Dirk De Cuyper was just 17 and waiting tables in a small town in Belgium when he arguably made the best decision of his life. Still at school and a little “blurred” about his future, it took the teenager only a week working at the beachside restaurant in Middelkerke to realise he wanted a career in hospitality.
Nearly 30 years later, and living in Bangkok, Dirk is now CEO of S Hotels & Resorts, a hospitality management and investment firm operating 39 establishments in five countries. In between, he spent more than 25 years working with the Hilton group in New York, Malaysia, Indonesia and China.
“The business attracted me all those years ago,” he says. “Obviously, I didn’t have an aspiration to be a waiter for the rest of my life, but I loved dealing with people and getting recognition for good service, so I did a bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management in Brussels.”
After graduating, Dirk scored a job with the Hilton in Brussels, launching his development program in the kitchen washing dishes before moving up the ranks to managerial positions. He opened Hilton’s flagship brand the Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai on the Bund before being appointed Regional General Manager Hilton Worldwide in Thailand in 2012.
Three years later, he was approached to be Chief Hospitality Officer of property holding company Singha Estate, the parent company of S Hotels & Resorts.
The company already had businesses in commercial and residential real estate and needed Dirk’s expertise to diversify into hospitality. “It was a game changer for me, an opportunity to do something different,” he reflects.
“Having been at the forefront of hospitality, meeting and greeting, I was keen to understand the investment side of the business. Our strategic approach was to focus on the brownfields, existing properties we’d refurbish and reposition in the markets, but we have also accelerated growth in greenfields and newly built properties.
“I think we underestimated our capabilities for growing fast because, four years ago, our ambition was to have about 10 properties. Today we have 39 in five countries. S Hotels & Resorts was publicly listed in November, I gained the additional title of CEO and, over the next five years, we want to double our current portfolio of 4,647 rooms.”
Located in Fiji, Mauritius, the Maldives, Thailand and the UK, the hotels and resorts are nestled in unspoiled environments where nature, culture and relaxation combine to offer unique experiences.
Dirk describes the company’s business model as “a little different”. To offer more diversity and flexibility in destinations and have access to global loyalty programs, S Hotels & Resorts collaborates with other major hospitality brands, including Hilton’s Curio Collection, Hard Rock, Mercure, Holiday Inn and Outrigger.
“We have self-managed estates, franchise estates and estates managed by third parties, and we are very committed to our shareholders, communicating where we want to go. We are also very focused on offering greater value to our guests than just exceptional luxury and play.
“We see the boundaries of our properties not within the property itself, but within the vicinity of where we are,” he explains. “We’ve got some phenomenal programs protecting marine life and oceans. For example, on Phi Phi Island we have a Marine Discovery Centre, where we operate a clown fish breeding program, releasing them later into the wild.
“We also engage with our local neighbours, discovering how we can contribute to their livelihoods and how we can work together. We share this knowledge with our guests so they really get a sense of where they are, rather than just staying in a resort. It’s a very new approach, but we want to promote the authenticity of the area while our guests are relaxing and enjoying the beautiful beaches, blue sky, great food and leisure. That way, they leave with more of an understanding of the country they’ve visited and can share that understanding with their own communities back home.”
One of the most ambitious projects Dirk has been working on over the past two years is CROSSROADS, a fully integrated and sustainable development spanning islands edging the Emboodhoo Lagoon and South Male Atoll in the Maldives.
Opening in September last year, the development features two resorts, SAii Lagoon Maldives, a Curio Collection by Hilton, and Hard Rock Hotel Maldives, developed and managed by S Hotels & Resorts.
Both are connected by footbridge to The Marina @ CROSSROADS, which encompasses the country’s first luxury yacht marina, offering 30 berths, 800 metres of beach and 30 dining, entertainment and shopping outlets within 11,000 square metres of retail space.
“We see the boundaries of our properties not within the property itself, but within the vicinity of where we are.”
It also includes a Marine Discovery Centre and a Maldives Discovery Centre, a small interactive museum featuring the history and lifestyle of the Maldives. “It’s a bit of a disruptive product for the Maldives,” Dirk admits.
“But it’s a positive one. The global perception of the Maldives has always been a destination offering a once-in-a-lifetime experience on one island in one resort, something suitable for honeymooners.
“CROSSROADS is an integrated destination concept opening up experiential travelling to different people, such as families and solo travellers, who never thought about going there before. We’ve bundled everything for everyone nicely together. It’s been received extremely well by the Maldives government, which aims to give more people the opportunity to vacation and discover the wonders below the water, as well as engaging with the local communities and their lifestyles.”
Dirk has embraced the role social media plays within the hospitality industry, warts and all. While he gets great satisfaction from reading online reports about the experiences S Hotels & Resorts guests have enjoyed, he’s also encouraged extensive connectivity on the properties to enable guests to communicate directly with staff if any issues need resolving on the spot. He also thrives on the personal element.
“Moving around the world, you become a global citizen with a global network of friends,” he explains. “I like to communicate and understand a bit more about what’s happening on an international perspective. Social media allows me to share experiences while learning from others about theirs. I guess the best piece of advice I have received is the next one I’ll be given,” he says, laughing. “I’m inspired all the time. It really depends on yourself where you find your passion for life and work and how you drive it.”
“I guess the best piece of advice I have received is the next one I’ll be given.”
Having lived in China, Malaysia and now Thailand, Dirk has fulfilled a dream he harboured since those early days waiting on tables. He was an avid reader of books about travel and developed a deep-rooted fascination about working and living in Asia.
Bangkok doesn’t disappoint, and while conceding it’s not always perfectly organised, he says the chaos offers flexibility and the chance to explore new avenues. “It’s always buzzing,” he says.
“It’s a 24-hour fast-moving city, where you’re not bound by too many restrictions. Meanwhile, Thailand is renowned for its smiles, hospitality, friendliness and warmth, and that is the essence of our company. We are very much driven by Thai hospitality and we share that inspiration with all our staff worldwide. If you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your guests.”
Dirk’s own enthusiasm for his guests and his industry hasn’t dimmed over the decades; if anything he believes his passion for the job has intensified. It’s a big call from someone working in the people business, particularly when your job is trying to please them.
“Every day, I wake up to a different day,” he explains. “It’s a fascinating business to be in and, so far, not a single regret. While the hospitality industry has changed, the basics haven’t. People expect the best service. It’s as simple as that.”
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