On the mystical island of Langkawi, nestled in the heart of a 10-million-year-old rainforest, The Datai Langkawi resort has always been seen as an unparalleled luxury destination. Since its inception in 1993, the resort has ranked among the top 10 in the world, and held steadfastly to the number one position on the island for many years. While it was still held in high regard, when general manager Arnaud Girodon arrived on our coast to take on his post four years ago, the resort was facing some challenges.
“When I arrived at The Datai it was on a downward spiral. It was considered as old, even though it did not look that way,” said the dynamic Frenchman during a sit-down at the Themed Attractions Resorts and Hotels office. “One of the biggest challenges was that I couldn’t close the hotel on a downward spiral… because then the trust in the market wouldn’t be there. I couldn’t command the rate that I wanted, I wanted to get the rate up and be able to close on an upward spiral.
“We were up there back in the golden era of The Datai, in 1995 to 1998, all the way up to 2006. It was regarded not only as the top resort in Malaysia but one of the top resorts in the world. From 2008 to 2009 that dropped a little because new resorts came to the region, and while The Datai was among the best resorts in the world it was not in the top 10.”
For the next two years Girodon worked on touching up the hotel, making sure it was ok “to pass”, also focusing on boosting the morale of employees.
“This was so that we could go into the market and say ‘we’re back’. Before we closed, we finished at number one of the island in terms of occupancy. We were number four when I took over the resort, and in two years we managed to turn the resort around to get it to a level whereby ‘now we can close, now you can have trust in us,’” added Girodon.
With the confidence that they had gone above and beyond to elevate the resort’s ranking to a point that it would withstand a 10-month closure period, Girodon got to work on the physical aspects of the resort’s transformation.
A physical makeover
The Datai Langkawi was brought to life in 1991 by visionary architect Kerry Hill, who fell in love with the Datai Bay on his first site visit with fellow designer Didier Lefort.
Twenty-five years later, Lefort was appointed once again to lead the extensive renovation on the property, with nature at the centre of the transformation.
“There had been no major renovations done for 25 years, it was time to refresh The Datai to its era as being one of the most highly regarded resorts in the world,” said Girodon.
“All the interior design was redone in all the rooms, public areas, F&B outlets, the walk-in wine cellar, beach club, and we introduced new facilities such as the Nature Centre which I hope is going to be one of our biggest additions to the guests’ experience.”
Home to a wealth of flora and fauna, and set against the backdrop of South-East Asia’s oldest mountain, the Machincang, The Datai Langkawi is a nature lover’s paradise.
The Nature Centre, an open-air structure inspired by a tribal bamboo longhouse contains a library full of references to the natural world of Malaysia and a lounge to sit and listen to stories from the wild by resident naturalist Irshad Mobarak and team.
At the centre, guests can also enjoy specially curated teas made using herbs and spices from plants native to the rainforest by Dr Ghani, Langkawi’s well-known traditional Malay medicine guru.
“The pinnacle of our transformation is The Datai Estate, a five-bedroom villa with two pools, a private chef, butler, the highlight of what we’ve done in the renovations,” said Girodon.
The resort is also celebrating its new look with a delectable eight-course dinner on Dec 19 and 20 by France-based father and son chef duo Michel and Sebastien Bras, whose flagship restaurant, Le Suquet in Laguiole, has held three Michelin stars for 19 years.
The People factor
While the facilities and design of the buildings and outdoor areas underwent major renovations, the resort’s improvements didn’t stop there.
During the closure period, the growth of the employees was made a priority – under the Datai Investing In People Initiative (DIP), they were sent “back to school”.
Commencing in October 2017, the initiative was part of the hotel’s aim to support and nurture talent, offering certification education programmes, with every aspect of the immersive principles custom-designed for The Datai employees.
The DIP programme sent the middle management and supervisors to obtain the “Advance Certificate of Excellence for Executives in Hospitality Management” from Universiti Utara Malaysia in partnership with Overview Sdn Bhd, while the Rank and File track saw participants receive the “Certificate of Achievement” from Taylor’s University in partnership with the Langkawi Tourism Academy.
Graduates celebrated with their loved ones during a graduation ceremony in July 2018, and the resort will continue the DIP initiative on an ongoing basis to further elevate the skills of its employees.
“For us it has always been about retaining people, it’s about education and growth, career growth and personal growth. It was important for many factors, because you’re retaining your employees. The hotel is giving towards their education, betterment and career path, because obviously they will grow, they will gain maturity, knowledge and confidence and it really benefits our guests majorly,” explained Girodon.
“They have more pride and confidence in what they do, more confidence to talk to the guests, it’s a full circle, yes it was an expensive exercise but I think it was a critical exercise.”
Proof of this – the resort had less than 6% turnover in 2017, by far the lowest turnover on the island, and according to Girodon, 62% of the employees at The Datai have worked there for more than 15 years.
“For us it’s about warmth, Malaysian hospitality, which has always been described as sincere, warm, ‘welcome to my home’, and that’s what it’s all about and we want to promote that, we want people to feel that way because we know that they are going to take care of their home, the facilities, the materials that we give them, take care of their guests and this is what we want to instill and we’re glad to be able to have achieved this over the course of few years.”
A testament to how instrumental the employees are to the success of the resort is how the returning guests (some of who have stayed over 40 times), enquire after the staff through a group chat even when they are not at the resort.
“It’s all about the soft approach, the regular guests enquire about The Datai, they enquire about the people in the Datai, they say ‘how is Lyndon doing?’ or ‘Give my regards to so and so’, ‘I just want to know if Indra is ok’, the guests are aware about the staff’s entire movement and they check on them, they want to know how they are and to me that is a testament,” said Girodon.
“They come back, yes, because of the facilities and the location but most specifically because of our soft approach, our employees.”
In the near future Girodon’s aim is to elevate The Datai to the be among the top 10 resorts in the world, preferably top five, and to maintain their standing for at least 10 to 15 years.
To achieve this, the responsibility falls on him to lead his entire team in continuing to give the resort their very best.
Through his leadership style and philosophy of being honest, truthful and keeping tabs on everything without micro-managing, Girodon believes it is important to walk the talk.
“If I ask people to work long hours they know I will put the hours in too. If they are in trouble they know I’m there,” explained Girodon.
“With regards to people you have to create an environment where people know that what they do contributes to the success, or the downfall of the resort, so that they have ownership and pride in what they do. Allow them to exercise their creativity, voice their opinion, to make the right decision at the given time and not always going back to the management. It’s very much empowerment but within the boundaries.”
Everything you do is a reflection of the brand, says Girodon – who believes in having consistent brand messaging – from how you carry yourself to the way you talk, act, post on social media and how advertising is done.
“We stay true to who we are as a brand, which is Malaysian hospitality, luxury experience in the rainforest, respectful of nature and sustainability, and the luxury to be your natural self in going back to nature.
“That’s what the Datai is all about, and we try to make sure of that because of the guests … that they understand the benefit that nature has for them without forcing the idea, to let it come naturally,” added Girodon, who himself was born into nature.
“I was born in a ‘kampung’ in the South-West of France where we have 500 people living there, with far more cows than human beings … surrounded by rivers and mountains, so yes, I feel very much connected to nature because of my childhood and my father who is still there but also because that’s what The Datai is all about.”
According to Girodon, connecting to nature is at the core of one’s soul, and that’s what makes The Datai different from any other resort.
“They can’t have what we have, and what we have is that amazing biodiversity where you can be immersed right in it, for anyone from a very young age to any age.”