Accor's Rhys Challenger. Photo by Roderick Eime
Mercure Singapore Bugis General Manager, Rhys Challenger. Photo by Roderick Eime
Mercure Singapore Bugis General Manager, Rhys Challenger. Photo by Roderick Eime

By Roderick Eime in Singapore

Opening a hotel was always a goal for Mercure Singapore Bugis General Manager, Rhys Challenger. But was it everything he thought it would be?

HM follows up with Challenger after the momentous opening of Accor’s first hotel to bear the Mercure badge in Singapore.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to open the first Mercure Hotel in Singapore,” the fit and spritely Challenger said to HM in August this year, just after his soft opening.

Now that the champagne corks have popped, Challenger is settling into the routine of running a busy 395 room hotel in one of the most prominent cities in Asia.

“As any GM would know, setting up a new build hotel has lots of unexpected challenges and hurdles to overcome,” says Challenger candidly, “and, as a franchise operation, there is a whole other layer of factors to consider.”

What used to be the ‘70s-era, 7-storeyMidlink Shopping Plaza on busy Middle Road is owned by the massive Nanshan Group of China who have numerous interests around the world including metals, textiles, tourism and education. Metro Global provide management, while Accor’s powerful branding and distribution drive the revenue.

“Even though I have been with Accor for many years building my knowledge of running hotels, including working the past three and a half years at the Novotel Singapore Clarke Quay, I needed to learn and display a whole new skill set, there was still plenty to learn,” says Challenger.

“As anyone who has recruited for hotels in Singapore will know, meeting the required employment quota and still retain quality staff can be difficult.”

Singapore requires that for every six to seven Singaporeans we can then only hire three to four foreigners, or 40 per cent. Calculating the quota and meeting it is a challenge every hotelier in the city mentions. Singaporeans complain that foreigners are taking jobs [source] while hoteliers lament the lack of qualified candidates in the hospitality sector.

“To solve this issue, we (Accor) are building relationships with local education institutes like Nanyang Polytechnic to supply trainee hospitality professionals to overcome the lack of manpower in Singapore. This is helping both the institutes and the hotels enormously. A nice win-win.

“To open we had to find 150 staff across front office, F&B, engineering, reservations and sales. This proved quite a task but were helped by the support of the other Accor hotels in Singapore.

“The other eye-opener was keeping the standard of finish up to international 4-star standards. We had a deadline to meet, and getting the construction team to share my quality values within the timeframe was extremely frustrating. Remembering that most of the construction workers here are from all over Asia including Bangladesh, Malaysia, China, India… Singaporeans tend to want to work in the banking, finance and medical sectors, not in hospitality.

“But we did it and managed to meet the owners’ expectations and open on time!” he says.

Challenger breathes deeply at this point while surveying the sparkling lobby, adorned with renderings of his many personal totems, including the nine metre Italian marble wall, or the beautiful Peranakan tiles throughout the hotel. The frogs and the stingray sculptures are his favourites.

During the rest of our time chatting, we view other features of the hotel.

“The gym (on level 7, the former rooftop) is ‘petite’ but it’s well used and we managed to get these high spec treadmills with internet and TV features,” he says.

“So even though I may not have had all the space I wanted, I made sure we had the best equipment installed. And the 25 metre infinity swimming pool is also special. I’m very pleased with this feature to my hotel.”

We inspect the rooftop event space, the restaurant (sauces and several room types. The hotel also boasts a club lounge for the VIP guests including Accor’s Le Club loyalty program.

“Of course, every GM wants bigger rooms, but this is Singapore and space is a premium,” Challenger says.

The rooms range in size from the standard at 15sqm to the impressive suites at 55sqm, and Challenger is pleased he was able to convince the owners to purchase a much “higher quality level” of bedding and that’s a decision I must commend. As a finicky sleeper myself, I welcomed the quality mattresses.

“Now all I have to do is match the occupancy at the Novotel when I was there, which was 94 per cent,” he says.

And Challenger is off to a great start, already turning profit just two months after opening.

James Wilkinson

Editor-In-Chief, Hotel Management