Prapaijit Thongma is an elegant and mature hotelier who joined Centara Maldives, after having gained experience of strong hotel leadership in Africa and Asia. Having a rich pedigree in international hotel management, Prapaijit Thongma has enriched the iconic Centara Maldives with her 24 years of operational excellence. The Islandchief spoke exclusively with Ms.Thongma about her principles, ideas, future plans and, of course, Centara Maldives.
Q1. Please tell us how you ended up finding your place and interest in the hospitality industry?
Welcoming and entertaining people brought me much joy even at a very young age. After graduating from university; in the field of business, hotel management and literature, I took a job as a secretary in Thailand working for one of the reputable Belgium conglomerates who was building the first Zinc smelter in South East Asia. Generally, one would not think of it as such, but the role of a secretary is very much like working in hospitality which intrigued me to explore about career opportunities in the industry for the future. I also had the passion to travel which gave me an extra urge to seek out avenues in travel and tourism. When it was time to decide about my future, hospitality was a straight-forward choice for the next stage in my career, as it allowed me to couple my love for travel with my desire to care for people.
Q2. What are the responsibilities you shoulder as the GM of Centara Grand Island, Maldives? Enlighten us on ‘a day in your life’ at the resort?
In 2009, I joined Centara Grand Island Resort & Spa, Maldives as the Resident Manager of the pre-opening team. It was the first property outside Thailand and, it remains until today the brand’s flagship resort. Been at the helm of affairs since 2013, when Centara Ras Fushi opened, I transferred as the Hotel Manager and, in 2014 I was promoted to General Manager. I wear many hats with the help of my team as; a chief problem solver, employee morale booster, head of the complaints department, safe guarding the reputation as well as the existence of the operation of the resort and ensuring we deliver guest expectations to the best of our abilities, allowing “everlasting memories to be made in the place to be – Centara”. These are all positive sets of challenges that I welcome with open arms.
As a problem solver to be at the forefront, guiding both properties and making unprecedented decisions as protocols and mandates are changing on a seemingly daily basis after the pandemic gives a meaningful and rewarding purpose to bear. A GM’s daily tasks and role have significantly shifted since the beginning of the pandemic and will likely continue to evolve as the hospitality industry continues to redefine services, processes, and expectations.
Q3. How have your previous roles helped you to get to where you are today?
Working in the hospitality industry for more than 30 years and moving to different destinations due to my career, taught me to recognise the beauty in every country and to understand that each place has its own unique energy. In fact, it was my first job in hospitality at Club Med working as a Front Desk Agent that I learnt; you should always strive for excellence, to take full responsibility for your role and to never stop dreaming. The benefits you reap are truly satisfying, regardless of what your job role is when you blend; attention to detail, respect, commitment, team work, trust and compassion.
Q4. You have been the General Manager at Centara Grand for a while now. How has the resort evolved to improve services to the guests?
Exceeding the customer’s expectations boils down to making the guests feel good which then builds the guest confidence in your brand. The ingredients we use to deliver this has one key component and that is our “people”. Not only do we listen to and understand our guests but our team members and their challenges as well. We believe happy staff make happy customers - “One team, One Goal” – which is to be the leading global hospitality group of Thai origin.
We are dedicated to providing locally relevant, Thai-inspired experiences in each of our global destinations. On this continuous journey of expansion, our traditional family values will remain in the heart of everything we do across all brands. With a unique passion for innovation, we are committed to delivering meaningful hospitality while preserving the environment through sustainable operations.
Digitalisation has also played a significant contribution in how we deliver a comfortable and memorable stay to our guests. It’s also essential to get to know each destination’s local cultures, customs and traditions which then helps to fine tune in the operations of what we deliver to our valued guests. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” - Maya Angelou
Q5. When it comes to women empowerment, we have come a long way. Do you think it matches up for the women in Maldives hospitality industry?
I believe it has improved drastically in the past few years and currently I am proud to see a large group of Maldivian female leaders in decision making roles across different industries in the Republic of Maldives. However, the future generations should be encouraged and positive mindset should be inculcated to ensure it progresses.
