When James McBride reflects on his return to YTL Hotels after his 10-year hiatus (he was the general manager of YTL property The Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lumpur in 1998), the oft-used term is “homecoming.” During his initial tenure with the group, McBride developed what he calls “a wonderful relationship” with the family behind YTL Hotels and stayed in touch with them in the years after his departure. “We kept on saying that one day we’ll do something together again, but it’s the sort of talk that usually never happens. Then, one day, I received a phone call telling me that it was time to come back like we had discussed, and it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
He was asked to take over as president of the Malaysian conglomerate to help it expand and grow into a worldwide player. The responsibility was anything but ill-placed. During his decade-long absence from the hotel group, he headed such internationally-recognized hotels as the Grosvenor House in London (a city that the South African native calls his second home), The Carlyle in New York and The Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., all places where he honed his ability to cater to the unique requests made by CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, A-list celebrities and world leaders. “We had the privilege of hosting Yasser Arafat during the peace negotiations (at The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C.). There were lots of snipers and secret agents everywhere. Even his bed had to be moved to the center of the room to protect him from the possibility of being hit by enemy snipers.”
But not every situation was so tense, especially while he lived and worked at The Carlyle. There, McBride not only rubbed shoulders with the likes of Jack Nicholson, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, Salma Hayek and Roger Federer, but he also happened to bump into Paul McCartney while escorting French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni to their room one day. McBride introduced them to one another, and McCartney immediately invited the head of state and his wife to his show at Citi Field.
Then there was the time that he accepted an invitation to breakfast with Morgan Freeman, who was researching his role as Nelson Mandela in the movie “Invictus.” McBride was happy to oblige and not only help with Freeman’s South African accent, but even show him just how Mandela shakes hands, having met him briefly in D.C.
McBride learned to take these types of high-profile encounters in stride at a very young age. As a child, his family often entertained ambassadors and other guests of similar caliber, with his mother teaching him to inject a sense of style and attention to detail into his hosting duties.
Since rejoining the group in 2009, McBride has taken this ability to nimbly meet guests’ needs and applied it to a strategy that he believes will help bring YTL Hotels into the next decade and beyond. “Warm hospitality is wonderful, but not enough,” he said. “You also have to educate your employees to be more reactive to what your customers need and want.” With this philosophy being practiced at properties across the hotel group, he feels that YTL Hotels is uniquely poised to please travelers around the world as it celebrates its first international openings this year.
The expansion began this summer with the opening of Muse Hôtel de Luxe in Saint-Tropez, or what he calls the brand’s first portal to the outside world. Following close on its heels this December is the newly-renovated Japanese ski resort, The Green Leaf Niseko Village, where guests enjoy unobstructed views of Mt. Yotei from its 200 guest rooms and suites. Next will be YTL’s debut in China at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel along Shanghai’s Bund. “The locations of these new hotels and resorts were thoughtfully chosen, so we could integrate the local environment and culture seamlessly into our existing portfolio, bringing out the best of each destination,” McBride said.
Nowhere is this sentiment more apparent than at the two new eco-resorts opening in Borneo, including the romantic Pulau Tiga (the backdrop for the first “Survivor” series) and the more family-oriented Pulau Gaya. These properties are set to become favorites among adventure and nature enthusiasts, where they can explore rainforests teeming with wildlife or step onto pristine beaches that lead out to sheltered coral reefs.
But Pulau Tiga and Pulau Gaya aren’t YTL’s first foray into ethical travel experiences. Its hotels and resorts already incorporate business practices that help sustain local communities and preserve the local environment. Resident ecologists in YTL’s Malaysian resorts Cameron Highlands, Pangkor Laut and Tanjong Jara meticulously study and report on the local biodiversity, with one senior ecologist even publishing a book on the plant and wildlife found on the island of Pangkor Laut. Cameron Highlands has begun producing an organic compost to use as fertilizer.
At Spa Village Resort Tembok Bali and Pangkor Laut Resort, local ingredients and seasonal produce are incorporated into the food and spa treatments, and staff from neighboring villages are employed.
Perhaps this is why so many business travelers staying at YTL properties like The Ritz-Carlton or Marriott in Kuala Lumpur bring their families with them and extend their trips, with easy transitions to the brand’s more remote resort destinations. Taking into account McBride’s stance on luxury, it would only make sense to have your loved ones around you for the full effect: “Too often, luxury is symbolized only by the physical, but it’s when the physical and emotional experiences come together that you have the ultimate luxury.”