Hotel Online  Special Report

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Pressure Cooking: 
Florian Trento, Executive Chef at the Peninsula Hong Kong, Explains How He
and His Team Coped During the Bleakest Days of the SARs Crisis

by Steve Shellum, HOTEL Asia Pacific Editor
June 2003

As the WHO declares Hong Kong and Beijing SARS-free, business is beginning to recover, with occupancies creeping back to the 30s and 40s. Florian Trento, executive chef at the world-famous Peninsula Hong Kong, tells HOTEL Asia Pacific editor Steve Shellum how he and his team coped during the bleakest days of the crisis.

(Note: the interview was conducted during the height of the SARS crisis, and the masks are now off at most hotels)

Each day at 3pm, Florian Trento takes off his face mask and rubber gloves, hangs up his chef's uniform and heads home to spend time with his wife Angela and sons Roberto (7)  and Riccardo (4). By 6pm, he's back in his mask directing 120 cooks at the Peninsula Hong Kong, desperately trying to think of new ways to bring in business and keep up morale.

"For those few hours between my split shifts, I try not to think about SARS," says the Swiss professional, who has worked at Hong Kong's legendary hotel for 16 years - the past 12 as executive chef. "When I take off my chef's uniform and hit the streets, no one recognises me, and when I get home I am just 'dad'."
 

The pressure on Trento - and every other chef in Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing and other Asian destinations devastated by SARS - is immense. 

With occupancies plummeting to single digits, meetings and banqueting business all but drying up and people scared to leave their homes to go out and dine, it has been a living nightmare that has stretched on for more than two months.

Although there are some positive signs of business trickling back, with occupancies rising from single to double digits and a return of local diners, Trento knows that it will be a long slog before things return to any kind of normality.

He's been in the thick of it before, with the Asian financial crisis, the bird 'flu, the fall-off in guests following the Tiananmen incident and the first Gulf 

The Peninsula Hong Kong
Salisbury Road, Kowloon
Hong Kong, SAR

The Peninsula Hong Kong, "The Grand Old Lady," is the most historical hotel in Hong Kong having first opened in 1928. Extensive renovation and the addition of the tower in 1994 have also made it one of Hong Kong's most classic hotel.

war. But in all his 27 years in the industry, he's never, ever seen anything like this. "We've  had more than our fair share of crises in Hong Kong, and business has been badly hit before, with occupancies dropping to 60%. These days, if you're doing 16%, you're doing very well."

Lessons learned

But, he says, experience gained and lessons learned during the previous crises were put to good use when SARS hit with full force. "All the plans and blueprints that were developed during the Asian financial crisis were taken out of the drawer and given a whole new dimension. We have been through it a few times before, and knew what we had to do to maximise our resources and minimise our expenditures. 

"We had to ensure that, as far as possible, the guest experience never suffered, while cutting back-of-house costs, including energy and labour - in fact, anything we could."

The fewer the guests, the harder the job, he says. "If it's busy, people are on their toes - they are running and concentrating. If it's not busy, they tend to start to slack and relax."

Although no staff have been laid off, they were told to clear annual leave almost immediately, while some were deployed to other departments - including engineering to paint guestrooms. "They don't mind - their feeling is they might as well paint a wall as peel a potato, as long as they keep their jobs."

The eight kitchens have been combined into "one big unit" where everyone does everything. "It's become one big family," he says. "Previously, each kitchen needed a certain amount of people just to switch on the lights in the morning."

Planned renovations of the Chesa restaurant have been brought forward, the Verandah kitchen closed and certain menus combined. The room-service kitchen has been moved to the lobby, which allows 24-hour operation with minimum manning. 

One of the biggest immediate issues facing Trento and his colleagues was how to deal with suppliers. "When SARS really hit, we had a full storeroom for normal operations, with more supplies on the way. We suddenly found ourselves from zooming along in 10th gear to crawling in 1st. Nobody anticipated such a drop, and we had to cut down immediately on supplies coming in. We called up all the suppliers we had contracts with and discussed it with them. 

