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Luxury is how you feel - we must help guests create memories


Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale is an Italian 'ambassador' extraordinaire who loves using football as a metaphor for business. GM of The Fullerton Hotels and Resorts, he puts things simply, "We must be visible. GMs are the strikers who score goals."

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November 2019

SEE ALSO Franz Donhauser | Novi Samodro | Choo Leng Goh | Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes | Iwan Dietschi | Anchalika Kijkanakorn | Hans Jenni | Carina Chorengel | Peter Caprez | Louis Sailer | Richard Greaves

Interview with Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale, GM of The Fullerton Hotels and Resorts, Singapore

Not your typical gesticulating Italian, the dapper and unflappable Cavaliere Giovanni Viterali switched his passion from football to hotels and is now GM of The Fullerton Hotels and Resorts, Singapore/ photo: Vijay Verghese

With a genial avuncular face, deeply lined with liquid eyes that always appear lost in thought, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale is the quintessential hotelier, poised, exquisitely attentive, warm and unflappable. But when he speaks, softy and with authority, his mind is racing, fixing problems, eyes darting, surveying the linen, the tea, his guests… He is a stickler for quality, a people person, much loved by staff. Former colleagues who run into him still call him ‘boss’. Viterale was awarded the Order of the Star of Italy in August 2016 – hence the ‘Cavaliere’ title – an honour he carries lightly without pomp but with deep respect. After all, he is now a designated Italian ‘ambassador’ spreading his country’s special spirit around the world. General Manager of The Fullerton Hotels and Resorts in Singapore since early 2010 he overseas the group’s seven properties including The Fullerton Hotel Singapore (a former GPO and now a gazetted national monument), The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore, and the just-launched The Fullerton Hotel Sydney (another vintage post office). Clearly, Viterale has put his ‘stamp’ on things. Since mid-2014 he has been an executive director with Sino Hotels Holdings Ltd, Hong Kong with considerable hospitality heft in the city. Editor Vijay Verghese met with Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale on a sunny late October afternoon at The Royal Pacific Hotel Hong Kong to talk about luxury, millennial guests, and the changing face of travel.

Smart Travel Asia: Was it always hotels for you?

CAVALIERE GIOVANNI VITERALE: No. I grew up in Salerno, on the Amalfi Coast. My uncle was a teacher in a hotel school. He took me under his wing and I fell in love with the people. ‘This is a great job,’ I thought. After all I am a people person. In this field you have to like people. Hospitality should be like running your own home.

So what was your original dream?

CGV: Believe it or not I wanted to be a football player [eyes light up and shy smile plays on his face]. Unfortunately I didn’t make it. But it was and still is my passion. My childhood friend made it to a certain level. My parents believed football was a long shot. But every afternoon after school I would run to the beach to play. My son Antoine [now 23] is a football player. Perhaps my dream was passed on to him. In Pokfulam (Hong Kong) when he was young we played football and he listened intently to my stories.

How did you get to Asia?

CGV: My uncle always told me, ‘Go out and don’t stay in a comfortable job.’ He urged me to reach Hong Kong. I had no clue where Hong Kong was. He explained it was the leading hospitality destination. I made my way through Switzerland, UK, Germany, and Abu Dhabi before arriving in Hong Kong. When I arrived I realised he was correct. At The Claridges in London, hospitality was in everyone’s bones. It was among the best hotels in the world. In Hong Kong, luxury hotels were close to that standard.

What has changed in hoteliering over the years?

CGV: The biggest change I see [looks thoughtfully into the distance] is people were more hands on, more visible, and welcoming of guests. Not so much now. Technology and design have grown now but the only differentiation in the old days was service. You had to build a hotel personality, character.

How do you see the role of general manager today?

CGV: We need to go back to basics. We have a lot of assistance from technology but we cannot forget our customers. They are our oxygen. They remember how you made them feel. We have to help guests create memories. For this you have to be visible.

Do you think the classic lobby-cruising GM is dead?

