.
“They know there is a future in developing personnel here, even at a senior level. Young Filipinos should aim higher, even more than a managerial level,” he enthused.
“While I am here I want to develop as much people as possible in the hotel because I want to see Filipinos grow, and that’s part of my role here. To help develop and grow professionals for the industry,” he concluded.