With a great sense of humour, a natural love of leading people and channelling their energy to keep them engaged, Cora Stuart is a formidable force of nature who questions, breaks paradigms and sees opportunities everywhere. Asia Dreams talked to her about what drives her and what she’d like to achieve in Jakarta.
Q: You started work as assistant tea room manager at The Westin Stamford. Did you know then that you wanted to make a career in hospitality?
A: Actually, I had made a pact with myself that I would make a career in whatever business would sponsor me, which turned out to be The Westin, which was managing what is now Raffles City. At that time, it was one of the biggest, cutting edge complexes and the government was looking to train and hire people who would be able to run the hotels and convention centres. Singapore had just opened its Hotel Association School, Shatec, in conjunction with Lausanne, so I was sent there for three years’ study and three years’ on the job training. I fell in love with hospitality.
Q: You were involved in sales and marketing for 17 years, what did you most enjoy about that?
A: At first I didn’t feel confident about going into sales, but one of my mentors persuaded me to try. It turns out I’m addicted to challenge and sales is challenging; you always want to improve your top line and I loved the ability to make a difference through the business I brought in. On top of that, you get to travel to meet your clients and are pushed out of your comfort zone, always growing in your thinking. It made me realise that I could do more than I had thought. It was just so much fun.
Q: You moved into hotel management and won the coveted award of Best General Manager from Hotelier Middle East magazine. Congratulations, that’s quite an achievement! What do you think you brought to the role that helped you win this recognition?
A: It was just after the financial crisis hit and it was very turbulent, but in adversity you find greater strength. The hotel building had been sitting empty for a year, so we had to go in and revitalise it all. There was no team, just me and human resources – without even a corporate team – to find, recruit and set up the whole hotel, even buying all the operating supplies and equipment, in just six months. The team really bonded in the face of all the adversity. We created a lot of interesting events in the hotel to put it on the map. Any time anyone said to us that we couldn’t do something, we just tried. We were driven to innovate and questioned everything. It was all fresh and unusual, which made us successful.
Q: The roles of hotel manager and general manager tends to be dominated by men in hospitality, have you found it to be especially difficult being a woman in this role?
A: Honestly, I just take it in my stride. In Dubai in the very early days I saw a lot of culturally ingrained discrimination in almost everyone, not just the local people. I had so much fun with it. I didn’t draw attention to myself and if people gravitated to my male staff, I would keep quiet and then later shoot questions at them and see the shock on their faces when they realised that I was the hotel manager. They were surprised initially but they soon got used to it. There are always people who are very comfortable working with women in authority, while others aren’t. Personally, I think it’s natural to have women heading a hotel, it’s not dissimilar to looking after a family.
Q: You’ve recently joined Keraton at The Plaza as general manager, what do especially want to achieve here?
A: This is a beautiful hotel, but it’s a well-kept secret! I want to position it in a way that is unique not just locally but also on an international platform. I want to really take things to another level, while ensuring the team has fun, so they are fully engaged in the business and think about how they can play a part and not just be a cog in the wheel. I would love for this to be the hotel where everyone comes to learn the hotel business so they can move on as accomplished hotel leaders.
I would also really love to find a way to improve food supplies for the hotels here. The land here is very rich and there is a lot of untapped potential for fresh produce. We’re talking to some of the local farms to find out how we can tap into that farm-to-table concept. In Singapore, urban farms are really taking off well, so even that is a possibility in Jakarta.
Q: Do you have any advice for people looking to go into hospitality?
A: I would really recommend some time in sales and marketing learning how to position a hotel in the market. You also have to have passion, the business takes a lot out of you and you can’t predict what tomorrow will bring, but it’s one of the greatest businesses.
Keraton at The Plaza, a Luxury Collection Hotel
Jalan M.H. Thamrin,
Jakarta 10350, Indonesia
T: (+62) 2150680000