Q6. What are the property’s sustainable commitments in regard to incorporating social responsibility to achieve positive impacts?
Centara's commitment to sustainability and corporate social responsibility has put the company on a path to a better, more meaningful kind of success where resources are respected, communities enjoy opportunities and support, and careers and employment are abundant for the generations to come.
Centara properties as an entirety has a global recognition aligned with the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC). We back ourselves up with the exceptional standards we meet including a water treatment plant installed from inception and usage of glass water bottles in our operations along with the usage of paper straws and treated wastewater to avoid polluting discharge used for watering our beautiful gardens at both properties.
I am proud to also mention that at Centara Ras Fushi Resort & Spa Maldives we have a total of 752 solar panels installed and solar power used to light up the overwater walkways at night. We are also committed to minimising waste production through the reduction, reuse and recycling of products and encourage our team members and guest to give back to the community and ecosystem by engaging in monthly coral planting programs.
Our properties also ensure that we build relationship with local schools/ local island authorities to take care of the well-being of primary school premises. Projects are also developed to conduct frequent training of tourism and hospitality education to nurture the mindsets of young adults to develop future hospitality leaders through theoretical/practical training while fostering goodwill and friendship among local islands.
Q7. With so many various properties coming up, how does Centara plan to stand out in the market?
Centara's distinctive culture and diversity allows us to serve and satisfy travellers of nearly every age and lifestyle.
Our deep roots in the Thai family values of caring, sharing and a sense of belonging helps us to specialise in bringing family-centric hospitality concepts to life.
Centara respectfully delivers and celebrates the unique fusion of exceptional hospitality and values which are distinct features in both Thailand and the Maldives. The blend of authentic attributes which we are famous for includes gracious service, exceptional food, pampering spas, the importance of families and time well spent.
The combination of each essential aspect true to the heart of a Centara property is then constantly injected with innovative and new ideas to keep in line with the heritage but display and deliver a wow factor that resonates with our guests.
Q8. Over the years, have you encountered any barriers to your success or growth as a female in your field?
I have not experienced any barriers and I believe it’s because of how I have always dealt with any situation. A positive can-do attitude, with the ability to always be up front and communicate with attention to detail in a respectful manner has seen me through many stages of my life. As a female one should never be afraid to dream big and reach for the stars. Regardless of your gender we will all find hurdles in life; I don’t see them as barriers but another hurdle to jump. You need to always have the right attitude and a positive mindset with the firm notion of “I will not give up”. When you feel it’s a bit overwhelming to handle, sometimes a small break always helps; to gather yourself, dust yourself off and get back to it.
Q9. What are your future career goals and what’s coming up next for Centara?
Personally, I will love to travel more and eventually consult young budding entrepreneurs who have a passion to set up boutique hotels. I wish to help them set up their framework in order to yield not only a successful operation monitory wise but also as a best place to work with loyal employees, who wants to be part of a team that respects each other in a productive environment.
In terms of what’s in the future pipelines for Centara, the company was given the green light to develop a set of new resorts in the Maldives, following successful Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) in three idyllic islands in the Indian Ocean. These resorts are expected to be opened during the period of 2024 and 2025.
Q10. What lessons and advice can you share as a female leader to the new generations of women working in the hotel industry?
My experience has made me believe in people, in the power of being positive, and having a vision. People can do so much when you allow them to take ownership of their roles. It is my belief that people from all walks of life can do wonders and even surpass themselves once you provide them with a mindset to “believe in themselves”
Another factor is your leadership style. I would describe my leadership style as being based on trust and good people skills and, of course every leader has to have charisma, passion and commitment. Another crucial quality is vision, as a leader your role is not just to manage the day-to-day operations, you have to move forward with change and adapt. It will be the legacy that you leave behind.
Whatever you do, you have to follow your dream. You should seize every opportunity to learn, improve, and go above and beyond your limits to deliver excellence. Be an inspiration to other female leaders to thrive and maximize their potential and always remember empathy and compassion are pillars of success.
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