By James Wilkinson in Rancho Santa Fe
In a new section for HM, we profile expatriate Australasian General Managers running the world’s leading hotels and first up is Simon Chen from Rancho Valencia in Rancho Santa Fe outside San Diego, California.
The property was on this year’s Conde Nast Traveler hot list and has been rated the number one tennis resort in America by Tennis Magazine and regular guests include Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates.
Simon, tell us about your background in the hotel industry, from how you started to where you are today.
After finishing high school I applied for the Culinary program at Ryde TAFE as cooking has always been a passion of mine. When I didn’t get accepted I decided to start working in hotels and my first hotel job was at the InterContinental Sydney as a bellman before moving to the concierge desk. While working at the InterContinental, I was also a student at The Hotel School in their inaugural year. In 1990, while working at the InterContinental, I was invited in to apply at The Ritz-Carlton on Macquarie Street and from there I started a 15 year career with Ritz-Carlton, which ultimately brought me to the U.S. While working for Ritz, I worked in Atlanta in Georgia, San Juan in Puerto Rico, Naples in Florida, Tysons Corner in Virginia and Bachelor Gulch in Colorado. I was also sent to open 10 other hotels and resorts for them.
Upon receiving my green card and loving life in the mountains of Colorado, I decided to stay in Colorado and fulfil my dream of being a General Manager of a hotel in a ski resort. Here I had the best of both worlds and I got to indulge in my passions for skiing and for hospitality while working at some great hotels such as The Little Nell in Aspen, and as Regional General Manager overseeing Beaver Creek Lodge in Beaver Creek and El Monte Sagrado in Taos, New Mexico, and The Peaks in Telluride.
When you first took an overseas post, did you think you’d still be away from Australia some 20 years later?
Never. I thought that I would be here for a few years and would head back to Sydney. Now, whenever I head home to visit family and friends, I feel like a tourist and have to stop and listen to the announcements over the P.A. system in the airport so I can understand them.
It’s a well-known fact that Australians are some of the most in-demand Hoteliers in the world. Do you think that’s because of the high-value placed on service and generally being hospitable?
Definitely, I think Australians have an outgoing nature, friendliness and our hospitality is well renowned and comes naturally to us. These also happen to be the characteristics that do well in our industry. I personally interview every one of my employees and these are “must haves” when deciding upon potential applicants.
Tell us about Rancho Valencia and what made you say yes to the GM position.
Rancho Valencia is a Relais and Chateaux resort consisting of 49 casitas on 45 acres. Located 30 minutes north of San Diego, we provide our guests with a much or a little to do as they choose.
Included in our room rate are a fully stocked and healthy mini bar, wireless internet, parking and over 75 athletic classes a week including Spin, Yoga, Pilates, TRX, Tennis and Zumba. We also deliver our signature freshly squeezed Orange Juice daily to each guest’s room. For those guests who are looking for a more relaxing visit and decide never to leave their room we have amazing outdoor living spaces with chaise lounges, Jacuzzis, outdoor fire pits and Bang & Olufsen stereos. Our room service team will come to your casita and set your table with white linens just like you would expect in a fine restaurant. We will also deliver your dessert 20 minutes after serving your main course to ensure that your dessert doesn’t melt.
The reason I came to Rancho Valencia was the opportunity to work with an amazing group of owners and a team who share a common vision as I do which is “to create the finest product in the market while making it as comfortable as your own home” Rancho Valencia is refined but relaxed.
When I joined the team we were in the planning stages to close the resort for a USD$33 million, 10-month renovation.
We spent hundreds of hours on design tweaking the product to what you see today as well as hundreds of hours testing products to find the finest for our guests.
What message do you have for young Australian hotel associates looking at a career path overseas?
Jump at the opportunity! Hospitality allows you to live, experience and work in some of the best places in the world that others only dream about visiting. The experience will also benefit your career should you decide to move back to Australia.
And what’s the one thing you miss about home the most?
Definitely my family. I don’t get to spend enough time with them.
For more great interviews, see the August 2013 edition of HM magazine, published in early August.
HM travelled to San Diego on Qantas, which offers daily flights to the city from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney via Los Angeles. Qantas has recently upgraded the Boeing 747s that fly on the Australia-Los Angeles route, which feature the new A380-inspired interiors including new, larger economy class seats in a cabin that’s highlighted by an extensive range of entertainment on demand alongside a great selection of Australian wine and meals designed by star chef Neil Perry. For bookings, visit www.qantas.com