‘If They Can Do It, Why Can’t We?’
By Zarni Mann 1 December 2014
In early 2014, May Myat Mon Win became the general manager of the Chatrium Hotel Royal in Rangoon, making her Burma’s first female head of a five-star hotel.
Humble and energetic, skilled and passionate, May Myat Mon Win spoke with The Irrawaddy about what it takes to make it in Burma’s booming hospitality sector and what the country can learn from its more experienced neighbors.
Question: Burma’s hospitality industry is on the rise. What are the sector’s most pressing needs as it tries to catch up with some of our more developed neighbors?
Answer: The thing we need most is human resources. We need a lot of skilled labor, and, of course, good management. Many new hotels will go into operation in 2015-2016, and we’re already facing a shortage of skilled labor. A plan for career development and organizational training should really begin right away, because there is a huge generational gap in this line of work.
The hotel industry was flourishing from about 1992-1993. At that time, most of the hotels were government-owned and only a few were private. There was very little foreign investment. That was when I began my career as an hotelier.
In 1998, the market suddenly dropped. Most hotels were struggling to survive; we didn’t even dare to dream of profit. Since the industry was so bad at that time, there weren’t many new hotels or new investments by foreigners. Most of my friends left the industry for new careers.
Some people wanted to stay in the hotel business but it just wasn’t profitable, so many hoteliers went abroad.
But suddenly the industry was booming again, starting around 2011, when foreign investors were eyeing the country. So there was a sudden shortage of skilled labor in the sector, because most people either left the industry or left the country over the past 20 years.
Q: Do you think the human resource demands of Burma’s hospitality sector can be met?
A: If there aren’t enough skilled local laborers, employers might bring in foreign labor. I think there’s still time to train locals. I think we can meet demand domestically. But if we do have to import some labor, this is a good thing because we can learn from them. We must push ourselves with the motto: “If they can do it, why can’t we?”
We should aim to learn from foreign labor and set a target that in a year or two we need to be able to take over their responsibilities.
Q: Based on your experience as a GM, how does local management differ from foreign management?
A: Our neighbors now have many experts, both foreign and local. We have a lot of hotels in our country, and there are different conditions in different parts of the country. There should be a mix of local and foreign management depending on the needs of the area.
Local management might benefit employees because they understand the needs of local workers, but foreign experts might have a different vision that locals don’t see. Personally, I think I have the benefit of being able to communicate with my staff. This keeps operation smooth, as about 90 percent of our staff is local. But there is a lot that I can learn from foreign GMs.
Q: What lessons can Burma learn from neighboring countries, like Thailand, which has a very developed hospitality sector?
A: Of course, we can learn from our neighbors. In Thailand, they faced a similar situation: around 1994-1995, they had a hotel sector boom. There were a lot of new hotels, and that led to a price war. Prices for the best rooms in luxury hotels were only about $20-40, and the whole industry suffered losses. Nowadays, the industry is regulated and there are standard prices.
If we want to develop a stable hospitality industry, we need to learn from their mistake and not have a price war.
Q: Development can often have negative effects on culture and the environment. How do you think development will play out in Burma in terms of preserving tradition and the natural environment?
A: I think it will ultimately depend on the vision of leadership and businessmen. In my view, we need to think about what kind of country we want to have in the future. In some of our neighboring countries, they have overdeveloped. They’ve chopped down the forests, expanded the cities, built skyscrapers and factories. What they are left with is a country with few trees and a ruined environment, and now they are looking to us, with our unspoiled nature.
Our country has many unspoiled places that need to remain as they are. Inwa, for example, the beautiful ancient city in Mandalay Division, needs to be maintained. Installing modern buildings to speed up development will ruin the culture and the taste travelers want in the ancient city. There needs to be a balance between conservation, preservation of culture and development.