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Chris Jones

Exec Speaks Language of Success

13 March 2006

LAS VEGAS -- From her workplace on The Venetian's 36th floor, Tonie Roberts can scan the diverse array of foreign cultures replicated by resorts along the Strip.

But the marvels of this city's Venetian canals and tropical volcanoes hardly compare to the real-life culture she's enjoyed during 44 globe-trotting years.

Nor can Las Vegas' faux foreign splendor match the global flavor regularly provided by the customers she entertains.

Roberts manages The Venetian's Paiza Club, an exclusive high-roller lounge that includes a 34-seat dining room with three private chefs and 24-hour butler service.

Each day, Roberts uses her Chinese language skills to entertain clients and supervise a nearly 30-person staff.

Las Vegas Sands Corp. launched the club at its Sands Macau property under the direction of company President Bill Weidner. A second version opened here last year.

The club takes its name from the Paiza, an approximately 3-inch-by-12-inch piece of shaped gold.

Kublai Khan awarded the Paiza to those needing to safely travel through ancient China -- sort of a precursor to the modern passport.

The Paiza was reportedly given to Marco Polo, a favored son of Venice, as he traveled the empire.

And Roberts sees similarities with today's Paiza Club, where members enjoy the best that The Venetian's "empire" has to offer.

Roberts' father was purchasing director for Armed Forces Radio and Television, a job that kept him stationed in Europe for years on end.

She was born in England but spent much of her childhood in Germany and Spain, often returning to her birth land to spend summers with family.

After high school, Roberts moved to the United States and enrolled at Colorado State University.

At 20, an interest in foreign cultures led her to join the U.S. Air Force, a move that fostered her Chinese language skills.

"I became very open to other cultures, very understanding of why they do things the way they do," Roberts said of her early years. "I learned it's not always the American way."

Question: What sparked your interest in languages?

Answer: I was very fortunate because all of my upbringing was in Europe, and all of my education was in European schools.

My parents loved to travel, and we never lived on the Air Force base. I was never insulated, so to have friends I had to learn the language.

Question: Which languages do you speak?

Answer: Polish, Spanish, German, English, Mandarin and certain dialects of Hunan and Szechwan and Taiwanese. I'm not fluent in them all.

Question: How did you find time to study?

Answer: I've been out of the military for nearly 25 years and have been teaching myself ever since.

Often it's been through hanging around with friends who speak other languages and only speaking in that language.

I had a boyfriend who was from Ohio but he spoke perfect Mandarin. He'd only speak Mandarin to me, and to this day I think that's why I speak Mandarin so well.

Question: Why Chinese?

Answer: I wanted to understand the people. The only way to understand a people is through their language.

Question: But why China? You spent your childhood in Europe.

Answer: Exactly. I knew Europe. I had that exposure and I wanted something different. So when I was 20, I joined the United States Air Force enlisting as a Polish linguist (Roberts' father is Polish).

I tested really well at language school, so when they offered me any language, I chose Chinese.

Question: Where did you receive your training?

Answer: The Defense Language Institute in Monterey (Calif.).

Everybody in government goes there, including ambassadors, cultural administrators and attaches.

Question: Do you use Chinese most often in your work at The Venetian?

Answer: Yes. Only about 20 percent of our customers are Westerners. Most customers, and all 27 members of my team, are Asian.

Question: Where do you find your employees?

Answer: Most came from within Nevada's Chinese community. Several of them have owned, or continue to own restaurants around town.

They could retire easily, but they're proud to be part of this because it's a new beginning in terms of how Americans embrace the Chinese culture.

What we've established here really doesn't exist elsewhere in this country. Question: What brought you back to Las Vegas? Answer: I left here (in 2000) to work at The Little Nell, the five-star hotel in Aspen (Colo.). I was the bar manager at the private club.

But after a while, I realized I wanted to return to the city because I'd been in the boondocks for too long. So I made a phone call and this position came up.

It's a perfect marriage of everything I know.

Question: Is your job ever daunting, knowing you handle such high-value customers?

Answer: Everyone we treat the same: with the highest level of service.

In some ways it's surprising. People, in general, who have everything can be demanding. But we've been very fortunate. They're relaxed here because they want to have fun, and that comes out in their demeanor.

Question: What's the most unusual request you've handled from a guest?

Answer: Every so often we'll be asked for a McDonald's hamburger, or a traditional American breakfast.

Really, I don't think there are any different expectations. Our guests just want to be taken care of, whether or not the utensils they use or their approach to a meal is different.

And my staff is very educated. They know the difference between good service and excellent service. My team works closely with The Venetian's VIP Lounge to ensure guests are given world-class treatment.

Question: Can you give an example of how cultural expectations vary?

Answer: The guest will dictate to us how they want to be treated.

If they come from Hong Kong and have been around the English, they like the traditional English/French/American service.

But Asians typically are not into all of the pomp and circumstance with meals; they just want to eat so we'll have the food prepared and on the table.

Question: How can you tell who wants what?

Answer: The staff can recognize accents to tell guests' tastes. And we keep profiles on all of our guests, to the extent of, "Do they like ice in their Coca-Cola?"

Question: Is the Paiza Club busy year-round?

Answer: There's an ebb and flow week-to-week based on the players' discretion.

If we have a huge event going on (at The Venetian), I usually won't see as many people here.

When the hotel is overrun with a big convention, (club members) don't want to be here as often.

Question: Among the places you've lived or visited, what is your favorite?

Answer: The climate in Madrid is very similar to Colorado Springs; I liked it a great deal.

And Brussels (Belgium), where the people were very warm and diverse. That's one place where there are no walls.

Question: How many times have you traveled to China?

Answer: Never. I've been to Vancouver (British Columbia) a lot, which has the largest Chinese community outside of China.

I've visited (Chinese districts) in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but not China. Hopefully I'll be going there soon.