IAG sits down with Rutger Verschuren, Area Vice President – Macau Operations for Artyzen Hospitality Group, to find out a little more about one of the key figures behind Macau’s hospitality scene. Verschuren is also Chairman of the France Macau Chamber of Commerce, Vice Chairman of the Macau Hotel Association and a Macao Institute for Tourism Studies (IFTM) council member.
Oscar Guijarro: Thanks for speaking with us, Rutger. Can you tell us a bit about your origins?
Rutger Verschuren: I’m a Dutch national and went to the hotel school in The Hague. Before that, my childhood was filled with playing hockey and hanging out, but also with a lot of weekend jobs. I liked to do things on the weekend and I had my own drive-in discotheque called “Disco Tropical” which was a little bit of entrepreneurship at the age of 14. I started up with just one record player, and then the local hockey club would have disco afternoons for the kids. I played the music and with all the money I earned I would buy new records and equipment, so over a few years, quite quickly, I became semi-professional. I was playing at big parties back in Holland, deejaying. It wasn’t like today either – we had real vinyl records.
Later on I had another two discotheques, including one with cassette tapes and also a DJ working for me. I continued with that while I was doing hotel school until it became quite difficult, and then I moved to The Hague. Although I started playing in The Hague area as well, it’s just not something I could keep up with as a student. It was just too demanding. Also, if I was not deejaying, I was working in restaurants, washing dishes and helping in the kitchen, waiting tables on weekends and during vacations. That was really good fun because when you finished work you were done, so you could go home and have a blast with your friends. Nowadays, even when you finish work you are still working, or at least thinking about work.
OG: Is that how your career in hospitality began?
RV: Actually, when I was doing all my stuff at high school it was not my plan to have a career in hospitality. I wanted to go more into business and trade, but somehow I got interested when my mother said, “Why don’t you go to hotel school?” The service industry is very interesting and you don’t need to work in a hotel – the study is very wide. It’s about business and marketing, service and so forth. I was lucky to get into the hotel school in The Hague, which is not a very practical hotel school in terms of learning how to serve or cook but is really on the management side. It’s a business administration hotel school, and I decided, “Okay, I would like to work in the hotel business.”
I was also very lucky with my apprenticeships while at the hotel school. That really motivated me to be where I am today.
OG: How did you come to be working in Macau and what attracted you to come here?
RV: In 1985 I wanted to go to a nice place for my management training, and my relatives advised me to go to the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. But in those days none of the students would ever go to Asia for training, so I was the first one. I had to fight for it, actually, because the hotel school did not want me to go that far away. The Oriental Hotel in those days was one of the leading hotels in the world. That’s where I got a taste of the East and I really loved it.
After that I went back to Holland, worked for a few years, and I thought that back in Holland, to make a career, it was going to take too long. So after sending application letters –in handwriting in those days– to 45 hotels in the Far East, I finally received one job offer, quit my job and bought a one- way ticket to Bangkok.
From there my career went quite fast. I was F&B director in Thailand, and when I was 27 I was general manager of a hotel in Phuket. I met my wife in Phuket and from there we moved around Indonesia, the Philippines and back to Bangkok. I worked in Bangkok for about seven years for Dusit International, which is really the most iconic Thai hotel brand, and then I was asked if I would be interested in opening Sheraton Macao as Managing Director.
That was in 2008, and to open a hotel with 4,000-plus rooms was very intriguing so I took the job. But the global economic crisis hit in 2009 putting construction on ice and I was offered a couple of transfer options, so I choose to go with the family to Libya. I worked in North Africa for one year and we had a fantastic family time. Career-wise it was also very interesting.
Then I was offered a job to come back to Macau in 2010 with Shun Tak, before Artyzen was born. I was COO for hospitality for a number of hotels under Shun Tak’s wings – Macao Tower and MGCC – and during that time Artyzen was created and I moved from that position to Artyzen Grand Lapa.
The management contract with Mandarin Oriental was coming to an end and we needed to take over. We immediately started managing the hotel, came up with a renovation plan and the concept for the hotel, and that’s where we are today.
OG: How does a Dutch national come to chair the FMCC?
RV: The France Macao Business Association (FMBA), as it was known at the time, was holding its meetings at Macao Tower, and Ms Pansy Ho was its Honorary Chairman. There was a change in the FMBA team and I was asked to help out as a secretary to start with. Very quickly I became Vice President and then Chairman in 2014. First of all, it’s at a very personal level that I care for it. It’s just a lot of fun. But it’s also about giving back, doing something in return besides just working all the time.
It allows the other half of my brain to do other things and not only think about hotel occupancy rates and average room rates all day. You meet people from different walks of life. The French Chamber is not just for French people and it’s not everyone talking business all the time. We have people from the academic side, we have many SME entrepreneurs and we have a lot of lawyers as members. There are many people, maybe even retired people, who like to stay in touch with the community. So what we do is share and connect and try to grow and enhance each others’ knowhow and wisdom a bit. That’s fun and meaningful to do.
OG: Of course, you also helm Artyzen Grand Lapa and Coloane Resort. What does a normal working day in the life of Rutger Verschuren look like?
RV: It’s a bit of everything. Being based at Artyzen Grand Lapa I have the role of hotel general manager, which means working together with them, building the team and working with them to give feedback on ideas, fine tune things in service and hardware, and taking on the controlling role. On a daily basis it means meeting with the team members as a group or individuals, touring the property, meeting with guests and at the same time staying in touch with Grand Coloane Resort, which at the moment is the leading quarantine hotel in Macau.
