A Sense of Home:
The Grand Hyatt Singapore
by Marc Nair, 23 Feb 2017
The Grand Hyatt Singapore sits like a regal, self-assured dame on busy Scotts Road, close to the junction of Orchard Road. She’s been here for 43 years and has seen generations of businesses come and go, as the area around transformed from a mix of iconic departmental stores and old shophouses into a teeming hub of megalithic malls. Through it all, she has maintained her impeccable service standards, welcoming all through her doors not just with a smile, but a genuine sense of happiness.
So when Mackerel was invited to stay at the Grand Hyatt and interview some of its staff, we welcomed the chance to listen to their stories and find out the source of that happiness.
Doorman, Grand Hyatt Singapore
As the hotel doorman, the first line of contact for incoming guests and visitors, Deva’s ready smile never fails to cheer up the most harried of businessmen.
Deva rides in from Malaysia every day to get to work. The cost of living is high in Singapore, so living in Malaysia allows him to spend time with his family, although the commute can be taxing.
One of his favourite things to do is to meet new guests. “I just want to shake his hand, but he comes and hugs me anyway,” he says, describing a frequent hotel guest. “And I know a guest from Sri Lanka who has two children. They first came to the hotel in 2008. Now, the children are taller than me! The two kids are very kind and always hug me. They remind me of my family.”
“I don’t want to retire as long as I’m still fit,” he insists, despite the long (nine and a half hour) shifts. Before becoming a doorman he was a car jockey at Hyatt. His colleagues are far more junior than him and arrive as interns for a year or so. So Deva becomes an evergreen mentor. But he enjoys teaching the young men who come under his wing and they, too, respond in kind, just like some of his more grateful guests.
The toughest guests for Deva are those who show no sympathy, insisting that he walk out onto the main road in the rain to hail a cab. It’s a struggle to remain kind and patient, but he has to. “In my line of work, we must know how to smile and how to greet and talk to the guests.”
He has to maintain relationships with the young doormen, hotel guests and the taxi drivers, some of whom get irritated the minute there’s a queue to access the hotel.
But, Deva handles them all with aplomb. Shy in person, he transforms into a paragon of efficiency and resolute action when he’s out at the front of the hotel. He marshals taxis and private cars firmly but always with a smile, dividing his attention between attending to passengers in the taxi queue, manoeuvring luggage in and out of car boots and keeping the traffic flow smooth and uninterrupted.
Operations Manager, Grand Hyatt Singapore
Mike wears his years like a well-cut suit. He manages the serving staff at Straits Kitchen and has been with the hotel for the past 25 years. His easygoing manner belies a sharp nose for sussing out slack practices and his focus on making customers happy makes him a firm crowd favourite. But, this is also a man who leads by example.
“I came to work at Hyatt 32 years ago. I was helping my family run a business in a teh tarik stall. After two years, I told my parents I wanted to go work on my own. First, I went to the hotel opposite Hyatt. They told me I had to shave my moustache, but I said, no way, I look cool! Then I walked into Hyatt. I followed a literal yellow line all the way to HR.”
At the interview, he was asked if he had any experience in the industry. And Mike replied, to raised eyebrows, that he had experience in coffeeshops.
“So he asked if I can do the job. And I said, yes, I can do a better job. And then he told me that my name, Ramakrishnan, seems too long for guests to pronounce. Well, you can call me Rama, or Krishnan, or Joe or Mike, I replied. And he agreed that Mike seems like a good name. So I was baptized as Mike. And after a few years nobody remembered my Indian name anymore.”
His origins, like so many of the Hyatt staff, are unprepossessing, yet what they all have in common are an indefatigable desire to work hard and thrive in their given roles.
Mike tells me that he takes great pride in watching guests eating the food he serves. When he sees them enjoy it, he feels good. But that’s also, he notes wryly, part of the job. Over the years, there have been good days and bad days, and one that literally left him with cake on his face was at Pete’s Place many years ago.
“Part of my job as a waiter was to collect whole cakes and bring them down for display before lunch. So I was carrying multiple cakes on a rectangular tray. And as I passed through the swing door, it swung open, but when I moved in the door swung right back at me and knocked all five cakes to the floor. A regular customer of mine witnessed the entire episode, and until this day they still joke with me about the cakes. It was embarrassing!”
Working in hospitality he says, is like hosting people in your home. It’s not fake, it’s sincere. Whatever you say to your guests as a host should be from your heart. To him, this job is not a career. It started as a necessity but it ended up being his life.
“I frequently get posted out as part of a support team to sister properties around the world. It’s exciting because I get exposed to culture, cuisine and practices. My main job is to gel the associates and make them believe in Hyatt.”
Personally, his ethos is simple. To him, the biggest asset of Hyatt is its people, and so he cares for people above all else. Which explains why, whenever he visits another Hyatt property somewhere else, he instantly feels at home.
And just as he has been blessed by incredible service, he always tries to return in kind whenever he has an opportunity to do so.
“One time, a guy from Housekeeping in Hyatt City of Dreams Manila came to Singapore. He checked in with his wife. I asked him what he was doing and invited him for dinner. He was touched because we called him and made him feel important. I believe this kind of treatment should be for everyone, not just executives. No money in the world can buy that sense of worth. I just want to return that hospitality.”
