Adj Prof Anthony Wong Kim Hooi is a well-known pioneer in the hospitality industry in Malaysia, most famous for his sustainable practices especially his Constructed Wetland projects and in recent years, for leading the cleaning up of Pantai Tengah and Pantai Cenang in Langkawi Island. While busy with all his environment activities, he’s also a devoted family man. He shares with Asian Property Review his most memorable moments as a hotelier and the lessons learnt.
Text by Adj Prof Anthony Wong Kim Hooi
Photography courtesy of Prof Anthony Wong/ Frangipani Resort
Timing & Branding
I entered the hotel business in the late 80s after getting a small share in a new resort in Langkawi. Langkawi was granted duty-free status a year earlier and we had great hopes that international tourists would come by the droves. Unfortunately, the fabled island was still unknown globally. Our occupancy rate was very low so we had no choice but to sell the property two years later.
Lesson Learnt: Timing and branding are very important for business success.
In 1991, we signed a 30-year lease for a bungalow in Gombak, Selangor, and converted it into a small jungle resort. We called it ‘The Jungle Lodge Alang Sedayu’(‘Alang Sedayu’ is an aboriginal name indicating hierarchy in the family).
My idea was to translate my passion for nature into showing foreign tourists how the oldest rainforest was at the doorstep of our capital city Kuala Lumpur.
We relied on generators for electricity while the water came from a pristine river at the untouched forest. Later however, we decided to use the government electricity as our generators sometimes broke down resulting in the food getting spoilt.
I recall one evening in 1992 when we had a huge event called ‘A Pirate Night’ which was an incentive programme we ran for the entire Malaysian tourism industry. We hung a huge pirate flag measuring 4m X 4m. We were quite surprised when a police helicopter swooped down to ask what we were doing in the forest.
It just so happened that on the same day, there was an electricity blackout in the city but because we were using generators, our party went ahead.
The Director-General of Tourism at the time was gracious enough to open the event. What he didn’t anticipate was that while being carried on a sedan chair by several midgets, he would be ‘water-gunned’ by about 80-90 of us. He couldn’t defend himself because he was only armed with a toy water pistol and a toy pirate sword!
We held many incentive events at the jungle lodge – it was the perfect location as many people did not have time to travel to the National Park in Pahang and were surprised that a 130-million-year-old rainforest can be found located just at the city edge. A 40-minute trek into the forest would bring us to a beautiful waterfall.
Due to the strategic location of the lodge, we were able to hold many experiential training programmes for incentive and corporate groups especially in the area of leadership, communication and team-building. Eventually, we also trained the trainers in Experiential Education for the Human Resources Ministry (HRDF) which went on for a number of years. They agreed that this training which incorporated nature was an effective tool instead of just classroom training.
This was in the early 1990s; I also went to the US to get our certification from the American Summer Camp Association in this field as a camp director. It was then new in Asia and Malaysia.
Lesson Learnt: A hotelier must learn other skills in order to be successful and choose unusual locations to house his guests.
I had many fond memories at The Jungle Lodge – it was where I started my career in the hospitality industry.
Located about 22km from Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, The Jungle Lodge was very well-equipped – it has five rooms, a hostel with 100 beds, a café, two pools, a jacuzzi, fish pond, two large camping grounds, two meeting rooms, and a sheltered barbeque pit where many roasted lambs have been cooked. To reach it is through a foot bridge across the upper reaches of the pristine Gombak River.
At the lodge, we ran many summer camps for children and sometimes the parents stayed over as well. Most memorably, many VIPs have stayed over including a former deputy prime minister who came with her group of NGOs to enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings.
We wanted to be sustainable in our food source so we bred chickens but gave up after pythons and macaque monkeys were faster than us in making a meal out of them.
As we were situated beside an aboriginal settlement, we employed aborigines led by a Malay manager. We wanted to introduce aboriginal culture such as food and dances to our foreign guests, so we organised 12 of them to come and do the demonstration. However, on that day, they brought their entire families along, numbering about 40!
Lesson Learnt: Hoteliers need to understand the culture of their staff.
Return to Langkawi
In 2005, we purchased a small resort of 100 villas in Langkawi. We added another 15 villas and expanded each to make it larger from 32sqm to over 42 – 52sqm so all the rooms are family friendly.
We also added a third pool filled with salt water at the far end so couples could have privacy from the sometimes noisy kid’s pool at the other end.
Being an environmentalist, my goal was to eventually turn this into the greenest and most sustainable resort in Malaysia. In 2005, we faced many challenges as the mostly local islander staff had no such knowledge or understanding of green buildings. No general manager was ever taught sustainability in hospitality schools and thus there was a dearth of knowledge in this multidiscipline subject.
