Business - October 11, 2023 | 10:30 pm PT

The hospitality industry is no stranger to challenges, but few leaders have encountered trials as relentless and within such a condensed timeframe as Steven Wolstenholme (Steve), President & CEO of Hoiana Resort & Golf in Vietnam.

His journey at Hoiana was characterized by unwavering determination, resilience, and a strong commitment to inspire the growth of the hospitality sector in Vietnam.

In 2018, Steve faced a life-altering decision. An executive with a wealth of experience in the hospitality and gaming industries, he was presented with a unique opportunity: to lead the operation of Hoiana Resort & Golf, a sprawling US$4 billion integrated resort project in Vietnam. In fact, he had never set foot in Vietnam before, which made this offer a leap of faith into the unknown. "I had never visited Vietnam until I came here to have a look at the opportunity," Steve said.

His journey into Vietnam’s vibrant hospitality sector was an adventure of discovery, both personally and professionally.

Hoiana Resort & Golf stood as a testament to grand ambition, featuring a golf course, a casino, and over 1,000 luxurious rooms, all designed to meet 5-star standards. The project had its groundbreaking ceremony in 2016.

When Steve took the helm as CEO, the resort was still in the construction phase. It was, in many ways, a blank canvas.

"The project is a dynamic vision for central Vietnam. My first impression was that there were many stakeholders working together to be part of that vision," he recalled.

He had a very short period of time to prepare and settle in until the soft opening was scheduled for the middle of 2020.

During that time, Steve had a monumental task: to help transform Hoiana from a construction project on the brink of completion into a fully operational luxury resort.

Leveraging his wealth of experience, Steve didn’t waste a single day. He and his team meticulously planned every detail.

By the fourth quarter of 2019, Hoiana had begun opening a number of facilities in its initial phase.

Come June 2020, the resort was poised for its soft launch, featuring Hoiana Hotel and Suites, encompassing 141 rooms, several F&B facilities, an exquisite 18-hole golf course, and a world-class casino.

A formidable workforce of 3,000 individuals, each with diverse backgrounds and many with international hospitality experience, had been assembled, ready to breathe life into the resort.

Three weeks after the soft launch in 2020, Vietnam was gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a devastating blow to the country’s hospitality industry, and Hoiana was no exception. At that time, Steve’s carefully laid plans for the operation crumbled before his eyes.

In the mist of the Covid-19 pandemic, Steve quickly identified the resort’s top priorities: adaptation and resource management.

Drawing on his extensive experience in the hospitality industry, he reviewed every aspect of the resort’s operations, making critical decisions about what should take precedence, what could be replaced, and what must remain.

Before Covid, Hoiana had employed a considerable number of expat workers. Driven by cost-saving measures, Steve encouraged these individuals to make sacrifices for the greater good of the company.

Leading by example, he relocated his own family from an ocean-view villa to more modest accommodation within the resort. Every possible cost-saving measure was explored.

"I believe that rather than closing the business, we would reduce our costs considerably and be as fair to as many people as possible," he said.

The resort retained critical talents by reducing working hours, ensuring a sustainable business during this dire period.

Hoiana further adapted by providing accommodations to those who needed to reside at the resort during the lockdown. Every available resource was harnessed to maintain the resort’s operation.

Still, the 3,000-strong workforce, once a symbol of promise, eventually became a formidable burden, and Steve faced immense pressure.

One of the most heart wrenching decisions of all was that he had to reduce the workforce from 3,000 to less than 1,000 employees.

"I think any decision you make that involves the livelihoods of your employees is always the toughest. Anyone who says that these decisions are not tough is not a leader; they are just simply a boss," he said, describing that it was the toughest decision he had to make during that period.

As time elapsed, Hoiana, under Steve’s leadership, successfully overcame the harsh time of the Covid-19. Remarkably, the resort didn’t close for a single day.

"I think we became humbled as a business and built our own character through situations and challenges, and Covid-19 was a particularly challenging situation." Looking back, Steve recognized some areas where he could have made better decisions.

"One of the actions I may have taken differently was a complete suspension of many of our construction projects. The result of this approach caused many challenges when restarting these projects after Covid."

He believes that if they had implemented a strategy of preventive maintenance and other measures during the pandemic, it could have significantly improved efficiency and effectiveness as they emerged from the pandemic’s impact.

Steve’s journey in Vietnam allowed him to uncover the captivating charm of the country with its friendly people, beautiful beaches, and world-class cuisine. He always talks about Vietnam with a smile, which shows how much the CEO loves this foreign land.

