To avoid the usual cookie-cutter experience one may find at typical hotels, The Datai Langkawi reinvents by introducing activities surrounding concepts such as sustainbility. General manager Arnaud Girodon explains more in his interview.
Options: How have the needs of luxury hotel guests changed and has that affected the way you run The Datai Langkawi?
Arnaud Girodon: We want to cater more to the upcoming high-end travellers. Nowadays, we have more families travelling, purely because people are having kids later. Back in my parents’ time and earlier than that, people were getting married, having kids and then at the same time travelling and by 35, the kids were gone. Over time, things have changed. Now we enjoy being bachelors, get married, make sure we have enough money to support the kid and then only have the kid, right? I’m a typical example; I had my kids when I was 35, 36. Now I’m 46 and I can travel with my kids to nice resorts. So [we are] a totally different generation. More families are travelling in the luxury market, so we have to cater to that.
What we didn’t want to do was the usual cookie-cutter hotel thing, and offer kids things like kids’ club, Lego, dumping zone or watching movies. We wanted to do more educational entertainment, so we created a nature centre with activities around nature.
We then put major emphasis on sustainability, teaching kids by creating a recycling workshop, little gardeners [sessions] where they can do composting and a cooking class. So that was the overall aspect, to focus on family but only to a certain level. Normally, we cater for 30%-40% families and 60%-70% couples. With the change from the MCO (Movement Control Order), we have suddenly become 80% family and 20% couples.
What were your goals when you oversaw the refurbishment of The Datai in 2017?
A few things. First and foremost was to keep the DNA of The Datai. That’s why I brought back Didier Lefort, who was the original interior designer of The Datai in 1993. There were two architects of that time — one was Kerry Hill who did the architecture and the other was Didier Lefort who did the interior design. So I brought back Didier because most of the work was interior design. The first aim was to keep the DNA, but at the same time to keep in truth with the original Datai. At one point there were changes in the design and they had brought some Balinese elements, which were against the original spirit of The Datai, which was Malay contemporary.
At the Datai, the one thing we don’t want to be is a cookie-cutter hotel. We try to do things differently, and not differently just to be different but to be truthful to who we are — from nature, education, well-being and wellness to the excellence in our core services like food and beverage, housekeeping and spa.
[We wanted] to upgrade the facilities to have an even higher luxury segment. So for example, we created The Datai Villa, which is a five-bedroom 3,500 sq m space. We created the Rainforest Pool Villa, by a stream, which is very unique; no other hotel has that. We upgraded our spa with a suite, with a full integrated experience. And then we developed different nature trails around the resort — like the nature trail and canopy walk. We went full nature, full sustainability, we upgraded our facilities, we went more family and we respected the original DNA of the resort.
Tell us a bit more about The Datai’s sustainability goals.
We wanted to include sustainability in everything we do, so we created The Datai pledge, which is a very ambitious sustainability programme based on four pillars: 1. To protect the environment, this is called Pure for the Future; 2. To protect the fauna and flora within our rainforest, or Wildlife for the Future; 3. Protecting marine life, or Fish for the Future; and 4. To educate youth and have nature protection awareness, which is called Youth for the Future.
We ensure our operations include sustainability in everything we do. So we recycle everything. When we say zero waste to landfill, we mean it. Organic waste is fairly easy, there’s composting and all that. But we recycle everything — plastic, cans, glass. We bought a lot of machines, so we shred plastic, crush glass to powder (or a little bit bigger depending on what we want to do with it after), we burn some of the non-toxic waste with our incinerator, and we use different companies to take things to upcycle.
Then we have to do something with all of it, so we created an upcycling lab for the recycled plastic and glass. We mix glass and plastic into concrete. Then we have our guests upcycle some plastic. We have a machine that lets them make their own items, like souvenirs, which they can take home.
What are some of the biggest lessons that the past two years have taught you?
There are various takeaways from this pandemic. The first is that whatever one does, it affects others as well, and I am talking about the world stage here. We are really so interdependent that the world seems much smaller. And indeed because of this, we need each other and we need to help and support one another more than ever.
The second is the fact that we can live without many things that we initially thought we couldn’t, but what we can’t live without is nature on our side. Hence sustainability will become an even more predominant topic and truly, a matter of survival.
Finally, to never take things for granted. We thought business travel could never be threatened but now we see what a tiny virus can do in just a matter of a few months. We see how we all had to adapt to a totally different business model in only a few weeks. We had to change our lifestyles in a few days. So the realities of yesterday are no longer the ones of tomorrow …
These are for me the biggest lessons I have learnt among quite a few more.
What is the best advice you have received so far?
Well, I have two … One was given to me when I was a child by my late grandmother who passed away last year at the age of 100, and it goes something like this: “Respect is a two-way street. If you want to get it, you have to give it first.” I always try to ensure that I respect the people around me, regardless, and I believe it has served me well so far.
The other advice was one I heard during my time working in Dubai, by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates), who said, “In the race for excellence, there is no finish line”. I thought in the field of luxury hotels, this is great advice to keep in mind to always try and improve.
What are your goals for 2022?
This is a very hard one, frankly, as it is not really up to me but rather up to the virus and how the world of doctors, scientists and politicians will be able to provide us with weapons to fight it. We have a few projects in the pipeline and therefore my goals would be to achieve at least two of them — pandemic or not! Besides that, it is very much a wait-and-see situation and trying to adapt as best as we can.
What are you reading and listening to, to keep motivated?
Lately, I have been reading and listening more but more to distract rather than motivate me frankly. I enjoy historical fiction and non-fiction, and ancient philosophy, such as the works of Plato, Aristotle and Rousseau, which offer a good perspective of life and people. I enjoy listening to music (especially rock music) to relax and almost always when I drive. Finally, I am also a movie buff and a Netflix fan.
Once the borders are open, where do you hope to travel to and why?
France for obvious reasons — I have not seen my family for over two years, and my children, their grandparents, uncles and cousins. This is really becoming an urgent matter as no one over there is getting any younger!
This article first appeared on Jan 24, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.