Managing Hong Kong hospitality

Wild GeeseTom Connolly, Eclipse, Hong Kong

Tom Connolly: “There is a heightened sense of care, warmth and genuine interest in the customer here that I believe Europe could learn a lot from.”

Tom Connolly: “There is a heightened sense of care, warmth and genuine interest in the customer here that I believe Europe could learn a lot from.”

 

Tom Connolly’s international career began on Westmoreland Street in Dublin in the spring of 1995, when the graduate trainee at the Burlington Hotel picked up a magazine with a listing for the top 100 hotels of the world.

One of the luminaries profiled was the legendary luxury hotelier Liam Lambert, who, like Connolly, was from Clontarf and had at that time been stationed in Asia for a number of years.

“Without giving it too much thought, and as bold as you like, I wrote him a letter on an old foolscap copybook page and faxed it off to him,” says Connolly, a Castleknock college graduate who went to Cathal Brugha Street as part of the Burlington’s hotel management course.

“Given that he was from Clontarf, I thought that it might help my campaign to put the forwarding address as Connollys – The Sheds of Clontarf, a pub that had been our family business since the 1920s.

“Somehow this badly crafted, ill-formatted piece of paper landed on his desk,” said Connolly. “A week later, I received a very personal letter from Liam exclaiming that he had nearly fallen off his desk when he saw the address, as The Sheds used to be his local in the 1960s and 1970s.

“He asked me what I was looking to do and suggested that I come out and he would give me a start. I arrived in Hong Kong on September 1st, 1995, at the age of 22, and have been in Asia ever since,” Connolly says. Lambert, since retired, remains an inspiration to Connolly today.

During his career, Connolly has worked in operational and corporate roles in some of the biggest hotel and entertainment groups in the world, including Mandarin Oriental, Hyatt International, working for Steve Wynn in Macau at Wynn Resorts and, most recently, Peninsula Hotels.

Earlier this year, after many years in the corporate world, Connolly bought a stake in a hospitality company called Eclipse, which operates pubs, bars, casual eateries, a brewery and a successful catering and events company. He co-runs Eclipse as chief executive.

“For our newest project, one that I personally oversaw, we developed an upscale, chef-driven restaurant concept and it’s our intention to further develop more businesses of this nature while maintaining the core business.”

Ireland can learn from the Asian work ethic, especially in hospitality, he says.

“There is a heightened sense of care, warmth and genuine interest in the customer that exists here that I believe Europe could learn a lot from.

“Although salaries in hospitality for entry-level staff members are relatively low, Hong Kong continues to attract a competent workforce to hospitality. These jobs in hotels are considered jobs for life, due to the stable nature of tourism in the region and, most importantly, the reinvestment in team members with a plethora of training programmes that accompany the staff members through their career, good medical coverage and a genuine sense of care for the employees through a series of meaningful benefits.”

One of the toughest times was the Asian financial crisis in 1997. “Hong Kong is a remarkable place with equally remarkable and resilient people. I have experienced the Asian financial crisis in 1997 when countries in southeast Asia were severely punished for flamboyant corporate borrowing and, like a tsunami, this washed straight into the Hong Kong financial markets,” he says.

“It did not help that it came only two months after Britain handed back Hong Kong to China under a cloud of uncertainty for the lives and welfare of the Hong Kongers. The Hong Kong stock market fell by 50 per cent and the property market fell by 60 per cent. To the onlookers, it seemed that Hong Kong was doomed.

“In 2003, the SARs epidemic gripped Hong Kong again and turned the markets, local businesses and the city as a whole into turmoil. It was a most uncomfortable time for everyone, yet Hong Kong continued to take it on the chin and bounce back at a most efficient pace. It was also remarkable to observe how employers coped with their failing businesses.

“The flexible parameters in how employers can conduct business in Hong Kong allowed employers to come up with creative ways to secure their workforce and protect their employees yet save on payroll.

“Instead of laying off full-time staff members, employees were asked to go on periods of unpaid leave with guarantees that their full-time jobs would return to normal once the region got through the downturn. Employees, being loyal and trusting of their employers and having a sense of ‘we’re in this together’, readily agreed, affording businesses and enterprise to survive and jobs saved.”

Ask Connolly what advice he would give to those considering a move East, and he gets effusive. “Come out. Be open-minded, be embracing of the local culture and be patient. Despite being an incredibly modern city, business is still done through garnering and maintaining relationships.

“There is a term on the mainland called guanxi, which literally means ‘relationships’.” Or, as we would say in Ireland, “contacts”.

“I have learned guanxi can only be cultivated with time, integrity and giving more than receiving, in relation to offering support to others in the business community without anticipating an immediate reciprocal response,” he says.

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