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ABTN speaks to Paul James, vice president of Starwood's St Regis and The Luxury Collection brands, about a spate of new openings, future plans afoot and what makes a luxury hotel.
So, you're opening a St Regis in Tibet?
Yes, we're opening on October 2, it has150 rooms, and it's in the middle of Lhasa.
I was really amazed. There are-no five star hotels in Tibet. There aren't any international brands there any longer. People have been in and out over the years, but there is nothing there now.
It's been in the project stage for about five years. It's like a two-piece hotel, like a walled palace. There's a wall that wraps round with a gate that leads you through to the core of the hotel, which is really set up for a Tibetan winter, so there are open fires and it's quite inward looking.
It will have a destination, high quality restaurant serving Tibetan-style food, in Tibet. It will also have the first wine bar in Tibet, and tea rooms where you can have vintage tea and a tea sommelier who can mix your tea potions for you.
All of that is in the heart of the hotel, which in the winter is mainly going to see political, governmental, and certain types of corporate business. There's a lot of inter-asian business, looking to Tibet as a manufacturing destination or for raw materials production.
Then, in the Spring, when everybody starts going touristically - predominantly at this stage it will be Western tourists from the UK, German, US - this summer hotel opens. The back of the hotel opens up. There is a lake, with a spa, and a gold-plated pool - I have to see what that means. I just got a note saying our pool is gold plated!
All the rooms are huge - 600 sq ft, 700 sq ft. The summer part of the hotel looks up towards the mountain and palace. It's going to celebrate the local destination. It's really sensitive. It's a modern luxury hotel, sensitively incorporating all those Tibetan details.
We opened a Four Points by Sheraton, partly to help with our own work, because actually constructing a luxury hotel we needed a place where our workers could stay. It is packed. Occupancies are through the roof. Now, with the trains coming out of Beijing, I think it opens up as a destination for the more casual traveller. The train is great, because it takes you three days, so your body adjusts normally, so by the time you get there, you can go and see things. Whereas If you fly in you have to spend a day in a darkened room lying down.
There has been a lot of unrest in Tibet...
I think there have been issues, but I think we've seen the way in which the development is moving. There's a real openness. I'm confident that it's the right time for us to be there.
In the 20 - 30 year plan, we know that the majority of that is going to be a continual evolution to a better and more open society. The government has been strongly supporting this as an initiative, to bring touristic dollars in, clearly, but also to give business sense to that part of the mountains.
And you're also opening a St Regis in Osaka in October?
It is the first St Regis to open in Japan. We've always had good strong japanese business in our hotels, but the brand hasn't been there. We don't even have a luxury collection hotel in Japan. We have a Westin and Sheraton heritage - only in Japan you get five star Westins and five star Sheratons.
The Sheraton in Tokyo Disneyland, has more weddings, per day, than any other venue in the world. The Westin is where I first went to Japan and realised what sushi meant, and it wasn't what i got in Marks and Spencers. It's spectacular.
We have a really good heritage of working in Japan. St Regis is a luxury brand, it's a US brand, a New York luxury brand. That's quite a rare thing in the world of the luxury hotel business, and it is very design-led. It's younger. It's not really targeted at the aging, US boomer population.
If you look at our customers... I think a lot of people are achieving high office earlier. They are very connected, entrepeneurial, and global. If I look at who stays in our hotels, it reflects that model. It's also about a more international mix.
Japan therefore, to me, is about trying to find that position, which isn't a classical luxury hotel, but you have to be aware of the traditional, particularly in Osaka, which is a very conservative Japanese city.
We're building a physically beautiful hotel. How do we modify the service standards, how do we modify the product, in terms of what you experience as a customer, in a hotel where I know at least half of those customers are going to be Japanese. But, at the same time, reflect those traditions, and things that differentiate us as a brand.
And a third in October?
Yes, our entry into the Caribbean. I see lots of business travellers going, on vacation. This one is seen as a post stay.
Puerto Rico has invested a lot into convention centres, built this new state of the art convention centre in the old cruise terminal. Part of the reason we are opening there is, yes, it's a great short holiday from the US - Boston is a four hour flight. Also they know there is going to be a lot of post convention groups that stay on. Small planning groups. It's a small convention product for those high end customers.
Bangkok is also in the pipeline - has it been affected by the recent violence?
It's about us having the right time to open. Long-term, we know Bangkok, it's a destination. And the hotel is in a fantastic location. It's near the race track, and polo ground, in the middle of town. It's back from the classical tourist area, in this last bit of green lushness in the centre of town. It's currently slated for November.
I keep on hearing about Bloody Marys...
The Bloody Mary was invented in the St Regis in New York, in the King Cole Bar. Vincent Astor, who owned the place at that point, was in Paris having a good time. He was taken to Harry's Bar, and thought the mixologist was great, and he had to hire him. So he hires the mixologist from Harry's Bar.
Then he looked for the hottest club in town, which he bought and then shipped everything inside it, including the people to New York, and put it into his hotel. The maitre d' was a Russian, so it was all about vodka, at a time when everybody in the states was drinking gin.
