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Hotelier Profile: Best Western Australasia’s Graham Perry

BWH Hotel Group Managing Director, Graham Perry.

HM grabs a drink with Best Western Australasia’s Managing Director, Graham Perry, who opens his book on a funny yarn from his early days in hospitality.

What was your first job in the accommodation industry and how long were you in it?

 My first job out of University was with London-based Utell International, where I joined as Trade Conventions Manager, responsible for managing all aspects of our presence at 22 travel exhibitions worldwide. I managed the P&L to break even by selling space on our booths to our hotels. I managed the whole program, including travelling to, setting up and exhibiting at the events – with locations including San Francisco, London, Paris, Milan, Munich, Helsinki, Montreux, Zurich, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Gold Coast, Madrid and Berlin. I would load the exhibition stand in a rented Budget Rent-a-Car and drive from London to the exhibitions all over Europe, including through East Germany to get to Checkpoint Charlie and West Berlin for ITB Berlin. Not a bad way to start one’s travel career.

I remember driving from Milan to Stuttgart in the pouring rain with no windscreen wipers. Interestingly, I learnt that the faster I drove, the clearer the vision became as the water poured down and off the windscreen. Amazing what you do when you’re young and irresponsible.

Utell was a great, fast-paced and wonderfully innovative company. I stayed 12 years and finished up as Managing Director, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA).

Can you tell us a funny, embarrassing or memorable story involving you from the early part of your career?

There were many and too many to recount here. I remember getting a call from John Evans – one of Rupert Murdoch’s right hand men at the time. This was when Utell (along with Travel News, HTI and OHRG) was owned by Murdoch Travel Systems (MTS). John asked me to transport the brand new Utell Laser Disc system (which I had never seen or used before) to Paris for him to demonstrate to the President of Carlson Wagonlit, Paris.

A colleague loaded the product into my car Friday night. I arrived in Paris on Sunday and the following day, turned up at the Carlson Wagonlit offices at 7am to set it up for the 9am meeting. After unpacking and putting it all together, I searched for the key to unlock and start the system – but no key could be found – anywhere! I phoned my colleague back in London in a state of panic, who calmly said “oops, sorry it’s here”.

I think to myself – one and a half hours to go before the big boss arrives and my career ends. So what to do?

I saw that the product was made by Philips. I called Philips’ head office in Amsterdam and, trying to stay calm, explained the situation. They asked for the model number and said hang on, and transferred me to someone in Phillips Paris. After 20 minutes (which felt like 20 hours) they said they had found a key but it was the standard one for that model and they had no idea if there was a unique one needed for each copy.

After much negotiation and bribery, they agreed to have John, a rider, dispatch the standard key to the office, saying they would be there by 9:15 am. I said ‘Rush, please, PLEASE!

At 8:50am, John arrives and says he is going to have a one-on-one with the President before the demo. “Yes, sure,” I say – panic, sweat, gulp, panic, gulp, sweat, some more.

At 9:10am, the rider from Philips arrives with the key. I remember walking calmly over to the machine, finding the key hole, closing my eyes, inserting it and turning it just as John strides back into the room. It turned, pinged and started up. I couldn’t believe it. It switched on and came to life. I took a deep breath and sat back, glad the crisis was over. Phew. John introduced me to the President and said “Ok Graham, can you demo it for me please?” – WHAT ☹, oh no!

My jaw must have dropped to the floor with all the blood draining from my face as I turned white and then grey. I think that’s when I started losing my hair.

Anyway, believe it or not, and despite never having seen the product before, the demo went well – somehow and business was done. In total relief and disbelief, I packed up the product and put it back into my car. I was just about to set off home when I noticed my wedding ring was missing. I looked everywhere but it was gone. Fast track two hours and having totally unpacked the car again, I found it at the bottom of the main box. It must have come off as I carefully slid the product into the box. Sigh, Relief, Exhaustion. Homeward bound.

Fast forward five years and John was largely responsible for me getting my first job in Australia with Ansett (also owned partly by News Corp) as CEO of Traveland. If I hadn’t managed to source a working key that morning in Paris, I wouldn’t be here now. So it’s true – what goes around comes around. There are so many crossroads faced during one’s career and life and I totally believe in fate.

The source of so many of Graham Perry’s nightmares – a good old laser disc.

What’s the best piece of advice you can give to young people assessing whether hospitality or tourism is right for them as a career?

Don’t hesitate and certainly don’t worry about whether it should be hospitality or tourism. Don’t for one minute think it isn’t a serious or professional industry. Just jump in feet first and enjoy the ride. You’ll have the time of your life. It’ll enable you to visit places and meet people you couldn’t possible imagine or dream of. You’ll have ups and downs but don’t think you can control them – just look at what we are facing right now. But if you embrace change and are willing to face whatever is thrown at you, you will come out a better person and stronger for the life experience.

Be prepared to make mistakes – and there will be many – but learn from them and above all have fun along the way. Whilst it’s an incredibly serious, fast-paced, innovative and professional industry, it’s also exhilarating. There’s never a dull moment and travel links your profession to your life in a way that no other industry can or will.

I started my career in hotels and have worked in catering, publishing, media, theme parks, airlines, tourism (national, state and regional), technology and am now back in hotels again. I wouldn’t change a thing and would happily go around one more time.

All I would say is be nice to everyone on the way up because you’re bound to meet them on the way down and travel people have the memories of elephants.

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