With more than half of its portfolio of hotels in China, which faced COVID-19 earlier and has since seen business return, Langham Hotels CEO Stefan Leser shares his thoughts with Luxury Travel Advisor on how the luxury hotel sector can move forward globally in the face of the pandemic.
Leser joined Langham Hospitality Group as chief executive officer in 2018, where he oversees all brands for the Langham Hospitality Group’s global portfolio of hotels, resorts and residences, leading the company’s global expansion drive. Prior to joining Langham, Leser was the group chief executive officer and a member of the board of directors at Jumeirah International. An industry veteran with over 30 years of experience, Leser has held previous positions in various ends of hospitality from airlines to tour operators. We chatted with him over Zoom, to get his take on what’s next for Langham and the luxury travel market overall.
How has COVID impacted Langham overall?
Langham Hospitality Group is a global company with more than 30 properties over four continents. With 13 of our hotels in China, we were exposed to COVID-19 early on, so we were well prepared when it hit the rest of the world. If I look back—and being based in Hong Kong—COVID became noticeable at the end of January. On January 22, about 20 percent of people were wearing masks in Hong Kong, by the next day, 50 percent, and by January 24, everybody was wearing a mask. Due to Asia’s history with SARS, people here are amenable to wearing masks and there is lots of discipline around hygiene—particularly because the population is so large and people live very close.
As hoteliers, we quickly realized there are two areas that need to be addressed: Mental hygiene and the physical hygiene. How do you take care and how do you display care? We came up with a set of protocols that addressed both the physical—extra sanitizing and distancing—and the emotional—how to express care through verbal and non-verbal communications. We tested these new processes in Hong Kong and rolled out to the rest of the chain and the guest feedback has been quite positive. So, overall, we are feeling good about the care we are able to offer in these challenging times.
What kind of recovery do you see for the industry?
If we look again toward China, which is ahead of the rest of the world in terms of dealing with COVID, there is already a strong appetite to travel again. For Golden Week—the mid-autumn holiday, which happened recently—635 million people traveled domestically. At our hotels, we have been full since June, when the virus was more or less under control in China. As the country has strict track-and-trace measures in place, we have been hosting everything from weddings to fashion shows. Once the government deemed travel was safe, Chinese people had the confidence to take trips, and business came back without much change to consumer behavior.
When you are in the situation we are in, you can’t see a return to normality. In Asia, as soon as people felt safe to travel, business came back. In terms of trends moving forward, the absence of the ability to travel will definitely increase the appreciation for travel. The idea of the global village will be more on the global forefront in consumers minds, and there will be a deeper appreciation for any travel.
You’ve just opened the Langham Nymphenburg Residence; tell me more about this property and how it is going so far.
Our second European property and it is already destined to become an icon. With a direct view of the majestic 490-acre imperial estate of Nymphenburg Palace, unique, handcrafted artworks in every room and porcelain pieces from Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg, The Langham Nymphenburg Residence, Munich is a defining milestone for our expanding European portfolio.
For over two years, the 9,000-square-foot 18th-century manor was meticulously restored and now has seven bathrooms, four bedrooms, three living rooms, a dining room, a fully equipped kitchen, fitness center, conference suite, home cinema and wine cellar, plus a private terrace that can seat up to 100 guests. The residence combines the services and amenities of a luxury hotel stay with the personalized touches of a private home. In the current climate, we are already seeing tremendous demand for this level of exclusivity.
Your other European property is The Langham London. Without international travel, London is quite slow; when do you see this picking up and what is happening in the meantime?
Right now, London is the same as Italy, Germany, France etc. Main tourist areas in cities are very quiet with the overseas luxury traveler missing, but resorts are very busy with domestic travel. At the moment, we're focusing on what we can impact; keeping costs in check without sacrificing service is our number-one target. Number-two target is to do everything that we have ever wanted to do now, so the hotels are in the best shape ever when travel resumes. [This includes] lots of small projects on at the moment: Changing configurations, polishing, deep cleaning, painting, cleaning the HVAC systems. Otherwise, for now, we are busy at the bar [and] Afternoon Tea is back in Palm Court but, compared to normal times, it is very different.
What about your American properties—what is happening there?
In New York and Chicago, we are developing creative staycation packages to make it worth it for people to come visit locally. In New York, we are partnering with Empire State Building. We have new shopping outlet experiences in Chicago, and more to come. The Langham Pasadena is an urban resort, so that hotel is doing very well as we are on 20 acres yet we are only minutes from downtown Los Angeles.
Last year you launched the Couture program for travel advisors, how is that going? How can more travel advisors get involved?
Couture is an invitation-only program that includes a 10 percent commission to advisors, a no-walk policy (your clients won’t be “walked” to another hotel if we are overbooked) and a response to all inquiries in two business hours or fewer. We have partnered with some of the best travel agencies around the world. Perks for Couture clients: Daily breakfast for two, food and beverage or spa credit, room upgrades and amenities.
We also have a newly launched e-learning course, Langham Specialist, which has been very active during lockdown; it offers education to advisors on both The Langham Hotels & Resorts and Cordis brands. We also have a 15 percent commission promotion for suite bookings until the end of 2020.
Finally, you have several new openings planned for 2021—The Langham, Jakarta; The Langham, Gold Coast in Australia; Langham Place Changsha; Corids Hangzhou and the reopening of The Langham, Boston after a multimillion-dollar renovation that began last year. Any updates on those?
Everything is going to plan. Early next year, we will be reopening the Langham Boston, which is such an extensive renovation we consider it a new opening. We are also on track to open The Langham, Jakarta early in 2021, then the Langham Gold Coast in surfers paradise will open by the end of next year. [There is] more to come in Europe, but I am not able to announce it yet. Hope to share news by the middle of November; we are looking at hotels and more residences with the aim of filling our portfolio in Europe in high demand travel destinations. Watch this space.
For further information on Langham Hotels and Resorts, travel advisors should contact Stephanie Younts, senior travel industry manager, [email protected]; 212-613-8735.