It’s a sweltering afternoon in Phuket’s Baba Hot Box restaurant when Sri Panwa’s Managing Director Vorasit Wan Issara — or Wan for short — walks in. Dressed in his signature ensemble (a social media stalk will confirm this) of a black T-shirt, Bermuda shorts, and sandals, he greets us like we’re old friends meeting for lunch. As we chat and sip cocktails, he moves with ease and familiarity around the kitchen, checking on the food and talking us through the menu. One thing becomes evidently clear: Wan is not your typical boss.
This impression sticks as we wine and dine with him and his staff over the next three days. We’re quickly convinced of Sri Panwa’s former title as the Happiest Place to Work in Thailand — Wan treats his hotel staff like family. Many of them have been with him for years, some even a decade or more, and paint a picture of him as more of a friend than a boss. Sulie Sritutti, Business Development and Entertainment Executive, agrees. “He remembers all the staff’s names and even their families, from the gardener to the sales team.”
When asked about his managerial style, Wan echoes his employees’ sentiments. “I value all of them and know all their names. We have an open-door policy. I encourage everyone to be straightforward and come up to me no matter how small their problems are. [We have] a unique ambience that blends informality and friendliness with the services expected at a five-star resort.” So tight-knit and informal is the relationship between Wan and his team that he frequently cooks and eats with them.
Wan refuses to take all the credit for his resorts’ success, saying that “[he is] able to achieve all of this only by leveraging the collective expertise of [everyone].” He thrives where many fail by putting staff first. Sulie tell us: “The first thing he does when he launches a new menu or room amenities is to ask the staff to try it. Or when it comes to conventions, such as a spa-themed one, he sends the therapists. He wants everyone, including front line staff, to know what’s going on in the industry.”
Perhaps Wan’s heart-warming humility stems from his work experience. While he may have left his family’s established property development business to set up and manage Sri Panwa at only 23 years old, such a mammoth role took years of learning that begun at the bottom of the food chain.
While studying at Santa Fe College, USA, he worked as a dishwasher and a waiter at a Thai restaurant — his first taste of directly dealing with clients. Not long after, he worked the circuit in various nightclubs and hotspots as crowd control and a DJ promoter. What soon followed was months of ground training at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok before he studied at DCT International School of Hotel & Business Management in Switzerland.
He acknowledges his time as a pool boy at Italy’s Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli as the experience that really impacted his management style most. While he preferred the younger and hipper hotel designs he came across on his travels, he chose to work at the traditional countryside estate hotel as it’s renowned for its stellar service. It’s there that he met one of his most inspirational figures: Robert H. Burns, the founder and developer of the hotel.
Recounting his experience, Wan says: “I worked at his resort as a pool boy but ended up taking care of his three-year-old son Robert often. One day, he asked me to join him on his boat to watch his son. When Robert was sleeping, I asked him for advice, which he happily gave. From that day on, I have treasured any nuggets of wisdom he imparts. He told me that running a hotel isn’t rocket science — it’s just about providing incredible service. It’s all about the small details.”
The other figures Wan looks up to also speaks volumes about the way he runs his hotels. One of them is his father who he credits his management style to. “He leads with authority, and his employees trust him and can come to him with any problem.” The other is the late Anthony Bourdain. “The show had an incredible impact on the lives of people Bourdain met. I’m inspired by his love for food, adventure and dedication to bringing little-known local food to international attention.”
Likewise, Wan shone the light on the Phuket luxury scene with Sri Panwa. “There was nothing here 10 years ago…I remember the first day when we started at the Hotel Tradeshow. No one knew Sri Panwa. Now, it’s one of the top Thai hotel brands in the international market.”
Addressing how he started Sri Panwa, he tells us that “people may think it was easy for me because of my abundant family money, but there were also major risks involved. I studied the market as thoroughly as I could. There were only three or four hotels in Phuket charging as much as we do… I decided that my Sri Panwa debut project had to be a resort with a small number of luxury villas and not a high-rise building of 300 units. I had the big picture in mind but I started small.”
Now that he’s been in the business for 13 years, Wan’s opinion on the island’s hospitality scene reflects his pride for Phuket. “As much as I love brands that represent international luxury and old-world finesse, I would love to see more rising stars that are born with their heart and soul in Phuket, Thailand, from both a design standpoint and also with sharing the beauty of Phuket in new, innovative ways. “
His other gripe? He sees a need for more government support for Phuket’s tourism industry. “Tourism is one of the big businesses for Phuket, but the tax spending to improve public infrastructure is not reflective of the huge role tourism plays in Phuket. There should be greater and faster improvements. I just went to China and saw that they have advanced so much quicker than Thailand with their high-speed train in Hainan. We should be able to get something like that done without having to talk about it for years.”
A devoted dad
Wan’s role as a devoted father mirrors his work persona. From the get-go, it is apparent that he, and his six-year-old daughter, Wela, have a solid friendship. When we first meet, he describes how he aims for a close relationship as he doesn’t want her to forget him. “When she’s with me, there is no radio, no iPad. It’s just the two of us hanging out.”
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He makes it a point to be friends with her friends too. “They look at me like I’m their brother…They’re only nine and 11 years old yet they’re already talking about boys to me. They don’t talk to their parents. I give advice, and they trust me.”
We get to witness their relationship up-close as she joins us for a meal. As he chats with us, he lets her doodle on his arm. “I call her my best buddy. She eats what I eat, watches the same cooking shows and plays with the dogs with me.” Bridging the gap between home and work, he frequently brings her to the office as “she behaves very well with our team or in the meetings.”
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Hotelier, father… and DJ?
Beyond being a hotelier, Wan lives its up as a DJ — a seamless transition from a life of partying in some of the world biggest’s clubs. Wan has manned the decks in similarly glamourous places, including Glow Bangkok and most recently: Privilege Ibiza.
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Wan is dedicated to the sound, and conceptualises his Phuket hotels as such — both boast extensive day-to-day music programmes. Sri Panwa sees a daily music lineup and a constant string of celebrity DJs; the likes of Skrillex, Sasha and Avicii have performed here. But his newer property, Baba Beach Club, is where he really takes his passion up a notch. “Baba Beach Club is more for house and underground music lovers who would enjoy the beach and parties.”
One of Wan’s ways of giving back is by promoting the Thai music scene. “By supporting the local artists, we are giving them a platform to play alongside international stars from the electronic music community. We want to help them grow and grow the scene too.”
When asked if he would ever pursue music full-time, Wan has this to say: “I would miss my other passions if I did. I am in such a fortunate position now that I get to work on what I love and still explore my passions such as music, even making it as a part of my business too.”
Wan dishes out three tips for budding hoteliers:
1. You cannot just have a good idea
“You have to push hard to get it done and make it a reality.”
2. Believe in the importance of being a team player and being personable
“When you know you can count on your team, you will run into a lot less problems.”
3. Follow your passion, and your dream
“Enjoy what you are doing. Travel, experience and see the world for yourself.”