CGV: I think he will return. Customers are far more discerning now.

There is a lot of pressure these days to simply generate revenue at the expense of the customer.

CGV: We have to strike a balance between guests and work demands. And we need good teams that are task oriented. Just like in football you need a good goalkeeper (finance).

Is the GM a captain or a referee?

CGV: he is the striker. You need goals. Of course the team must offer a great defence too.

What is the role of women in the hotel workforce?

CGV: Women add a very positive element to the team. They are very detailed. They are hard working and have integrity. I get 200 percent from women on the team. Ladies with a good support team can do a great job.

What does luxury mean to you?

CGV: Luxury is how people feel. When they leave your property they feel they have had a fantastic time. Everything worked. It was a great experience right up to the smiles at checkout. Luxury is NOT [waves his hands to emphasise] just crystal chandeliers and particular items. It is the feelings we help create.

Do you welcome technology? Or is it a hindrance?

CGV: I welcome technology as it helps achieve results. We need to manage it to enhance productivity. Initially tech was complex and you needed a PhD, but tech can be simple and friendly too.

Have you had any bizarre experiences with guests and how did you manage them?

CGV: In almost 40 years I have had tons of odd experiences. As long as you are truthful and admit to your mistakes it all works out. In all my past experiences these [upset] guests became my best customers. My advice is ‘Don’t be defensive with robotic answers.’

How are millennials changing hospitality?

CGV: They love organic stuff and are curious about what they eat. I find them extremely interesting. They travel a lot and have had great exposure. I learn from them too. We need to change and adapt. For example, we have no plastic straws in hotels today. We must thank young travellers for our eco-education.

How do you test or benchmark in-room comfort?

CGV: It is something subjective but it must feel good. And guests should want to be in the room. We test the rooms ourselves, and we let friends and colleagues try them out and offer opinions. We had people try out The Fullerton Singapore’s ‘new’ rooms before [emphasis, brief pause]… before starting on the whole renovation.

How important do you think brands are for travellers of today?

CGV: They see independent brands as strong for hospitality and they look for these kinds of hotels. Our Fullerton Hotels are all in amazing locations. I see more business travellers also moving to independent luxury hotels.

Your planned Hong Kong property does not follow the heritage lineage.

CGV: The Fullerton Hotel Ocean Park planned for 2021 will be a modern design under our ‘resorts’ umbrella.

Did the title of Cavaliere change the way you felt about your responsibility as a hotelier?

CGV: [Face creases into a smile and the eyes crinkle up] They say with a high title comes high responsibility. You need to be a better role model more than ever. People look up to you and expect integrity. But it hasn’t changed my character or style. That’s something my parents taught me.

Do you use Twitter to get your message across?

CGV: I have Twitter but I don’t tweet. If you end up everywhere and nowhere you forget your customers [grins]. But we do get bookings through Linked In!

What comes next when your hotel days are done?

CGV: I will relax and spend time with my family [wife Sophie who’s French and two children, Antoine (23) and Noemie (19)].

If you could change one thing about hospitality today what would it be?

CGV: I would promote it more. We need more young people in the business and we need more great hotel schools. During SARS in Hong Kong, we did a fantastic promotion to showcase Hong Kong hospitality. People learned to smile. It is actually ‘healing’ to smile.

How do you keep staff in these volatile times?

CGV: Staff are no different to customers. Treat them well and they will stay with you. They are human beings. We need to guide them, coach them, help them learn. I did an apprenticeship with the Savoy group in London for a couple of years, much of it in food and beverage. I was placed for a time under an 80-year-old sommelier. I was just 21! He was like my grandfather. I was always rushing about getting exhausted. He explained that the guests were mainly regulars and there was no need to race around like a chicken. He taught me to anticipate needs and to prepare for them. It is what helped him to have more time to talk with his customers. Pre-planning was the key as we knew the guest preferences. We need to share all this knowledge with youngsters. They will LOVE hospitality.

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