Reinventing the Grand Hotel—Fairmont Style

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts

Parent Company: Fairmont Raffles Hotels International

Headquarters: Toronto, Canada

Holding companies: Kingdom Holdings, Colony Capital and  Voyager Partners Limited

President: Thomas Storey

Director of Global Accounts, Consortia, Retail Leisure & Luxury Sales: Leslie Dodson

Hotel Portfolio: Fairmont has 60 hotels in its global portfolio with many more on the way.

Website: www.fairmont.com

When is The Savoy going to open and what exactly is Fairmont doing with it? These are two questions receiving a bit of buzz in the luxury travel industry these days. The iconic London hotel has been shuttered for more than two years for renovations, longer than originally anticipated, thanks to a number of unforeseen construction issues that are bound to come up with a 121-year-old property.

That there should be such concern over a hotel’s reopening may seem odd, but in the case of The Savoy, like so many other hotels in Fairmont Hotels & Resorts’ portfolio, many guests have an emotional investment in the place, having enjoyed an important family event or a memorable date there.

Fairmont executives are ensuring they protect such emotional assets by remaining true to the hotel’s history while making the product even more modern and luxurious. It’s a practice they follow with all of their iconic hotels. In fact, Tom Storey, president of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, says the real challenge in reopening a grand hotel is maintaining the loyalty of those in its community, “because many people have had the most important times of their lives in these places.”

The Fairmont portfolio is filled with iconic historical hotels that have served generations. Consider the stately Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, which opened in 1893 in Quebec, and its sibling fortress hotels in Banff Springs; New York’s Plaza hotel, which once again carries the Fairmont flag; the Fairmont Copley Plaza, which has been at the heart of Boston society since it opened in 1912; and the Fairmont San Francisco towering dramatically over the city atop Nob Hill.

But Fairmont is also about the new; by 2013, 40 percent of its inventory will be less than 10 years old. The company’s portfolio has grown from 35 in 2001 to 60 today and its pipeline is extremely robust (see sidebar).

The goal, however, is not to be big, Storey says, but about taking the company’s unique method of providing customer service and finding more places to do it.

“Of course, the physical aspect of the hotels upon first arrival can be very inspiring but it’s actually how the individual colleagues interact with our guests that really builds loyalty of the brand,” says Storey, who has held his position since 2008. That flows from a specific behind-the-scenes strategy. “At Fairmont, our colleagues don’t look down on the guest and they don’t look up to the guest, they look the guest right in the eye,” says Storey. “That’s the spirit of the relationship we want our colleagues to have with our guests.”

Fairmont employees are selected and trained to provide personalized service, he explains. “We really encourage our colleagues to find ways to surprise the guests in a way that’s authentic to them, but to do that, you have to have colleagues that really know their job, the hotel and the community they are in.”

So, who is the Fairmont guest? Research shows that it is likely someone in their mid-40s, making $150,000-$200,000 a year and married with kids. They’re usually a business professional or an entrepreneur, a doctor, lawyer or consultant.

“Our customer is probably a little less than the CEO, who has a particular persona and approach to the business,” says Storey, who likes the fact that “you can come into a Fairmont in jeans and a T-shirt and still get luxury service and feel comfortable.”

Which brings it all back to intuitive service and recognizing that luxury isn’t always about the finest clothes and the nicest car, rather, “about attention to detail, responsiveness and anticipating guest needs,” says Storey, who holds the view that the word “luxury” is often misinterpreted.

“A lot of people think about luxury as being about price, but what we have learned over the years is that luxury is in the eye of the beholder. More than anything it’s about recognizing the individuality of the person,” he notes. For example, someone coming from a secondary city to the Le Chateau Frontenac may not be staying in one of the top suites, but the experience of simply being at a grand hotel defines luxury to them. The hotel company recognizes this and operates with the simple mission to “turn moments into memories for our guests because at the end of the day, what’s a greater luxury than a fantastic memory?” asks Storey.

Those moments can be created by staff who recognize that guests travel for different reasons, hence, their luxury needs are constantly changing.