So, we had to start everything new – I started composting and planting. We also converted our one-acre tidal river land behind the resort into an organic farm. During the first two years, the staff did not want to eat the vegetables as the head gardener had told them such food was dirty because there were maggots in the process of composting.
Understandably, he was only exposed to chemical fertilisers which came in plastic bags and composting was something very new to him. But once we explained to them and they saw that the food was safe, there was more widespread acceptance.
We also planted many moringa plants and again the staff would not eat them as gas was produced due to its high protein content. But today, we know that moringa or drumstick tree is a superfood.
Lesson learnt: Science knowledge must be made compulsory in education.
Since 1991 when we were at the Jungle Lodge, we developed a system to clean waste water. We improved the system in 2005 at Frangipani Resort, and since then have been promoting it actively with the encouragement of Prof Dato’ Dr Mazlin Bin Mokhtar, Director of Institute for Environment and Development (LESTARI), who is also the former Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and Innovation Affairs UKM (The National University of Malaysia).
Most importantly, Prof Dato’ Dr Mazlin was a water scientist and thus helped to pursue this topic on Constructed Wetland (CW) to treat waste water. With his help, we obtained CW approved and accepted by the EQC (Environment Quality Council of Malaysia) in August 2017. Finally, a journey of 27 years in research and development culminated in recognition of CW.
Prof Dato’ Dr Mazlin was also instrumental in getting me to give public talks and publish our Sustainable Green Hotel practices handbook. He encouraged me to continue sharing and teaching because many in the industry and academia cannot accept the ‘Green Hotel’ concept due to its many disciplines.
We finally managed to convince the Finance Ministry to understand and accept our CW system after their officials attended our course on CW organised by the Malaysian Green Building Council and after witnessing our successful projects in Redang island, Jungle Lodge in Gombak and other resort projects in Langkawi such as the Dash Resort.
It culminated with the ministry funding a monsoon drain that channels waste water into a CW before discharging into the sea and an allocation of RM40 mil to acquire land and develop a CW so the entire Tengah Beach and Chenang Beach can have all its waste water channelled into a 12-acre pond and stored in a reservoir in the last pond. Our system can effectively treat this wastewater and convert it to Class 1 river water standard and drinking standard without expending any energy.
Lesson Learnt: Never ever give up if it’s good for humanity and the environment.
In 2009, four years after we started the organic farm and initiated many sustainable practices at the resort, we finally received recognition as the greenest and most sustainable resort in Malaysia.
More lessons learnt
‘Guards posing as ghosts’
As we purchased Frangipani Resort together with all its staff, the new managers were too frightened to go around late at night as rumours were spread that the resort was haunted. So, l personally went around late at night and found that the local guards were sleeping. l took away their batons but couldn’t take photos as back in those days, there was no camera on the handphone. Anyhow, I mentioned that only those with ill intentions could see ghosts – the rumours then stopped.
But soon, the rumours returned. This time, I offered RM50,000 reward to anyone who could show me proof of the ghosts since I was staying inhouse then. That stopped the rumour completely and later we changed all the guards to foreigners.
Lesson learnt: Sometimes money cannot get results.
American vs CNY firecrackers
Back in the early 70s when l was a student working as a part-time tour guide on tours across Borneo island, we stayed a lot in Kota Kinabalu. One of our clients was an American who complained that he could not sleep due to the loud firecracker noise. It was the eve of Chinese New Year and people outside the hotel were lighting firecrackers. He told the front office to stop them which of course they could not. Furious, the American beat him up. We had the police in to sort out the issue.
Lesson learnt: We need more global tourism to expose people to all cultures for peace and understanding.
‘Show them the money’
About 10 years back, l was asked to share our Sustainable Green practices with the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) members. We taught yearly all over the country so more hoteliers could duplicate our practices and save cost and the environment.
Unfortunately, we noticed that successful adoptions of green practices only occurred when owner operators attended. This was because general manager contracts were usually only two years while the ROI may sometimes take a few years.
It then occurred to me that I needed to show how our green practices not only can save money but generate income. I needed to ‘show them the money’, so to speak.
From that day onwards, we have been speaking from an accountant’s point of view in order to influence people to adopt green practices.
Lesson Learnt: Money talks loudly when it comes to adopting green practices.
Some of our guests met at the resort, fell in love and got married. They made return stays at the resort and even had their wedding there! To commemorate their many good memories there, they decided to adopt a frangipani tree. This was how the tree adoption programme started and became a tradition at the resort over the years.
Lesson Learnt: Don’t underestimate what you can learn from the guests.