“It is an honor to be named one of the five successful women of this month by Successful Women (Sikeres Nők in Hungarian) magazine,” Thien, 52, told VnExpress.
It gave her motivation to continue managing her hotel through the Covid-19 pandemic, she said.
A couple of years ago she had been named one of the 50 most successful women entrepreneurs by Hungarian Businesswomen magazine.
She was born in Hanoi and went to Russia in 1986 to study for a Ph.D. in economics. She went to Hungary with her husband in 1998 after a financial crisis hit her wholesale Asian food trading business in Russia.
“The initial period was not easy for me because I did not know Hungarian and could not communicate with many people. I cried often since I felt powerless.”
Phan Bich Thien on the cover of the October issue of Hungary’s Successful Women magazine. Photo courtesy of Phan Bich Thien.
Things started to change in 2002 when Thien and her husband decided to buy the Fried Palace, which was buillt by Imre Fried, a leather footwear magnate.
Situated in Simontornya Town, 120 km from the capital Budapest, it is a restored old palace with 50 rooms and its 19 hectares of grounds including a park, a zoo, vineyards, and a wine cellar.
Thien and her family had a good thing going until the pandemic struck.
In early March, when Hungary recorded its first case of Covid-19, Thien did not think it was going to be a serious problem. Two weeks later, after authorities had declared a state of emergency, the hotel had to be closed.
“I was confused because I did not foresee how serious the situation was, but I told myself I had to be calm and deal with each problem.”
The first thing she did was to hold a meeting with her 50 employees, all Hungarian, to tell them about the situation but promised she would not fire anyone. They all agreed to work together to cope with the problem, and many agreed to work from home and take a pay cut.
Office staff supported patrons with room cancellations and refunds while those working in the vineyard and wine cellar remained at work to ensure they could harvest grapes in September.
Taking advantage of the downtime, Thien carried out renovation plans that had been kept in abeyance for long due to the huge number of guests going in and out of the hotel.
She constantly warned the staff to comply with medical regulations to remain safe from the novel coronavirus, and face masks, gloves and hand sanitizers were mandatory in public areas like the lobby and dining rooms.
After three months the hotel was allowed to reopen since the pandemic was under control. Thien was excited to welcome her first guests.
But the situation remained difficult since international travelers could not enter the country while locals had been hit hard by the pandemic and had to tighten their belt.
That was when Thien came up with a new advertisement campaign to attract customers.
New offers were made constantly on the hotel website for tours with hiking, jogging, yoga, and Halloween parties for children.
There was also the nearby Dai Bi Pagoda, built with assistance from the Vietnam-Hungary Friendship Development Fund.
The renovated Fried Hotel with its new rooms, spa, wine cellar, and vineyards has been attracting tourists. The Hungarian Tourism Agency has been featuring it in its campaigns to boost domestic tourism amid the pandemic.
Fried Hotel is a restored old palace. Photo courtesy of Fried Hotel.
In July the hotel had an 80 percent occupancy rate, and in August its revenues surged by 20 percent year-on-year. At the moment there are no vacant rooms.
Recently when a group of Italian experts wanted to stay a weekend at the hotel while working on a Hungarian project, Thien had to request another group of guests to postpone their travel plans and give them a discount.
“I am surprised, the business is better than what I expected.”
She reckoned her hotel attracts guests because of the new services it offers and renovation but also because the town where it is situated, Simontornya, has recorded no Covid-19 cases so far. The number of cases in Tolna County, home to the town, is the lowest in the country at only 580 out of a population of 230,000.
But with a second wave of the pandemic breaking out, Thien knows she has to remain vigilant.
To overcome the ordeal, business owners have no choice but to strengthen protection measures and improve their products and services, she said.
“We know we have to live with the pandemic for a long time. Washing hands and social distancing are not just regulations, they are now habits.”