“For example, I go on a trip with my family and we are getting up for breakfast for a big day out. Luxury for me is how quickly I get the food on the table and feed my kids because they’re soon going to get cranky and start the day off badly. If I’m on a personal golf trip, however, and I come in after a round of golf, I don’t want someone rushing me through my experience. I want somebody to take their time, bring me a beer and chat me up on my golf game.”

Being able to read the guest can create luxury moments that can’t be scripted, says Storey, and that takes personal initiative from a hotel staffer. The hotel company’s commitment to service is fierce; in 2009, even during the recession, it rolled out the Fairmont Service Promise program, the most comprehensive service training program in its history.

When Storey asks guests for their definition of luxury, he says they never mention “consistency,” rather, it’s always “scarcity” and “surprise.” He goes on, “So, if you ever homogenize or commoditize what you are offering, by definition, it can’t be luxury.”

Fairmont has other important standards of luxury; its Fairmont Gold floors provide a “luxury lifestyle offering” where Gold Managers become virtual personal assistants for guests; they are usually members of Clefs d’Or. Of note, Clarence McLeod, the Gold Manager at Fairmont Washington, D.C., actually got ordained so that he could marry a couple; he also secretly tracked down and framed a photo of a guest’s son in his Halloween costume because he couldn’t be home in time for trick-or-treating. Some concierges have even gotten calls from guests who were staying with another hotel in another city, but knew they could be counted on for assistance. 

 

Tom Storey

Tom Storey is a true hotelier, enjoying 10 years thus far at Fairmont Raffles Hotels International. He previously enjoyed high-level positions at Marriott, Radisson, Doubletree and Hilton.

“For a company that is still relatively small in the grand scheme of things, it’s really been an exciting place to work,” he says of Fairmont. “There’s a little bit of a mentality in the company which I like. It’s little bit David and Goliath. We like being who we are; we like being small.”

 

Top Suites

There is also a physical side to Fairmont’s luxury offerings that comes in the form of its iconic suites. In the newly restored century-old Fairmont Peace Hotel in Shanghai, which opens this spring on the Bund, there are nine Nations Suites, with names such as the China Suite, the Canadian Suite and the American Suite. Each is designed to evoke the spirit of the respective country.

At The Savoy, there will be nine suites named and themed after personalities who have stayed there, including Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn. Likewise, The Fairmont Copley Plaza has a Boston Pops Suite and a Kennedy Suite. “You can almost go hotel by hotel throughout our system and a significant number of them have that touch and that makes Fairmont, Fairmont,” says Storey.

Community Pillars

Because Fairmont hotels, as in the case of The Savoy, often draw from the community, hosting major society events, celebrations and weddings, the general manager plays an especially important role in each hotel. As a result, a general manager’s tenure in each property averages about eight-and-a-half years, which isn’t bad for an industry where turnover can be high.

“It takes very skilled seasoned general managers to be able to operate and interpret the Fairmont value system of turning moments into memories, and doing it in a way where our guests can go from hotel to hotel and say, ‘I know I’m in a Fairmont but I also know that here I’m in San Francisco, and in New York and in Shanghai,’” says Storey.

Fairmont, whose parent company Fairmont Raffles Hotels International, is owned by Kingdom Holding Company, Colony Capital and  Voyager Partners Limited, has evolved its business model over the years; where it used to own about 85 percent of its hotels, it today owns fewer than five and manages the bulk of its portfolio. At the same time, the company still is involved from the beginning of a hotel’s development, such as assessing its location.

Fairmont seems to be finding success in its partnerships; the seven hotels it’s adding to its portfolio of 60 this year represent significant growth. Its pipeline remains strong with five to 10 hotels expected to be added annually.  “They’ll likely be new-builds,” Storey says, “because there are not as many existing hotels out there that make good Fairmonts.”

The Savoy is apparently an exception to that rule and, so, Luxury Travel Advisor couldn’t resist asking that burning question, “When is The Savoy going to open and what is Fairmont doing with it?”

The grand reopening is currently set for late summer/early fall of this year, says Storey. The hotel, which Fairmont has invested in along with owner Kingdom Hotels and the Halifax Bank of Scotland, has literally been under wraps as it’s undergone a two-year-plus, $100-million-plus restoration program.

