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May I speak to the manager?

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Hospitality pro Sander Looijen is starting the year on a high note at the new Tung Chung Sheraton – he tells Elizabeth Kerr just what that entails

Seven days after Sander Looijen threw open the doors on the shiny new Sheraton in Tung Chung, he was feeling pretty chuffed – even with a fresh government ban on on-site restaurant dining roughly 60 hours away. Despite a pandemic that has crippled the hospitality industry, opening week (in December) went well. “Very well, considering the situation we’re opening in isn’t ideal,” he states. “The restaurants have been very busy. The comments are great. We’re off to a great start.”

As the Sheraton Hong Kong Tung Chung Hotel’s cluster general manager, Sander is keeping several dozen spinning plates in the air. Not only is he tasked with making sure the hotel observes a battery of biosecurity measures – which he’d also like to see the hotel exceed – he’s managing over 200 rooms in a multinational asset that has been positioning itself to cater to a robust air industry, and ideally spill over from Hong Kong’s equally robust convention sector.
Yeah, about that.

“It’s a unique situation and there’s nothing to compare it to,” he says. “We have an airport hotel next to an airport that’s closed.” He shakes his head disbelievingly, like most of us have at some point these past months. But he’s ready; this isn’t Sander’s first rodeo. The Tung Chung property is his second Asia-Pacific launch in a career that’s so far spanned at least five countries. The first was in China at the end of 2008. At the height of the Global Financial Crisis. “Oh, that was another challenge,” he chortles.

As if that weren’t enough, Sander relocated to Hong Kong, to Discovery Bay to be exact, to steer the new Sheraton last August. He has incredible timing.

Hot hotelier
Tall and lean, Sander exudes an unflappable Beneluxian calm. He’s approachable, and quick to chuckle behind his face mask. He lingers in the hotel lobby, unperturbed at the prospect of this interview – a task many bosses would consider beneath them.

An exciting new destination for leisure and business travellers, the hotel, the second Sheraton in Hong Kong, is also positioning itself as a neighbourhood hotspot – a vast community hub of restaurants, bars and shops. And Sander clearly knows every inch of the building inside and out. Mention the cocktails at the Sunset Grill (and you will, they’re delicious) and he perks up. “Did you try the gin and tonic, with the champagne foam?” He gives full credit to bartender Klein before nodding proudly when I applaud Chinese restaurant Yue’s creative, citrus-inflected hargau.

“That’s what we hire for: personality,” Sander says. “Experience is one thing but personality is important. And to be fair creativity goes with personality.” Sander’s hands-on, but not a micro-manager, and he encourages experimentation. “I’d rather people tried 100 things and failed 90 times than try five and succeed each time. Failure is part of the learning and communication process. I’ve failed many times.” It’s easy to see why the staff love him.

A life in hotels
The Nijmegen, Netherlands, native discovered a calling in hospitality in his teens, when part-time work as a steward in local restaurants led to a gig as a junior waiter and the realisation that he actually liked doing it. “I enjoyed it. I enjoyed interacting with guests. I enjoyed making people feel at home,” he recalls, agreeing it’s not a career you stumble into.

Mention unreasonable complaints that make the job look tough and Sander argues there’s value in those complaints. “Our most critical guests help us get better; they make us who we are,” he says.

From Nijmegen it was off to study hotel management at Zuyd University of Applied Sciences in Maastricht at 19, and shortly thereafter work in Van der Valk hotels and restaurants – first at home, then in London and then in Shanghai. He toggled back and forth between Europe and Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai (again) before the debate was settled in his own mind: Asia was the endgame, and in 2004 he stopped toggling. Along the way Sander met a fellow hospitality pro who would become his wife: Ligia.

Sander’s spent the last few years at the Renaissance in Phuket and when the opportunity to open the ambitious new Hong Kong location came up, he jumped at the chance. In addition to the waterfront Sheraton Hong Kong Tung Chung Hotel, Four Points by Sheraton Hong Kong, Tung Chung will add another 1,000 rooms when it opens early this year. And it will mark Marriott International’s first dual-branded hotel opening in Hong Kong.

Many would have steered clear of the city last year, but Sander didn’t hesitate. In part because he finds Hong Kong “amazing.”

“We all know what was going on in August, but I still think Hong Kong’s safe, and I love it. There are few places in the world that are so versatile – with a world-class shopping mall a 10-minute taxi ride from a beautiful hike. I can go to beaches, the food is amazing. Everything you need is here.”

After 11 hotels, three brands and varying price points, the challenge of shifting expectations and working in a new country are still where the pleasures come from.

“That’s where you really get to know a culture,” he says. “I was in Thailand for three-and-a-half years, and it requires a completely different management style than Hong Kong, and switching between them isn’t always easy.”

Photo by Terry Chow

At home in Lantau
After earlier stints spent in Wanchai and Happy Valley, when the Looijens made their most recent move back to the SAR it was to Discovery Bay.

In addition to Sander and Japanese-Brazilian Ligia, the family now includes two Hong Kong-born Discovery Bay International School students aged six and seven, and a two-year-old born in Thailand. For the record, 47 passports aren’t stuffed in a drawer somewhere, but Sander is quick to recognise his family’s cosmopolitanism. He describes
his brood as “world citizens.”

Sander admits DB’s proximity to the hotel factored into the decision to move here. “To be honest I wasn’t that familiar with Lantau, but we’ve enjoyed it tremendously. There are beaches all around, the people are friendly, there are great restaurants. We hike, it’s a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and from DB it’s a few minutes to IFC. It’s great.”

DB was ultimately a short stop: all five Looijens shifted to an apartment on the hotel site at its opening. And life at the Sheraton suits them. Sander says he’s well able to switch off while on family time. Date nights tend to take him off the premises, however. “Dining in my own hotels is something Ligia does not prefer,” he admits with a smile. “I have to take the seat facing the wall or else I’ll be paying attention to the restaurant.”

Sander is going to get to know Lantau – and his Tung Chung neighbours – a whole lot better, very soon. The plan was always for Sander and the Sheraton to engage with the local community, and so far residents have responded in kind, particularly to the restaurants.

A series of package stays (including the food-based Saveur) will take advantage of the local heritage, hiking trails and nearby bee farm (Klein uses its honey in the Honey Bourbon Old Fashioned at Sunset Grill), while observing health and hygiene protocols with some above-and-beyond technology.

If government regulations remain in place into 2021, the next few months are going to be a complicated time for Sander, but he’s confident he and his crew will be able to smooth out any snags that arise – and ensure guests a memorable visit, no matter what they do. And if there is a fire to put out, never fear Sander is close by.

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