If Kurt Wachtveitl, general manager of The Oriental in Bangkok, Thailand, ever decides to write his memoirs, every New York publisher and Hollywood studio may beg to buy the rights.
Wachtveitl, general manager for 38 years of what many critics call the world's best hotel, is so candid over coffee about the titans he's pampered, imagine what he'd serve up if he really dredged his memory.
But the career hotelier is no gossip. Nor is he arrogant or pompous, a trait often found in five star hotel managers who fancy themselves as royal as their guests.
Over toast and orange juice at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco during one of his recent visits to the States, the Austrian strikes me as polite and diplomatic, a little mischievous and no-nonsense.
He's the kind of guy you'd want on your side of the bargaining table when world peace is at stake.
In a frenzied, traffic-choked city like Bangkok, his own world is peaceful. He has 1,200 staff for just 396 rooms plus a regiment of butlers -- one for every 28 rooms and one per floor round the clock -- plus three attendants on every floor at all times.
The Thai Push
"This is Bangkok," he says. "Hotels in the industrialized Western world can't afford this many employees."
He needs those big numbers just to satisfy his demanding guests who are largely presidents, chairmen, CEOs, foreign ministers, royalty and A-list celebrities.
"When they arrive at 6 in the morning after a long flight, you must have rooms available immediately for them and their delegation," says Wachtveitl. "They're not going to hang out in the bar until 10. They want their suits pressed, their laundry cleaned and washed, and all must happen in one hour, at the snap of their finger."
The likes of Bill Gates, recently ousted American International Group CEO Maurice Greenberg and the chairmen of Unocal and Chevron plus so many corporate chiefs rarely relax when they travel and they rarely eat.
"They always have breakfast, lunch and dinner, but rarely eat, drink and don't want much attention," confides Wachtveitl.
In delicate, diplomatic negotiations with senior governmental officials over, say, oil exploration rights, visiting American top brass can't afford to insult their hosts.Thirsty For Action
"These people (top executives) have to be pretenders. They bring a glass to their throat but keep talking and don't really drink. Wetting your lips with a beautiful Chateau Petrus is such an unfortunate waste. They'll take a couple bites, and the waiter takes the plate discreetly and they keep the conversation going. These people are actors on a stage."
Wachtveitl says the "top big shots work 100- to 120-hour weeks, never stop on weekends, are always on line, always on their mobile phone or BlackBerry, even on vacation. They may get in a game of golf, but are always reachable."
When former GE Chief Executive Jack Welch made his annual pilgrimage to Bangkok, he'd have dinner until midnight with his top lieutenants and a massage at 1 or 2 a.m.
"You have to take a boat to our spa, and there he was in the dark of night reading faxes and e-mails and getting mad and screaming at what he was reading," says the hotelier. "Unbelievable. You would expect he would mellow out after midnight, but their adrenaline is always running."
When Greenberg came through, everything had to be as specified by his advance team. Not to the minute, but to the second, says Wachtveitl.
"He's very conscious about what he eats -- very lean, no butter. So the first thing our chef does in our (Michelin) three-star French restaurant, Le Normandie, is throw 25 grams of butter in the frying pan and starts cooking. Mr. Greenberg never went back into that room. They never forget. He wouldn't even attend an important function he was invited to because it was in that restaurant."
Greenberg didn't go hungry. The hotel has four other highly regarded restaurants.
How does The Oriental cater to its powerful guests? Consider this. The hotel has a fleet of 35 new BMWs standing by. It has a shopping butler who escorts you to stores and to shops that know if they flub even a stitch on a handmade shirt, the butler may never come back.
Wachtveitl can pick up a phone and connect a guest with a government bigwig, a local banker or almost anyone.
Some miracles he can't swing. Wachtveitl tells of the time Elizabeth Taylor checked out of the plush Bangkok suite and decided to return a day later. But Welch, the GE boss, moved in and she was offered the hotel's No. 2 suite.
"I've known Elizabeth since 1960 when I was working at the Beau Rivage in Geneva, but she was so mad, so impossible for 48 hours that nothing we did was right. If we ironed a dress, she would find a wrinkle. The food, the drinks -- nothing was right. All these superstars -- they're all wonderful people when they get exactly what they want, but the moment they don't, look out."
Wachtveitl's wants are simple. He and his wife have an apartment over the spa. "If I want a massage, I just take a broom and knock three times on the floor," he chuckles.
He never asks for room service. Nor do he and his wife cook.
"In 38 years, I've never had a meal in my apartment except, I think, for one Thanksgiving."
He prefers to mingle among his guests. Maybe that's the recipe for a great innkeeper.
"You have to do more than see what's going on," he says. "You have to taste it, smell it, feel it, live it."
Here's a surprise. You can live in The Oriental for $250 a night -- its average daily rate for a single room. Five star luxury in a high-rise box in New York costs twice as much.
Source: Investor's Business Daily By: Mr. Barnett - writes on business travel for Copley News Service.