Leading the design team is Pierre-Yves Rochon, the man behind the refurbished Four Seasons George V in Paris. Everything has been redone from top to bottom; its 268 guest rooms and suites, its public spaces, including its courtyard and the famed American Bar. New will be a Royal Suite and a completely remodeled River Restaurant. The Savoy Grill, which opened in 1890 with one of the first-ever celebrity chefs, Auguste Escoffier, now returns under the operation of Gordon Ramsay. A glass-domed winter garden gazebo will serve as the venue for afternoon tea.

 

 Guest Room at THE SAVOY
An Art Deco Guest Room at The Savoy, which reopens later this year after an intensive restoration project.


Delays have stemmed from the historical nature of the building. “When you start making one change you realize that it affects something else and that affects something else,” says Storey. Nevertheless, it has to be done right, since all eyes will be assessing what has become of the iconic Savoy.

“We can never lose sight of the fact that in the minds of the people in London, it’s their hotel,” says Storey, adding that the situation is the same with New York’s Plaza hotel and Shanghai’s Peace Hotel.

“As far as they are concerned, if you had your wedding at The Savoy and 25 years later you are a prominent person in British society and The Savoy has not been renovated in a way that you are comfortable with, that can be very challenging,” says Storey, who believes Fairmont is definitely striving to do the right thing with all the various components of the hotel.

The obstacle with The Savoy in particular is that it originally wasn’t one grand hotel, rather, it’s a structure that came up in bits and pieces over its 121-year history. Original room sizes varied widely because larger suites were built for the traveler and much smaller units were meant for the traveler’s attendants. So, the structural changes have included reconfiguring the entire hotel. Engineering overhauls were necessary because the hotel at one point had added bathrooms onto the outside of the guest rooms overlooking the Thames River. Bathrooms have since been moved back into the guest rooms for unobstructed views of the river.

Moving all the plumbing and risers from the outside to the inside was complex enough, but things got even more challenging. “When we started moving the bathrooms, we realized that they had essentially built the rooms on girders that stuck out like a balcony, that were buttressed,” says Storey. “Over the years all of those beams were essentially compromised, so we had to re-buttress the entire facade at the front of the hotel.”

The prolonged construction process has actually allowed Fairmont the luxury of extra time to re-staff the property up to high-end standards.

“The great thing is that we have some senior Fairmont people who are from London, so they were trained there. They’ve gone back and re-energized their network,” says Storey. “So, we have a team there which is a great blend of Fairmont expertise as well as the cultural sensitivity of what it means to be operating The Savoy.” As a result, under the direction of General Manager Kiaran MacDonald, Fairmont has already signed contracts with a number of key people who will be brought in when the hotel is ready to begin its reopening process. Determined to run the hotel at a high luxury standard, the management has also resurrected its Training Academy (The Savoy was the first hotel to actually train professionals when it opened in 1889). All rooms at The Savoy will have access to butler service, and the head butler, Sean Davoren, will be brought over from The Lanesborough.

Luxury service will be key, since The Savoy’s competitive set will be The Dorchester, the InterContinental Park Lane and The Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park.

An equally important iconic hotel for Fairmont is the landmark The Plaza in New York. The hotel company regained management of the now 360-room hotel portion of the century-old property following a three-year, $350 million renovation that turned a good portion of its inventory into condo units. Storey says the refurbishment created some of the best hotel rooms in the city in terms of size and quality of materials used. The hotel’s famous Oak Room has reopened (often a venue where boldface names are spyed celebrating), and so has the Palm Court, which just reopened in April. It now sports a re-creation of the original 1907 stained-glass lay light, which was covered up during the Conrad Hilton years in the 1950s. Also back is its classy Afternoon Tea service; it’s also serving breakfast and lunch.

 

THE PLAZA’s Royal Plaza Suite
The Plaza’s Royal Plaza Suite is accessed via a private elevator and has views over Central Park South.

 

The executive management of The Plaza has people from some of the top Fairmont hotels around the world as well as from other world-class properties, says Storey. “It’s an interesting mix of people and, from a guest perspective, they have a challenge because the type of person who goes to The Plaza is like the person who goes to The Savoy. They are extremely demanding. They have a very high definition of what luxury means to them. Our team at The Plaza has to meet that standard.” That guest could be either, for example, Saudi royalty or an extremely successful entrepreneur from the United States—each demanding, with very different expectations of luxury service.

