At the Hilton, a changing of the guardWorking 18 months for a hotel in a city like Seoul is considered a short stint, especially to the former general manager of the Seoul Hilton, Brian B. Connelly. Late last month, Mr. Connelly, who grew up in New Mexico, was replaced by Timothy Soper, a Briton who was the general manger of the Hilton Nagoya in Japan. The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition spoke with Mr. Connelly before he headed for his new post, and with Mr. Soper, who was doing the same.
Q : Were you always involved in hotel projects?
A : I began working at a Sheraton hotel in the United States right after college, then moved to a smaller boutique hotel in Los Angeles, a cozy place with personalized service. The hotel where I worked had only 50 to 100 rooms, and each room came with a fireplace. I think Asia is still at the stage of building super-large hotels, but cities such as Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul are ready for such small hotels. I think Gangnam would be the perfect place to have such hotels. I was surprised to see the Pop Green hotel in Apgujeong-dong. It had that kind of a boutique hotel concept with a chic coffee shop on the first floor.
You're leaving so soon.
It sounds contradictory, but I'm sad to leave the place and at the same time excited for the next place. It's been great to be working in the buoyant economy of Korea. I'm impressed with the entrepreneurial aspect of Koreans. They are hard-working and always going forward to improve their situation.
What was it like for you to adjust yourself to an Asian city?
My mother is Italian, and I think Italians and Koreans share many similarities: They are emotional and outgoing, and they both love noodles. I arrived in Seoul in January 2001 on the day the temperature hit minus 20 degrees centigrade, after working in Hong Kong for three years. I had my first cultural lesson in Hong Kong. One thing I had to learn with Asians was that they almost always answer "yes" even if they don't understand what the question was. So I had to make sure they knew what they were doing.
What is your next project?
I get to build a new Hilton in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It's exciting to create a hotel with my personal touch. The owner had hired a Japanese interior designer, who had never worked on a hotel, just residences. The parameters were given, but there would be new, innovative ideas applied here and there, with a nice residential feel to it. As yet unnamed, it's due to open in September 2003.
Q. You previously worked in Seoul and Gyeongju.
A. I came to Korea for the first time in '94 as the No. 2 man in charge of the Seoul Hilton. Then I went to Gyeongju. I had lived and worked in Korea for more than five years before, so basically I knew what to expect. And I'm glad to see some familiar faces still working at the hotel.
What whas it been like to live in Asia?
I grew up in Singapore and Hong Kong when I was a preteen. Then I came to Asia to work in 1991 in Hong Kong. But when I first came to Korean in 1994, it was very difficult to adjust myself to Korea. Most people think living in the hotel would be comfortable, but you don't live in a cocoon; you also go out of the hotel and meet the locals. How do foreigners who know nothing about Korea learn the new culture? First I joined the British Chamber of Commerce and met other nationals and made Korean friends. Living in Gyeongju was different from Seoul because there're no foreign communities there, except for three foreigners -- me, my wife and a French chef.
by Ines Cho