Toasting to 25 years, Sofitel Saigon Plaza’s general manager, Mario Mendis, took a trip down memory lane. From being the second-in-command at the 20th-anniversary bash, he shared the ups and downs of his career before he took over as the GM in 2021. Facing challenges, he emphasized the hotel’s strength, rooted in unwavering support from their owning company.
Mario’s love for the industry began when he worked as a dishwasher in Australia 24 years ago. He highlighted how his father’s advice to start from the bottom allowed him to understand and value every department’s contributions, from housekeeping to the culinary team and marketing.
When asked about his ambitions, Mario revealed that becoming a GM had always been his dream, driven by his family’s passion for the hotel business. He stressed that this role requires hard work, patience, and perseverance.
In this insightful conversation with Hao Tran, Mario Mendis’s journey as the GM of Sofitel Saigon Plaza exemplifies dedication, passion, and the importance of adapting to changing times.
Do you have a special memory or moment from the past 25 years that represents what this hotel is about? Even though you’ve been here for only five years, maybe something from your time here captures the essence.
One significant memory is from 2019, when we organized the first-ever All-Star Women’s Singles Week. We had nine female chefs, five with Michelin stars, making it a star-studded event and a first for Vietnam and Accorhotels. Over four days, we hosted a chef’s gala dinner, embodying Sofitel’s essence of enjoying life through food, art, and fashion. It was empowering, uniting skilled and masterful women in their fields.
Another highlight is the creation of new brands within our hotel, where we collaborated with trusted partners to attract diverse demographics. Notable events include catering at the Independence Palace, Taste of Australia, and a sit-down dinner at Sky Hotel for 1000 people across four courses.
Adding to this, there was a remarkable Harper’s Bazaar dinner, where we pushed ourselves to the limit, even with an unprepared kitchen. Despite the challenges, we made it happen, showcasing our determination. We’ve also successfully executed events at iconic locations like the Opera House, demonstrating our commitment to overcoming obstacles and creating memorable experiences.
How do you handle large deals for big gatherings as a GM, and how do you get your team on board?
Firstly, it’s crucial to get everyone on board and make them see the enormity of the project. The most challenging part is convincing my team that it’s doable. Initially, they might think it’s impossible due to the size, but I emphasize that we have the resources, such as tables, portable cookers, and skilled chefs. It’s all about organizing logistics.
We optimize revenue growth by utilizing most of the team from every department for the event. While keeping one kitchen open for room service, we set up the main cooking area elsewhere. Most of the cooking happens here, and then we transport the food using food trucks. The result? A successful event that fits the budget, sometimes reaching up to 2 billion.
How has your approach evolved to meet changing needs and ancillary revenue streams, particularly in partnerships, rather than developing everything in-house?
The key benefit of our approach is community engagement. The lessons from COVID-19 taught us the importance of our local community. By partnering with businesses like House of the Bar, we become an integral part of the community fabric, creating solid bonds. This connection encourages locals to view our hotel as a second home, leading to various events, weddings, and special occasions. This repetition establishes Sofitel Saigon Plaza as a reliable, family-friendly place for business and personal needs.
Have you faced challenges in gaining buy-in, and if so, can you share any instances where it failed?
Initially, people often resist, saying it can’t be done or it’s just a warm place. To achieve buy-in, you must visually show and explain, going beyond words. Personally, I take a small group to the location, using support like YouTube or presentations. I say, “See this canvas? This is what we’ll do in these areas. After the changes, guests will feel these emotions.” It’s crucial to make them understand by showing, not just telling.
What do you think has been the key to maintaining consistency over 25 years?
Primarily, it’s the support from our owners and the people. Beyond that, the framework of the Sofitel brand emphasizes cultural connection. As Maud Bailey highlighted, the brand values focus on creating purpose and value within the community, maintaining the link between French and Vietnamese values. This sense of belonging has contributed to our continued success through various challenges, from the Asian financial crisis to COVID-19 and beyond. The hotel has stood the test of time, providing a sense of belonging for everyone associated with it.
What are your plans for the next 25 years, considering the changes and challenges in the hospitality industry?
Over the next five years, our focus is on continuous evolution. We have exciting projects and collaborations in food and beverage. Additionally, we’re planning hands-on programs in the coming years. The competition is intensifying, with the opening of Hilton in December. The landscape is transforming, especially with developments like the Grand Marina and increased competition. We anticipate a growing expat community and hope for improved corporate governance to attract high-level foreign investment. Recent changes in visa laws are a positive step. We aim to follow models like Thailand and Indonesia, emphasizing medical tourism and retirement.
In this dynamic market, quick, unique experiences are valued, aligning with the vibrant lifestyle people seek. We plan to continue collaborations to create distinctive F&B concepts and reinvent our offerings while maintaining a sense of belonging.
What advice would you offer to young people considering a career in the hospitality industry?
Enjoy the journey that the hotel industry takes you on because, with genuine passion and interest, you won’t believe how far this job can take you—around the world and in your personal life. It’s an amazing and rewarding journey, allowing you to play with your fundamentals, values, and beliefs. Be sustainable and engage in CSR, making impactful changes in people’s lives. The hotel industry now appeals to Gen Z, emphasizing sustainability. You can be part of this sustainable process by collaborating with local sources, producers, and farmers. Additionally, your career can progress rapidly, especially as companies prioritize localization, seeking Vietnamese general managers and female executive chefs. The opportunities are endless, summing up this exciting journey in nice words.