Casting his view over Vietnam’s hospitality, the leader believes that it is still in the early stages of development."Vietnam has so much to offer, making it a dynamic place to invest in building internationally recognized hospitality brands and facilities.

"He wholeheartedly also commends the genuine goodwill and dedication of the people working in this sector and acknowledges the government’s efforts to foster the growth of the industry.

Steve emphasizes the importance of incorporating Vietnam’s unique charm and natural offerings, including its people and characteristics, into the industry.

He firmly believes that this approach is critical to ensuring the delivery of a high-end hospitality experience that not only caters to international standards but also preserves and celebrates the country’s unique charm.

There were certain nuances that he initially found challenging, particularly the lack of service culture spirit.

However, he has witnessed that the Vietnamese people have a great desire to learn, and the service culture has transformed to the point where people have come to embrace the true essence of hospitality.

This extends not only to welcoming international guests but also to fostering a culture of hospitality among fellow Vietnamese.

As a leader, Steve has made it his personal mission to set an example, emphasizing the significance of cultural understanding.

His vision firmly centers on empowering local talents to assume leadership roles. He often encourages his local staff to invest time in studying their profession, much like pursuing a personal interest.

"Imagine dedicating just one hour a week to delve into your profession. By the end of the year, you would have accumulated 52 hours of knowledge, thus placing you among the top 10% in your field. This approach sets you apart, as many merely view their work as a job rather than a chance to gain valuable experience."

Furthermore, Steve emphasizes the importance of humility and suggests that industry leaders should never give the impression that they know everything. "You need to rely on the skills and expertise of others.

You should be firm but always humble, regardless of your title or position," he added.

Under his guidance, local talents at Hoiana have flourished. One of his proudest moments is witnessing the impressive progress made by local individuals within the organization, seeing them take the opportunity, and installing pride in the organization.

An example is at the Hoiana Shores Golf Club, where local talent with key positions has been entrusted, including the General Manager, the Golf Course Superintendent, and the Golf Pro.

In perfect harmony with Steve’s vision of empowering local talent, Hoiana Resort & Golf remains steadfast in its commitment to the local community.

Through the Hoiana Cares initiative, the resort has orchestrated and actively participated in considerable number of community programs and initiatives, collectively valued at around VND25 billion. These initiatives span a wide spectrum of fields, encompassing education, healthcare, and disaster relief.

Hoiana Cares earned a prestigious accolade in 2023, securing a well-deserved place among the Top 5 Best Overall CSR Programs, as recognized by the esteemed media platform IAG.

As the world slowly emerged from the grasp of the pandemic, Hoiana embarked on an inspiring journey of revival, becoming a beacon for tourism.

The grand opening of the New World Hoiana Hotel in July 2021, with 476 rooms, was a watershed moment in this journey.

Within just one year after the international tourism gates reopened in March 2022, the resort expanded its workforce to nearly 3.000 individuals, with over 80% being from the local communities of Da Nang and Quang Nam, with expatriates making up a modest 3% of the workforce.

In October 2022, the development unveiled Hoiana Residences, with 270 commercial apartments ranging from studios to 3-bedroom units.

The number of hotel guests and casino visitors at Hoiana experienced a significant surge, going from a mere 5,000 in 2020 to an astounding 51,000 in 2022 and an even more impressive 69,000 in the first half of 2023.

The CEO had initially envisioned a robust recovery for Hoiana in 2023, largely banking on revenue from several key markets.

However, some markets remained closed, necessitating a strategic shift. Hoiana therefore leveraged its world-class golf course as a magnet for tourists from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and beyond.

The complex recently introduced the New World Hoiana Beach Resort, featuring 330 rooms, further cementing its status as a premier destination.

From Steve’s perspective, Vietnam has effectively showcased its capacity to host travelers without unnecessary risks through a variety of programs and campaigns.

He observes that the government has exhibited a growing openness to welcoming foreign businesses and individuals by reducing the obstacles they encounter when expanding their enterprises or merely coming in on vacation.

Moreover, there are encouraging signs of progress. Vietnam’s implementation of a new e-visa system, open to all nationalities, has inspired optimism for the industry.

He believes that this travel convenience will significantly boost the country’s tourism and related sectors. Gazing toward the future, he believes Hoiana has a bright future. This project excites him, and he anticipates many more years of tremendous possibilities on the horizon.

As the sun sets over the tranquil shores of Hoiana, Steven Wolstenholme's journey in Vietnam's hospitality sector is far from over with his story about his unwavering determination and resilience. And with each passing day, he promises to continue to shape not just a unique resort in Hoiana but an industry’s success story.

Content: Bang Nguyen - Design: Hang Trinh - Photo: Hoiana