"We never had a case where it was a real issue. I believe in building long-term relationships with our suppliers, and it's a case of give and take - you help each other out when you can.

"But I'm sure that lots of fresh fish and meat have ended up in freezers. Nobody is going to throw the stuff away."

Trento is working closely with the purchasing department to ascertain how supplier contracts might be affected. 

"It's not going to be an overnight jump to 100% occupancy. It's going to gradually go up again, so we are working with suppliers to see what we need. These are circumstances beyond our control, and no one is going to sue over it - everyone is in the same boat. 

"It started slowly, but when the WHO announced its travel advisory, it added a new dimension to our misery." 

Thanks in great part to its unprecedented discounts and local packages, the Peninsula's restaurants are starting to fill again. Mother's Day saw its restaurants packed out, and buffets have made a welcome return to the Verandah and the Sun Terrace. But competition is brutal.

"The whole city is making deals these days, with incredible F&B offers available. It makes you more creative and resourceful - it's about getting business back into the hotel and putting bums on seats. In terms of covers, we are reaching a level where we would normally be with local guests, but what's missing right now is the international traveller."

The Spring Moon Chinese restaurant was badly hit, but is showing signs of improvement, while the Verandah was also hurt by the withdrawal of its popular buffets, although that business is returning to normal now the buffets are back. 

"Some local customers are now coming here five times a week to get away from it all," says Trento. 

Hygiene awareness

"They say they are happy here, with good food and a nice environment, which takes the worry away. It's an escape - we have become a bit of a haven."

Trento believes that one major positive to come out of the crisis is the heightened awareness of hygiene throughout Hong Kong. 

"It is never going to be possible to have a 100% sterile environment in a hotel or restaurant - it's not a surgical ward - but one of the positive aspects of the crisis is that hygiene awareness has been put into the forefront of people's minds. 

"I truly hope everybody will remember this. Normally, people have a short memory for bad things, but this is something all of us should remember for the rest of our lives."

Another immense positive is how the crisis has brought his whole team together.

"Everything is sad and bad, so we try to look at things in a positive way. We still have a job with a great employer who looks after people, and the staff appreciate that. 

"But the loyalty goes both ways, and I am very proud of all my staff and the people I work with in the hotel.

"It's times like this when you see the worth of the team. Prima donnas don't exist and, at the end of the day, we make it together or we don't make it. Everyone makes sacrifices and, in the end, everyone will come out of it a bit wiser. 

"Hopefully, one day we can look back at this and say it was tough, but we did it well."

© Copyright HOTEL Asia Pacific

Contact:

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Hotel Asia Pacific
Steve Shellum
158 Wong Uk Tsuen
Yuen Long
New Territories
Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2882-7352
Fax: +852 2882-2461
http://www.hotelasiapacific.com
[email protected]

 
Also See Crisis Management: Could You Cope if the Unthinkable Happened / HOTEL Asia Pacific / June 2003
Back to Normal After SARS? Letís Hope Not.../ HOTEL Asia Pacific / June 2003
Fighting Spirits! Rank-and-file Staff at Bali InterContinental Resort Talk About Their Hopes, Fears, Dreams / HOTEL Asia Pacific / April 2003
On the Chopping Block; Are You Prepared If You Get Your Marching Orders? / HOTEL Asia Pacific / April 2003
Trevor Bilney, Executive Chef at the Bali InterContinental Resort, Fights Hard Since Last October 12; Keeps Morale Up  and Costs Down / HOTEL Asia Pacific / March 2003
Hotels Stepping Up Security; Learning to Live with the Threat of Terrorism as Part of Conducting Everyday Business / HOTEL Asia Pacific Survey / March 2003
50% of Hoteliers Have Not Increased Investment in Security Ė More than a Year After the September 11 Attacks / HOTEL Asia Pacific Survey / December 2002
Security: Something No Hotel Can Ignore / Geoff Griswold / Summer 2002
Biometrics Lend a Hand to Hotel Security / Feb 2002
Hotels Near Airports Provide Better Safety and Security Features According to The Center for Hospitality Research - Cornell Hotel School / Dec 2002


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