The Siam Hotel
Jason Friedman is about as far from his New York origins as a person on this planet can get, but as general manager of The Siam Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand he is clearly in his element. The die-hard scuba diver and luxury travel connoisseur started in the hotel business the old fashioned way—by creating a hotel. And after receiving an advanced degree at Cornell, and leading top resorts in Asia under the Aman and Four Seasons flags, he headed down under to open Qualia, an ultra-luxe island resort with 60 one-bedroom pavilions and a grand Beach House for accommodations. Missing Asia, Jason returned to Thailand where he has joined the celebrity Sukosol family to build Bangkok’s first luxury urban resort. He awoke early in the morning to chat by phone with Elite Traveler’s Editorial Director Laura Hughes in New York, where it was evening. During the conversation, Friedman discussed his take on providing luxury today, where he’ll travel next, and what it takes to woo the jet set to this far corner of the world.
ET: How did your career path prepare you for this position in Bangkok?
Jason Friedman: Things started for me growing up. I was fortunate to have a family that always stayed in the best places we could afford when we traveled. So traveling and staying in nice hotels was always an important aspect of life. My first real recollection of luxury was at the Ocean Club in the 1970s on Paradise Island. The Shah of Iran was deposed and rented one floor of the Ocean Club at the time. Those early recollections stick with you. Then as I grew up and traveled, I understood what the experience is like from a guest perspective. That is where my foundation in hotels came from. Then a really interesting series of jobs over the last few years exposed me to a lot of aspects of the business. When I was 21 I moved to Indonesia to study abroad. But I enjoyed it so much I stayed and worked as a dive instructor, on dive boats, on kayaking expeditions, and on jungle expeditions, providing experiences for guests. Then, I opened a dive school, and soon realized business would be better if people could stay where they dove, so I opened a dive resort. That was my first foray into the hospitality business. It was a small resort in the middle of nowhere! It was basic, but it provided rooms and food, so people could dive with us in North Sulawesi. I did it for quite a few years and had a great time. When the Indonesian government collapsed, I went to Cornell for my Masters degree. I knew the business I wanted to be in, but I didn’t have the technical education to go further. After Cornell, I went back to Indonesia as hotel manager of Amandari. It was rated the second best hotel in the world at the time. It was a fantastic experience, where I really learned about exceeding guest expectations and providing the best of everything. Aman was fresh and new, and Amandari was the pinnacle of the luxury experience for Americans. It also gave me great exposure to Asia. After September 11, I came back to New York City, and managed the Mansfield Hotel. It taught me all about the urban hotel environment, in a hyper competitive marketplace, and how to deal with unions, make compromises, develop a web presence, and more. It was great, but I wanted to be back in Asia doing extreme small luxury. So I went to Thailand with Four Seasons, and worked as the director of rooms at the Chiang Mai resort. That was the number two position there. And that was a great experience because the property is a gem of Asia, and rated in the top 10 in the world. It also taught me about working in a corporate environment for a big chain. It was an incredible experience and Four Seasons is an incredible company to work for. From there, I went to Four Seasons Golden Triangle, which is where I learned to build a hotel. Four Seasons hired me to put that project together, from the design, to pre-opening, to operating a small luxury hotel in the far north of Thailand. It ranked as the number one hotel by 2008. I had become a senior manager and had no intention of leaving Four Seasons. But then I was approached about the Qualia project. First of all, that was an honor, but it was also such an interesting project that the family was putting together. So I decided I should take a look at the place. Traveling from northern Thailand to a small island on the Great Barrier Reef is not a quick trip. I spent 18 hours on the island, where the resort was half completed, but I knew then it was very special. The quality of materials, generous rooms, a private airport, the location in the middle of a national park, that fact that it is family-owned—these were the attributes that proved to be a very special project. So it was an easy choice for me to say yes. But still it was challenging to say I want to leave the security of Four Seasons. At that time, my hotel was just rated the best in world and it seemed like a pretty good time to go, exiting on a high. So I made the hard choice, left Four Seasons in a nice way, and moved to Qualia. It was a challenging experience in a remote location and after a couple of years, I decided to take some time out to do some personal travelling. On my travels, I was approached by my dear friend and one of Architectural Digest’s Top 100 designers, Bill Bensley, who was working on The Siam in Bangkok. We had built the Tented Camp together and given my diverse hotel experiences, he felt I had a unique set of skills to operate an super luxury project such as The Siam. Bill organised dinner with the owning Sukosol family, we clicked right away and they hired me without interviewing another candidate!
ET: What did you learn from your mentors?
