Since Westin Tashee Resort General Manager Jan-Hendrik Meidinger arrived in Asia 23 years ago, he has consistently striven to understand others without making assumptions. His 30 years of experience spanning six countries has taught him about what truly matters in the complex and ever-changing hospitality industry, and he takes joy in coaching new talent. From Guam to Vietnam, Meidinger’s service and leadership skills have aided him in creating unforgettable experiences for countless guests.
Meidinger connected with TOPICS Associate Editor Julia Bergström in January to discuss his journey from page boy to GM, what COVID-19 has revealed about his industry, and the importance of humility.
How did you come to be interested in pursuing a career in the hospitality industry? What have been the most rewarding aspects of working in this area?
Around the age of sixteen, in Germany, you spend a couple of weeks at a company to try out a specific vocation. My grandfather was the editor-in-chief of one of Axel Springer’s newspapers. I spent two weeks there and couldn’t stand it; the only thing I liked about it was the paternoster lift. After the internship, my heartbroken grandfather told me he could imagine me in the hospitality sector. The idea appealed to me, so by the age of 16, I’d already decided that I’d be a hotel GM one day.
I did my apprenticeship at a hotel in Hamburg. During the first six months, I was what they call a page boy, standing all day, pushing a revolving door for pretty much eight hours straight. On my first day, I worked until 3 p.m., and afterward, my feet and my back were aching. I went straight to bed after work and slept until the next day, and I couldn’t wait to go back again. I’ve loved every single day of it, and I never had any doubts.
The hospitality industry is rewarding in many ways. Working at a hotel, you see happy people, sad people, children being born, and you get confronted with death too, unfortunately. We’re designers of emotions and memorable moments, and there’s nothing better than making an impact and a difference. One time, a Russian woman was sitting in the lobby hyperventilating, looking like she was having a heart attack. I helped her calm down, and the next day she came back and said, “you literally saved my life.” Those types of moments are the ones I will never forget.
But the thing that excites me the most is being able to be part of someone’s career journey and to guide and influence people in their careers.
Whom would you say has had the biggest impact on you as a professional? What lessons did you learn from them?
My wife is my biggest influence. She’s my best friend, best adviser, and most brutal critic. She never holds back. I think the greatest guidance and advice I’ve received has come from her.
Shaun Treacy, the general manager of Grand Hyatt back when I came to Taiwan the first time, also greatly influenced me. When I first started, he said, “I only have one piece of advice for you: you need to prioritize.” And I thought that’s okay – I’m German and organized, I’ve got my post-it notes and action plans. It turns out I wasn’t organized at all! I had to learn that I would never finish my work and be okay with that. The moment I started doing that, my life changed. To this day, that’s the advice I give anyone I have the privilege of mentoring.
Another person who has influenced me was my first GM in Asia, who taught me the importance of humility. As foreigners, we need to remember that we are guests – we’re the foreign objects. We will never succeed if we simply bring our own culture to a new place and impose it on others.
How have you developed your management style over the years? What would you say your strengths are, and what would you like to develop further?
My style has changed tremendously over the years, but one philosophy I’ll always keep is that you never stop learning. One of the key elements of leading – and I believe there’s a difference between managing and leading – is the ability to listen, to have empathy, and to guide people. I think the ability to develop connections is also important. I spend most of my time with people, whether that’s the owners, operators, guests, or my staff.
I like to think I’m strategic and have strong people skills. I’m very organized and disciplined, and I’m not afraid to make tough decisions. But there are areas I need to work on too. I’m a tad too sensitive – actually, I’m much too sensitive. I always thought I was a good listener, but after some reflection, I realized that I was listening to respond rather than to understand. You don’t always have to give an answer – sometimes simply validating somebody’s feelings will make all the difference.
What do you find is the best way to motivate your team? How do you cultivate talent and leadership potential?
The most important motivational tool is always honesty. It can sometimes hurt, but people with potential and those who want to grow will find a way to accept honest feedback. I also strive to challenge people and create an environment where they feel safe enough to risk failure. To generate that sort of trust, you need to be willing to trust others first. Our willingness to trust others is something we can decide for ourselves, but how do I convince you to be willing to trust me back? It takes a lot of time, many conversations, encouragement, and pushing people out of their comfort zone.
What have the last couple of years taught you about your industry?
I was in Hong Kong when SARS emerged in 2003, and because I had gone through that, I had implemented preventive action plans and felt very confident when COVID started. I told everyone that everything would be okay. I was a bit wrong there, but I’ve never doubted the future of our industry. Video meetings cannot replace face-to-face contact and even during the pandemic’s peak in 2020, people in Europe couldn’t wait to go on holiday – they knew they’d get sick, but they had to fly to Spain and sit on the beach anyway. I believe the hospitality industry will boom like there’s no tomorrow once people are able to travel freely again.
The biggest challenge is finding future talent to manage that boom. So many people in the hotel industry lost their jobs or had to work harder for no reward during the pandemic. Will people want to enter this industry after seeing restaurants and hotels closed and friends being subject to salary cuts? I can already see signs of it in Taipei, where everybody in the industry is struggling to find people.
Our industry needs to reinvent itself and focus on wellbeing much more than we currently do. COVID has shown how vital wellbeing is. Mental health doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. Depression doesn’t come overnight; it starts somewhere, and as an industry, we’re not great at addressing that. This is a much bigger challenge than COVID itself.
If you had one piece of advice for someone interested in a career in your industry, what would it be? What qualities are needed to succeed in the hospitality industry?
Don’t hesitate! It’s going to be tough, there are going to be long nights, but it’s one of the most rewarding industries out there. If somebody wants to have success in our industry, I’d recommend that they start early and at the bottom. I see us as designers of memorable moments. We don’t make our money through our food, beds, or functions – we do so through designing experiences that become memories. This also means we get instant rewards while doing this job in the form of a smile and a thank you for making a difference for someone.
Our industry does not require a degree in physics, but you do need common sense. You need to be open-minded and able to connect with people. If I interview you for a position, I won’t be looking at your CV because you’ve already gone through the screening process. I’ll look at how you make me feel, whether I can connect with you. If you can make connections, I’m happy to hire you because I know that when you tend to a guest, they will feel comfortable. That’s the most important quality I look for.
What do you like to do in your free time? How do you get “recharged?”
I cycle. Cycling, to me, fixes everything. I have two bicycles: one is a German brand called High Bike, and the other one is a Pinarello 410 Dogma. It’s like the Ferrari of bikes – not that it makes me any faster, but it’s great to look at. The route I enjoy the most is Mount Wuling. It’s one of the 10 most difficult rides in the world and it’s really something else. But any mountain in Taiwan is beautiful to bicycle.
Family time is important to me, too. When life is getting me down, I get the biggest boost from cuddling up next to my sons and just being there. I had a very tough time two years ago, and when it was all too much, I’d just lie next to my son and read to regain energy.