Q & A: Didier Lamoot, General Manager of Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra

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The Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra in Cambodia opened its doors just two weeks ago. Who better to hear about the new hotel than from the general manager? Here, Didier Lamoot talks about the hotel, sharing information about the destination and competition from Angkor.

Q. Why haven't any other 5-star hotels opened in Phnom Penh in the past decade? The region's booming, and yet Phnom Penh, until now, hasn't really been able to capitalize on the wider world's interest.

A. When talking about Cambodia, people immediately think of Angkor. And who can blame them? It is one of the world's marvels. For the past dozen years, so much of the interest in Cambodia, for both the leisure and the corporate traveler, has been on Angkor. There's been so much attraction to Siem Reap—gravitational attraction, inevitable attraction—that Phnom Penh has been left with the second fiddle. But the second fiddle is now asking the first violin for some time on the main stage.

Q. Can this city support another five-star hotel? The city already has two, as well as a fairly new 600-room hotel-casino.

A. In 2004/2005, they were telling me it would be crazy to put up a hotel. The upscale hotels were losing money then. But by 2007/2008, everyone was saying we're waiting for you. We need more rooms.

Q. Is this city ready for prime time?

A. The city is ready. But it's hard to communicate to the world that we are ready. Both private industry and government have to be pulling in the same direction, and with great vigor, to ensure that the world knows this.

Q. How do you persuade corporate and leisure travelers that indeed, Phnom Penh should be a destination for these travelers?

A. This is the future of Cambodia. This city is emerging as Cambodia's hub, as a gateway to Angkor, yes, but also to Sihanoukville and the southern coast. Note that Thai Airways flies into Phnom Penh, not Siem Reap. If we want to develop the country as a real destination, we have to develop the south. That's how Phnom Penh becomes a hub.

Q. But that’s not the way the city is perceived now?

A. Correct. According to the official statistics, we had 471,283 arrivals to Phnom Penh in from January to October 2010, while there were 557,145 arrivals to Siem Reap. That doesn't suggest that the country yet revolves around a hub.

Q. What is the next milestone you're looking out for in Cambodia’s redevelopment as a destination?

A. Easy. We need a long-haul flight into Phnom Penh from Europe, from the States and or from Australia. All of the planes coming in now are with regional carriers.

Q. Air France?

A. Bien sur. Yes, we've just learned that Air France plans to fly direct to Phnom Penh from Paris three times per week, starting in March. This is big, even if there will be a connecting flight at Bangkok.

Q. Tarmac to tarmac, France to Cambodia is too much to ask at present?

A. Apparently. But soon enough, we hope there will be cause. And we expect that this will begin with charters. We have 250,000 Franco Khmer coming in from Paris. They can fill a few planes.

Q. Where are travelers coming in from now.

A. From Vietnam, remarkably enough. Travelers from Vietnam are the number one source of travelers to Cambodia at present. Then Korea, China, Japan. The U.S. is #5.

Q. What does the opening of the Sofitel mean for Phnom Penh? As general manager of the hotel, we know you're predisposed to say it's a big deal, but is it really?

A. It is, and for this reason. There has been very little investment in upscale hotel development over the past 10,12 years. So now, with this hotel, we open with as much panache as any other hotel can claim in Southeast Asia.

Q. How so?

A. Well, start with the design. All of the restaurants and bars are singular. There is an individual concept. There will be a service level comparable to what you can have in Tokyo or New York. It will cost. Our Sunday brunch, for example, will costs $45 - $60. But we're not afraid to deliver luxury. People want to pay money for value.

Q. How can Phnom Penh compete with Angkor?

A. Let me go out on a limb here. The first wonder of Cambodia is not Angkor. It is Khmer culture. It is the smell that comes from these kitchens, the smiles you see on these faces. Tourism is still rather new to the Khmer, and as such, it's a wonder. Every great new destination goes through this. And so in the near-term, travelers to Cambodia will be the beneficiaries of fresh contact with the Khmer culture.

Q. You're saying the Khmer are friendly.

A. Okay, okay. Let me add to that: The Khmer want to show the world they can make it. There is that energy here. They are welcoming, and they have something to prove. They want to learn fast, and really they have so much to gain. They want to get rid of this image of the Khmer Rouge.

Q. About the Khmer Rouge, is this still one of the great drivers to the country's tourism. Thanatourism, or Dark Tourism is —

A. Are you asking, 'Are people coming here for the Killing Fields?'

Q. Yes.

A. No. They've been coming for Angkor. But we do send them to the Killing Fields, to Tuol Sleng. Today's trials, we hope, will be a final chapter. We will turn the page. It’s still interesting to talk about all that. But we have so many new conversations to have. The black pepper of Kampot, for example. The best in the world. Or the new highway between Thailand and Vietnam. The open skies. The open borders. So many new things to talk about.

Q. About the hotel specifically, what do you expect to be most compelling.

A. I expect that it will be the cumulative effect of all our restaurants. You won't come to the Sofitel to eat. But you'll know that if you want Italian, you'll come to Do Forni. For Chinese to Fu Lu Zu. For pastry, to Chocolat. Each kitchen is led by an individual chef and will celebrate an individual identity. For all of this to happen all at once in Phnom Penh, with eight new food and beverage options at once, that I think will be extremely compelling.

Q. That's especially compelling for locals and leisure travelers. How does the hotel establish itself as the destination of choice for inbound arrivals?

A. When you look at the investments made here in the ballroom, which is one of the largest in Southeast Asia, and in the audio-visual technologies in the meetings facilities, where we've spent more than $1.5 million alone, then I think we become immediately attractive as a destination property. We can seat 2,000 people in our ballroom alone and have 1,100 people to a sit-down dinner. We can do concerts. We have a room just for translators. We can do functions for 700 people outside by the pool. It's hard for me to imagine that we do not make a grand impression in this part of the business.

Q. So the corporate business is to loom large here? Larger than Siem Reap?

A. In Siem Reap, two of every three guests is a leisure traveler. But in Phnom Penh, we anticipate that two of every three guests will be a corporate traveler. But these travelers no longer fit so neatly into this bucket or that bucket. One is no longer just at the hotel for leisure, or just for business.

Q. Because of the Internet?

A. Yes, the Internet. There's no question that technology is really creating a new kind of traveler. The worldwide economic crisis is prompting changes, too. People are changing where they go and with whom. If you travel for business, you'll carry your laptop, but you may have your family, too. It's not so clear anymore, this fine line between when someone is on holiday and when someone is at work. Sometimes, they look like the very same thing.

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