'Goals are never fulfilled. Once you think you have achieved one, you always need to have a new one,” says David Carey.
Mr Carey speaks from experience. From electrical engineering graduate to lawyer to hotel executive, he’s made more than a few changes in his life. Today, as the president and CEO of Outrigger Enterprises, he’s set a new goal to make the Hawaii-based company a major force in the Asia Pacific hospitality industry.
The Outrigger name has been closely linked with Waikiki, the beachfront tourism district of Honolulu, for many years. In his role as head of one of Waikiki’s biggest resort operators and employers, Mr Carey was the visionary behind the Waikiki Beach Walk, which has brought a new life and vitality to an ageing neighbourhood and created further economic development throughout the state.
“Now that the old goal in Waikiki has been fulfilled, the next one is to build a great resort management system in the Asia Pacific region,” Mr Carey told Asia Focus during a recent visit to Phuket for the grand opening of the Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort earlier this month.
“In three to five years’ time, we need to get into a critical mass place and make our name known in this area.”
Even though he took his first degree in electrical engineering, Mr Carey says he had had an interest in management since his school years. He did manage the soccer team and the league he once played in, and was always looking for opportunities to practise his management skills.
However, his life-changing moment came when he fell in love with a woman whose family was in the hotel business. From that day, the course of his life, both personally and professionally, was set on a new track.
“I wrote on my school application that I wanted to be a CEO of a company. However, there wasn’t any particular aspiration for what kind of company I wanted to run, but I know I definitely like management,” he recalled.
In 1976, at a fraternity party at Stanford University in California, Colorado native David met Kathy Kelly, a freshman who played soccer for Stanford. The two of them began dating, and she eventually invited him to Hawaii, where she was from.
“Back then, Kathy’s family business, Outrigger Hotels, established by her grandfather, owned and operated hotels on Waikiki Beach aimed to attract budget tourists,” says Mr Carey. “I went sailing with her father and I asked him if he had any ideas where I could find a job. So he put me in the hotel and I began my first job there.”
He moved to Honolulu and started to work his way up from the entry level as a front desk clerk, cashier, and management trainee to assistant manager. Having to deal with lawyers from time to time, he became interested in law and decided to pursue a degree in law school at Santa Clara in California. Law was a new skill that would soon come in handy.
“I got a call from my father-in-law who was looking to buy a hotel and needed some legal help,” he says. “We started buying more and more hotels and pretty soon we ended up in a very big business.”
Mr Carey had done a lot of acquisition-related legal work for Outrigger, and in 1986 he was asked to join the company, where he became CEO in 1994.
Under his leadership, Outrigger expanded beyond its 13 hotels on Waikiki, acquiring many other hotels throughout the Pacific region. He had changed the company’s branding to position it in the upscale market, focusing on beachfront resorts and condominiums.
What began as a small hotel company has since evolved to a multi-faceted international corporation. It now has more than 3,000 staff in about 45 properties. However, the journey in Asia for the company has just begun.
“Today, Hawaii is not growing very much,” Mr Carey says. “Not many hotels or products are being built there. But we see a very great opportunity in Asia Pacific, particularly in Southeast Asia. Principally, because among the populations of China and India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and including Russia, their ability to travel has increased dramatically and this will be the main factor driving growth for the market.”
In the last three to five years, the group has concentrated its expansion in Asia. It now has four properties open in the region (three in Phuket and one in Bali). It sees an extremely attractive opportunity in Thailand.
“I think Thailand brings in the same markets that we have had some experiences with before. We have learned how to handle the Japanese, Australian and European tourists who come to visit Hawaii. These tourists are also great visitors in Thailand,” Mr Carey explains. “So part of the strategy was starting the distribution from the markets where we already have some strengths as opposed to going into a completely new market.”
Discussing the main challenges he finds in doing business in Asia, Mr Carey says the many cultures and languages need to be taken into a serious account.
“For the hotels in Asia, we need to hire chefs who have cooking ability in both Asian and western styles. I also find that this region has much more diverse language usage compared to what we have in the West.
“Different cultures are evident in each place; it is without doubt something that we need to break through in order to run a successful business here.”
Recruitment, hiring and training in hospitality are also a constant challenge. “If we want to have friendly, courteous service, we must hire friendly and courteous workers,” says Mr Carey.
“We need to evaluate people. We have to make sure that our corporate values are the same values that every employee holds. Most people spend a considerable part of their day at work, so we have to make sure they are happy with us.”
When guests come from far away, he says, they want to enjoy experiencing the authenticity of a place and its people. For Outrigger, the strategy is to ensure that a vacation is not just the hotel room, the pool or the restaurant, but “a series of unique experiences that make the guests connect to the place”.
“Though there are operational and management systems that I have to run, I think my job is to make people happy by creating their dreams, fun and a memorable time,” he says. “That is definitely a very satisfying type of career.”
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Writer: Nithi Kaveevivitchai