Alicia Too, the shy girl who became the luxury hotel manager
28 years ago, Alicia Too found herself waiting for her friend Cynthia at the Mandarin Oriental hotel lobby in Macau. She sat there for half an hour, enamored by the beautiful aesthetics of the lobby and the way that the staff interacted with their guests. So powerful was her impression of the luxury hotel that Alicia told Cynthia of her desire to become part of their front-line.
Not the type of best friend to shy away from blunt truths, Cynthia told Alicia that she was too shy and unsuitable for that line of work.
Indignantly, Alicia applied for a job at the Mandarin Oriental and became a Conference and Services manager. That was only the beginning.
“I was like, what did I get myself into? Cynthia is so right – I was so shy,” said Alicia. “My role involved looking after events and banquets. I needed to do cold calls, go to industrial buildings, knock on their doors and introduce myself. Most of the time people just slammed the door in my face and said ‘I don’t have time!’”
She admitted to feeling down for the first six months. However, Alicia rolled up her sleeves and worked on her shyness by practicing her speeches at home, talking to the mirror and striking conversations with strangers.
“Passion is the keyword,” she said. “If you love the industry, you will eventually overcome all the challenges.”
Alicia went on to spend 25 years at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group (MOHG). After 12 years at their Macau branch and managing The Excelsior in Hong Kong, she was transferred to Guangzhou in China to help open the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel in 2013.
During her time at the MOHG, she was selected to join their Master of Business Administration (MBA) program at RMIT, where she got to work with people from all divisions of the MOHG.
“Aside from knowledge, the most important thing I gained from the MBA was confidence,” said Alicia. “We really learn from people who come from different regions, markets and experiences and challenge each other because everyone is so determined on [making] their points.”
“I learned to embrace different opinions and the MBA gave me this experience and knowledge.”
Today, Alicia is the Regional General Manager at the Lanson Place Hotel in Hong Kong and takes on a wider range of responsibilities. With a much smaller portfolio than MOHG, their presence lies mainly in Asia with boutique accommodation in China, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and a luxury serviced apartment in Melbourne.
“At Lanson Place, I learned a lot as a general manager,” she said. “I got involved in new projects and bidding on new businesses with my colleagues.”
Whichever hotel she is working at, receiving a simple compliment from a guest remains her favorite part of working in hospitality.
Her love for customer happiness drives her to fulfill even the quirkiest requests. Be it ensuring that a room’s humidity level is just right to protect an opera singer’s voice, or making sure the room faces a direction that is in-line with a guest’s feng shui, Alicia relishes in meeting their requirements.
“It’s very interesting actually,” she said. “You need to be very detailed and have a high emotional intelligence.”
At the same time, Alicia faces the same challenges as any hotel manager - talent spotting.
With the boom in tourism and international hotel chains in China, demand for hospitality talent is overpowering the supply.
“10 years ago in China, there was only one or two international hotel chains opening. Now, you name it, they’re all there even in the second-tier cities,” she said.
During her MOHG days, Alicia would spend two to three months traveling to various universities across Southern Chinese cities to tap into their talent pool and increase brand awareness.
“People used to knock on your door for jobs,” she said. “Now you need to be more proactive. Our competitors are also reaching out - nobody is sitting and waiting for talent anymore.”
Currently, Alicia is tapping into other platforms apart from universities. She seeks to partner Lanson hotel with charities to hire people with disabilities and ex-convicts who are recommended by agencies.
Her years in hospitality has conditioned Alicia to be always on the ball. Work-life balance seems to be an elusive concept as the lines between them become blurred.
“My phone is turned on 24 hours. Even when I was holidaying in Madrid recently, I still checked my emails,” she admitted. “But it’s already part of my life – it’s not additional work. I don’t feel additional pressure to do that.”
That being said, Alicia concedes that it is important to loosen your grip on work, especially when it comes to managing others.
“I used to be a very hands-on person,” she said.
“I kept on checking things, but gradually you need to learn how to delegate and give some room for the team to learn and make mistakes.”
“Sometimes my colleagues tell me to turn off my phone and just go away,” she laughed. “I’m like, okay I hear you loud and clear.”