Building on Your Strengths

Once the Hilton Group’s youngest general manager in Southeast Asia and now the general manager of DoubleTree by Hilton Jakarta – Diponegoro, Markus Kaliss is an approachable person who appreciates potential and celebrates family values. Constantly working with a clear vision in mind, Markus showed us why it is important to have a solid foundation to build a lifelong career.  

Q: Could you start by relating the highlights of your career so far and how you ended up here at DoubleTree?

A: In the beginning I always wanted to study hospitality, which I never really did. In order to learn English I moved to the UK and tried to get a job for around six months before going to one of those fancy schools in Switzerland. I went to five interviews in London and got five offers, one of the offers was to be an assistant night manager at Hilton London at Heathrow, and I was quite excited about it. Airport hotels are very different – they’re quiet during the day, but fully booked almost every single night. Everybody who’s somebody stays there too, from royalty to A-list celebrities. It was an interesting time, but a bit difficult because it was pretty hard to have a social life.

After a while Hilton moved me to Cardiff, Wales as a front office manager. It was a lot quieter place with lots of sheep and well connected with nature. A very different experience, after which I wanted to do something else – I wanted to do revenues – so I had the choice of the Maldives or Toronto as revenue manager. It was an easy choice and I became the first revenue manager in the Maldives property.

I enjoyed the three years there, but I was happy to wear shoes again when I was appointed director of business development at Hilton Kuala Lumpur. After a good while I decided to go back to operations at Hilton Hefei, China, as director of operations. We were running at 90 percent occupancy most of the time, although it was the time of the crisis. Hefei was completely unaffected and business was booming while other hotels in the region were struggling. I was there for 18 months, before moving to our property in Lingshan for my first general manager position. It was a very exciting post where we had to somehow manage massive overcrowding – at one point we had to accommodate close to 2,000 guests in our 500 rooms.

When I moved to Jakarta afterwards it felt like going on a honeymoon. In China, most people don’t speak English. Guests rarely ask to speak to the general manager and when they do its always to complain. Here in Jakarta, almost everyone speaks English to some extent and some actually ask to speak to me to say “Thank you”. And so here I am, happy as ever.

Q: I noticed how you went through pretty much every single department in the industry earlier on. I gather this solid foundation you’ve built is crucial in shaping your career.

A: That is right. I was in housekeeping. I’ve been a breakfast chef, doing the omelettes and manning stations. I was in reception, which I enjoyed. I was also in finance, banqueting, purchasing – really every single department on the rank-and-file level. This really gave me a solid foundation to build on. In all of my briefings and orientations I can really say that I’ve been in their shoes. People seem to think general managers grow on trees, but that’s not the case with me. I’m happy to now understand the entire aspect of the business from top to bottom.

Q: You’ve been in Jakarta for well over a year now. To what elements of the city do you feel most connected?

A: The people and food. The thing is, Jakarta is not Asia for beginners. That would be Singapore, where everything is clean, organized and you can find whatever you need. I wouldn’t say Jakarta is messy, but it’s more full of adventure, so to speak. For me, it’s more originally Asia than the other modern cities, but on the other hand there’s so much development going on in a lot of industries including F&B and hospitality. Overall, I’m really enjoying Jakarta – not to mention other cities like Jogja and Lombok, where there are so many things to see.

Q: What do you think is DoubleTree by Hilton’s distinguishing feature that sets it apart from the rest in terms of offering a unique experience?

A: The main point we have is a resort feel in an unexpected destination. If you come on the weekends, you will see families enjoying time together in the pool and it really doesn’t feel like a hotel in an urban setting at all. We have a kids’ club and a pool bar in addition to our family connecting rooms that guarantee access to ensure the whole family will not have to be separated.

Another strong point is we’re a very strong MICE hotel. It is very convenient to get to us for meetings and such because the immediate area is never too congested. We even had to convert our business centre to another meeting room to accommodate demand.  There’s also a plan for an extension to build more meeting facilities. These features give us a unique competitive edge over competitors because at the same time, as I said, we are also very attractive for families looking for the whole package. In this sense, we have our own niche and I’m very happy with that.

Q: Could you please tell us about your leadership philosophy around the hotel?

A: It all depends on the situation, I suppose. I clearly communicate what I want. People know what my vision is for the hotel. Being the second general manager, who was brought in to turn the hotel around from a rather shaky start with only three months to work with, of course I had to come in with a very clear picture of what I want this hotel to be.

I also like to work with young people who have promising potential, to whom I usually give promotions. Why? First of all, I was lucky to get the same chance when I was in their position. Second of all, in my experience, if you give capable people a chance, they will work hard and impress, so it’s a win-win for all. I was never really let down by them.

So, do I run a tight ship? Yes, I prefer to know exactly what’s going on, but I also give plenty of room and opportunity to grow. There’s nothing better than seeing people develop into their full potential, even if sometimes it means they leave the hotel.

Q: You were determined about what you wanted to do since way back, but what do you imagine you would have become if you didn’t get into the hospitality industry?

A: Probably something creative like an architect. I’m quite creative – some even say crazy – when it comes to creating concepts or ideas. I would say practically crazy. Crazy with a reason. Like the time just recently during our Easter promotion: They were taking a picture with the Easter bunny on the grass, but I had them move the whole thing to the swimming pool on this floating bed and it turned out really cool. That’s why I love my job. I have this complexity, creativity and controlling sides, and I can focus on either side as necessary.

Q: We know there are a lot of young hoteliers out there striving to make it in the industry. Markus, what advice would you give to these individuals?

A: For me, a foundation is really important. A lot of my younger staff back in China were really ambitious and thirsty for promotions. I said, “If you want a high building, you need a strong foundation.” I spent around six years on team-member level before moving up to assistant manager level and this gave me a really strong base to go forward. I think people should be ambitious, but at the same time be realistic. It won’t be realistic, for example, to be a general manager in this type of hotel at 25 years old with only a high school degree that mama and papa paid for. Education is important, but a step-by-step approach and planning is important. Also, never stop learning because it’s a vast industry and you need to work on your own development.

Q: What do you do to unwind?

A: Play with the kids and travel. Obviously, it It is not easy for kids to grow up living in a hotel. I take them to eat at our restaurants only once a week because I prefer if we just eat at home with food coming from a normal kitchen. Recently we went to Australia where we stayed at a farm because I want my kids to understand that milk comes from cows, not from room service, for instance.

Q: Any final message for our readers?

A: I suppose my message goes to anyone who has not yet really seen how different we are in Jakarta. We have all the best elements of the city, such as convenience and innovation, but the product that we have – a resort experience in the middle of the city – is unique.