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Today marks a new start for departing Laguna chief, Michael Ayling

Phuket Resorts, Property Still Upbeat, Says Departing Laguna Phuket Chief

Friday, June 1, 2012
PHUKET: For the man who holds the most significant position in Phuket resort management, yesterday brought the end of one personal era, and the beginning of another.

Michael Ayling, for six years boss of Laguna Phuket and for 12 years a bit of a fixture at the seven-resort Phuket sanctuary, took his last day in his inimitable relaxed style.

''Are they going to pay you?'' Phuketwan asked. ''Of course,'' he said, with a grin. ''I've got the processes in place.''

James Batt, who ran Laguna Phuket for 10 years, was known as the Mayor of Laguna for his outgoing style. Perhaps the most appropriate imaginary title for Michael Ayling is the Adventurous Accountant.

Coming from a background in bookkeeping, Mr Ayling, now 45, steered Laguna Phuket through a period of rapid change. His knowledge of resorts on Phuket is comprehensive and his opinion highly valued.

After all, he has been paid to gaze into the crystal ball and chart the future for Laguna Phuket, a pioneer in so many elements of Phuket's development starting with its genesis as a tin mine wasteland in the 1980s.

He says Phuket's future is most likely in the three-and-a-half to four-star mass market.

And from today, Mr Ayling's own future rides with NuoBello, ''turn-key developments of distinction,'' where as Chief Executive Officer he will put his accumulated skills to good use across the Asia-Pacific region from his Phuket base.

''Laguna Phuket is always going to be in my blood,'' he said. ''I love the place, the company and the people. But it's time to try my own hand and see how much I've really learned over the years.''

He's continuing as a non-executive director at Laguna, putting an end to rumors that there was some kind of falling out. However, it's true to say that finding a replacement candidate for ''one of the biggest and best jobs on Phuket'' was never going to be easy.

A new Laguna Phuket managing director has yet to be appointed, although it has been known for months that Mr Ayling was heading out the door.

''When I took over it was at the start of the property boom,'' he says, looking back on the past six years. ''I rode the wave. My first three years we were selling 80 to 100 properties a year.

''We really saw Laguna Phuket change from being a resort into the lifestyle destination we see today.

''We've also spent a lot of time and effort on community relations. We decided on asking our employees what they wanted and took a bottom-up approach. Our Corporate Affairs Department has done a fantastic job.

''I'd like to think we are better thought-of in the community than we were before, and that's no disrespect previous regimes. It's something we worked hard on and something that's important to us. We are much more effective now.''

Always refreshingly honest, Mr Ayling moved on quickly from the positives.

''The negatives? It's been tough for the past three years. We've had a couple of strikes. Sometimes you have to take short-term pain for long-term gain.

''Now everything is back to where it should be with our employees.''

There has also been the sale of two of Laguna Phuket's seven resorts. ''That's another significant change,'' he said. ''That provides its own challenges. An integrated resort probably takes a bit more effort to keep it integrated.''

Mr Ayling ascribes to the term that founder KP Ho uses to describe the future of Laguna Phuket as ''unlocking value.''

''We've still got a lot of land around Laguna Phuket but we need resources to unlock that value. In any business you have mature assets and sometimes it's the right time to sell. Now the group will be undertaking development plans to enhance Laguna Phuket as a destination. It doesn't mean a lack of commitment.''

Mr Ayling forecast the arrtival of mixed-use developments and more retail, including redevelopment of Canal Village ''to make Laguna Phuket more of a united destination.''

He preferred, though, to leave announcements to the next generation of management.

The challenge for many middle-aged resorts on Phuket was similar, he said. But sales and renovations were ''uplifting the whole of Laguna Phuket.''

When it comes to staff, Mr Ayling said experiments with casual labor were not likely to succeed on Phuket, simply because full-time staff were in such high demand.

On property sales on Phuket, he said: ''It's tough. The wave of sales I rode a few years ago has well and truly stopped. Second homes aren't fashionable any more.

''People don't have equity in their houses, quite the opposite. All those dynamics are going to affect property markets, particularly on Phuket because it's such an international destination.

''The market dynamics are working against property on Phuket. We've been selling this year but it hasn't been investment based resort properties, it's been more the residential properties.

''The doom and gloom in Europe is probably an opportunity to appeal to Europeans who don't want to stay in Europe or Europeans lving and working here who don't want to go back.

''We've sold quite a few properties in the first quarter, done very well, sold 15 properties. If we continue to sell 30 or 40 properties a year, it's very much a sustainable business for us as well.''

By making Laguna Phuket a more desirable place in terms of those coming developments, Laguna aims to enhance its appeal.

Vietnam? Laguna is creating a startup resort destination on the coast between Hue and Da Nang. Just as Laguna led the way on Phuket, so Vietnam is being opened up with a Banyan Tree and an Angsana, and a Nick Faldo golf course.

''Hopefully we will help lead the way in that part of the world,'' he said. ''The soft opening will probably come towards the end of the year.''

Mr Ayling's new role at his own start-up is about helping people who have land to come up with concepts and designs and to steer the finance to sales and operations.

NuoBello already has one big project, a hotel and 800 properties near the capital in Papua New Guinea, a young country that Mr Ayling knows and loves as much as he loves Thailand. Resources are leading a boom in PNG, he says.

Asked how he has changed at Laguna Phuket, Mr Ayling said: ''James Batt's were big shoes to fill. Two people gave me the same piece of advice: 'Don't change, be yourself.'

''I took that advice. I'm still the same. I may be more rounded, more confident, and I've learned a hell of a lot beyond my finance skills as well.''

NuoBello Holding Limited is based in Thalang, Phuket. Telephone +66 76 620227 E: MichaelA@NuoBello.com

LAGUNA Phuket consists of Banyan Tree Phuket, Angsana Laguna Phuket, Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket, Laguna Beach Resort (now being redeveloped), Outrigger Laguna Phuket Resort & Villas, Best Western Allamanda Laguna Phuket, and Laguna Holiday Club Resort set in 1000 acres of tropical parkland and three kilometres of beach frontage with Laguna Phuket Golf Club, Canal Shopping Village, Banyan Tree Spa, four Angsana Spas, Laguna Wedding Chapel, the Quest team building facility, and Latitude, a function venue.

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Good luck Michael ! I think I had an easier period at the helm of Laguna than you did, but you have evidently led it with aplomb. I am sure I join many who wish you well in the future.
James.

Posted by James Batt on June 1, 2012 22:28


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