The newly arrived general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur on starting a new career chapter in Malaysia and important work and life lessons learnt amid the kerfuffle of Covid-19
Options: Selamat datang. How have your first two months in Malaysia been?
Alex Porteous: Eventful. I arrived on Oct 3 from Kyoto via Tokyo and promptly spent my first two weeks in Malaysia under quarantine. I got out on Oct 17 and have gone from quarantine to lockdown. It has been just over a month at work and I am thoroughly enjoying myself spending time with the team and understanding them, as well as learning how to support, assist and enhance everything they have been doing. In this most challenging year, they have racked up a host of awards, from bagging top spot at the 2020 Reader’s Choice Awards by Condé Nast Traveller to Bar Trigona being listed among the World’s 50 Best Bars. What do I do but take good care of them? After all, what better way than taking care of the employees so they can take care of the guests, wouldn’t you agree?
It is only your second visit to Malaysia, though, isn’t it?|
I was here just the one time, in 1993 [travelling through on the Eastern & Oriental Express]. But since then, I have met and connected with a lot of Malaysians. The owner of the Four Seasons Kyoto when I was based there is Malaysian and I have met numerous Tan Sris, Puan Sris, Datuks, Datins and other wonderful Malaysians who have visited the property. This is also my eighth destination after 27 years with the Four Seasons. Lucky number eight!
What impressions have you formed of the country?
It’s very eclectic, very beautiful. Although I have only visited once, I have lived and worked in Singapore twice before, so I am pretty connected with Malaysia in a way. Also, I am an avid amateur photographer and have been spending weekends exploring the neighbourhoods around me. I was very lucky to have wandered around Brickfields recently, which was all decked out for Deepavali. I have a passion for street photography and shoot in monochrome on a Leica Q, which was almost a pity as the colours and flowers were just so vivid.
Which other areas have captured your eye?
Due to the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO), I’ve kept my exploring close to home but I can’t wait to venture further afield. I really love Kampung Baru and its contrast of old and new with the city. The Saloma Bridge all lit up at night is stunning. I often get a lot of raised eyebrows when I tell people I walk everywhere. For example, I would take a Grab to Brickfields or Chinatown and then walk all the way back to the hotel, using the Petronas Twin Towers as my landmark ... following the horizon home, if you will. Yes, it can be hot but you know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen. I just make sure I have my cap on so I don’t get sunburnt.
What have been the most important lessons this pandemic has taught you?
It is to appreciate what we had and what we have. It’s about celebrating the small things and the steps I will take as I lead the team into the new normal. The hospitality landscape is evolving rapidly and in unprecedented ways. What got us to where we are today isn’t going to be what gets us to where we want to be tomorrow. Our No 1 priority for the hotel now is looking after people. Ultimately, we want everyone — from guests to employees — to feel safe. We are lucky to have large spaces here in the hotel as well as various best practices in effect. Yes, people complain of Covid fatigue but we have to remember there is a fine balance between looking after one’s health and the economy. I think Malaysia is doing a good job with short- to medium-term implementations that will help us all in the long term.
How has technology helped you with the challenges of 2020?
In our company, it has been Microsoft Teams. It has helped those who can work remotely do so with ease. Can I also just say that I don’t like the term “social distancing”? I much prefer physical distancing as I believe we can still be very social even if seated 6ft apart. On a personal level, I like The Secret Daily Teachings app, which I subscribe to for motivation as I found the physical book to be a deep and meaningful read for me. I also like this workout app — the 7 Minute Workout Challenge, a quick good workout that can be done anywhere, anytime. Ideal, as I can just exercise in-room without having to go to the gym, for instance.
How else have you been looking after yourself?
I’m not a gym fanatic, although I should be. But I wake up at 5am daily to meditate (yes, I am a fan of Robin Sharma’s The 5 AM Club), followed by a workout and shower, and then I practise my hiragana and katakana for half an hour as I have yet to perfect my Japanese writing. After that, a nice coffee and then to work.
Does music help too?
Oh yes. You can give me Ed Sheeran or Harry Styles everyday. It’s very English, yes I know, but it is also music my daughters enjoy. I have three, by the way: aged 16 and 15, two are twins. I also like what you call mod music, like The Jam and Style Council. In fact, I even had a Lambretta when I was younger.
Malaysians are big Japanophiles. What Kyoto travel tips can you share for when the world takes on a sense of normalcy again?
Besides its 2,000 temples and shrines, Kyoto is just amazing for its four highly distinctive seasons. I particularly love walking along the Kamogawa River, which runs through the city, and Eikan-do Temple for the changing leaves. But you need to go early. Taizo-in is another temple I am very attached to, having met its deputy head priest before. For food, you simply can’t have a bad meal in Kyoto. For drinks, do try the local dry gin Ki No Bi, and my favourite speakeasy there is called Bee’s Knees.
And where would you like to head to once the world reopens?
To the UK, to see my parents and make sure they are okay. Basically, anywhere where family is. I would also like to go back to Kyoto, where my wife Satoko and I have a place, to see our friends. If there’s one thing this pandemic has shown me, family and friends are truly what matters. And I would also love to travel around Malaysia, to places like Penang, Melaka and the east coast, so I can better appreciate the country in which I am now.
This article first appeared on Nov 23, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.