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137 Pillars House eases into the brave new world

As domestic travel returns to Thailand, Carolynne Dear speaks to Anne Arrowsmith, corporate general manager for 137 Pillars Hotels & Resorts, about surviving the pandemic - and what’s next for the Land of Smiles.

The calm and serene 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai has remained open throughout the pandemic.

I last visited 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai, a stunning boutique heritage hotel in northern Thailand, at the end of last year.

It was a sublime experience, my memories are of an elegant property with the most luxurious suites, and a weekend spent drifting from pool to spa, and from a game of croquet to afternoon tea, and finally to cocktails on the terrace as the sun set.

This, of course, was back in the days when the most stressful part of an international media trip was having to get up to catch a very early flight back to Hong Kong on the final day. Oh, for those innocent times.

Since then, the property - along with the rest of the world - has been pummelled by the pandemic.

So I was keen to catch up with Anne Arrowsmith to find out how both she and the team - and indeed Chiang Mai - have survived Covid-19. Now corporate general manager for 137 Pillars Hotels & Resorts, last year, as general manager of 137 Pillars House, Arrowsmith had been the most gracious of hosts, leading a friendly and efficient staff.

When the pandemic broke out at the beginning of the year, Thailand shut its borders and imposed a strict lockdown.

Travel restrictions included internal quarantine requirements for regional travel between districts, as well as a nightly curfew from 10pm to 5am.

“But when you look at the total number of cases, hospitalisations and fatalities, and the fact that Thailand recently topped a global response table, the country can be rightfully proud of its decisive and quick actions,” says Arrowsmith.

The government restrictions had an immediate impact on business, as they did everywhere, but the hotel remained open and retained its full-time staff.

“Essentially we were open for business. But in May and June there were literally no bookings.”

Business picked up in June, with renewed interest from the domestic market, but as the summer draws to a close, reservations are starting to dry-up again.

Anne Arrowsmith has guided the hotel through the pandemic: "We are totally reliant on domestic demand."

Right now, the country continues to be cautious, she says, although both curfew and domestic quarantine restrictions have been lifted. However, there is absolutely no sign of international tourism opening up.

“As an industry, we are totally reliant on domestic travel, and the reality is, there is not enough demand, especially beyond the summer months.”

So how has the team pivoted to survive?

“One way we adapted was to assume responsibility for certain operations that are normally outsourced, like security, gardening and laundry duties,” says Arrowsmith. “The staff expanded their skill sets and gained an opportunity to work directly with colleagues that they normally would not.”

Like many other properties, the hotel also took the opportunity to carry out repairs and renovations.

“We removed and replaced the tiled deck around the dining room, show kitchen and old house with imported green slate. We also replaced the wooden floor in the dining room. No matter how well-planned and executed, projects like these would have been impossible to complete without impacting guests during a normal year.”

Chiang Mai and its surrounds are heavily reliant on tourism. “I can’t think of a business that hasn’t suffered,” says Arrowsmith. “And it’s not just the people, the great work done by many to provide shelter, food and care for the elephants locally (there is an elephant sanctuary within an hour's drive from the hotel) have seen the source of their income evaporate. Everyone has been affected.”

137 Pillars House is part of the Wat Ket community, which is essentially a residential and historic area of town. Part of the team’s corporate social responsibility routine is helping to clean the museum at Wat Ket and teaching the community how to eliminate mosquito breeding. During the pandemic, the hotel also worked alongside a neighbourhood committee to arrange food hampers for those in need.

“This remains a key commitment,” says Arrowsmith.

Back at the hotel, the team has also taken the opportunity during the lull in business to step up its cleaning and hygiene regimes.

The hotel's luxurious David Fleming Macfie suite.

“We take pride in our high level of attention to detail, guest safety and satisfaction at all times,” says Arrowsmith. “But as a consequence of Covid, we studied the additional recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from other international and domestic authorities. Besides the obvious protocols such as masks, hand sanitisers and social distancing, we have implemented the use of UV light in our suites and at the front office. We’ve also introduced an appointment system for our pool and gym to ensure comprehensive cleaning between guests. Both hotels, 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai and 137 Pillars Suites & Residences Bangkok, have now received the Tourism of Thailand Safety and Health Administration Certification.”

While the economy has lost out, nature has been a benefactor for once.

“For Thai residents, this is the perfect time to enjoy Chiang Mai, the surrounding area and the rich and diverse experiences the north has to offer,” says Arrowsmith. Think peaceful temples, empty trails and vistas and private tours of elephant sanctuaries and other tourist attractions.

But, and this is the million dollar question, when and how will we international guests be allowed back?

“Everything of course hinges on the borders reopening,” says Arrowsmith. “And travellers having peace of mind that if they leave home, they can return without quarantine restrictions. Collectively, I believe we can’t wait to return to life as it was. Lessons that will have been learned and retained is the broad acceptance of wearing face masks that was once considered an Asian phenomenon. And perhaps we will be more inclined to decamp to one place and stay there longer, immersing ourselves in the destination rather than dashing from one place to another.”

Food for thought indeed. The day when overseas travel returns to some semblance of normality can’t come soon enough.


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