The general manager of the InterContinental Hotel Kuala Lumpur on family, a career in hospitality and reinvigorating both her property and the industry as a whole.
Options: Congratulations on not just being appointed general manager but also the first woman leader to head the InterContinental KL, an IHG hotel. Tell us some of your plans for the property.
Meera Raj: Thank you! The InterContinental brand brings over 75 years of history with it, and our plan is to reinstate the glamour of the InterContinental life back to Kuala Lumpur. The key to this, I believe, is people. Having the right people in the right place is essential to bring the brand and property to life. Hospitality has suffered terribly during this pandemic and many people have left the industry, but I believe there still is passion out there. So, my personal goal is to create an atmosphere at the InterContinental KL where people can do what they love and be their best self every day, to attract this passion.
You started your career with IHG. Tell us some of your more memorable moments in hospitality.
My most memorable moment was probably something quite recent. I took on my first general manager posting in the heart of Bangkok a week before the pandemic hit Thailand. The pandemic did not care about one’s tenure as a GM — whether you were newly appointed or had 30 years of experience, the playing field was suddenly levelled as we were all facing the same unknown. It really made me realise how important acknowledging our human characteristics is as a leader. The more I expressed myself genuinely, the more my peers, seniors and subordinates reached out to support me. It was a really touching period.
Imagine having to announce to 200 people earning basic wage that they would be going home with about a third of that for the month — it was quite depressing thinking about how they would manage. Instead of me trying to comfort and give them hope, they came to comfort me for having to deliver such a painful message! I felt really blessed to be surrounded by such big hearts during that trying time. At the end of 2020, IHG recognised me as a GM who made a positive impact on her team and stakeholders, demonstrating strong leadership and resilience, and when I was awarded IHG SEAK’s (Southeast Asia-Korea) New General Manager Impact Award 2020, my team was the proudest.
What made you decide on hospitality as a career?
My dad used to work in the airline business, so we travelled extensively when I was young. I always enjoyed being in hotels and moving around — thus, when my original course of studies didn’t go to my liking, dad asked what I wanted to do. Honestly, I had never properly thought about it, but he reminded me how much I loved travelling and asked me to consider hospitality. I am so lucky he suggested it!
So, what was your original ambition in life?
I was on the path to becoming a doctor.
You’ve worked across the region prior to returning to Malaysia. Tell us some of the interesting cultural differences you have noticed between countries.
I often relate cultures to cuisines. Even though the region’s countries are close in proximity, their cuisines are distinct — satay in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia is similar yet very different. Likewise, culturally, the way we see authority, the way we comply with rules and regulations, and our work ethic differs greatly from country to country. It is imperative to notice and acknowledge these micro differences in order to fully amalgamate oneself into the team. There is also a great difference in how we perceive work across the region — as a necessity, as a passion, as a supplement to life. One thing we do have in common, though, is the importance we place on family.
How do you unwind after a long day at work?
I go on silent mode. Literally. And I just be. I make so many decisions at work so much so that after work, don’t even ask me what I want to have for dinner!
What are you reading right now?
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
What are you listening to right now?
’60s music. I’ve been a huge fan of Cliff Richard for the longest time.
Which books do you always reread and why?
During the pandemic, I picked up some self-help books, and I do reread some, like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I mark lightbulb points and whenever I feel like I am getting too consumed in day-to-day activities, I reread them to remind myself that there is more to all this, and as a reminder of my values and intent.
You’ve also served as a director of food and beverage before. What is your idea of comfort food?
Comfort food to me is food that brings back memories. At the hotel, we try to make new memories for guests whenever they dine. My food memories mostly come from Chef Lam’s kitchen — Chef Lam being my mum. For example, our family makes a sort of rice cake called hon tai that requires you to stretch and knead the dough while it is hot, prior to steaming. I’ve never done it myself, but I have a vivid memory from my childhood, when I must have been four or five years old, watching the adults make it. I remember my aunts and uncles rolling the balls of rice on the marble table top while my poh poh was fussing around in the kitchen, and my dad being the pseudo-Chinese that he is, also rolling rice cakes with mum. Whenever I eat hon tai, or something similar, I’m reminded of that image. I guess it’s not so much the food itself that gives me comfort but more the memories and feelings it evokes.
And where would you recommend guests eat when they want a real taste of Malaysia but not in a hotel setting?
I usually ask them to go where I go. I’m a huge fan of nasi lemak. So, if they are up for it, I set them on a nasi lemak trek!
What are your travel plans like for the rest of the year?
This question is painful for me, because I’ve always made one big trip every year to visit a couple of new places. After two years of not travelling, I have so many places I want to travel to! New York is definitely on my list. Realistically though, with this new position, I’m really focused on the task at hand. I might be able to make a short regional trip though, perhaps to Vietnam. The InterContinental Group has some lovely resorts there.
Describe your perfect weekend.
My perfect weekend is one where I have no plans. Waking up with sufficient hours of sleep clocked and then just doing whatever I feel like for the day while being accompanied by my loved ones and just going where the day takes me.
This article first appeared on May 30, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.