In addition to my former inspector role for the celebrated Red Guide and corporate human resources functions for several international chains, I also spent time as a hotel general manager. Firstly, and proudly, of a super luxe Relais Chateaux in Singapore and, following this, a few years posted as general manager of a couple of hotels in south China in cities I had previously never heard of and would undoubtedly struggle to find someone in our readership who would also know where they are located.
However, working experience in Phuket has eluded me, as has running an iconic landmark property such as The Boathouse.
When I heard that hospitality veteran Eric Weber had recently taken over the reins of this boutique hotel, I was looking forward to the opportunity of catching up over a coffee and croissant to seek his vision for this recently refurbished and relaunched Phuket gem.
For many of us, The Boathouse has been a part of our lives since it opened in 1988. It is where we have celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and graduations, and I know of several residents who have proposed during a perfectly planned candlelit soirée.
Designed by renowned architect, artist and hotelier Mom Tri, it has been owned by – unusually for hotel businesses – a very small and select group of individuals and is now part of the Singapore group HPL and its Boutique Collection division, which includes such exclusive properties as Casa Del Mar in Langkawi and Gili Lankanfushi in the Maldives.
Eric is Swiss, multilingual and has worked in the hotel business for upwards of 25 years. We meet on the restaurant terrace on one of those Phuket mornings that have earned the island its reputation of being a true paradise. Latte and croissant slathered with French butter and looking out over spectacular ocean views, I am instantly envious!
Back to reality, I ask him, how do you improve on The Boathouse whilst at the same time preserving its heritage? Eric begins by telling me that the changes will be small and will begin with service.
“Return guests account for a large and incredibly important part of the business; however, the younger generation are now looking for more. They want memorable and transformational experiences that come from the heart.
“In a property of this size with only 39 rooms, there exists an opportunity to create genuine experiences, designed to cater specifically for each guest’s wishes.”
In fact, Eric assures me that he usually meets every single guest who stays at the hotel, either on arrival, during their stay or on departure where he seeks direct feedback to his question of “how did you enjoy your stay and what could we do better?”
“Candid guest feedback is a gift which not only should be treasured but also acted on, immediately! Occasionally staff slip up, perhaps due to miscommunication, and when this happens, we must recover, apologise and rectify, ensuring our guest walks away happy. Many of our staff have been at The Boathouse for many years, and I encourage them to engage the guests at every opportunity, without being a nuisance.”
The art of service, as Eric knows from the renowned Lausanne school, is knowing when to talk to a guest and equally when not to.
An integral part of the Boathouse experience revolves around the restaurant, presided over by Executive Chef Jonathan Bruell, ably assisted by Executive Sous Chef Sonthaya Nithan (Jimmy).
Continuing Eric’s vision for tailored experiences, he intends to fine-tune the culinary experience to, where possible, what the guest actually wants – be it comfort food, a treasured dish, whether Western or Thai.
Examples abound, “Guests who having stayed several days seek a simple taste of home – a shepherd’s pie or fish and chips. Jonathan will engage the guests at breakfast and, with advance notice, deliver the requested favourite. This also applies to Thai cuisine where overseas visitors sometimes just want an authentic Southern dish which may not be on our menu, spice adjusted ever so slightly!
"We must also embrace the dining trends which dominate today such as various kinds of dietary restrictions and the move to sustainability whilst also being agile enough to provide diners just a perfectly cooked steak.”
Eric continues, “Delighting both existing and first-time guests is a delicate balance. We must also always recognise the importance of our local community and continue to run our Friday lunch for both local residents and guests who happen to be with us. We offer a quality product at a value for money price point.”
Eric, I am confident that all your patrons look forward to you maintaining the legacy of this important part of Phuket’s heritage and experiencing your revitalisation of The Boathouse. And, yes, I definitely plan to call Jonathan when I long for a garlic and herb butter chicken kiev with mashed potatoes and a few green leaves!
Chris is a former Michelin Guide Inspector who, following an international career in hospitality spanning 30 years in both the Middle East and Asia, has now settled in Thailand and contributes a monthly column.