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Interview: From Armani Hotel to SLS Dubai, GM Spencer Wadama’s strategy for success

From motivating teams to overcoming the challenges of sustainability and a global pandemic, Wadama has a winning plan

Spencer Hayato Wadama cuts a dashing figure in his equally fashionable hotel, SLS Dubai. Many say he shares a passing resemblance to Hollywood star, The Rock. His American lilt adds to the likeness. But while The Rock’s been building a career in action films, Spencer has been active in building lifestyle empires in Dubai. Armani Dubai and Jumeirah Al Naseem are among his previous postings. In a candid interview with Connecting Travel, he tells us about his rise to general manager, what really motivates staff and a bittersweet time in his career.  

Connecting Travel: What does SLS Dubai have to offer guests that other Dubai hotels don’t?
Spencer Hayato Wadama: I can’t say what other hotels don’t do; I would never disrespect the hard work of my peers in the industry here in Dubai. SLS has amazing staff, simply said. The team here buys into the SLS environment and truly feels a part of what we do and who we are. They enjoy working here, and after the last few difficult years, they feel safe and valued and appreciated for the work that they do every day. We have understanding owners that have provided us with their trust and an amazing product and support. Our parent company (SBE) has very strong experience in lifestyle hospitality, and we have a reputable leadership on the property and above. I’m very fortunate to have the team I have and the support structure to ensure the success of SLS Dubai.

CT: At what moment did you realise you wanted to work in hotels?
Spencer: I grew up in San Francisco, California, USA. That’s the setting where, as a kid, I’d see the grand-looking Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins Hotel and thought that it looked like a cool place to spend your day – from the posh lobby to the regal-looking doorman. I can’t say that there was one defining moment per se, but I had an overall drive to work for a large prestigious company.

CT: What training did you undertake to get into the industry?
Spencer: My training was purely on the job. My schooling was in business and surprisingly not in hospitality.

CT: How did you get your big break?
Spencer: I joined a great company at a great time. The brand I was working with focused on internal development and, at the same time, was rapidly expanding its number of hotels and properties. The first GM I worked with was a founding member of the company, who later became the president. He firmly believed in investing in the right people.

CT: You’ve been in the business 30 years; other than general manager, what roles have you undertaken in hospitality and what have they taught you?
Spencer: My career upbringing was in room management. I started as an overnight housekeeping attendant, which was gruelling at times due to the difficult schedule, but also rewarding as it gave me the opportunity to experience all the different departments. Other roles ranged from a housekeeping floor manager to a night manager, to a valet parking manager. These roles allowed me to finally move to divisional positions. What I grew to learn from my career is the amount of hard work everyone must deliver every day for things to run smoothly.

Teamwork and internal communications are critical within any division, and ultimately throughout the entire hotel establishment

CT: You’ve worked across three continents, North America, Asia and the Middle East. What are the key differences in those markets?
Spencer: The major difference is culture. Cultural expectations, demands, staff and even standards are quite different. The second key difference would be product quality and properties. Thirdly, would be staff engagement and motivation.

CT: You previously worked as general manager at Armani Hotel Dubai and Jumeirah Al Naseem. What achievements are you most proud of?
Spencer: I’m most proud to be associated with two very prominent iconic properties in Dubai. Armani was just amazing as a brand and as an opportunity, not to mention, the building itself. The dedicated people I had the opportunity to meet and the events we were able to host at the venue and the entire location was indeed unforgettable. Working alongside Mr Armani and his team was a unique kind of challenge, but that is when you truly understand the roots of his success.

Al Naseem, in a sense, was bittersweet. It’s a renowned property in Dubai. My short time there was amid all the craze of the festive period and New Year of 2019 to the extremely difficult time during the pandemic.

SLS_071Wadama is now GM at the striking SLS Dubai

CT: How do you attract, motivate and keep good staff?
Spencer: Dubai is a tough market, but fortunately, Dubai Government and His Royal Highness Sheikh Mohammed built Dubai as the place to live and work, so the attraction for people to come and set up here is like no other. To attract applicants, we create a fun, supportive environment where people can grow and learn and ultimately, develop. We are a lifestyle brand, so we try to stay away from strict procedures and rules, and we allow our staff to be themselves. We don’t have many SOPs [standard operating procedures], because we understand that the demands of the guests have changed and there’s more value in genuine personal service.

To motivate staff? Well, we all work as a team. I try and run a flat tiered hotel and I personally remain very visible and approachable and expect the same from my team. We make a conscious effort to appreciate the work they do and celebrate milestones and their achievements together. I personally recognise the staff for their successes, and we try to have fun.

CT: What is the SLS strategy for sustainability?
Spencer: Our activities are in line with the industry’s ambitious global goals around meeting our current needs without excessively compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. These activities are designed around four strategic priorities: one, work with our employees in terms of training and participating in CSR activities; two, involve our customers in our activities; three, work with our supply chain partners, and, finally, four, work with local communities.

Our two key issues to tackle within the next year are food waste and waste management

CT: Your CV is impressive; you could probably work in any city in the world. Why did you pick Dubai?
Spencer: Why not? Dubai is the most exciting city in the world. There’s a reason why all the major brands, from hotels to restaurants, and even nightlife brands, are opening in Dubai.  Those who live here and went through the worst of the pandemic, know that we navigated it best, and for that reason, life is coming back to pre-pandemic levels. Dubai seems to have no limits to what it can achieve. I love the people here and have made many friends over the years that I now consider family.

CT: Talking of the pandemic, you oversaw the launch of SLS during the height of the outbreak. What was the biggest challenge then?
Spencer: The most difficult task was finding the right people for the jobs. Many of the good talents left Dubai during the height of the pandemic and others were already employed.

CT: Moving forward, what challenges is the industry facing now?
Spencer: The biggest challenge is the ever-evolving restrictions from all the feeder countries all over the world. Although Dubai has done a great job in handling the pandemic, we need other countries to get travelling going again. We also have to ensure a safe and happy environment for the staff every day to bring the SLS vibe to life. And we need to continue to work with the Dubai Government and Health Authority to stay ahead of the precautionary measures to safeguard a safe environment for all. Everyone in Dubai needs to continue to do their part to guarantee we remain a safe destination for people to visit and avoid additional restrictions from returning.

For more information, visit www.sbe.com/hotels/sls-hotels/dubai 

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