Didier Le Clavez, Chief Operating Officer of the Oetker Collection and President & GM of Le Bristol, and Jean-Pierre Soutric, Senior Vice-President Sales & Marketing of the Oetker Collection, chats exclusively with LATTE about expansion to the Americas, tourism in Paris following the 2015 attacks and the effects of social media on the hotel industry.
- What can we expect from the newest hotels to join the Oetker Collection, Palacio Tangara in Sao Paulo and the unnamed property in New York?
You may ask why it is we have expanded to the Americas. Previously we had been very European-centric and naturally our clients wanted to travel elsewhere and have the choice to stay in the same environment. It is not so much the physical environment I am speaking of, but it is the service. Because our service is addictive and goes beyond the physical product, which they already know will be outstanding. You can expect our new properties to be a reflection of our other hotels, and we hope that what is going to drive customer loyalty to our new hotels is this continuation of this service.
- CEO Frank Marrenbach has been quoted saying: “We want rarity… we don’t want to be on every corner.” How does this vision of exclusivity affect which destinations you choose?
In a number of our future destinations the luxury end of travel is not quite there yet. Hotel owners in these destinations believe the Oetker Collection is going to bring this refinement, this beauty and this quality of service into their cities, especially Sao Paulo. Our goal is to have 15 to 20 hotels in our collection altogether, so we have to be very focused on where we choose to grow. 25 per cent of our business as a company comes from the USA and 7-8 per cent from Brazil. It is hard to argue with that. But the destination also needs to feel right to the Collection as a whole. Destinations of interest to us right now are Los Angeles and, in Asia, our number one choice would be Japan. But as of right now, with the opening of The Lanesborough and the upcoming openings of Sao Paulo and New York, we have our hands full.
- Would you ever consider expanding to Australia?
Australia could be a possibility; it is the right product for us. On top of that, the testimonial for our company from Australian travellers is fantastic and we don’t take it as a given. In general, Australians are savvy travellers, they venture so far, always push the boundaries, they are very curious and they appreciate new experiences. It is a very important market for us.
- How would you describe the ‘soul’ behind the upcoming Sao Paulo and New York hotels?
Each of our properties are so different from one another, we want every hotel to have its own identity. New York is very important to us. As a collection, we cannot afford to offer a new product that is not up to par and all of our competitors are already in New York – The Four Seasons, Mandarin, Ritz-Carlton – so we are very cautious with this project. Our location on Madison Avenue is outstanding and the hotel will have the largest rooms in New York, as the building has very high ceilings. More importantly, we were lucky to be very closely involved in the project from the start, in the design and in the food and beverage concept, and we feel very comfortable with the product that has resulted. It is going to reflect the city the hotel is in; if you look at Le Bristol it is very Parisian, and the New York hotel needs to be for New Yorkers. New Yorkers need to be able to identify themselves with the product and the hotel has to be integrated into the city.
When people think of Sao Paulo, what comes to mind is an urban jungle and a business centre, but Sao Paulo is one of the oldest cities in Brazil – established in the 16th century – and people forget about that.The original building of Palacio Tangara was built as a residence by Oscar Niemeyer, a Brazilian architectural legend. His dream for the building never came true and the building was left for years there, in the centre of Burle Marx Park, but now the city is being reinvented.
For the first time, the hotel will not be another glass high rise; it will have plush gardens, surrounded by park and palm trees, with an outdoor swimming pool, terraces and balconies with every room. We want to bring a piece of Europe to Brazil, just like the Portuguese did. So in this way, we want to bring to Sao Paulo is something that does not already exist.
However, the beauty of this city is that it has a lot of things to offer and we want to embrace them – the art, the music, the culture – it is there. So we want the property to be a reflection of our properties in Europe but we also want the Brazilians to love it. And most of all, we want them to get married with us. The hotel will have the most stunning and spacious function space, and Brazilian weddings can have 600 to 1000 guests!
- The Marrakech property was the first hotel you managed outside of Europe. What did you learn from that experience and how are you applying that knowledge to future endeavours?
