Mandarin Oriental General Manager Karan Berry’s 23-year-long career in hospitality has taken him from India to Indonesia, and now to Taiwan. To successfully run a luxury hotel, he says, you need to understand and respect not only the most visible parts of the operation, but also all of the various back-end roles – what he calls “the heart of the house.”
Karan met with Taiwan Business TOPICS Deputy Editor Jeremy Olivier to discuss his background, his human-centered management style, and his thoughts on the travel and tourism industry in Taiwan.
What was your early life like and what got you interested in a career in hospitality?
I was born and raised in India. When I was a child, my father worked in a job that required that he and the family travel often. We moved from city to city, experiencing the cultural diversity of the country. During that time, I was also exposed to hotels and the different functions they serve.
After university, I started looking for career opportunities and discovered a management program run by a famous Indian luxury hotel company, The Oberoi Group. The program selected around 25 delegates from across India and I was lucky to be one of the successful candidates.
It was a very challenging program. There were theoretical and hands-on courses, and it culminated in a yearlong stint as an assistant manager for one of the Oberoi hotels. It was also the first time I was away from my parents for an extended period, so I had to learn how to take care of myself.
At the same time, it was a really important direction for me to take. I got to learn about the different aspects of running a hotel, from the front desk to all of the back-end operations. I also was required to train in all the different areas, no matter how menial, which was humbling and gave me a sense of respect for the people that work in those roles.
What is the most enjoyable part of working in the hotel field, and what is the most challenging?
There is an extremely fun and exciting dynamic to working in hotels. The hotel industry is very fast-moving and is constantly developing. It’s also a highly value-based industry; hotels cannot just compete based on price. What is very important here is our value proposition, what we bring to the table as a luxury hotel.
On the other hand, this is still a service industry, and that means that we are dealing with human beings. We have to consider both our guests’ expectations and the emotions and ambitions of our team members. We’re not machines, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. In such a competitive environment, managing such expectations can be very challenging.
In addition, the aspirations of young workers are changing. We used to work for maybe one or two companies for our whole careers, and that is not the case anymore. It is now getting harder to find the right person for the right role in this business, especially a high-potential employee who is willing to stay for the long term.
What have you found to be the most significant characteristics of the business environment in Taiwan? What are the main ways in which it differs from other markets where you’ve had experience?
I’ve managed hotels in India, Indonesia, and now in Taiwan. I think that although Taiwan is a smaller market, it is also quite international. There’s a diverse mix of hotel brands here, which adds to the overall business environment. It’s also a very sensitive market, both politically and economically, something that requires constant innovation. Businesses here are consistently evolving and adapting to new trends and customer preferences.
The culinary economy is very strong here. For example, Taipei has 24 Michelin-starred restaurants. This really bolsters the tourism market and gives rise to a lot of innovative thinking. The night markets and diversity of food choices are special aspects of Taiwan that bring in tourists from many different countries.
The labor market is another important aspect and I think people here are extremely special. Taiwan has a pool of talented people who are very dedicated to their work, and the level of English-speaking ability among Taiwanese employees is quite high. I have been fortunate here at Mandarin Oriental to oversee a local team that is able to adapt and deliver great, personalized service to our guests.
What do you consider to be your main strengths as a manager? Any weaknesses? Do you have a certain philosophy of management that you follow?
I am very good at hands-on management. I work closely with my team and communicate clearly to them my strategy and vision.
I’m also very detail-oriented and well-prepared. I spend 99% of my time on planning because if a plan is put together well, you only need to spend 1% of your time on execution.
In this industry, creating lasting customer relationships and maintaining transparency with hotel owners are two essential objectives, both of which I am skilled at.
That being said, as a manager of hotels in multiple different countries, I am not very strong at learning new languages. I am also just now getting around to learning about different industries and markets outside of hospitality, something which I think is vital to being a well-rounded manager. There’s always something you can take away from learning about industries other than your own.
In terms of a management philosophy, I really just like to lead by example. Setting the tone, the pace, the direction, and being a role model for my team. As I see it, a general manager is the financial and cultural conscience-keeper of the hotel. It is therefore important for me to make ethical and correct decisions because the whole team really looks up to me.
What do you regard as the strengths and weaknesses of the tourism market in Taiwan? What needs to be done for it to reach its potential?
Taiwan has a rich mix of many different cultures, with a diversity of foods and traditions. It has a beautiful climate, friendly faces, a feeling of genuine hospitality, and a unique natural environment, all of which make it an ideal destination for both leisure and business travelers.
It is also a very safe place and one of the best places in the world for expats to live. The quality of life is very high and the infrastructure here is strong and well-organized.
However, while Taiwan is attractive to international travelers, it needs to have a slightly more innovative mindset to increase its competitiveness in the Asia Pacific market. One approach would be to create more opportunities for MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, and Exhibitions) tourism. MICE travelers tend to spend money across different sectors in a destination, including restaurants, transportation, and retail.
The government should also focus on providing sufficient facilities, training, and overseas promotions of Taiwan as an attractive destination. Also, holding more city-wide, international oriented events would give an extra boost to international tourism here.
If you had one piece of advice for young professionals going into your industry, what would it be?
I would encourage them to be confident in themselves, and most importantly, to have a positive attitude. Skills can be fine-tuned over a period of time with the right training. However, the right person with the right outlook can go a long way.
Young people should also be willing to take things one step at a time and not put too much pressure on themselves to constantly be moving upward. Everyone is in such a hurry to grow in their careers nowadays and this is a good thing, but one has to be a bit careful. You need to take the extra time to cover all of your bases before you move on because once you do get that upper-management position, your team will look to you to lead them on all fronts.
How do you like to spend your leisure time? What do you find is the best way to get “recharged?”
To be honest, it can be hard for me to disconnect and enjoy my time off. I really enjoy the buzz, the action, the feeling of being involved when I’m at the hotel.
However, I really believe in keeping a balance between work and life. One way I do this is to stay fit. Most mornings I go to the gym, where I do cardio and light weights. Although I don’t get a lot of time to watch it, I am a big football fan (Liverpool is my favorite team), and a fan of cricket as well. I also love hiking here; Taiwan has some beautiful natural scenery.
It’s important for me to spend time with my family. My wife and I have a daughter, who is 16 years old this year. We have really strived to guide her and inculcate her with the right values, just like my father did when I was growing up. At the same time, we want to give her a sense of empowerment and independence. I think this approach has worked. She has discovered her own talents, like playing piano and learning languages, and has already decided on a potential future career in law.