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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin FIT TO BE THAI-ED

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

June, 1982 -- As a frequent flyer of some mileage myself, I thought I’d share a few random observations gleaned from a trip halfway ‘round the world last February and March.

Once upon a time it came to my attention that Bangkok is the break point from New York if you’re circling the globe or flying to the Far East. This requires covering approximately the same distance whether you travel east or west from Ed Koch’s fiefdom. I was Thailand-bound for a conference, heading west, although I would have gladly fled in any direction that would spring me from the bitter winter we were undergoing. My only plea was get me someplace warm. I was not even going to resent, not for a single second, the humidity, noise, pollution and crowding I would encounter in Bangkok.

In terms of hours committed, I found the first few days long and wearying. I boarded a Pan Am 747SP at Kennedy in the morning for San Francisco, pleased by the undeniable comfort of the sleeper seat (even if you’re not going to sleep), a good breakfast and equally good service. An on-time arrival in SFO, blessedly mild weather in the fifties (F), a drive over to Oakland for meetings at World Airways and Transamerica Airlines, a late-afternoon flight north to Seattle on Republic (a comfortable one class DC-9 ride) and overnight with friends. Seattle was distinguished by a rare day without rain, an oversight remedied the next morning.

Why detour to Seattle for a Pacific jump-off? A logical question, since I could have continued on from San Francisco, a more direct gateway with a far greater frequency of flights. I was motivated by curiosity, a desire to sample Thai International’s transpacific service and in-flight standards on regional routes. I wasn’t disappointed, although one of the hostesses on the Tokyo–Bangkok leg could have cracked at least one (artificial) smile. I’ve always maintained that the tone created by the cabin staff is decisive in how passengers rate the flight experience. (Apart from getting there safely.)

The Thai 747 was full in both first and business classes, with an abundance of empty seats in economy, a common phenomenon on the Pacific these days. Possibly a reflection of the fact that harsh economic times impact big-ticket and business travelers least, and the so-called mass market most. I again found myself in a sleeper seat, this time in the upstairs lounge, three rows only, two by two, for a civilized total of twelve seats. The Thai Airways colors, orchid, purple, pink, gold, suffuse just about everything from cabin décor to the linens and what the attendants wear. I recall being impressed by the audio selections — creative for an airline — and that the movie was worth forgetting, as is usually the case in flight. The quality of the meals and choices were commendable. The nine hours from Seattle to Tokyo passed painlessly (we were treated to spectacular mountain views over Alaska), and we touched down on schedule in Bangkok after five hours from Tokyo. As of this writing, Thai flies three times a week from Seattle to the Far East. There’s an interesting pricing concept in business class: only a sixty-dollar surcharge in each direction above economy for all the extra room and those amenities. I read that to mean you could book Dallas all the way through to Bangkok for only sixty dollars above the Y-class tariff. A good deal.

The reason for this jaunt was an annual conference, the Pacific Area Travel Association’s, where we publish a newsletter for delegates, travel management daily, and usually air a television show, The World of Travel, which can go either closed-circuit or commercial. This time, we went on the air with the radio, with The Sound of Travel.

I had a busy but delightfully warm-weather week. I stayed at the President Hotel, operated by Regent International Hotels. I hadn’t stayed at the President since Regent took it over, but it was one of my favorites in the late ’60s and early ‘70s when my travels had brought me to the Thai capital. There was an elegant new wing this time around, more public space and shops and still an ample selection of restaurants (coffee shop to gourmet) and cocktail lounges. The swimming pool isn’t large, but adequate.

The high quality of service at this hotel, the friendly help, the fast room service and the nice atmosphere overall are personified by the general manager, a Thai gentleman named Prarob Mokaves, whose background includes the Hotel School at Cornell and lengthy apprenticeships in Hawaii, including the Kahala Hilton. It shows in the way the President is run; the hotel caters to business travelers.

An aside here: The Oriental Hotel, a member of the Mandarin group, certainly lived up to its billing as one of the finest hotels anywhere, especially among those oriented to the business community. I enjoyed several outstanding meals, the fine food complemented by impeccable service. The handsome building and grounds, and the colorful setting on the water, all substantiate the Oriental’s reputation.

With the PATA convention now history, I flew up to Hong Kong on Thai; the British Crown Colony provides the most dramatic approach by air I’ve ever encountered. When the jet banks in among the steep hills on its way down into Kai Tak, you know you’re flying. Just ten minutes by car from the airports, I checked into a virtually new hotel, the Royal Garden. Very favorable first impression of this Mandarin property, although it’s not considered Mandarin class, which is deluxe. The Royal Garden is merely first class, but very first class, although it won’t be promoted as a Mandarin. Oh well. Ken Mullins, the man who runs the hotel, incidentally, is an old friend from his days with Hyatt. He was my host several times when we ran the International in Acapulco. (The hotel industry is truly international; here was Mullins, an Australian, running the show in Hong Kong, after stints in such places as Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. He’ll probably show up next in the Caribbean.)