Because it's our unique drink, we've asked that each hotel, creates a bloody mary in honour of its opening, which reflects its local culture and custom. Each of the new hotels do there own thing. In Atlanta they added okra juice, because it's part of that southern cooking tradition. That changes the texture of the drink, without changing the taste overly. In Bali it's a much more Indonesian taste. It's got pepper vodka, cucumber, Thai chili. In Beijing they use Tsing Tao beer. It helps us tell the story.
How do you attract business travellers to St Regis?
Part of that is the kind of business we have, which is not big corporate programming, it's more entrepeneurial. Partly that comes from the value that the individual gets when they're staying with us, and most of that comes from the butler. It's that sense of being able to get exactly what they want done.
As a marketer I talk a lot about bespoke, which is about tailoring to your stay. If you need to get breakfast in 13 seconds because you're in a rush, we'll do that for you. We'll find a way. Or if you need a four hour breakfast with the guys who will finance your next business enterprise, we'll do that for you too. It's taking that level of detail and understanding of the customer.
What I see from that is a very high loyalty - for established hotels. It takes a while to build up. Once it's up and running people come back again and again, as they know they get recognised, they get the room they want, the service they want, and they can change that requirement without any problems.
What about The Luxury Collection openings?
In China, where we will see a lot of corporate business, is Tian Jin. I was thinking why are we opening there. It seems a very strange place for me to put a brand which focuses on local, indigenous excellence. Tian Jin is a very strong commercial port, I couldn't quite understand where the Luxury Collection was going to fit into that. When I was talking to our development guy in Asia, he told me there is going to be an Irish bar in it. I started to panic at this point.
So I went to see it - on the train from Beijing, it's not far. It's an amasing commercial port, and on the river is this 1860 construction, built by a mad Scotsman who was worried about sinning sailors in the British protectorate region of Tian Jin. So he built a hotel, in the opposite way to how we do it today - built in Scotland, shipped to Tian Jin and slapped on the mud banks on the side of the river. It's a stone structure with this wooden frame on top.
The Irish bar is there because when because when he wasn't making any money from it, the entrepeneur who bought it from him was an Irishman. He added another wing, fixed the foundations, and got it sorted.
The Chinese have recognised it as a national treasure, and closed what was not a great hotel down, and renovated it from top to bottom. The original 1860s wing, has these little meeting rooms, which are like tea rooms with their own private terrace. In each one you can imagine what would have been discussed there for more than 140 years.
And there's this bar, which is not an Irish bar at all, but named after the guy who owned the hotel. The wing that he built is sort of 1920s Shanghai-esque. The designer, who is from the US, has done an amasing job to marry these two spaces. So you have this mid Victorian feeling, married into this Shanghai thing.
It opens soon. It's going to be the destination hotel in the city now. There are a couple of hotels planned, so we know market-wise it's going to open up. At the Expo in Shanghai, Tianjin's exhibit is based on the hotel.
The other openings are much more leisure-based. We have three hotels opening in Peru, as well as one in Greece, in Costa Navarino. Alongside it, which will open later this summer, is a large Westin hotel, with a convention centre, so it will be a major group destination. There's a fantastic airport there. That's what is going to make it an interesting destination. For the shoulder and winter seasons, it will become a very accessible large group space. For VIPs and small pre and post conference groups, there is the Luxury Collection property. It's separate from the hub, but will be driven by it. The Luxury Collection is growing well.
The strategy for St Regis all along has been careful, calculated growth, into key capital cities. We are nowhere near that yet. There's a lot more space to go to fill that. And destination resorts become something in their own right. I looking forward to the 21st St Regis, which could be Tibet. There seems to be this thing in the hotel business, where you need to have 20 hotels to be a brand, to have weight, and 21 has that nice coming of age sound.
And the 100th Luxury Collection property is coming up...
I think the 100th may be early next year. There are a few things that have slowed down slightly. We can occasionally get a hotel that comes into the Luxury Collection quite quickly. But others can take three to four years. I know what the pipeline looks like. We'll get to the mid 40s with the existing pipeline. A couple of other cities in China. We've been in China so long, I know there are other markets we should be in. With Japan, I think that might lead to a few others.
With the pipeline, we know where we want to be, and that will keep us busy until around 2014.By then, St. Regis will also be opening in Buenos Aires, Chengdu, Kuala Lumpur, Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Doha and Mauritius.
How do you know which hotel can be which brand?
It's about the right partner, the right product, the right place. With our partners, it's about stability and financial security. It's why we didn't lose any hotels from our pipeline in the worst of the worst times, because we are very secure in our knowledge of where those hotels are coming from. They're not speculative.
The right product - when we have those early meetings with a developer, the textural details that go into a St Regis, for example build the cost up. If you're not interested in having this kind of hotel, then that might make some people think, actually, I don't think I want to be doing that. The cost is in the detail, but the detail is what makes it successful. When you go through those planning and design stages, that secures the brand.
Place is more fluid. We talk about address. The right location can sometimes become a destination in its own right. In Buenos Aires they're developing the harbour. It's a long term plan. We're not going to open until 2014. But when we open, it's going to be an amasing destination. It's not a destination yet, but we know that it will be.