Mike was once offered an all expense paid trip to go to any Hyatt property anywhere in the world for two weeks. But he didn’t take it up, or rather hasn’t taken it up yet. His answer was simple, yet moving.
“I said, thank you, but I’m just doing my job. Send me out again.”
Sous Chef – Japanese, Mezza9, Grand Hyatt Singapore
Chef Jems greets me like he’s known me for years. It’s disarming, and part of the secret of how he retains his loyal customers. He puts as much time and patience into cultivating his friendship with his patrons as he does into his obvious skill in the kitchen.
“I always like to go to a restaurant where I feel comfortable. I feel at home there. So I try to provide the same experience for my customers. When I have a new dish or a promotion I’ll text them to come and try. And 80% of them say yes! It takes a lot of time, but you know, when you create something that you believe is nice and delicious, you want your customers to experience it as well.”
After eight years at Mezza9, he knows that he’s made an impact on the customers when they start to return his kindness in small ways.
“When my wife was pregnant, I mentioned to a customer of mine that she was craving for chicken pie. The next thing I knew, he had left the table suddenly to ‘get something.’ When he returned, he gave me an entire box of chicken pies!”
“When regular customers visit, they usually tell me, ‘Jems, just arrange for me.’ They trust I’ll give them good food and a great dining experience at a reasonable price. Guests will come back if you know what they want and you treat them with respect. Sometimes, you have to be a listener as much as you are a chef.”
His chosen genre of cuisine is Japanese, likening it to an art. Indeed, he slices the fish with even-handed skill, taking extra care to garnish and plate each dish with something beyond the aesthetic. Here is a measure of love.
He believes in sustainable seafood, so that means, crucially, that the seafood that comes in is seasonal and not always consistent. According to him, it’s still catching on in Asia. It took 10 years for people to accept organic products and it’s mostly moneyed customers who assume that because they have the money, they are entitled to get whatever they want.
Chefs work long hours. They have to be patient, able to take feedback and be good listeners as well as showcase leadership. It’s a difficult job to balance all these components, but it’s obvious to see that Chef Jems has a tacit, smooth understanding with fellow chefs and servers alike. The entire team functions like clockwork. But it wasn’t always this easy.
“When I first joined the industry, people were doing the minimum and not treating the job with respect. But I slowly bonded them together, telling them that people may have good and bad characteristics. But if you choose to only see their bad side, then you are a fool for not recognising their positive values.
If my colleagues have an issue about work, I can help them. If it’s a personal issue, I can only advise. At the end of the day, you have to give people opportunities to keep learning. Mistakes are fine, but you have to learn from them.”
His kitchen rules are simple: hygiene, presentation, quality of food and mutual respect.
“When you respect the uniform, you’ll respect the food,” he says with a smile, before offering me yet another plate of sashimi.
Director of Spa, Damai Spa, Grand Hyatt Singapore
Karu strikes me as a gentle soul, yet the fire in his eyes belies otherwise. I was warned that he had a tearjerker of a story, but little did I expect something that parallels the recent movie ‘Lion’, starring Dev Patel.
Karu was pretty much abandoned by his parents when he was just four or five. Taken in by the welfare arm of a church, he used to study under streetlights. Such a difficult life meant that he was always in survival mode. Where he grew up was rife with drugs and all kinds of vices. He managed to stay away from that scene and threw himself instead into sports. And it was football that gave him a way out.
“Guys from the Hyatt football team used to play near where I was staying after finishing National Service. I used to hang out there and asked if I could play with them. But in order to play for them I had to work at the Hyatt. So I asked, is there a job for me? I started working part-time, doing room service and being a towel boy.”
Fortunately for Karu, he found a sense of security almost immediately in the Hyatt. And the hotel became quite literally family for him, as it was there that he met his future wife.
“I started my career with a need to put food on the table. I had it since young. I used to run errands for families. They would ask me to get a couple of bottles of Fanta and I would drink half a bottle and top it up with water! Now, it’s a desire to be comfortable. I don’t want to be a millionaire, but want to be able to send my kids to school, to teach them good values, and not take anything for granted. I teach those same things to my team.”
It’s a woman’s world, literally, that Karu has found himself in, and despite meeting his share of detractors, he's developed a wide-ranging skill-set that includes being able to do treatments, manicures, facials and train the therapists under him. Above all, is his heart for service.
“I want to make others feel good. I am for others, not for myself. Instead of being broken, I want to heal others. I was given few chances growing up, but now, I want to give back.”
Of Waterfalls and Willing Hearts
These four men may inhabit very different spaces in the hotel, but whether they are behind a kitchen counter or in front of the taxi rank, what is uppermost in their minds is not just making hotel guests feel welcome, but engendering a true sense of home.
Some would say though that the real source of happiness in the Grand Hyatt is their giant waterfall, which instantly transports you somewhere else. There’s nothing quite like the sound of falling water to wash away the demands of the day, making it easy to forget that we’re no longer in the middle of an enormous commercial jungle. It could also be a metaphor for the hotel's service, which is constant and always refreshing. Here, indeed, is a corner of happiness, where the air is just that bit fresher.