Interview with Jan Schmidt, Executive Assistant Manager and Food & Beverage Director at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra

This week, we interviewed Jan Schmidt, the Executive Assistant Manager & Director of Food & Beverage at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. Jan has had an impressive career thus far working in hotels throughout the world, including stops in East Africa, Dubai, and Japan, before settling in Cambodia two years ago. Read on to find out what he’s learned about people and the industry while working abroad and what’s in store for Sofitel this year.

EuroCham: What inspired you to pursue a career in the hospitality and tourism industry, and how has your journey led you to your current role as Executive Assistant Manager & Director F&B at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra?

Jan: My mother owned a travel agency when I was younger, and her work took her to different parts of the world. Whenever she returned from her trips, she would share photos of her travels with us. I was always fascinated and intrigued by the different places she visited. As graduation approached, I was faced with the decision of what to do next. I knew I wanted to explore the world and earn a living, but I was unsure about the path I should take. My mother suggested two options: following in her footsteps in the travel industry, or work at hotels. Wanting to forge my own path, I decided to pursue the hotel industry and soon discovered a school to hone my craft in Frankfurt, Germany.

I started at the bottom professionally with Steigenberger, a renowned German hotel chain, working as a waiter, captain, supervisor, and bartender, gaining valuable experience along the way. Eventually, I was offered the role of assistant restaurant manager, followed by the position of F&B manager for a luxury hotel in East Africa. It's been an exciting journey, and I'm glad I took the leap to pursue my passion for hotels.

EuroCham: What has been your experience working in so many diverse locations such as Dubai, Japan, Zanzibar, and Germany?

Jan: Dubai's hospitality industry caters to an international clientele, including affluent guests from various Arab nations like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and unique challenges arise. This demographic can be particular about their preferences and have high expectations. Adapting to their preferences requires resilience and composure to navigate demanding situations.

In contrast, my experience in Japan was quite different. Unlike Dubai, where my team comprised individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds, Japan primarily relied on a local workforce. Working closely with Japanese colleagues who mainly communicated in their native language posed challenges, as English proficiency was limited. This cultural distinction underscored respecting and embracing Japanese traditions and customs, creating a rich and immersive professional environment.

Despite the contrasting atmospheres between Dubai and Japan, both experiences underscored the significance of fostering positive relationships within the team. In Dubai, the multicultural composition of my staff fostered a vibrant and inclusive work culture characterized by mutual respect and camaraderie. Similarly, in Japan, despite linguistic barriers, a shared dedication to excellence and a spirit of cooperation prevailed, enhancing the overall work experience.

My professional journey across diverse locales has exposed me to varying cultural dynamics and underscored the importance of adaptability and cultural sensitivity in hospitality.

EuroCham: What was it like to arrive in Cambodia?

Jan: I've got to say working in Cambodia has been pretty awesome. The team I'm surrounded by is young and eager to excel in their careers. They're always willing to learn and contribute to the success of our hotel, which is super inspiring.

I've focused more on the strategic aspects of hotel management here in Cambodia. My team has been supportive and proactive, allowing me to direct my efforts towards areas that drive innovation and enhance guest experiences. It feels so much more fulfilling to work this way.

My team's ambition in Cambodia has made working together a breeze. We all share the same goals of excellence and success, and it's been great to work towards those goals together.

EuroCham: Can you share insights into the sustainability initiatives undertaken by the F&B department at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, perhaps in terms of sourcing ingredients and minimizing food waste?

Jan: Sustainability is our top priority for the year. We are committed to combating climate change and creating a healthier planet for future generations. While we've made significant progress over the past two years, we recognize that there's still more work to be done.

One of the main ways we're promoting sustainability is by reducing our use of single-use plastic throughout our hotel. We've already made much progress in this area by removing all single-use plastic amenities in guest rooms. We've switched to using paper packaging for dental kits and refillable bottles for shampoos, dramatically reducing plastic waste. We've also replaced plastic straws with paper ones, and we now use either paper or plant-based packaging for everything, which aligns with our eco-friendly values.

We're also making a significant effort to reduce food waste. Last year alone, we managed to reduce food waste by 25%. By closely monitoring and analyzing our processes, we've reduced overall food waste per person from 50 to 32 grams. This shows our commitment to excellence while minimizing our environmental impact.

In the future, we'll continue to make sustainability a core part of our values. We'll keep looking for innovative ways to reduce our impact on the environment and make a positive change in our community and beyond.