I dined that night just a few short minutes from where I was staying, at the magnificent 605-room Hong Kong Regent (deluxe), also operated by Regent International and opened in January of 1981. Situated on the world’s most spectacular seaport, this hotel has already taken its place alongside the Peninsula and Mandarin as one of Hong Kong’s finest. The glass façade fronting the harbor is worth the visit, not to mention the sea of dark marble that floods the lobby and the white marble staircase that belongs in a film with Scarlet O’Hara. The main dining room, the Plume, which also reigns over the picture-postcard scenery, serves up a memorable array of dishes with flawless style. They don’t stint on anything at the Regent. Our host that evening, Mike Mathews, vice president of marketing for the chain (He makes his home in Los Angeles.), told how he was sent to London before the Hong Kong hotel opened. His mission: find the classiest possible transportation for the Regent. Dressed in jeans and a sweater, no shave — looking scruffy on purpose, I suspect — he went to the ritziest Daimler dealer in town and asked for a test drive, with a chauffer, of course. Grudgingly, he recounts, they gave him the ride he requested. When he came back, he said. “Wrap up that car and five others like it, and ship them to Hong Kong.” Mathews said he’d always fantasized about doing something like that. (The hotel also has ten Mercedes limousines for its guests.)

From Hong Kong the next day on Pan Am to Tokyo, for a Pan Am connection to Honolulu. Both legs in sleeperettes; commendable flights. An early-morning arrival in Hawaii was marred by a disagreeable customs clearance. I was sent to three different lines for no apparent reason; none of the civil servants who served me were particularly civil. I find arrivals in Honolulu persistently unfriendly. And while I appreciate the necessity of apprehending drug dealers, smugglers and other miscreants, I suggest that the bureaucrats at that facility take lessons in the Aloha spirit.

My stay at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki reinforced the high esteem in which I hold the worldwide Hyatt operation. For a hotel family of this size (nearly 100 unites), Hyatt has managed to maintain a quality that satisfies the most demanding corporate executive. The Hyatt in Waikiki is basically a business-oriented operation in a resort atmosphere. There are more than 1,200 rooms, several floors of shops, a wide range of restaurants and bars, and a disco.

There is an aura of tremendous scale — and activity — at this Hyatt, with massive twin towers, an atrium adorned with dense tropical foliage and a waterfall — a miniature city operating at a full, but always highly organized, tilt. Day or night, there is rarely if ever an empty space; there’s never an absence of movement. Guests and other visitors in bright casualwear people in the lobby, the hallways, the elevators and escalators, the cocktail lounges, the shops and the swimming area, which has woefully small acreage for a plant of this magnitude. (I had to find something to quibble about. Commenting on the pool, the Hyatt people deny that it was an afterthought, stressing that the best of Waikiki Beach lies just across Kalakaua Avenue. And ultimately, I discovered where the rest of the pool has gone — over to the awesome Hyatt on Kaanapali Beach in Maui, where the ambitious double-pool complex seems to go on forever.)

For the business community, the Hyatt Waikiki provides meeting rooms accommodating a broad spectrum of requirements, plus the specialized attractions of the Regency Club, a feature of many Hyatts. Here in Waikiki, this private domain inhabits the two top floors (39th and 40th) of both towers. Special keys are needed to motivate the elevators to your floor, and the hallowed hallways are generally guarded by an attractive, sprightly and helpful hostess. My favorite was Charlene, who looked engagingly Polynesian but who had an English father. Besides spacious and handsome accommodations, balconies overlooking the Pacific and/or Waikiki, a generously stocked bar, television and a stereo system, the Regency Club amenities also include a champagne welcome, complimentary continental breakfast (self-served and brought to your room), three newspapers (from Honolulu and Los Angeles and The Wall Street Journal), a no-charge bar from three in the afternoon until eight in the evening, a tray of canapés between five and six every afternoon, two bottles of mineral water with bitters (for your digestion? to help you sleep?), a supply of cookies daily and always a fresh fruit bowl. And probably most important: Everything is done with a smile and in style.

The man who presided over this kingdom since its mid-‘70s preopening is the vice president for Hyatt in the fiftieth state, one Ed Sullivan. Incidentally, Sullivan opened the first of the Hyatt atrium properties in Atlanta in 1967; he also inaugurated the Union Square Hyatt in San Francisco.

Staying in a Regency Club floor has its hazards. Use of the key in the elevator often attracts puzzled frowns or comments, such as: “Is there a restaurant up there?” or “Do you work for the hotel?” One day in a crowded car, a man asked me why I needed a key. I explained, and he nodded. As he got off at his (lower) floor, he said, “Well, enjoy your toys.” Sour grapes.

Finally, no stay at this Hyatt is complete without dinner at Bagwells, an outstanding restaurant with a superior menu.

I spent most of my time in Honolulu, but I did fly to Maui (on Aloha Airlines) for a day. Apart from being struck, as I always am, by the incredibly serene beauty of this island, I also paid a visit to the relatively new Westin Hotel at Wailea, had a splendid lunch at the imposing Hyatt Maui (where I discovered the missing swimming pool), toured the splendid Kapalua Bay Hotel and Villas (a Regent International property) and its two scenic golf courses and dropped in on the new Marriott at Kaanapali. Whew!

My flight home was via San Francisco, both legs on Pan Am; in San Francisco, I stayed two nights at the understated but wonderful Four Seasons Clift.

I got over my jet lag in about ten days, just about the time I took off on the Concorde for London.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1980–2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.