We learned a lot in Marrakech. That hotel was built by someone with a particular vision and dream, so it is beautiful. But in retrospect, it is worth being part of the early stages of development instead of needing to make changes later. In terms of RevPAR (revenue per available room) we are number one in Marrakech out of all our key competitors, so from that point of view it is a success. However, Marrakech is a weak market, so while you might be number one, the market is less competitive at the moment. The hotel is doing very well, it is a gorgeous property, with a contemporary feeling. A lot of heart and soul was put into that property, it was our first baby and we look at it with a lot of love and care.
- How were Le Bristol and the Paris hotel industry as a whole affected by November’s terrorist attacks?
Paris was affected mostly in December and January. Le Bristol has done, relatively speaking, quite well. In the last quarter we had 60 per cent occupancy, when the average in Paris was 35 per cent. The reason for this is we have a lot of repeat customers in the collection. The best example is Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc which gets 80 per cent occupancy year after year, which is absolutely amazing.
In Paris, we did have many cancellations, which is normal, but people did not cancel for Christmas and New Years. We were not as sold out as we would usually be – we would usually be at 100 per cent and this year it was at 75 per cent – but a lot of American and Australian clientele came to Paris as an act of solidarity. And we really appreciate that. There was a tremendous amount of support from our customers. We are expecting business to come back in April and we have very good signs that this will be so.
An important thing to note is that the restaurants in this period remained full. Just three days after the event, Epicure went back to being full for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. Parisians made a point to live life as normal; people went out shopping, they went to the theatre, it was an act of defiance and it was a statement.
- With the expected return of The Ritz this year and Hôtel Crillon next year, how will Le Bristol adapt to the changing competition?
We have been adapting for the last five years. It is always ongoing: in 2009 we added a new win; we relocated the restaurant Epicure to the courtyard to improve traffic flow to the hotel; then in 2011-2012 we moved the spa to the first floor and doubled the size; we renovated every single room and are finishing the last 12 this quarter; and we finished all the banquet space last year. Altogether we spent 170 million Euros over the last six years. We took advantage of The Ritz being close to open a new bar and in certain ways the Ernest Hemingway Bar at The Ritz has been an inspiration, we have the utmost respect for that bar. The Ritz has historically been our competitor – the history of Le Bristol and The Ritz goes back 91 years – we have always been neck and neck, although we are two totally different styles.
Le Bristol is very entrenched in the Parisian society, with 80 per cent of clientele in the restaurants French. This is a big thing for visitors because you step into the restaurant and you hear people speaking French, you can feel the distinct French flavour, it is an open window to French society. Competition is always a big plus. It forces you to be better. And the return of The Ritz, in my mind, makes us look at what we should do differently and how we can gather better loyalty from our regular guests. We don’t minimise avenues and we are confident with our service at Le Bristol.
- Has technology affected how the Oetker Collection interacts with its clientele?
70 per cent of clients look to the net to form an opinion. Consumers get such a better service from social media. Years ago, if a client was to make a complaint they would send you a letter and you would eventually answer it two or three weeks later. All of our employees are groomed to react to how the clients feel. We try to catch customer feedback before they leave the door. So social media has made our hotels far more aware of customers; you cannot take them for granted.
- How do you find a balance between keeping up-to-date with technological changes in the industry and also maintaining the integrity, style and history which the Oetker Collection is renowned for?
If you focus on technology you miss the point because we are a people industry. In hospitality we are not sending rockets to space, we are making people happy. In my previous life, a colleague used to say, “Don’t forget what you are doing everyday”. When you discuss with travel agents what their clients want the most, they always say the customer wants to be acknowledged. So the number one thing is guest recognition. For example, during this difficult time at Le Bristol, we are still doing very well because our regular clients are still with us, they have not moved to another hotel, and why are they still with us? Because we know them. Because there is a very strong bond between employees and management and between employees and the hotel guests. That loyalty factor translates into a very good return.
- Social platforms such as TripAdvisor have improved the communication between hotel and consumer. To what extent does customer feedback influence Oetker Collection’s future strategies and vision?
Globally, all of our hotels are very focused on clients. Design, style, decor… those things are not influenced by customer feedback, but when it comes to service, then yes, their influence is tremendous. And we are communicating on social media a lot. For example, at Le Bristol we have one employee doing just social media. We don’t have one strategy for the whole collection; it changes from hotel to hotel.