12 December 2022, etc.venues Monument, London
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
21 November, London Hilton Metropole
Creating a luxury French hotel brand: Robert Gaymer-Jones, chief operating officer for Sofitel Hotels, talks to ABTN about his new branding strategy
There are fewer Sofitels now than there were 18 months ago. What’s happening?
About 18 months ago when we were re-imagining Sofitel, we realised that while we had some beautiful properties in some beautiful locations, we also had other properties which didn’t fit in with where we wanted to take the brand.For some of these, we could use two sub brands: Legend, which is primarily the resorts, often historical properties and palaces with a huge story to tell, and the other is So which is edgy, urban, chic and boutique.So Sofitel is the main parent brand, and then we have these two sub brands, all in the luxury tier level. When we started, we had 204 Sofitels, and now we have 137 which is significant and unique in the hospitality world.For most of these we made the difficult decision to say to the properties that you are either in and part of the new strategy or, if you are not, we need to find another brand for you. Some hotels were repositioned altogether.There are 30 Sofitel Hotels being planned at the moment and between January and June 2009 the Sofitel Bangkok Sukhumvit, Thailand, Sofitel Al Khobar in Saudi Arabia, the Sofitel Dubai Jumeirah Beach in the UAE and the Sofitel Sheshen in China will open. There will be 150 hotels when the changes are completed.
What is the new strategy?
We are trying to create the only true luxury French hotel brand. All the other European hotel brands are primarily Anglo-Saxon. We want to bring French feel into what we are trying to create and emphasise the importance of fashion, the senses, decoration.
In the London Sofitel St James, for instance, we have Jean-Louis Scherrer designing the uniforms, and for the Old Cataract in Aswan the designer is Sybille de Margerie. In the So Paris, we have Andre Puttman who has created a French Parisian apartment with three sets of doors as you go into the room and hardwood floors. (This hotel opens in 2009).It’s not all French. We have a lighting showpiece by James Tyrell on the lobby ceiling, but we are working with primarily with French designers. You won’t see a mock up room in the basement of the company, we prefer to have a more entrepreneurial style of running the hotels.We might have the French designer working with a local architect to create something very special for each individual hotel but we want to be authentic and authenticated as a French company with a French style, since we think it is a difference that could be leveraged.It’s the same with the food and wine offering, making sure we are knowledgeable in the products we offer. And if you talk to the investment community, all the hotel brands are going to them, and when we come in with this certain style which is different, they respond to that.
Tell us more about the sub brands.
"So" will be around 80-120 rooms and positioned in the fashion districts of major cities.
"Legend" is where you have a well known hotel where the name is stronger than anything else, and the hotel has a personality. One example is The Metropole in Hanoi which has been known for a hundred years and so we are positioning as The Metropole, A Legend Hotel by Sofitel, focussing on the Metropole name. The same with Aswan at the Old Cataract.I want each hotel to be a unique experience. We don’t want people waking up in the morning and not even knowing where they are. Yes, we must have the references to what a luxury hotel is, from a business travellers’ point of view, so you need all the technology and the amenities such as airport pick up, concierge service and so on, but the feel and personality of the hotel is different and unique.The Sofitel at T5 is an airport hotel, which is large and has conference facilities. It doesn’t seem to fit as one of these new Sofitels.
But it is a great property and it is a superb Sofitel hotel. Clearly we are not into large hotels, but that being said, it’s a great reference point, and you couldn’t get a better location. If you really want to position your brand, being at T5 where half the world will fly in is a great place to be and it offers great exposure. But we are not looking at huge hotels with huge convention centres.Does the business traveller need so many brands?
We want to define clearly our products so that every business traveller can decide. They can go to a Legend for both a business experience and a leisure experience, perhaps adding on some leisure days and really enjoy the experience of being in this place. The So is much more urban, downtown, close to the fashion districts of cities whether it is Milan, Paris, New York. So the business traveller will choose the right property either for their own purpose or for who they are.How will the credit crunch affect these plans?
People still need to do business, companies are saying ‘Sure let’s cut back a little’, and our pricing needs to reflect that, but at the same time, hotels are not sitting empty.We have recently hit the highest rate we’ve ever had in one of the Paris properties. If you look at the news you would think it’s the end of the world. But this is the time we need to offer everything we can to guests so they feel that this is exactly the sort of hotel I should be staying at. We need to give our guests the confidence that their money is being well spent when they stay with us.
How has the pipeline of properties been affected?
The financing of a property right now is difficult, but even if we started building a hotel now it would take two or three years before it is open. We are being cautious, as are the investors, making sure the financing is in place. There’s a little bit of wait and see, so if anything the impact will be on delay of opening rather than cancelling of projects.