Jason Friedman: Every general manager I had taught me a great deal. Some I’ve loved, some were not my favorite people. Patrick Ghielmetti was my GM at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai. Now he is the regional vice president at Four Seasons Chicago. He is one who really taught me, and refined my skills as a professional manager. He taught me how to properly and professionally deal with people and myself. Even today, when I’m faced with challenging decisions or guests, I ask myself, “How would Patrick handle it?” He taught me how to deal with tough decisions like terminating a senior person properly, or having a super challenging guest you have to ask to leave the hotel. That is really tough. And how to be very honorable in the profession, and to respect the importance of loyalty to your company and your team. I think of him often.
ET: Who will be The Siam’s clientele?
Jason Friedman: The Siam is a luxury sanctuary, an urban resort for high net-worth leisure travelers from the USA, UK, Europe, Australia and Asia who are looking to stay a little longer than usual in Bangkok and for those who want to see Bangkok from a different perspective and enjoy the city at a pace they wouldn’t have before. The Siam’s guests are people who enjoy their journey as much as their destination – our surroundings will take them back to an era when there was no rush to get from A to B. We will appeal to them because all the existing hotels here are business hotels and despite being fantastic five star properties, they simply do not cater to the individual luxury leisure traveler but rather to groups which often end up dominating the space leaving luxury travelers feeling disappointed. We have listened to our clients’ wishes and have designed our hotel as well as the overall experience and journey specifically for them. Being on the river has its advantage too, our guests will feel the serenity of being upcountry with no big developments, major construction or noisy disco boats to disturb them here. But in reality, we are in the heart of Bangkok, just minutes away from the downtown bustle and we are able to look after the executive business traveler because of this proximity and our facilities which include a meeting room.
ET: For the most discriminating travelers, how do you exceed their expectations today?
Jason Friedman: Luxury today is not about a beautiful room, or great car, or great meal. Luxury today in the sense of travel is about an experience you are providing. That experience is a collection of key attributes, like service, people, physical room, location, and food. All these things must come together in the right way to provide truly unique luxury experiences. Most guests, especially those who travel by private jet, can stay in the best suite anywhere, so the room itself doesn’t make them say ‘wow’ anymore. But seeing life as it was a hundred years before on the river, exploring our living museum and enjoying our private collections as their very own or even experiencing the glittering Royal Barge procession from their riverview Pool Villa, all these things come together to exceed expectations. Today, butlers and suites won’t do it anymore, that has become passé and we have to show them more. I learned at Four Seasons that we were able to create truly exceptional unique experiences, and that was the luxury proposition, the experience. Think of someone, running a fund or bank, and how they work very, very hard. They have two weeks of vacation a year, so we had better make it truly special and unique. There is also a lot of emphasis on technology these days, I agree that keeping with the times is vital but technology is meant to support the staff in their interaction with guests, not to replace them, the human touch is absoloutely vital and irreplaceable. So for me, I’ve always been a proponent for providing the whole experience for guests. Not just one part, but painting the big picture.
ET: How is Bangkok doing?
Jason Friedman: Bangkok is doing great! For the second year in a row, we have been voted Travel + Leisure’s Best City. What’s really exciting is that The Siam is opening up a part of Bangkok to luxury travelers that has never been easily available before. Up until now, if the luxury traveler wanted to visit the legendary sites of Bangkok (Grand Palace, Vimanmek Teak Mansion etc), they had to do it facing cross-town traffic and with the masses. The location of The Siam places us right in the center of these key cultural & historical sites and for the first time, guests will be able to live in unparalleled comfort in the royal, tree-lined Dusit district and gain VIP private access to many coveted venues. Additionally, we have our own private pier with complimentary boat shuttle which will cut travel time considerably and make getting from place to place a journey of discovery in itself for our guests.
ET: You’ve worked in such diverse corners of the globe and are an Elite Traveler yourself, how do you spend your holidays?
Jason Friedman: I tend to try to travel in the region I live in, and keep travel time to a minimum to explore the area I live in, this helps me with my job, to be more knowledgeable to talk with guests and help them plan their trips. I also seek out unique, exciting and adventurous experiences, those that not everyone can have every day. For me, true luxury is not all about the hotel room or gold faucets. As I’ve proven, a tent can be a luxury experience even without a TV. It’s about an aggregation of all the components of a travel experience, it’s entirely about how you put it all together.
ET: Where do you see yourself in the next few years?
Jason Friedman: Right where I am now! Thailand is my home. I love the people here, their warmth, the cuisine, the islands and beaches, mountains, forests and rivers, the overall diversity of this country. This is paradise, we have everything we could wish for here! I am so happy to be living in Bangkok and rediscovering this vibrant, cultural city, especially the historical Dusit district where my hotel is located and it is particularly exciting working for an independently owned and managed brand, because we have the ability to put ideas into action instantly. Actually, the Sukosol family has plans to expand the brand. I recently found a prime piece of riverside land right next to the Grand Palace with the most spectacular view of Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn). It turns out it belongs to close family friends and within a week, a deal was made for us to develop a sister property for The Siam to be called Siam Arun… watch this space!