John Parché knows a thing or two about hotels. And so he should after 47 years working in the business. Brad Foster caught up with him for what will be a series of Q&As with prominent GMs.
General manager – Byron at Byron Resort and Spa
Years in current position: 8.5
Years working in hotels: 47
Q. What was your first job in the hotel business and when?
A. My first job was the Belvedere Hotel in Sydney in 1963. It was owned and operated by a Swiss hotelier. I was attracted to the hotel industry as I wanted to be part of tourism growth in Australia which in those days was in its infancy. The potential was waiting to be exploited, which really only started in 1975 with the opening of the first international hotel, the Sydney Hilton.
After three years at The Belvedere my boss encouraged me to study overseas if I was serious about staying in the industry. Hotel management courses were few and far between in Australia and well behind the recognised institutions in Switzerland, the UK and USA. I moved to London in 1966 and completed four years of study at what is now known as West London University with practical experience at The London Hilton, Dorchester and Grosvenor House hotels, all prestige properties in Park Lane.
I loved the regal style of guests who frequented these luxury hotels, and pomp and circumstance that went with caring for distinguished visitors such as Jack Benny, Gregory Peck, Maurice Chevalier, and Noel Coward just to name a few of the old-style personalities of the film and acting world of that era. Today’s younger generation probably don’t recognise any of these names but they equate to the top end actors in current times.
Q.Where else did you work internationally?
A. Commencing with London and after finishing my studies in 1970, I moved to the Algarve in Portugal where I found a disused pig farm and converted it to a restaurant. This continued until late 1974 when I returned to Australia.
I spent a short stint with Travelodge (still no international chains in Australia until April, 1975) before joining the Hilton in Sydney in 1976 until 1979. From there I went to Bowral in the NSW Southern Highlands for seven-and-a-half years operating an upmarket health retreat where my wife Lyn and I met the founder of Aman Resorts, Adrian Zecha through our mutual friend Ted Wright of The Regent Sydney.
In January 1987, Lyn and I joined Adrian as the first Aman employees. We sat in his Hong Kong office and discussed how and where the first Aman Resort would be. Adrian owned a two million acre property in the NT and it was planned to establish a typical Australian outback experience on Elsey Station south of Katherine. Regrettably, problems arose with the local indigenous people about stock routes, burial sites and a reaction to building a luxury resort on the banks of the Roper River. After many months of negotiating and drawing a blank, Adrian walked away and sold the property to the Aboriginal Development Council. Shortly after, Amanpuri in Phuket Thailand opened. It was a great loss for Australian tourism.
While working on The Elsey Station project in The Northern Territory and staying as a long-time resident at the Beaufort Hotel in Darwin, Adrian purchased the hotel after the Malaysian owners went into receivership. My career path suddenly changed and I ended up being GM of the 195-room hotel. Four years later, I transferred to Brisbane to operate The Heritage, then to The Sukhothai in Bangkok, before returning to Australia to rejoin Aman Resorts to establish more properties in Australia and the South Pacific. After visiting sites in the South Pacific, including New Zealand, it was considered all too difficult and Aman continued to prosper in SE Asia followed by the USA, Caribbean and more recently Europe.
In 2001, Gerry and Katie Harvey, friends who go back to 1975, made contact when Lyn and I were living in southern California and suggested that upon our return we should meet to discuss the possibility of developing a resort with them.
After agreeing in principle, we undertook a feasibility which was accepted. The next step was the appointment of a suitable architect where planning, design, and development commenced on the 45 acre rainforest site, now known as The Byron at Byron.
Q.What has working in the hotel business given you that you don’t think you could have achieved in any other profession?
A. The answers that people provide when being interviewed about this profession are often quite interesting. Most say the interaction with people is what excites them. Real interaction really
only happens at a resort level where time can be spent with guests who are visiting to relax. Corporate hotels are vastly different. That’s the main reason I love resorts and where I spend a good portion of my time. With over 55 per cent of our business being return guests, I believe that guests enjoy meeting senior management and discussing the resort’s history. Personally, I do not know another profession where such a diverse and eclectic group can gather under one roof and be different every day. It’s never boring.
Q.What do you like about it?
A. The passion, commitment and the fact that apart from a four year sabbatical I took from the industry in 1997, it’s all I know. If I disliked the industry, I would certainly not have spent the majority of my working life in it.
Q.What do you dislike?
A. The expression that “the customer is always right”. Unfortunately, they are sometimes (and rarely) very unreasonable and it doesn’t mean they are right. It’s how one handles the situation.
Q.You’ve been involved in many events in the various venues you’ve worked in. Do you have a favourite? Why?
A. My favourite event was asking long time friend Barry Humphries to sit on a stage, dressed to the nines as only Barry can and talk to an audience about his life after leaving Australia in 1955 to develop Edna Everage into the megastar she is today. It was a resounding success and tickets sold out in less than an hour. Lunch was included but it was the comedy and not the food that drew the audience. I’m trying to get him to do it again. Pinning him down is difficult as he’s in such demand!
Q.Funniest/strangest guest request?
A. A chair for a long staying guest to sit in the driveway. The guest was an eccentric to say the least. He also wore 12 cardigans back to front every day. That was in Darwin, back in the late 80s.
Q.Most famous guest?
A. Difficult question. Famous can mean different things to different people. Douglas Bader for Battle of Britain heroism; Noel Coward for acting, as well as Maurice Chevalier, Gregory Peck, Jack Benny, Morecombe and Wise, Barry Humphries, David Frost, Madonna, Prince, Neil Diamond, countless politicians from Fraser, Hawke, McMahon, Keating, Howard, and most recently Julia Gillard. Princess Anne and her daughter Zara are the only royalty I’ve met.
Q.How has the business changed?
A. Thank goodness for today’s technology. It has revolutionised efficiency, brought the world together in a matter of seconds/minutes through high speed broadband and allowed decisions to be made with minimal time wastage. I could write forever on the tedious systems I was trained on back in the sixties. At the time it was considered the latest and most up to date but by comparison with what is available today, it was a joke.
Q.If you had to pick a country for service excellence what would it be and why?
A. SE Asia for service and efficiency. I speak mainly within the five star hotels/resorts. With low payroll costs, operators can almost double the manpower levels and still be well below the high cost of wages we endure in Australia. The USA follows and again the hourly rate is half of what is offered in Australia but a high service charge applies – sometimes as much as 22 per cent on the total bill. It’s all about user pays in the US where food and beverage prices are very much lower and gratuities are part of the culture.
Q.How do us Aussies fare on the world stage?
A. Friendlier, more relaxed and generally good but trying to compare with SE Asia for example, we are a long way behind. We do however, ask staff to work smartly and earn their money. On the high rates, it’s all about efficiency and productivity. Tough laws sometimes not well regarded amongst the business world have to be accepted and incorporated in the daily work routine. Having worked in Asia, the Australian system although difficult, is much preferred just to live and work in this country.
Q.What advice can you offer to people considering a move into hotel management?
A. Those who wish to enter hotel operations should only do so if they have a burning passion for the industry. It can be very rewarding for anyone prepared to commit, dedicate and show a genuine interest in developing a career path.
Having a positive attitude, vibrant personality and being well-presented will always be noticed at the interview stage and account for a greater chance of an appointment. The old adage “hire for attitude and train for skill” is very much alive.