Weekly Local Biography

  Andrew W. Harrison

When the owners of the Four Seasons Resort, Chiang Mai, began planning a celebration of the resort’s tenth anniversary, Bill Heinecke said, “Let’s do something for the community.” So with that as a mandate, the new general manager, Andrew W. Harrison, began looking around and meeting with people in the Mae Rim area.

What they did for the community was spectacular. They gave 126 scholarships to needy children; some are orphans, some simply too poor to afford uniforms and books. They threw a big pizza party for the children of Viengping Children’s Home. Many of these children have physical disabilities, some were abused, and some are HIV positive or have already been diagnosed with AIDS. They cleaned and painted an area temple where the monk who is in charge has cancer. And they’re planning a trip with the Thai 5th Special Forces Medical Unit to Chang Dao to provide medical care to villagers in need.

The “something for the community” is quite an accomplishment for somebody who has only been in residence since November 2004, but Andrew found it, as he does many things, “a fascinating challenge in an amazing culture.”

Although born in a small principality similar to Monaco, Andrew grew up in Yorkshire in England and considers himself a Yorkshire man. His mother owned a catering business, and that probably laid the groundwork for his future choice of professions. It was not uncommon for her to ring him up when he was at the university and ask for his help in handling a big wedding reception or corporate party. And he usually responded by bringing friends with him, especially for the larger affairs.

There was another influential person in young Andrew’s life who may have had a different but equal impact on his future, a celebrated British television personality named Alan Whicker. Alan Whicker hosted a travelogue called Whicker’s World, and Andrew said he was mesmerized by the adventures and commentary of this traveling gentleman. Alan Whicker always traveled in the grandest manner, stayed in the finest hotels, and experienced the most amazing sights.

Many years later the grown up professional Andrew would meet Alan Whicker at the Four Seasons in Bali, and later would have lunch with him during the handover in Hong Kong. Mr. Whicker obviously never gave up his love of travel, and certainly never downgraded his choice of accommodations. Peter Mayle’s book, Acquired Tastes, comes to mind.

In 1984 Andrew won a travel scholarship to study the cuisine of Pakistan with the idea of developing Indian restaurants in five star hotels worldwide. Then, as now, Indian cuisine was popular with many people, and Andrew took advantage of this study opportunity to travel throughout the South Asian region. The list of countries is impressive; suffice it to say he covered the region from top to bottom, and took home a world of information on food. But he also absorbed the cultures, and began a lifelong world adventure that shows no signs of slowing down.

We talked about travel in Southeast Asia twenty years ago, taking taxis and buses through areas that didn’t see too many Western people. It occurred to me as we talked that it would be easier to ask Andrew where he had not traveled rather than where he has. Just take out an atlas and have him point. No matter where his finger may land, he’s probably been there and most likely with friends or family. And if he’s been there, he has a charming story to tell about it.

In addition to a love of travel, Andrew has a gift of languages. While he is a native English speaker, he is also fluent in French and German. He learned enough Russian while working in Moscow to occasionally translate for friends and colleagues, and speaks a smattering of other languages. He plans to study Thai as soon as the Songkran holidays are over.

Managing a five star resort is an intense job. The Four Seasons Resort consists of beautiful residences as well as the hotel rooms, gardens, rice fields, water buffaloes (yes, water buffaloes), restaurants, swimming pools, tennis courts, workout rooms, the world-recognized Lanna Spa and a very fine cooking school.

But managing the resort is not limited to managing the physical resources. There is also human resource management, and the resort has a ration of 1:1 staff to guests. Relationships with guests are paramount in the life of a general manager. Guests at the Four Seasons come from all over the world and have expectations of their stay as varied as their cultures. Andrew says that you have to have a passion for the work, and that you have to have a family that understands and supports that passion.

He met his wife, Francette, who certainly understands, in 1991 while both were working at a five star hotel in Moscow. Francette is French and also multi-lingual. Nakita, their nine year old daughter, was born in Singapore and has lived in hotel properties in Bali, Kuala Lumpur, the United States, and Chiang Mai. She attends international school and speaks English and French. She is currently studying Thai. She has adapted so well to life at the Four Seasons that she has begun to make suggestions, observing that Dad may want to add another bench here or there. The gift for languages and the ability to adapt to many cultures and countries apparently runs in this family.

For a long time, the Four Seasons Resort was the only five star property in the Chiang Mai area. But times are changing as Chiang Mai is being developed into a world-class tourist destination. I asked Andrew about the competition that the Four Seasons Resort is facing. He said that it’s exciting to have other companies, to manage the competition, to learn and grow. For Andrew Harrison, managing a five star resort is as natural as breathing. “Every morning,” he says, “you wake up and there’s something different.”