Anthony Lark, the managing director and GM of Trisara in Phuket, Thailand, began his career as a hotel busboy. He quickly learned that making guests happy and employees proud are two fundamental building blocks of success.
PHUKET, Thailand—Anthony Lark is the BMOC (big man on campus) while he practices the leadership style he calls “MBWA” (management by walking around).
Mingling with guests and employees at the Trisara resort that Lark oversees requires one of the foundational hotel skills he learned early in his career—a welcoming smile never leaves his face.
“I spend a lot of time looking at details. So attention to detail, passion, empowering your staff, and reading every single guest,” the Australia native said. “That’s really the key.”
Lark, the property’s managing director and general manager, uses his MBWA philosophy to empower his staff to make the right decisions. It clearly fuels his “big man on campus” image, since nearly everyone he encounters is comfortable with smiling back.
“Feel the guest, think for yourself, be an entrepreneur and have open communication,” Lark said during an interview at the luxurious resort’s “Seafood” restaurant—where chefs feature the recipes that their mothers use.
“At the core of this is the relationship between the management and staff,” he said. “I really, really care about the welfare and the happiness of my employees because at the end of the day, the physical product is the physical product. What defines a difference between a good hotel and a great hotel is service, anticipative service.”
Trisara requires a hands-on, high-touch, yet unpretentious approach to service its 48 pool villas and the 20 private residences—something Lark said is a fundamental skill when it comes to carving a career in the hotel industry. He discovered he had the hotel itch in the late 1970s when he started working as a busboy at the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney (now called the Sofitel Wentworth).
“I get a big kick out of being in a business with a primary objective (of) making (people) happy,” Lark said. “Money comes later. All those other things come later. But the primary objective is to make the customers happy.”
The biggest challenges Lark faces is staying one step ahead of both technology and expectations.
“When you charge a hundred bucks a night, you can get away with a lot of stuff. When you charge a thousand bucks a night, you better make sure that the internet and the USB charger and the Apple TV and the ‘this’ and the ‘that’ and the things in the minibar are going to blow your guests’ mind,” Lark said. “Because it should be better than what they get at home.”
The best advice Lark has for those interested in the hotel industry as a career involves taking a good look at the requirements of the job.
“This business requires you to (work) long hours initially for really low pay,” Lark said. “You’ve got to be humble. … You can’t want to be a general manager when you start. Just let the chips fall where they may.
“If you want to be a hotel general manager, you must be passionate about the rooms division,” he added.
Paradise built from its own ‘garden’
After career stops with Aman Resorts, Regent Hotels & Resorts and Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, Lark joined Trisara in 2000 when it was still a dream of the Pattamasaevi family.
“Trisara then was just this bay, and we had a vision to create a small, intimate place where people felt that they were coming to the home of a friend rather than checking into a hotel,” Lark said. “It’s a cliché, but we can achieve that in a small hotel that you can’t in a big one.”
The family later established Montara Hospitality to oversee the resort, which opened in 2004. Trisara, which means “the garden in the third heaven” in Sanskrit, employs 450 staff members, Lark said.
“In Southeast Asia, it gave us the ability to build larger rooms because we could afford to maintain them properly, we can run high average room rates and the margins are good,” Lark said. “The rest of it was just up to our imagination. … The primary objective was to create a place where privacy was literally something that was ingrained.”
Lark said he considers the resort to be a disruptive element in the Phuket hotel community.
“We weren’t the first to build pool villas, but we were the first to build really, really carefully designed room-by-room pool villas where the manager decided where the rooms would go, not the architect,” Lark said. “The manager was involved from the very beginning, so designing the guest experience was the one leading the guests.”
The swimming pool in each of the guestrooms measures 10 meters by 4 meters (approximately 43 feet in area).
Lark described the resort as being located in a natural amphitheater that has a gentle slope to the Andaman Sea. That setting provided the opportunity to create three different levels of rooms that could overlook one another without having to cut into the land, he said.
