Craig Seaward, general manager of the ever popular W Resort & Spa Bali – Seminyak, met with our editor to discuss his unique background and how it makes him a perfect fit for this thriving resort. He explained the keys to his success and how his winning style of creativity and collaboration continually allows him to excel as a leader.
Q: How did you get into the hospitality industry?
A: Well, when I was a kid in Rhodesia, I used to holiday every year with my parents in South Africa and, looking from the outside in, working in a beautiful five-star hotel, looked very glamorous. I even remember the management giving drinks to everyone in the evenings, so I guess my early attraction to the industry stemmed from that.
In fact, my father was a renowned artist in Africa and my initial choice of career was in graphic design or graphic art, but he convinced me the future was too uncertain in that field, so my second choice was the hospitality industry.
Q: With an artistic background, do you find W a particularly suitable brand for you?
A: Within the brand, the general manager is of course profiled carefully to ensure the right personality to fit the image. At W, we are encouraged to exercise our creative freedom and I believe we are only limited by our imagination, how much passion we have to implement things and how much money it costs.
Having that freedom within the framework of this project gave us the opportunity to do things that would really surprise and delight the customer in ways we can’t do in our other brands. So, yes, having a creative background has been very helpful and the brand fits my persona perfectly.
Q: W in Seminyak has been a success right from the very beginning, hasn’t it?
A: Oh yes and it’s been an extremely interesting journey. I have never seen the hype go on for so long with a new opening. Normally the honeymoon period ends and there is a lull. Well, we have been going for five years now and people are still excited about the brand and the hype continues to accelerate.
Q: So with your creative background, what have you done that you feel really puts your fingerprints on this resort?
A: When we were in pre-opening and had delays, I decided that every extra day was a blessing to allow us to deliver many of the things that are easily overlooked in the rush to open. We wanted customers to arrive in the resort and see something that made them smile because that’s what W is about, so it’s in the details, the things that put a smile on the face of our guests, that you can see my mark.
Q: You must be very happy to be here in this location.
A: This is our baby and in fact I’m employee number one! My wife is Balinese and our children have grown up here. I feel it is a privilege to have been able to come back to Bali and manage this amazing hotel and, such is my enthusiasm, I’m here until they ask me to take on something else.
It has been an amazing journey that we went into blind – it was the newest, most modern interpretation of the Balinese culture and we did not know how the market would react to us.
Q: I notice that things like the Starfish Bloo Sunday brunch are hugely popular with expats.
A: In this business, you never know if something will be as you intended. We set up the brunch to provide an alternative to the amazing brunch offered at St. Regis down in Nusa Dua and to give expatriates something closer to where they lived.
The first brunch, well, we had 60 people; now it has almost become an institution and we serve 270 to 300 customers every week. In fact, the FIRE brunch concept was developed because we couldn’t accommodate everyone at Starfish Bloo!
We are constantly reinventing and renewing ourselves. The brunch has morphed and changed over time and I think that’s what keeps it fresh and popular with guests, especially as many are repeat customers.
Q: Who drives the reinvention?
A: Everyone! The chefs are very creative, but we all sit down together – management, chefs and staff – to decide and create new ideas and concepts. It’s also important we talk to our repeat customers and find out what they want.
Q: You were at Sheraton Surabaya before you came here. How different are the challenges?
A: I worked in Surabaya for a total of six years. It’s a corporate style hotel attached to a shopping mall. Guests are only there for short stays. During the week, it was full of business guests, while on the weekends we’d get all the out-of-towners who came in to shop and dine.
Here it is a resort environment. People stay longer and have more free time so we get to know guests better and create real connections in a way that you really can’t do with corporate guests. It’s more about the total experience.
Q: Would you move on from Indonesia?
A: A tough question. I’ve worked in China and in South Korea and now the majority of my career in Indonesia – Solo, Yogyakarta and now here. I speak the language fluently and bring value in that I’m a foreign general manager who has developed appropriate cultural awareness.
However, the day will come when the phone will ring, as it has in the past, and I will be told I’ve been here too long and it’s time to move on. I am fortunate that the owners understand about my children’s education. They are in their finishing years of school and that has to be my priority for now.
Once they’ve finished, then yes, I’m open to exploring new ideas. New experiences are very enriching – so long as the move is to a W!
Q: So W is your brand now?
A: Yes, I live the brand and have done so long before I even worked for W.
Q: How different is it thinking about activities that appeal to non-staying guests and bringing in hotel guests? What different challenges do you have?
A: Our big parties bring in 2,000 to 3,000 people; the New Year’s Eve party sees 5,000 people on site and it is this that creates the energy that our hotel guests are looking for. We set aside the swimming pool lounge for in-house guests, so for both outside and in-house guests we created WOOBAR® as a sort of beachside concept with a bar and restaurant alongside swimming pool access, while keeping the pool loungers for the hotel guests.
As far as the demographic goes, it’s about people who feel energetic, young at heart and creative, no matter what age they are! With island life in Bali as it is, it certainly works very well.
Q: You mentioned the New Year’s Eve party. W seems to have the biggest party with the most hype. How do you achieve this when there is so much on offer and how involved personally are you?
A: We realized early on that there are people who specialize in finding the right DJs and creating the party vibe so we involved people like this as our music curators and the success is staggering.
People now recognize us globally, but I only appreciated this fully when I visited Ibiza this year and realized that top DJs want to play at W Bali. We try to go for the biggest acts we can get and either put them on our late night or sunset sessions or structure them into our big parties.
So yes, I’m very involved in trying to keep us in the right direction, really trying to make sure that the market sees us as a big player on the island and that we can hold our own when we put together big parties.
In previous years for New Year’s Eve, we always thought that everyone would be at the main stage in the W Lounge and never even considered WOOBAR® as a serious venue, but it didn’t work like that. We never really scheduled anything other than our regular DJ program there, but this year we decided to put in a headliner, Michelle Owen, who is massive in Australia, while the main stage will host Claptone, ending his world tour here with us.
Q: What do you think about the Indonesian tourism industry and its competitiveness in Southeast Asia?
A: I think Indonesia competes as a destination and the diversity here is astounding. The culture here in Bali is alive and part of everyday life, not something especially put on for tourists. What we lack, I think, is infrastructure and that hurts us sometimes.
There is an oversupply of hotels in Bali and I just hope that the government thinks carefully about how many more hotels it will allow here; we don’t really have a large enough airport to bring in huge amounts of tourists or the infrastructure to deal with them.
Q: What tips would you give to foreign GMs who want to come and work in Indonesia?
A: The way I look at it, I’m a foreigner who has been invited to come here and work, which is a privilege.
I see Indonesian waiters who I mentored when I was an F&B director who are now sitting as general managers and this relates to the first thing I would say. People who would like to come and work have to be teachers first. They must be prepared to impart experience and knowledge of the industry to local staff and others below them.
If potential candidates are prepared to look at all of that and come for the right reasons, then they get the experience of working in a different culture and have a fabulous experience. It’s not all one way and hopefully you’ll pick up some skill sets along the way and learn a bit more about cultural tolerance and how to deal with different groups of people while enjoying life here.
Q: So finally, what do you like to do on your day off?
A: I’m fortunate that I don’t live on the property, so I get to go home every day. On my free days, I really like to do absolutely nothing. I immerse myself at home and really try to enjoy the quality of family life. Otherwise, if I have a few days off, I like to get off the island and refresh my perspective.