Chief of fabled Bangkok hotel retires

BANGKOK (AP): Charming a fuming Elizabeth Taylor, personally snipping a British duke's hair or catering to the refined palates of Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge leaders.

It was all in a day's work for Kurt Wachtveitl, as he looks back on 41 years running one of the world's fabled hotels, not with nostalgic tears but plenty of juicy tales and trenchant thoughts about how Bangkok's Oriental Hotel got to be so good.

A legend himself among the international hotel fraternity, the 72-year-old Wachtveitl retires this month, having amassed awards for the five-star hotel along the Chao Phraya River as well as an endless roster of famous and rich, albeit not always agreeable, guests.

"She treated me like a dog. You remember guests who are really terrible," says the suave German-born hotelier, recalling how Hollywood superstar Taylor blew up because the hotel's best room, the Oriental Suite, happened to be booked when she checked in.

The two had met before, when he worked at a hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, where actor Richard Burton would meet Taylor for trysts.

"Usually they drank vodka by the bottle. Burton at 3 o'clock in the morning would fall down the staircase dreadfully drunk, crawling through the lobby," says Wachtveitl. Taylor would moan "Richard, Richard" as he drove off to his wife and Wachtveitl was left with helping the star to her room.

Back at the Oriental, the silver-haired Wachtveitl (pronounced Wacht-why-tell) managed to calm the actress down - and she even became an ally in 1993 when one of her best pals, rock star Michael Jackson, was holed up in the hotel and refused to give a concert to which thousands had already bought tickets. Taylor flew from California and persuaded Jacko, who had just been hit with child sex abuse allegations, to perform.

"Celebrities are all easy to deal with if you do everything they want," mused Wachtveitl recently. "If something goes against them, hell will break loose."

Established in 1876 by two Danish sea captains, the Oriental's A-list crowd in the early days included Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling. They lived in what is now the colonial-style Author's Wing, the original part of the hotel above which towers the 10-story River Wing, completed in 1976.

The likes of Princess Diana, Mick Jagger, Sean Connery, George W. Bush, David Beckham and Elton John were pampered and placated during the Wachtveitl years, which began in 1967 when he took over the Oriental after hotel school in Switzerland - where he fell in love with his Thai wife-to-be - and stints at several European hotels.

Given a free hand by the local owners, the eager 30-year-old transformed the hotel - which then had atmosphere and decay in equal parts - into what the New York-based Institutional Investor voted as the world's best hotel for 10 years running. His formula for success: a rigorous focus on his guests and staff.

The Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, as it is now formally known, maintains a database of some 40,000 guests - listing their minutest preferences, pet peeves and sometimes how their stays didn't go quite right. One senior executive was recently amazed, Wachtveitl relates, when on arrival he was greeted with an apology for a water problem in his room a decade ago - and upgraded to a suite.

"You win a person like this forever. I guarantee you," he says, noting that repeat guests make up 50 percent of the hotel's clientele, with a new generation following parents who remembered the Oriental so fondly.

There are some guest requests the hotel can't manage ("A few are better forgotten," Kurt notes), but when the Duke of Bedford's wife wanted a less conservative look for her husband and heard that Wachtveitl cut his own hair, he brought out the scissors.

He also obliged when Naomi Campbell demanded he personally wake the supermodel up with a morning call.

The staff didn't skip a beat when Khieu Samphan and other ultra-communist Khmer Rouge leaders, now facing trial for genocide, demanded the very best in food and wine at the hotel's "Lord Jim" restaurant.

"The staff is the pillar of the Oriental. Without them we are nothing. We became a big family," says Wachtveitl of his 1,150 employees who, as guests frequently attest, have acquired Germanic efficiency without losing their natural Thai warmth.

"The staff considers the Oriental as a lifetime job, as it was in Europe some 100 years ago or in Japan some 40 to 50 years ago," he says. In a Thai industry where staff flit from one hotel to another, the average Oriental employee stays more than 16 years.

Wachtveitl subscribes to the old-fashioned way of doing things, as his successor, who previously ran a hotel in Washington D.C., discovered.

"He can't believe that I don't have a computer in my office, or a Blackberry, or whatever it's called," he says. "The old way is if I want to see an engineer, the pastry chef or a housekeeper I go there, sit down and have a chat. If there is something with a guest you pick up the phone and call them, you don't send an e-mail."

Wachtveitl says his view of the industry is exactly the reverse of many of today's executives, especially the Americans who obsess about the bottom line, stress fancy marketing and cut staff at the drop of a GDP point.

"I always looked at business at the Oriental from a service point of view. If we give every client pleasure and we make him happy, he will come back here again, then automatically the bottom line will be OK," he says.

Unfortunately, things are not OK as the veteran takes his last bow.

"Business is very, very bad. And the future looks absolutely bleak. That's why I just had a couple of glasses of wine," Wachtveitl joked one recent evening.

Thailand's political upheavals, coupled with the world economic crisis and swine flu fears, have created "the perfect storm." The Oriental hasn't had a single advance booking for its best sellers, the hotel's 35 luxury suites.

"When I came to the Oriental we had 10 percent occupancy and when I leave we will probably again have 10 percent occupancy," says Wachtveitl. "But we had a great run in between."

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