We are also working on our new hotel in Hengqin, the Artyzen Habitat, ahead of its opening next year, and I have a lot activities for the French Chamber on the side as well as the Macau Hotel Association.
OG: Can you talk about your role with the Macau Hotel Association?
RV: I am Vice Chairman of the Macau Hotel Association and we have around 55 members. The association is really there to promote tourism, share ideas and lobby the government on behalf of the hotels for the benefit of our industry. I’m really driven by that because I really think we should work together better.
But it’s really difficult. I feel that some hotels have their own agendas, some managers sort of try to keep things to themselves and seem a bit worried about kicking the wrong leg. Of course, I’m also a bit worried about doing that. But I’m a guy who likes to talk frankly and openly. I think we can do this better as an association without getting personal.
Every place I have worked, I’ve always been active in this sort of association and I think it’s the right thing to do because once we grow into a certain role in the business, we also have a responsibility to do something outside of the job description while still contributing to the business somehow.
OG: What have been the main challenges in running your hotels over the past two years?
RV: The COVID situation has been extremely demanding. I think the staff are going through a lot more stress than we think. Looking at each individual story, there is a lot of frustration and anxiety out there and not just amongst the managers. All the staff, those from Macau, those from the mainland and those from other countries, everyone has their own level of feeling unsettled.
OG: What unique challenges does running a quarantine hotel present during COVID?
RV: Grand Lapa was a quarantine hotel in the very beginning. At that time, it was very unsettling for the staff as the virus was much more unknown. We only saw the news that people were dying everywhere, like in Italy or Europe. Nowadays at Grand Coloane, the hotel staff are always on the lookout. It’s always tense and everyone is very careful. But they are used to it in a way. Closed-loop management has been extremely demanding for the staff. They cannot go home for a number of weeks or even months unless they go into quarantine themselves, and they are also separated from the other hotel staff. So that is really next level pressure for staff who have not had much choice and didn’t sign up for that. So it takes a lot of motivation, talking to them by management and rewarding them as well.
OG: What are the most rewarding and the most challenging elements of working in Macau?
RV: The most challenging right now is this pandemic having no fixed calendar. We hoteliers can work with any crisis but we would like to know when it’s going to be over. And so far, we have been misled by the pandemic for the last two years.
Almost every hotelier I speak to always thought that “in three months there would be light at the end of the tunnel”. And then when we reached those three months, there was another hiccup. This has gone on for almost two years now.
Last December we were pretty sure that by the middle of March, the group business from China would start again and we would see the border between Hong Kong and Macau opening up. And look at us today.
As for the most rewarding elements, on a personal level it’s great to see our two kids doing so well in their lives.
Business related I think the rebranding of Artyzen Grand Lapa has been pretty rewarding. We moved the needle on Artyzen Grand Lapa. It was not just a name change – we really infused more culture, art and heart into it and I can see that we are on the right track. This, considering the current crisis, shows me that the team has done a terrific job.
OG: How do you see the Macau hospitality sector evolving over the next few years?
RV: The first thing that comes to mind is the challenge around human resources. There is a slight increase in unemployment in Macau and what it means for us, statistically speaking, is that we will have more local employees to choose from. The government advises that we should hire more locals, which we’d love to do, but we can simply not find enough local employees who would like to do operational jobs and work different shifts. We can find local employees for administrative and weekday jobs, but for jobs that include working on the weekends or evenings and serving tables or cleaning rooms, it’s really diffcult to match many locals’ expectations with hotels’ needs. That is a big challenge for our industry.
Besides that, I think technology will come in more and more. Hoteliers are on the lookout for how we can run our hotels more efficiently. Overhead costs have gone up but revenues are not going up, so we have to find ways for automation to reduce our costs. All of us are on the lookout for how we can make hotels work smarter while not losing the personal touch.
OG: In normal times, it has long been said that Macau does not have enough hotel rooms to meet demand. Do you agree with this and if so, what is the solution moving forward?
RV: I think Macau has around 40,000 rooms. I did some calculations a few weeks ago and found there’s another 10,000 rooms in the making. So 50,000 rooms is quite a lot for Macau. I can see that in the very near future the bulk of tourists will come in through Hengqin, the back door of Macau into Cotai, and they will sort of leave the peninsula alone a bit. And I think the integration with Hengqin, with the theme parks over there, will also have an effect. I expect Hengqin will end up with around 20,000 rooms, so combining Hengqin and Macau will be able to tackle a lot of the influx.
OG: How do you see that integration with Hengqin working?
RV: It’s already happening, albeit very slowly. There are so many different aspects to it, and it is rather complicated because they have two different local governments working on it, so it’s not clear cut at the moment.
I think a lot of people are very anxious to see what the next step is in opening it up. We had guest speakers in the FMCC who are very knowledgeable about the future of Hengqin who tell us that very soon, meaning later this year or the next year, we will see an even greater flow of data, people, products and money across the borders of Hengqin, and that the border between Hengqin and mainland China will actually be the “real” border, while the border between Hengqin and Macau will slowly fade away in the long term. This will change the future of Macau tremendously. I think many people underestimate what the effect of Hengqin will be on Macau eventually. This will be significant.
OG: Finally, when Macau opens up to the world and you can holiday again, where will be the first place you want to travel to?
RV: I will probably go to Thailand and to the Netherlands, but then I’ll definitely come back to Macau afterwards. There is so much happening here!