The Regent Bangkok was purchased six years ago by the Four Seasons chain of hotels, a Canadian management company that also operates the Regent Chiang Mai. The Four Seasons is based in Toronto, and is the largest luxury hotel company in the world with 39 properties in 16 countries.
Canadian Bill Black is the hotel's general manager. He lives out on Chaengwattana Road with his wife Deide, and their son, Jonathan, who Black kiddingly says is `fifteen going on twenty-one' and attending ISB. Bill and Deide have known each other since high school and Bill jokes that he doesn't remember being single.
After being at the Regent for eight-and-a-half years Black took a brief hiatus from his post in Bangkok three years ago as he went to manage the Regent Singapore for a year-and-a-half, but fate and circumstance brought him back to Bangkok.  
Bill is a native of Vancouver, and he studied architecture at the University of British Columbia. So how did he end up in the hotel business? "Not being a good architect," he jests. (it's really hard to have a serious conversation with Bill Black). "It wasn't by a design, but I wouldn't change it for the world. When I graduated I wanted to take a year off, and I ended getting a job with the Hotel Vancouver, but when it came time to go back to school I decided that I liked the hotel business and I wanted to stay in it. My first job was actually as a `convention coordinator' which was really just a fancy name for a houseman but since I had a university degree I needed a nice title.   
"I then worked in sales with the Hotel Vancouver for a while before I became Resident Manager at the Harbor Castle Hilton in Toronto. I stayed at that post for five years. But I really wanted to come to Asia, and an old boss of mine referred me to a friend of his who was running the Regent Hong Kong. So I went there as the resident manager, originally planning to stay for two years, but I ended up staying for five years. That was a tremendous experience. It was a great, great hotel and I had a great time.
"I came to Bangkok at the beginning of 1987, and my arrival coincided with `Visit Thailand Year' when the hotel, Thailand, and the market just took off. We rode the wave of success claiming it was all great management. I experienced the coups, the Gulf War, and the democracy demonstrations, and I really became very very attached to the hotel, the employees, and the country.
When he was Chairman of the Community Projects Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce, Black co-founded the Thailand Business Coalition on AIDS (TBCA). This was back in 1991 when Bill was asked to attend a conference put on by the United Nations development Program (UNDP) entitled `NGOs and the Private Sector' and it involved NGOs from all over South-East Asia. Part of the conference included a panel discussion that Black participated in on how NGOs could improve their communication with the private sector. All of the NGOs involved happened to be in the field of HIV-AIDS.
Black told the participants that the difficulty NGOs have with the private sector is that they just don't speak the same language. "They must understand that the private sector is judged on profitability, and that just doing good deeds is not necessarily paramount on their minds."  
Also at that conference was Jim Reinoldt of Northwest Airlines, and Steve Krause of the UNDP-AIDS section. The three of them decided to develop a questionnaire that went out to all of the American Chamber members that asked if they were aware of the issue, had they done anything about it, and if information was made available would they be interested in knowing about it?   
"The end result," Black says, "was that we learned that no one had done anything about it, but that yes they were aware of the problem but they wouldn't know what to do if an employee approached them who was infected.
"We thought, therefore, that there was an opportunity to develop an organization that would respond in terms that the private sector would understand. So we formed the Thai Business Coalition on AIDS (TBCA) to be a private sector response. We addressed our attack on business saying it made good business sense to have a workplace policy and an education program. "It's been a good exercise and we were able to find a niche in trying to develop and work forward the issue of workplace policies on dealing with HIV-AIDS."
But has it been successful? Well, Black says the TBCA now has a permanent staff of nine people in their office on Rama IX Road and "it has a recognized global effect because it is set as a standard for private-public sector co-operation in the field of HIV-AIDS.
"I was in Manila last November though attending the World Conference on AIDS of about 7,000 delegates, and I got up and said `I think I'm the only businessmen here.' So we still have communication problems. All the NGOs speak a language which is very different from that of the business community, and I think we need to do a better job of facilitating communication between the two."  