“There’s no cut and fill here, we built everything based on the entrance road,” Lark said. “What we did was have one room here and one room there and one room there, and this (guest) doesn’t even see the other (guest). It just looks over to a bigger view.”
The rooms closest to the sea are more expensive because of their proximity to services, etc., but the higher rooms can have a bigger view, Lark said.
Privacy was a big consideration during construction, Lark said. Rather than separate villas with fences for privacy, villas are positioned 8 meters to 10 meters from each other. The result is that guests can’t see their neighbors, thanks to the layout and placement of gardens to fill the gaps.
How the resort created some of its garden space was a stroke of indigenous genius.
“We took the 8,000 plants off the site four years before we built Trisara, and we had a nursery about 8 kilometers from here,” Lark said. “We employed gardeners three years before we saw our guests. And we dug out little pots of plants on the site, we took them to our nursery, we planted them, propagated them, cut them, propagated them, and ended up with 17,000 plants.”
The plants were transplanted and have turned into lush foliage with an unintended side benefit, Lark said.
“Most importantly, and without realizing it, (by using native plants) we weren’t introducing a foreign species of insects,” Lark said. “What that meant was that we didn’t have to use insecticides or sprays. We don’t use chemical sprays ever. We use citronella and water to spray for mosquitoes, we prevent the mosquitoes from laying eggs and we let little squirrels and butterflies run free.”
The property uses all of the rainfall its collects, it has what Lark called “literally a plastic-free guestroom experience” and it has its own reverse-osmosis water system to produce water it uses.
Lark said he couldn’t disclose the price tag for the resort: “Let’s just say that you couldn’t do it at that price today,” Lark said.
Filling a bigger role in Phuket
Lark stays busy at the resort but said he jumped at the chance to lead the Phuket Hotels Association—an organization he helped launch last year after hearing from consultant Bill Barnett of C9 Hotelworks about the importance of having a representative body that looks after the interests of hoteliers and hotel owners.
The association is focused on three initiatives:
- Environment, which is led by several GMs who are passionate about environmental issues. “We are really heavily focused on sharing information with our members on green products, recycling stations and primarily with reducing the use of plastic in our hotels,” Lark said. “We just reached a point where we don’t use any plastic in the rooms at all. The last thing to go were the plastic straws.”
- Destination marketing: “Every hotel member here benefits if we can create good news stories and a website that’s reactive, and engage our own public relations companies to take our stories and start spreading them around the world and start telling good news stories about Phuket,” Lark said.
While Lark said the hoteliers in the region embrace the notion that Phuket is a party place with its nightclubs and beach clubs, they also want to tell the other side of the region’s story.
“From what you read in the paper, you might think it’s all about beaches and jet skis and taxis and what have you. It’s not by any means,” Lark said. “Our good news stories are about our environmental initiatives, and good news stories are about the heritage … where they restored old buildings and this culture exists. Authentic food, great culture, it’s not something people automatically think of when they think of Phuket.”
Lark found his calling in a bar
Lark said he is fortunate to be in the position of leading a highly regarded resort, but he knows it has taken a lot of hard work and some breaks along the way to achieve it. He left school at 16 and traveled Europe with his parents for a year before heading back to Australia, where he studied architectural drafting. He wasn’t faring well and ended up in the late 1970s with a job as a busboy at the Hotel Wentworth.
“I left college and stayed as a bus boy and eventually jumped from bus boy to luggage, the kitchen, driving cars and working the front desk, sales and marketing, housekeeping, that sort of stuff,” Lark said.
His favorite job at the time was being a bartender.
“Because you just make crazy (conversation) all day long. Everybody who wants a drink is a bit crazy or going to be crazy,” Lark said. “I’m a great talker and a great listener, and I found my calling literally by stumbling on it.”
Lark said the iconic Australian property left an impression on him that serves him to this day.
“I went to work every day in a beautiful place that was built for pleasure and fantasy,” Lark said. “Number two, I was surrounded by people whose primary objective is to be nice. And you’re surrounded by good food and nice uniforms and wonderful views, and so it’s a privileged place for me.”