Ed Brea has run many prestigious properties across the world, especially in Asia. With his 40 years of experience in the luxury hotelier industry, Mr. Brea has an interesting story to pitch in. Former graduate from Maryville College’s School of Liberal Arts and Cornell University of New York, he started his hospitality management career in Hawaii and has lived in over a dozen countries and immigrated to Australia along the way. Now in Myanmar appointed to manage Rosewood Yangon, one of the world’s leading hotel companies across North America, Caribbean/Atlantic, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Min Ye Kyaw visits him at Rosewood to talk about his career, visions, achievements and future plans.
Tell us your background.
My career started out at young age, washing dishes, and worked my way up from there. I moved to Hawaii after University joining Hyatt beginning my life in management. I wanted to go overseas and explore new horizons and our first stop was Manila, Philippines. My wife had grown up there and so we had a built-in support network, a very gentle beginning for first time expats. Our next stop with Hyatt was Australia as permanent residents. As soon as we got our citizenship, I was asked to transfer to Singapore where we did the conversion from a Hyatt Regency to a Grand Hyatt. I was fortunate to be part of the team that opened some fantastic restaurants concepts, working with cutting edge Japanese designers at that time, a relationship that has carried over the last 25 years, including our current restaurants here at the Rosewood Yangon. From Singapore, we went to the Grand Hyatt Taipei and again contributing to a large makeover of the F&B outlets. After 17 years with Hyatt, our journey continued when I joined Island Shangri La in Hong Kong, the start of a 15 year adventure. After Hong Kong we returned to Singapore and then back to Australia to carry out rebranding of Shangri-La Marina Cairns, a three year project that proved to be more challenging than opening a new hotel. When it was completed, we went to Kuala Lumpur for the opening of the Traders Hotel, which is a business brand of Shangri-La. After that, we went to Vancouver to open the Shangri-La there, the company’s first hotel in North America. I found the Canadians to be similar to the Aussies, easy to work with, very happy, and whist laid back, quietly efficient and excellent in serving guest. Our daughter liked it so much she went to University there and will stay on after graduating. My son went to school in Melbourne and stayed on there so we are fairly spread out. After Vancouver we moved over to China, first to the Kerry Pudong project in east Shanghai, another Shangri-La brand, and then to the opening of the JingAn Shangri-La in west Shanghai. After Shanghai we went south to the Shangri-La Bangkok and then returned to Australia to the One&Only Hayman Island. After a short break and some world travels, we came here to Myanmar and fell in love with the country.
What have you prepared before you came to Rosewood Yangon?
The truly believe my entire career has prepared me for this iconic project as I have done many hotel openings and renovations. In the last couple of years, there’s been some nice hotels built here; LOTTE, Pan Pacific, and Excelsior, etcetera. But this is really what one would consider as the potential to be a legacy hotel. It will be something very special with its heritage as well as positioned at another level of ultra-luxury. Our expectation is for our guest to feel the sense of place where the architectural history has been respected during restoration. While it cannot be replicated in style, let alone for simply the size of the building itself, it can be an example of commercial viability and a catalyst for foreign investment for other Heritage buildings. This project will be a proud example for the government, proud for the people, proud for the owners and proud for the Rosewood brand. In order to be truly successful, it’s something that everybody has to be invested in emotionally as well as financially as it has the potential to set the tone on how we move forward as a city in the downtown core. In the end, if you have the patience along with the requisite intestinal fortitude and endurance to go the distance, others can make it happen too. Our owner is a very good example to follow in this regard!
Having worked in luxury hotels across Asia, what do you find different in providing a luxury experience in Myanmar?
The Myanmar people are naturally born for service in the hospitality industry. It’s amazing how friendly people are here and how they’re so keen to learn. Most of the people that we hire have some experience but that wasn’t a prerequisite. We were very open to hiring staff that just had the right attitude. We’ve been very successful in blending them together with those that were fortunate to go overseas and have now come back to their home country with the experience of working in international luxury hotels and in some cases the cruise ships. The re-pats are armed with a broader view and hired with the expectation to transfer those hospitality skills and knowledge to the next generation, giving them not only a better chance to succeed and perhaps to go overseas themselves someday. We feel they are very proud to be with us and are working together with a high level of engagement. We also believe they understand this is not just working in another hotel and how they can play a role in the changes at hand and what this means to the success of tourism in the country. Investing in our people for them to better understand the way we work and commit emotionally, making this a better place to work, serve others and develop their hospitality careers is our ultimate measure of success.