EuroCham: So much has to be imported, right? It’s not like there’s like there are local options to have new biodegradable packaging, you have to import.

Jan: Navigating the sustainability landscape in Cambodia is a challenging task, especially when it comes to finding eco-friendly alternatives for commonly used items like coffee cup lids. Although sustainable solutions are available in nearby countries like Singapore, accessing them in Cambodia remains challenging due to market dynamics and supply chain limitations.

I recently attended a food and beverage conference in Singapore, where I had the chance to engage with distributors from various countries. While these distributors offer sustainable alternatives, they have yet to expand their operations into Cambodia due to perceived market constraints. To address this issue, stakeholders such as distributors, local businesses, and government entities need to collaborate and work together to create an environment that supports adopting sustainable practices. By fostering dialogue and exploring innovative solutions, we can work towards overcoming these barriers and accelerating the adoption of eco-friendly alternatives in Cambodia, aligning with our broader sustainability goals.

EuroCham: F&B and hospitality is a very competitive field and Phnom Penh has no shortage of options, offering all price ranges. In your mind, what is the main ingredient you need to succeed in this industry?

Jan: The current business environment in Phnom Penh presents unique challenges, mainly due to the decline in tourist arrivals and the absence of key market segments such as Chinese travelers. In response to these challenges, we focus on driving business growth through strategic initiatives to maximize our rooms and food and beverage segments.

Success in the food and beverage business depends on a multifaceted approach. We rely on a combination of in-house guests and local patrons to patronise our establishments. We invest in understanding their preferences, demographic profiles, and pricing sensitivities to appeal to a diverse customer base. By aligning our offerings with market demands and employing targeted marketing strategies, we aim to attract a steady flow of customers to our restaurants and bars.

Navigating the current business environment requires agility and adaptability. By remaining attuned to market dynamics and consumer trends, we strive to position ourselves as a destination of choice for travelers and locals alike, ensuring sustainable growth and resilience in the face of prevailing challenges.

EuroCham: What sort of changes do we need to improve the scene in Cambodia?

Jan: Improving Cambodia's tourism sector requires addressing key factors like accessibility and visa requirements. Enhancing direct flight options into Phnom Penh and Siem Reap could significantly boost tourist arrivals, making it easier for travelers from different regions to visit. Additionally, revisiting visa requirements by removing them for select countries could attract more tourists, similar to initiatives undertaken by neighboring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam.

The recent return of airlines like Emirates and Qatar Airways and efforts to expand flight routes are positive developments that benefit Cambodia's tourism recovery. The resumption of international flights offers hope for increased visitor numbers, particularly as travel restrictions continue to ease globally.

However, it's crucial to recognize that the tourism industry is evolving rapidly, influenced by post-pandemic travel trends and shifting consumer preferences. While there was an initial surge in travel demand following the easing of restrictions, subsequent fluctuations in visitor numbers reflect the industry's dynamic nature.

Looking ahead, sustainable tourism development requires a multifaceted approach that considers not only infrastructure and accessibility but also factors like marketing strategies, destination management, and community engagement. By fostering a conducive environment for tourism growth, Cambodia can position itself as a compelling destination that appeals to a diverse range of travelers, thereby driving economic prosperity and cultural exchange.

EuroCham: Are there any upcoming events or specials to preview?

Jan: We're excited to announce that we're celebrating Sofitel's 60th anniversary! This momentous occasion marks six decades of exquisite hospitality and timeless elegance. To commemorate this milestone, we're preparing a series of special events and offerings that will delight our guests worldwide.

One of the highlights of our celebrations is a French-Japanese four-hands dinner. We've invited a renowned Japanese chef to collaborate with our talented culinary team to showcase culinary excellence. This unique dining experience promises to delight guests with an exquisite fusion of French and Japanese flavours.

We're also proud to feature a special edition of Château de Laubade Armagnac Vintage 1964, symbolizing Sofitel's legacy and sophistication. To complement our bar's cigar chamber, we invite our guests to indulge in this exclusive promotion and experience the epitome of luxury.

To highlight the rich tapestry of French culture, we're crafting Pastis cocktails that pay homage to this iconic French liquor. These innovative concoctions, infused with local ingredients, promise to captivate the senses and elevate the cocktail experience for our discerning patrons.

As we embark on this journey of celebration and reflection, we invite our guests to join us in commemorating Sofitel's illustrious history and continued commitment to excellence in hospitality.

Let's toast the next 60 years of unforgettable memories and exceptional experiences!

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