How to welcome career changes: A journey from the USA to the United Arab Emirates

An interview with the IT Executive Vice President of Kerzner International – by Răzvan Dumitru

As exciting as they might seem, opportunities can also be scary. Moving to another country, or even continent comes along with other drastic changes in day-to-day life. Despite uncertainty and risks, some people are still open to new beginnings, welcoming such changes and thinking about the beneficial side of them. Willem Both, a Dutch alumnus that we would like to introduce you to, is one of those people. Following his graduation in 1993, he started his career in the United States as a Front Office Manager. After working in Los Angeles, California, and New York, he moved to Singapore, and nowadays, he is living in Dubai.

What did you do after graduating? 

My studies at Hotelschool The Hague took a total of five years. I did my first internship at Disneyworld Orlando, a truly unforgettable experience! For my second one, I really wanted to work outside the Netherlands again and was successfully accepted in La Jolla, California, and worked in the Marriott there. The condition was to stay with them for a year, so this is the reason for the additional half a year.

After having completed my internship and graduated, I was offered to stay within La Jolla Marriott for an additional six months. My single request was to start working in their front office instead of my previous position as a restaurant manager. The reason behind this request was that I wanted to gain more experience in this department. They happily accepted and so, I started working as a front office supervisor. Since I was residing in the United States on a student visa and keeping me as an employee was not possible for Marriott, I had to start looking for a new challenge after those six months. My wish to travel around the world determined me to create some DVDs that represented my digital resume, including a taped introduction of myself, and send them around the world. This initiative stemmed from my passion for IT and the fact that it seemed very creative, as IT was not nearly as developed at that time as it is today. I received many positive replies but one of them caught my eye. I received an offer from Dusit Thani– a Thai hotel chain, to set up their very first property in Balikpapan (Borneo), Indonesia. This is when my adventure in Asia began.

You have had roles primarily based around IT. Is it a passion for you? If so, when did you discover it?

After Indonesia, I started another chapter of my life in Los Angeles, where I filled numerous operations-related roles. At the Sheraton in Los Angeles, an 804-room hotel, I filled the role of Front Office Manager. I loved this job since it was very dynamic! I could receive phone calls, typically at the end of my shift, from a man with a French accent, asking me to accommodate 500 people since their flight had a delay. In this kind of situation, we had to quickly respond and cater to so many guests smoothly. I was 24 years old at that time and having such a great extent of responsibility was very satisfying!

Following that, I became the person responsible for the maintenance of our PMS system. My boss at that time, who was also a really good friend of mine, came to me one day and asked: “Willem, what do you want to do? What else would you like to do, apart from being the Front Desk Manager?”. Since his job was not available, I decided that I wanted to learn IT since it was an interest of mine. From that point onwards, I started working one day a week with the IT department and after six months, I took over the IT Manager position. Even though I have been working in Sheraton for a while, the General Manager told me that such a large-scale hotel is not the proper place to start learning IT and so, I was given an ultimatum of three months to prove myself. Later on, I was even offered to be responsible for another similar scale hotel in the vicinity and I can proudly say that we made it successfully through the Y2K problem! That was the beginning of my journey with IT.

You went back and forth to the United States a couple of times. Could you expand on your experience there?

The United States is a considerable part of my past! I started my career there, I got married there and it is the country in which I filled many roles and achieved many professional milestones. After a good period of time spent in California, I was offered to start a new job in Singapore, in the IT department there. My wife, whom I met in the US, was brave enough to agree to move together with me even though she was not fluent in English at that time. This new chapter of my life was a very positive change as I managed to become the Vice President of IT for Asia and the Pacific! After completely falling in love with the culture and society, I thought that Asia would be the country in which I was going to retire. However, Marriott acquired Starwood and many changes followed. That made me start searching for new opportunities until one day when I received a phone call from a headhunter for Kerzner International and was made an offer. Looking back today, I am very happy to have accepted their offer as it was a great new adventure for both me and my family!

What achievement are you most proud of? 

Our lives are so busy with work and because of that, I believe that we have to make the most out of it! I enjoy creating connections with people and this was why I was always close to all of my teams. I am very proud of my work-life balance as both in Singapore and now in Dubai, I created tight-knit connections with the people that I had and have been working with.

What do you consider your biggest failure? 

The fact that I did not teach my children Dutch! We raised them in English and Spanish and they still speak Mandarin due to our time spent in Singapore. They recently started learning Arabic. Since you can communicate with 80% of the globe in these languages, I did not teach them my mother tongue even though I believe that language is a substantial part of our national heritage and consider it something I gave up too easily due to lack of time.

What would your advice be for a person that just entered the hospitality IT industry? What is something that you wish you had known?

My advice is to be humble and start from the bottom up! Sometimes, as absurd as it might sound, it is beneficial to work for free if that means learning something new. Nevertheless, stay “hungry” for becoming more and eager to take responsibility. Additionally, be open to anything new because you never know what the outcome could be. One of the nicest aspects of the hospitality industry is that you can always cross paths with new and exciting opportunities.

For people with established careers, my advice is to give people chances! Become a mentor for someone in which you see potential, agree to take an intern, give the chance of their life to people who might not have sufficient experience but the right attitude.

Willem often accepted changes in his life and embarked on many journeys, no matter how far. So apart from the professional side, you might wonder how he is as a person. Well, let’s take a look at the rapid-fire questions.

What is your favourite book?  

I have been reading Game of Thrones to my children for a very long while. Even though we are only a hundred or so pages into the total several thousand, I became a fan of it!

What is the last movie that you saw? 

The last movie that my son and I really liked is No Time to Die. It is a very captivating movie!   

Are you a morning person or a night owl?   

Morning person, without any doubt. I always wake up at six in the morning!

How do you prepare yourself for a workday? What is your ritual?  

I do workouts for about half an hour every morning because I do not want to go to the gym and risk skipping breakfast with my family. Also, I avoid thinking about work until I arrive at the office. I enjoy my ride to work and listen to the radio and podcasts.

What is your biggest dream in a few words?  

If I hadn’t pursued a career in hospitality, I would have loved to be an architect! I love building things!

Name one thing on your bucket list.

Once our children are a bit older, I would like to volunteer and make a difference in somebody’s life.

Name one thing you like to do in your free time.  

I love camping! It is very different to do this in Dubai than in Singapore, but nothing can compete with the night sky of the desert here.

What is the favourite country in which you have lived?

That would be Singapore!

What would your advice be for students graduating in 2022?  

Do not choose a specialization when you are still at the beginning of your career! Go out there, try different roles and see which one is the right fit. Bear in mind that you have nothing to lose and that the outset of your career is not the right time to be scared or limit yourself!