A witness to the evolution of the Korean service industry

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A witness to the evolution of the Korean service industry

The business mind behind the glitter at the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill’s “red carpet” party was Jay Hahn, the chief executive officer of Walkerhill Incorporated.
Mr. Hahn oversees the hotel, its duty-free shop, the W Seoul Hotel and Incheon Airport Transit Hotel for the Sunkyung Group. Mr. Hahn is the longest-serving general manager of any hotel in Korea; he joined Walkerhill in 1973. The IHT-JoongAng Daily spoke with Mr. Hahn after the party.

What was the hotel like in the old days?
The ’70s was the very beginning of Korea’s service industry. I spent a few years abroad working in a trading company before joining Walkerhill in 1973. The former Sunkyung chairman’s priority was not the hotel but other businesses. In the ’70s, tourism from Japan flourished; more than 70 percent of our clientele was Japanese. I can say it was the Japanese tourists who supported the growth of Korea’s service industry.
Korea was very poor then; the hotel had a hard time preparing food and service for foreign visitors. For example, there was no such thing as beef steak, and butchering a cow for steaks was unthinkable. So we bought a chunk of meat and sliced it ourselves to make it similar to a steak, or often we had to rely on the small supply from the local black market.

Since then many things have changed.
In the past, the hotel has catered mostly to Chinese and Japanese tourists. But with a recent facelift in the facilities and improvement in service, we want to prove that one of the oldest hotels in Korea is still going strong and to lead the industry in the future. We’ve invested 50 billion won ($42 million). Now we have the W Hotel opening in May, we’re targeting local clients as well. Our W Hotel is not going to be like the boutique hotel in New York City, which is what works in America. In Asia, hotels are different ― ours is what we call “W plus,” a very plush service-oriented hotel to cater to special needs in Asia.

Will there be a change in ownership of the Seoul W Hotel?
The Sunkyung chairman, Chey Tae-won, is the main stockholder of Walkerhill, and he used the stocks as collateral for the creditor. I know there’s been gossip involving Paradise Group as the new owner, but it is only a rumor. There will be no change in operations.

What is your mission now?
I see that the years 2002 and 2003 are the turning point in the hotel and service industry. Korea is now ready for the international standard in service and entertainment. We hired an Asian architect who could translate Western facilities into Eastern culture. We’ve built the hardware, but it is the software, or people, who can make the system work. According to our market research, we needed 60,000 strong clients, who will be used as our database. By throwing theme parties and events, we need to prove that the hotel can satisfy our new target, the special high-end market.


by Ines Cho

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