Weekly Local Biography

  Somock Inthavong

At the new D2 hotel, he’s the ‘Guru’ but in real life he’s the quintessential hotelier – educated, experienced, and gracious. Somock Inthavong was born in Vientiane. There were fourteen children in the family, and they were sent to the family home in Aix-en-Provence, several at a time, for basic education. There they lived under the care of a French nanny who made sure that they received a proper education and learned the language. Then they returned to Vientiane to attend the French lyc้e. Somock left home at five, one of the last of the Inthavongs to make the long journey to France.

Vientiane was not an active war zone, but a lot of people moved through the little town in professions related to the ongoing conflict. Somock’s father had rice and real estate holdings, but he also owned two hotels. So as a youngster just back from France, Somok was exposed to people from many countries and backgrounds. The hotels were central to life in Vientiane, and he spent much of his free time there. He completed high school, and left for France to attend university. Two months later, Laos fell to the communists.

While he was completing a degree in economic science, he made sure that his name was working its way up the waiting list at the Lausanne Hotel Management School in Switzerland. There was a four-year wait, just enough time to complete university, and Somock had made up his mind that he wanted that diploma in hotel studies. His goals were clear. He entered the prestigious school, gra-duated, and married Bo, the daughter of a Lao diplomat. He and Bo had known each other since high school, but her diplomatic family had placed her in international school in Vientiane rather than French school. They lost touch then reconnected abroad. She had lived in many places, including the United States, and was comfortable wherever they chose to go. Her family fled the country after the fall, and had many contacts in the Portland, Oregon area. So Somock and Bo set off for Portland to fulfill their dreams.

Life does not always work out the way you plan it. Despite a fine education that many would envy, Somock had a difficult time getting a job. He interviewed for months without success, so he enrolled at the community college to improve his English. Finally he interviewed at a budget class hotel. The general manager, though polite, offered him a job as a busboy. He took it, and he took off. As his English improved and he gained confidence, he was promoted to waiter, then captain and finally restaurant manager. But this was not the job he trained for, and Portland offered more than its share of culture shock. The weather was wet and cold, the city provincial and confining.

Somock and Bo drove to San Francisco for a holiday, and they truly left their hearts there when they returned to Portland. San Francisco was multicultural, eclectic, exciting, and full of color. He learned about a management opening at the Four Seasons Hotel there and applied. A five star, five diamond property, it was exactly where he wanted to be. He was thrilled when he received a telephone call asking him to interview, but somewhat intimidated when the general manager demanded to know what he was doing in his office. With a busboy background from a budget hotel, why was he applying for a job at the Four Seasons? Somock stood politely firm and pointed out his education and preparation, and it turned out that the general manager was also a graduate of the Lausanne school. Somock had passed the test, and was hired as beverage manager. The move to San Francisco was joyful, and the experience of living in the city and working at the Four Seasons was everything Somock and Bo thought it would be. “It opened the world to me,” he says.

Their first son was born, Somock’s father became ill and Laos began to open up to tourism. Somock and Bo decided that it was time to return to their roots. There were no Four Seasons hotels in Asia at that time, so they went to a fine hotel in Singa-pore for a few years. Their second son was born in Singapore. But Somock missed the Four Seasons, and was delighted to be offered a job at their new resort in Jakarta. The project was cancelled, but Four Seasons came through again. There was a job for him in Bali, and that was the family’s next move. It was, he says, “everything you could ask for” – a good company, an award-winning resort, a high quality of life for the family, and gentle Balinese people whose artistic and spiritual qualities pervade their lives. They rediscovered Asia.

Five years later, they moved to The Regent in Chiang Mai. It was time for the children to have better educational opportunities, and it was closer to home. They love Chiang Mai and its many opportunities. Somock had two and a half good years at the Regent while it piled up awards, opened the cooking school, and was re-branded as a Four Seasons property. Occupancy and spirits were high. But then tragedy struck both the Four Seasons and Thai tourism. The general manager became ill, and retired for medical care abroad. SARS, bird flu and unrest in the south of Thailand all worked together to force high-end tourism to a grinding halt. Somock’s expatriate position was made redundant, but the Four Seasons offered him other positions.

Somock and Bo thought it all over. They had come home to Asia, and they wanted to stay. There was a friendly parting of the ways, and soon Somock Inthavong, Resort Manager, became Somock Inthavong, hands-on Guru of D2, a very upscale urban hotel with a lot of moxie. He’s excited about the concept – informal but up market, new to Chiang Mai. I’m keeping an eye on this one. It’s going to be fun.