Defining Luxury

“We have to please some of the most demanding guests in the world but we have to do it in a manner which isn’t intimidating to many other people who view luxury differently,” says Storey, noting that Fairmont looks at luxury service differently from its competitive set.

For example, he says, that those at other luxury brands “might be more oriented toward saying, ‘I know that this fork is supposed to be this far from this fork.’ In their minds, if that doesn’t happen then that isn’t luxury. Whereas for us, whether one fork is the right distance from the fork next to it is not as important as whether we smiled at the guest and asked them how their stay was so that we could understand how to enhance their experience. Those are two very different definitions of excellence.”

Therein lies the Fairmont culture, which is deeply entrenched in its Canadian roots, says Storey. In fact, Fairmont was recently named one of the top 10 corporate cultures in Canada. “Our investment in service is really about helping people develop their brand loyalty with us based not on what we say, but what they experience,” Storey says. “And that’s very Canadian; it’s a culture that under-promises and over-delivers. It’s understated and that’s the way we do luxury. It’s not flashy. It’s scarce, it’s personal and it’s important to you. It’s not so that somebody else can look at it and say, ‘wow look at that, aren’t they driving around in a nice car?’ People don’t care about that.” 

In The Pipeline

This year, Fairmont opens seven hotels worldwide. The Savoy in London reopens in early fall (see story) and the century-old Fairmont Peace Hotel, in the heart of Shanghai, has a soft reopening in May. This historical hotel has been resurrected to recapture the glamour it enjoyed during its heyday.

The remaining five properties are new, and include the 858-room Makkah Clock Royal Tower, A Fairmont Hotel in Saudi Arabia, opening late summer/fall. The focal point of the Abraj Al Bait Complex, it has seven towers and is adjacent to the Masjid al Haram, Islam’s holiest site. The 76-story hotel tower will be among the world’s tallest and features a 130-foot tall clock, which will announce daily prayers to the Muslim world.

Fairmont Pacific Rim has opened in Vancouver. The oceanfront hotel is adjacent to the Vancouver Conference Center expansion. Fairmont Pittsburgh is open and is housed in Three PNC Plaza—a mixed-use building complex, which has applied for the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification. Fairmont Beijing is in its soft-opening phase. It’s set near the city’s major cultural, shopping and business areas, including The Forbidden City, the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Fairmont Zimbali Resort, on South Africa’s east coast, sits between a forest reserve and the Indian Ocean. It’s expected to open in time for the World Cup in South Africa, which runs from June 11 to July 11.

Fairmont’s pipeline is also robust for 2011, with two hotels opening on The Palm in Dubai; Hyderabad, India; the Philippines; Muscat, Oman; Al Fajer, United Arab Emirates; Sanya, China; and Marrakech, Morocco. Planned for 2012-13 are Vail, CO; Palm Desert and Monterey Bay, CA; Roco Ki, Dominican Republic; Corfu, Greece; and another hotel on The Palm in Dubai.

Fairmont Famous Agents

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts has a long-term commitment to the travel advisor community, particularly in the form of its Famous Agents education and recognition program. The educational aspect of the program involves a short online lesson module and multiple-choice questions. After submitting an online application form, agents receive a personalized membership number, which can be used immediately to track client reservations and earn points that can later be redeemed for free room nights for themselves. Points are earned for reservations in all room categories and for wholesale bookings. Those involved in the program also have access to discounted agent rates, starting at $69.

Fairmont is connected to the luxury travel advisor industry in many other ways. Leslie Dodson is Fairmont Raffles Hotels International’s director of global accounts, consortia, retail leisure & luxury sales. She has been with Fairmont Hotels & Resorts for 10 years, managing accounts that include Virtuoso, Signature, American Express, and Ensemble. Dodson’s team also includes individuals who service VIP accounts.

As part of an effort to learn and develop a better understanding of travel professionals around the country, Fairmont’s entire North American sales team has completed specialized training with the Travel Institute to become Certified Travel Associates (CTAs). The team will continue to enhance their knowledge with additional accreditation through The Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) program this year and the Certified Travel Industry Executive (CTIE) program in 2011.

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