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Marie-Laure Fleury: From Beijing to the Boathouse

PHUKET: When Marie-Laure Fleury arrived in Beijing in the early 1990s on a hotel internship, little did she know her trip as a fresh-faced student would mark the start of a life-long love affair with Asia.

Wednesday 7 May 2014, 09:33AM


Fast forward 20 or so years and she is now general manager of the Boathouse on Kata Beach, and a much loved member of the Phuket community.

Originally from France, Marie first arrived in China at age 21. She was in her third year of a four year degree in hotel management at the renowned Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne (Lausanne Hotel School). As part of the degree students had to do an internship. With time running out to secure a place, Marie and a friend spotted an advertisement for China and decided it sounded exciting.

“I went to the library and borrowed all the books they had about China, and decided to go – to the grand despair of my parents. My mother’s jaw dropped when I told her, I’ll always remember.”

But when the young women arrived at the hotel, they were told their internship would consist of being hostesses in the lobby greeting guests. The hotel also decided it was not going to pay their flights as agreed upon, and the friends were living in a place with a broken fan in 40 degree temperatures.

Not exactly what they had planned, so they left after 10 days, despite having planned to stay for six months. They were left with the choice to find another internship, or fly home without having completed their course requirement. There was only one option: the hunt for another placement began and they were lucky to find work at Shangri-La’s China World Hotel, where they were told they could start immediately and were given projects to work on.

This was at a time where China was largely unknown to the West, and the country was emerging from the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Marie, and all other foreigners in Beijing, were forbidden from interacting with locals – they couldn’t hold local currency, could only live in designated areas, and were only allowed to shop at one supermarket.

“It was really great,” recalls Marie. “There were a good team of expats who took us under their wing. The chaos, the complications, things were not simple. It was a different culture, and it was fascinating. I had hardly been out of France, Asia was completely new.”

Marie returned home to France, graduated, and then worked for a year and a half in Paris. But Asia was always on her mind, and when a friend in Hong Kong encouraged her to stay with him until she found a job, she booked a flight out. And it didn’t take long, within three weeks she found a position working for a company which ran a dozen restaurants across the city. She stayed for two and a half years before becoming restaurant manager for the Renaissance (now the Langham).

Then it was onto the Intercontinental Grand Stanford, where she was assistant food and beverage manager for a year, before joining the storied ranks at the Peninsula. She first spent two years in Shanghai working for the hotel group, before returning to spend three years at the head office in Hong Kong, and then a further three years as the food and beverage director.

It was while at the Peninsula in 2001 that she met her now husband Bryce Schneider. Marie was due to attend a black tie junk trip but wasn’t too keen, but her friend dragged her along.

“He was the only one not wearing a black tie. He started to chat to me, made me laugh all night, and the rest is history,” Marie says. The couple were married in 2005, and then Marie decided to apply for a job at the Sukhothai in Bangkok as executive assistant manager.

The couple put their “baby making” plans on hold when Marie was accepted for the job, but fate had other plans.

“Two weeks later I found out I was pregnant.”

Marie describes this as, “the most devastating time of her life”, when it should have been one of the happiest. Worried about the Sukhothai’s reaction, and whether she would have to decline the job, she flew to Bangkok to tell the GM in person, who was fine with it, provided she could confirm she would be back at work once the baby was born. Nine months later Maxim, the first of the couple’s two children, was born. Chloe followed two years later.

Then the family moved to Phuket where Marie became the resort manager at luxury hotel Trisara, and Bryce became Outrigger’s e-commerce manager for the Asia Pacific region. Fast forward five years, and Marie is the general manager for the Boathouse on Kata Beach, a position she loves.

“There are great people [here], who have the same passion, aspirations and vision.”

The position keeps Marie extremely busy. She drops the children off at school at 7.45am, and usually isn’t home until 8.45pm, and that’s on a good night.

“The rest it’s 10, 11, 12, 1am.” she says, explaining how the position is very social, and she does a lot of entertaining.

But of course, spending hours away from Bryce and the kids can take its toll, and she often feels guilty, especially when the children cry when she drops them off at school.

“It’s hard when you feel that you’re not up to date with what they’re doing at school – especially during [the hotel’s] high season. But I would be terribly unhappy if I was doing this. I love what I do, and I can’t think about giving it up; I need the independence.”

Given Marie has such long working hours, it’s no surprise that the days off she gets each week (two now, an increase from one about a month ago), she spends entirely with her family.

Sunday especially is family day. It’s a late breakfast, usually lunch at the beach, followed by plenty of activities such as arts and crafts and reading, while Bryce cooks a lamb roast every Sunday.

It’s pretty fortunate Marie has a lot of energy, given how fast-paced her life is, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m not one that enjoys relaxing too much. I need to keep busy all the time.”

 

 

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