In her first three months in Thailand, the new general manager of The Peninsula Bangkok discovers that The Peninsula philosophy and the Thai way of doing things match perfectly.
By Laurence Civil
When Katja Henke took over as general manager at The Peninsula Bangkok on Dec. 27, 2012, she became the second woman to hold this role at the hotel. Not that it even matters. As she herself puts it: “Much has been said that there are now three female general managers of five-star properties on the river. But gender shouldn’t be an issue; it’s about time. In the nine Peninsula hotels worldwide, we have four have female general managers. There is nothing more important than having a balance.”
A native of Hamburg, Germany, Katja started her hospitality career in Switzerland, where at the age of 18, she embarked on a two-year apprenticeship at the Bernerhof in Gstaad and attended the Schweizerische Hotelfachschule Luzern. Katja’s international career has also taken her to France, England, and the United States, where she worked as general manager of Blantyre, a Relais & Châteaux property in Lenox, Massachusetts. Prior to joining The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Limited (HSH), she was hotel manager at the Four Seasons in Washington, D.C. and the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills, California.
Later, she joined the Peninsula Group as hotel manager of their Shanghai property. “I started playing with the idea of moving on from my job,” she says, “and I was always intrigued by The Peninsula Hotels. I see The Peninsula as the perfect marriage between my two previous worlds: a family atmosphere like Relais & Châteaux and a corporate environment like Four Seasons. Moving to Asia and joining The Peninsula Shanghai was the best and most exciting decision in my career.
Katja says it was very special to be part of the team that Forbes Travel Guide recognized with its prestigious five-star award for both the hotel and spa. “On a personal note, I greatly enjoyed learning about Chinese culture and connecting with local employees,” she says.
But when she was approached about the general manager position at The Peninsula Bangkok, she said she was “over the moon.”
“Thailand is the true essence of hospitality and this was an opportunity I had always hoped for,” she says. “The Peninsula Bangkok is a special place because its team has a great a sense of pride and is dedicated to providing high-level service.
“There is something special about the Thai touch that has a sincere warmth which has not only met but exceeded my expectations,” she adds. “It comes from the smile and their actions that make the experience so special and comes from the heart. In the three months I have been in Thailand I have discovered that The Peninsula philosophy and the Thai way of doing things are a perfect match. Also being a family owned company makes the difference, our priority is the guest experience and their wellbeing, which is the key to what we are.”
“After a turbulent six years in Thailand,” she says, “The Peninsula Bangkok, thankfully, had its first calm high season. It is time to move on from the past refocus of the guest experience. Both sides of the Chao Phraya River are a destination with so much to offer. I can only assume that anyone who says that our hotel is on the wrong side of the river hasn’t taken our ferryboat from the Taksin Pier. Taking it to cross the river is therapy in itself.”
“I wanted to come to Bangkok,” she continues. “But before I can change anything I need to observe and adapt first so that I don’t offend but respect the culture. The first Thai custom I have embraced is the wai, the culture of stopping and taking time to show respect with the gracious gesture. It has a feel good factor that is never found in a casual ‘hi’.
Her excitement about living and working in Thailand is reflected in the way she talks about her plans for the hotel, which incidentally is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year:
“We plan to bring more life into our bars and restaurant. We are not standing still; if anything, we are walking a little faster and we will be announcing them as soon as they have been finalized.
“Also, it’s important to listen to the mood of our guests and sense what they are looking for. We believe they now want to get out and explore a true Thai experience. That is why in one of our new Peninsula Academy packages, we are taking our guests to an area of the city to discover three religions in harmony in the same neighbourhood to visit a mosque, a temple, and a church.”
“A point that is often overlooked,” she adds, “is that The Peninsula Bangkok is the only hotel in Bangkok with its own golf course: The Thai Country Club, one of the finest courses in Asia. This relationship allows us not only to book guests a preferred tea time but also make it easier for them to get there and back.”
Katja is enjoying Bangkok very much on her own too: “I feel very comfortable living and working in Bangkok,” she says. “I like to explore the city by walking the streets at a pace I can appreciate what it has to offer, not just the cultural side but other aspects too like the restaurants. Those that have caught my eye so far are Harmonique, Opus, Bo.lan, and Eat Me — with many more waiting to be discovered.”