Hotel Management wasn’t Indonesian-born Willie Surya’s first choice.

The keen ‘foodie’ originally came to New Zealand to learn to be a chef after his mother came home one day with a Pacific International Hotel Management School (PIHMS) application form and told him he was off overseas. There were study options in Indonesia, but Willie’s parents thought New Zealand offered more opportunities. Two weeks after applying, Willie landed in New Plymouth, Taranaki.

For the first three months in Taranaki, while living in a homestay, Willie took an English language course before he started his PIHMS diploma. He must have made a good impression on his homestay family because they lent him a car and took him on an excursion to experience a dairy farm. Even today, more than 15 years later, Willie still has ‘his’ room with the homestay family for when he visits Taranaki.

With his interest in food, Willie naturally gravitated towards the kitchen, cooking in his spare time when he wasn’t studying. But the star student quickly discovered other skills. On his first industry placement at The Grand by SkyCity, in Auckland, the diligent and hardworking student was chosen as the food and beverage server for highly regarded guests during their visits to New Zealand. And it was through his PIHMS industry placement at Sky City that Willie secured the variety of roles he held, from night porter through to reception.

PIHMS tutors and placement supervisors noted that Willie had a talent for customer service - a very different role to the kitchen role he’d initially planned on and was studying for. After he graduated, and with encouragement from his PIHMS tutors, Willie took a job as the Senior Receptionist at Sky City Hotel, eventually working his way up to the role of Front Office Manager at The Grand by SkyCity.

Around this time, New Zealand was experiencing a skills shortage to fill Hotel Manager roles. He’d fallen in love with New Zealand and was able to get residency, allowing Willie to stay in the country to progress his career.

In 2016, he moved into Tourism as Assistant Manager at the Auckland Sky Tower, and in 2017 he became Sky Tower Manager. In January 2021, Willie moved back to Sky City Hotel to become the Rooms Division Manager.

The hotel industry lends itself to a multicultural workforce because it brings together people from around the world. Staff who speak multiple languages and understand other cultures contribute to a visitor’s all-important first impression of Aotearoa New Zealand.

International staff embrace our culture too. The Māori concept of manaakitanga resonated with Willie’s values of showing hospitality to others. This is why he learned and uses te reo Māori to welcome visitors to the Sky Tower. “It’s always great to be able to greet some people in their language, and also to introduce someone to the indigenous language of Aotearoa,” Willie said.

Willie’s decision to study in Taranaki was a good one. He would like to see more people from Indonesia consider New Zealand as a study destination. “In Indonesia, people know about studying in the UK, US and Australia, but they don’t realise the high quality of education and great lifestyle on offer for students in New Zealand. This country is beautiful, the people are friendly, and it’s a great place to perfect your English language skills,” he said. Many of Willie’s PIHMS classmates have used the management and customer service skills to move into other industries, such as banking, insurance, and airlines, as the core skills are highly sought after in New Zealand and overseas.

Visitors to Sky City might find themselves encouraged to explore Taranaki because Willie retains a soft spot for the region.

“I love the Taranaki lifestyle, it is where I feel most comfortable - and there are so many great new places to eat,” he said.

Even though it’s been a while since graduating, Willie is still connected to PIHMS, speaking to the graduating class of July 2019, answering students’ research questions and bouncing ideas off fellow PIHMS alumni, King and Queen Hotel (New Plymouth) owner and manager Daniel Fleming. “Taranaki is my second home, and I get back there as often as I can,” Willie concluded.