Managing a new hotel next to the airport at a time when almost all international travel has ceased may seem unwise, but Sander Looijen was keen to take up the challenge of being the new cluster general manager for the two new Sheraton hotels in Tung Chung.
"As we say in hotel terms, I grew up in food and beverage. That's where my foundation is," said Looijen, recalling his early days in the industry, which began at 16 in his hometown of Nijmegen in the Netherlands.
"My parents thought it was important to be self-sufficient and stand on your own feet. It's part of Dutch culture," he explained, recalling how his father encouraged him to look for work soon after he received his social security number.
He began by washing dishes at a restaurant in his hometown and moved up to working on the floor, where he realized how much he enjoyed making guests happy.
So he started working in a hotel restaurant, under a general manager whom he considered a role model. It was there that the 19-year-old Looijen found his calling. "At that moment," he said, "I knew that this was something I wanted to do."
That prompted him to read hotel management at the Zuyd University of Applied Sciences in Maastricht, during which he took on a management traineeship in Shanghai in 2002. "That was when I discovered the other side of the world, where there are plenty of opportunities," he said.
He was drawn to the excitement of being abroad and the challenges of working in a different culture. "The hotel business was, and is still, so booming in the Asia Pacific that the opportunities are limitless."
Hoteliers travel a lot, and Looijen is no exception, making it difficult for him to pick his favorite place in Asia. "I always tried to make sure that work and leisure went together so that I had time to explore," he said.
"But if you make me choose one place, I would say Phuket. My daughter was born in Phuket, so it has a special meaning for us."
Phuket is like a second home for the Looijens, as they lived there for 3 years before returning to Hong Kong for the third time in 2019 after two previous visits in 2005 and 2011.
Looijen traded in his 180-room Thai resort under Marriott for the brand's Sheraton Hong Kong Tung Chung Hotel and Four Points by Sheraton Hong Kong, Tung Chung, totalling a combined 1,219 rooms.
"The current situation is very tough in the hospitality industry and opening a hotel in the midst of the pandemic is a challenge, but it's all about the team and the way we jump at the opportunities we get," he said.
After its December opening, the hotel operated for only a few days before dining restrictions were tightened to two people. A week later, dining in after 6pm was banned - a situation he said diplomatically was "not ideal."
However, he also considered the hotel and his staff fortunate compared to existing hotels, which needed time to adapt. They had been preparing and training with a different hospitality mindset: catering to local guests instead of international visitors.
The hotels also offered new amenities and packages to cater to the shifting needs of customers. For example, Looijen came up with the idea of offering bicycles for hire after seeing the scenic bike paths around the hotel.
"I am from Holland and I grew up with a bike. So it was very hard to leave my bicycle when I moved to Asia!" he joked.
"As a brand, Sheraton is very focused on the community and its surroundings. I would say that in a city like Hong Kong, there is no better place to open a brand like this, because Tung Chung is a special neighborhood, and we want to give our guests and neighbors the impression that we are part of the neighborhood."
On excursions around the neighborhood, Looijen and his team found a honey farm in Mui Wo, which the hotel incorporated into one of their staycation packages. Guests will have a chance to explore the local bee farm after a night's stay in front of a relaxing ocean view.
Since the hotel also faces the airport, one might catch a glimpse of a plane - a special treat in these times.
The hotel also uses the honey from the farm in their Chinese restaurant's BBQ pork and in a cocktail at Sunset Grill. "We use local products throughout the hotel," he explained. "The bread that we use in the Sunset Grill, for example, comes from a bakery in Mui Wo."
Looijen hopes locals will still see the hotel as a base from which to explore Lantau and Tung Chung even after international flights resume. "Someone said to me: 'Let's see your opening as the light at the end of the tunnel.' It's not the best time to open, there is no doubt about that. But there is a little glimpse of light on the horizon, and I think that is the most important thing."