Retiring hotelier reveals secrets of his celebrity guests

Click to follow
The Independent Online

As the manager of one of Asia's most famed hotels for more than four decades, Kurt Wachtveitl has done just about everything.

He calmed a distraught Elizabeth Taylor and supported a staggering Richard Burton. He personally ensured Naomi Campbell woke up on time and has provided sustenance for genocidal Khmer Rouge cadres wanting dinner. Now, after 41 years running Bangkok's Mandarin Oriental Hotel, he is stepping down.

The most important lesson he learned as a hotelier, he recently revealed, was that when dealing with celebrity guests it was essential they be given absolutely everything they demanded. "Celebrities are all easy to deal with if you do everything they want," he said. "If something goes against them, hell will break loose."

Unflappable, charming and with a remarkable attention to detail, the 72-year-old has become something of a legend in the world of luxury hotels. The turnaround of the Mandarin Oriental, which is situated by the city's Chao Phraya River, and its numerous awards is often credited to Mr Wachtveitl who was only 30 when he took charge.

The years since then have not been without incident. Once Elizabeth Taylor blew up at him because the property's best room, the Oriental Suite, was already occupied. "She treated me like a dog," he said.

The Duke of Bedford's wife, on learning that the hotelier cut his own hair and wanting a less conservative look for her husband, asked Mr Wachtveitl to get out his scissors and start clipping. He duly obliged.

Dealing with the eccentricities of the rich and famous is nothing new for the hotel, first established in 1876 by two Danish sea captains. In its early years, the hotel's A-list guests included Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling. They lived in what is now the colonial-style Author's Wing, the original part of the hotel above which towers the 10-storey River Wing.

Yet there is an irony about the timing of the departure of the hotelier, who himself met and married a Thai princess at a hotel training college in Switzerland. Having steadily built up business and ensured a 50 per cent return-booking rate, Mr Wachtveitl said that business was now down once again – the result of Thailand's recent political upheaval coupled with the world economic crisis.

"When I came to the Oriental we had 10 per cent occupancy and when I leave we will probably again have 10 per cent occupancy," the hotelier said. "But we had a great run in between."