If you must make a choice, would you do the things right or would you do the right things?
A trick question? Well, I don’t think I would have to make this choice as they are the same. I believe that you cannot have one without the other. I always like to say, it takes the same amount of time to do things right than to do things wrong so we teach to do things right the first time, easier said than done. Gentle pressure and relentless repetition the key. In respect to doing the right things, if you give merit and do good deeds, you are already doing the right thing and good things will happen for you. I’m a big believer in karma, good or bad deeds will always circle back on you. “The Noble Eightfold Path” is focused on doing the “right” things and here it is culturally understood. Reinforced, it can be your organization’s greatest asset. In the end, if you choose to do the wrong thing, in most cases it’s not by accident and on you.
Can you think of a time when you made the impossible become possible?
Unfortunately, I’ve been through a lot of crisis in my career, most of them being natural disasters, a couple of typhoons, two major earthquakes, a volcanic eruption, a false alarm for a tidal wave and also a fire in a hotel. Being prepared for these unexpected experiences helps handle the seemingly impossible. It’s like being a pilot of an aircraft, you must train for any circumstances. If something happens and the cockpit alarms are going off, what is your reaction to that? The plane is going down and most cases you have to react quickly or you will crash. Sometimes there are crashes due to a catastrophic mechanical error, but a well-trained pilot can deal with most emergencies, go through their contingencies, recover and save the ship. In any crisis situation in a hotel, the number one goal is to make sure everybody’s safe. It’s on us to make sure that our associates are trained and prepared to do the possible.
Where are you likely to be on a Sunday afternoon?
We enjoy entertaining guests, friends and colleagues so eating and drinking is a pastime. I’m fortunate to have a very flexible palette, I eat about anything. Unfortunately, I have a sweet tooth so I do try to get as much exercise on the weekends by doing some long walking and going to the gym. My wife is very active and keeps me going. During the week I get around the hotel as much as I can, I do not camp at my desk. So being on my feet so much, a good foot massage on Sunday gets me through the week…And I watch any kind of sport. Doesn’t matter what kind of sports. It is also likely I might just be at work! After all, we are 24/7, hospital hours.
What one thing do you wish guests to Rosewood take notice of? What are the things that set a great hotel apart from a good hotel?
I would hope they take notice of our associates and experience a high level of emotional engagement. You can walk into a lot of places and the service would be good, but unless there’s an emotional engagement between the associate and the guest it’s really just a business transaction and most likely not memorable. That’s really the difference between a good hotel and a great one, the people. This is where the selection is critical. They need to be the right kind of people, willing to serve others with their heart and without expecting anything in return.
The second part is the training. The people here are naturally friendly and they are also smart and inquisitive. So with all those boxes ticked off, it’s really a matter of just making sure they have the opportunity to learn. Making sure they are shown the path forward through consistent training, and positive reinforcement through recognition is a key success factor of a great hotel.
At work, what puts a smile on your face?
I’m sure you can pinpoint what I like about or associates staff, they’re always smiling! And that’s what makes me smile when I come into the hotel every morning. The other thing that puts a smile on my face is when the team receives a nice comment or recovers from a glitch. We strive to teach teamwork and family here. Regardless of what differences you have, or what happens, at the end of the day, we need to make sure that we work together collectively as a team and serve our guest together. When we have this kind of success, big smiles all around!
So what is the advice you would give other expats coming in?
Understand the culture, it is unique, and practice being as patient as possible, especially in public. You’re here for a reason. Whatever you do, make a difference not just a contribution. Most other places we are like a small fish in a big pond, but as an expat in any organization here, you’re most likely a big fish in a small pond. So, make a difference, teach, transfer your skills and that’ll be how you are remembered long after you are gone. If you’re not into that, you probably won’t be here very long. Whether you’re a first time expat or a seasoned one, come with an open mind and with a view that you can be a change-maker. So much opportunity to contribute here. That’s what I like about Myanmar and in the end, that’s the real reward.