As a result of that meeting in Manila, Black recently completed a workplace policy manual for the International Hotel and Restaurant Association (IAHA), the largest global hospitality organization. The manual is globally distributed and funded by UN-AIDS.
"We try to influence companies by making them more enlightened about the issue. And we present the issue in a very non-threatening way. Our basic approach is that it makes good business sense to be involved, and many companies especially hotels have been very responsive to the program. If I have an employee who is infected I hope that I have a group of employees that would realize that the employee concerned can still be a positive contributing employee and may show absolutely no health problems whatsoever.
"We want to try and eliminate discrimination, and the negative stigma that can be associated with being HIV positive. It's not a disease that can be "caught" and the workplace is the best place to educate people about the problem.
"More and more organizations quietly, and in their own way, are developing a workplace policy that eliminates discrimination and gives some sense of security to their employees. They are also developing programs that can not only educate their employees but their employees' families as well. If the workforce is educated then there should be no fear and the infected employee should be treated just as if they had any other life threatening disease.
"People ask me why I got involved in the TBCA. I'm not a crusader, my brother didn't die from it, and I'm not infected. It just seemed like the right thing to do, and I did it with people I have a great deal of respect for.  
"If someone is infected at the Regent, there is a procedure that the hotel will follow that will protect both the hotel and the employee and give both a sense of security. The policy states that someone who is HIV infected can stay on as an employee as long as they can perform their duties then they would go on a disability program when they become too ill to work.
"And what does a program like this cost you? Nothing. Understanding of the issue has come a long way since it was just associated with homosexuality and drug use, but we still need to get more senior management people to understand that its a good thing to put a workplace policy into effect."
Changing gears slightly the Regent Bangkok has sponsored the Terry Fox Run for three years running (The Regent Chiang Mai has done it for two years). "There is no corporate policy on the Run per say," says Bill "but our company globally has taken up the challenge that Terry Fox initiated. Our chairman, Isadore Sharp, had a son who died of cancer, and when Terry was doing his `Marathon of Hope' across Canada, Sharp supported him and he rallied other business executives to do so as well. As a result of that there has always been a close association between the Four Seasons and the Terry Fox Run.
"The Run gives us an opportunity to be involved in the community. The focus is on public awareness, and cancer research more than just being a physical race. We call it a `Fun Run' and whole families participate, from the whole spectrum of the community. I think it's great for the Canadian community in Bangkok, as everyone including the Ambassador participates. We've raised Bt2 million so far, and the money stays in Thailand (the money always stays in the country where the run is held)."    
What about Black's thoughts on the Canadian Community? "I was here when David Solaway founded the Thai Canadian Business Council which was the forerunner of the Thai Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and I think the profile of the Canadian community in Bangkok has grown remarkably. There is  very good leadership within the Canadian community. We as a group are very conservative, and we counterbalance the Americans. The longer I stay here I see the Canadian business community (especially people like Sean Brady and Don Lavoie) making greater inroads and having a stronger voice, and a stronger presence here."     
I couldn't leave Bill Black without asking him why people should stay at his hotel, and why it's so successful? Location is an advantage he says, and the consistency of the quality of service offered which is delivered with a Thai flavor. "The Regent also has a good place within the community. It is looked upon up by the locals as being part of the community, and ultimately for any hotel to be successful it has to win acceptance from those in the local community so that they can look upon the hotel as theirs."   
Annabelle Daokaew, the Regent's lovely Filipina P.R. co-ordinator, describes Bill as having adapted to Thailand very well. "He gets along with all kind of different people from the maids to the people in the executive office. He doesn't discriminate, and he's a nice person. He doesn't force you do anything and he isn't aggressive, and I think that's why the Thais like him so much. When he originally left to go Singapore we had a going away party for him, and there wasn't a dry eye in the place."      
His superiors have said Bill Black is more Thai than the Thais. He takes this as a compliment. It's hard not to like him. He's a good guy that cares about the little guys, and he has indeed proved Thomas Wolfe wrong. You see, he came home, at least to his second home. When he originally left the Regent to go to Singapore three years ago he had no intention of coming back to Bangkok. He did, however, and he has done so with grace, dignity and aplomb.

Find me on...