In an exclusive interview, Accor Asia-Pacific managing director Michael Issenberg talks about his love for his job, Bruce Springsteen and when it is okay to walk away from a deal.
WHEN Michael Issenberg took over as managing director of Accor Asia-Pacific in 2003, the worldwide tourism market was in a flux. SARS had broken out in China and Hong Kong, the war against Iraq had commenced, then there were bombings in Bali and Jakarta, Indonesia. In 2004, just as the tourism industry began to recover, a tsunami struck major tourist destinations such as Thailand, where Accor lost 160 guests and about 50 hotel staff, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Last year, SARS had threatened to rear its ugly head again while most Asia-Pacific countries, including the Philippines, continued to be on heightened alert against threats of terrorism.
“You have to expect the unexpected,” says Issenberg, when asked what he learned from all these incidents. “We have spent a fair amount of time improving our crisis planning and making sure that procedures do not sit in a draw.”
Nevertheless, he says in an e-mail interview with BusinessMirror, “Asia- Pacific remains the most exciting part of the world for the hotel industry.”
Compared to these incidents, journalist killings, terrorist threats, and regular coup rumors seem to be miniscule although still factors to be considered for a tourist to decide whether to travel to the Philippines or elsewhere. Issenberg appears undeterred and believes “there is definitely a big future for Accor in the Philippines.”
In February last year, Issenberg himself flew in to deliver the good news to eager Filipino fans. The Accor hotel group, he says, will be unveiling its flagship hotel in the country this year—a refurbished and improved Philippine Plaza, to be renamed the Sofitel Philippine Plaza. Last March, the hotel opened its premier dining outlet, Spiral, which features an interactive dining concept featuring different cuisines from all corners of the globe.
Sofitel is the Accor group’s luxury five-star hotel brand and promises to lend the fine French flair of living to the Philippine Plaza, much loved for its breathtaking view of Manila Bay’s sunsets.
“Having the right partners is crucial to success. We believe that we have the right owner [Philippine Plaza Holdings Inc.] that is committed to the future of the hotel,” Issenberg says.
And Issenberg has been doing just that. He has been traveling all over Asia—most recently in China, Vietnam and India—trying to find the right chemistry with local partners to establish Accor’s brands. But it won’t be a numbers game to him, even as he tries to fill the shoes of his predecessor Jochen Dobel, who managed to add 80 hotels to the Accor group during his tenure.
“When I took over Asia, there was a fair amount of ‘me’ first attitude. My priority was to instill a team spirit across Asia similar to the Pacific,” he stresses.
Issenberg has played a pivotal role in the success of Accor’s hotel and tourism network across the Pacific region. He joined Accor in 1994 as regional general manager and within a year was promoted to chief executive officer of Accor’s hotel and tourism operations in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. He assumed the managing director position in the region in 1998.
In that time, the Accor hotel network in Australia and New Zealand increased from 40 to over 110 hotels. Issenberg has also been credited for his role in developing the hotel group’s interests in associated businesses in Australia including the Cairns Reef Casino, Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, Summit Restaurant, Blue Line Cruises and Accor Premier Vacation Club. It was also during his tenure when the Base Backpacker Hostel brand in which Accor is a minority shareholder was established in New Zealand in 2003 and Australia in 2004.
Issenberg has certainly come a long way from Boston, Massachusetts, where he was born, the youngest of three children of Danny and Ann Issenberg. His father owned his business manufacturing juice products, while his mother was a stay-at-home mom which was typical in those days. Growing up, Issenberg worked “casually” in various hotels during the summer vacation as busboy, dishwasher, waiter, bartender, or cook, and as part-time work while he was attending school.
“However, for me, it was more than just earning some money. I fell in love with excitement of the industry.” He says he has been a hotelier since he was 16 “so it’s pretty hard to imagine another career.”
He eventually graduated with a degree in hotel administration in 1981 from Cornell University. Thereafter, he built a successful career that include executive officer positions in Westin Hotels and Resorts, Laventhol & Horwath and Horwath & Horwath Services Pty Ltd in San Francisco and Sydney. Prior to joining Accor Asia-Pacific, he spent five years as chief executive officer of hotels for Mirvac Ltd., one of Australia’s largest hotel companies.
The Issenberg family vacationing in Shanghai, from left, Jacob, Rachel, Michael, and Elizabeth. (Photo courtesy of Michael Issenberg)
It was there in Sydney, where the tall transplanted American met his wife Elizabeth, with whom he now has a 13-year-old boy Jacob, and 10-year-old girl Rachel.
“I came for work on a two-year assignment. I could not believe how much opportunity there was in Australia’s hotel industry…. I married a beautiful Australian woman, no doubt one of the biggest reasons why I remained in Australia,” Issenberg explains. Elizabeth, he says, stays home and “manages the family as I travel so often.”
But like many regional chief executives with a lot of countries to oversee, he says it has been quite difficult to balance his family and career. On occasion his work has had to take a backseat to his family.
“It is always a difficult balance…. I have missed many a company meeting for my family, but I cannot recall ever missing anything crucial. On the reverse, I have missed a few family events as well,” he confesses.
To relax, although he hastens to add that there is not nearly enough time for that as well, he loves to watch or participate in sports such as golf or go scuba diving.
“I love almost all sports. I enjoy the competitive nature.” He also listens to music, mostly rock and roll, and admits to being a “Bruce Springsteen fan at heart.” (Hmm…is that “Born in the USA” playing in the background?)
His favorite author is John Irving “because his stories are always unusual,” and says the last book he read was the latter’s latest novel, Until I Find You. How Issenberg was able to plod through the somewhat meandering tale of Jack Burns in search of his father over 820 pages and actually finish it, is a feat worthy of any sportsman!
Asked what his most defining trait is, Issenberg says, “I’m a very frank person. Ask me a question and you will get my honest answer.”
It was very evident in his e-mailed responses to BusinessMirror’s questionnaire, that he is very brief as well. Direct to the point.
As a manager, Issenberg says he is a hands-on type of guy. “I like to know what is going on in a fair amount of detail. However, once someone has earned my trust, that earns a lot of freedom.”
He describes Accor’s own management style as “people-focused,” which may be not different from other hospitality organizations, but insists “it is very different from companies in other industries.”
The best management tip he learned from his predecessor and other bosses? “Never be afraid to say no, even it means you have to walk away from a deal, a piece of business, or partnership that has not worked out.”
And so walk away Accor did in 1998, after experiencing some difficulties with its first Filipino partner, another hotel by the bay. Only to turn around and return in 2002, through Century Suites, a budget hotel in Quezon City. The latter was part of the Accor group’s acquisition of the Century Group that year.
With its management of Philippine Plaza, the Accor group is certainly back with a bang (very apropos for turbulent Manila), eager to establish its dominance in the Philippine hotel industry.
“Whilst we definitely believe there is an opportunity in the economy sector, we felt that it was important to reenter the market with a flagship property that made a statement,” says Issenberg.
Now that it has “the right property” to reestablish the Accor name in the market, it may not be too long to see more of its hotel brands in the country. Issenberg says, “We will now actively look for other opportunities to launch our Novotel, Mercure and Ibis hotel brands in the Philippines.”
(My interview with Michael Issenberg was published in the Perspective section of the BusinessMirror, Jan. 12, 2006.)