Up Close with Stephen Alden of Set Hotels

Stephen Alden, CEO of The Set

Headquartered in London, ultra-luxury hotel group The Set owns and operates three iconic properties in Europe: Hotel Café Royal in London, Conservatorium in Amsterdam and the soon to re-open Lutetia in Paris. Luxury Travel Advisor correspondent Emily Goldfischer caught up with CEO Stephen Alden, who joined last year, to learn more about his three big ambitions: to grow business from North America, increase customer loyalty, and to build the portfolio in key international cultural and gateway cities.

How are you settling in as CEO of The Set? I can’t believe it is almost a year! The Set is a perfect fit as my background and passion is luxury hotels. I’m originally from Malta and became interested in hospitality from my uncle who ran the local casino. I trained in Switzerland and haven’t looked back, focusing my career on iconic hotels around the world and building ultra luxury hotel brands. First with ITT then Starwood, opening the St. Regis in New York, then incorporating the purchase of the Chiga Hotels in Italy to establish The Luxury Collection, most recently here in London where I spent nine years running the Maybourne Hotel Group (The Connaught, The Berkeley and Claridge’s). 

I’m inspired by grand hotels from the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the challenge of adapting these buildings to accommodate the luxury hotel experience of today. With my team, we spend a lot of time focusing on how people want to feel in a hotel, how they use technology, what are the dining trends, the importance of service and how to personalize each experience. My personal mantra: luxury is evident by its absence. 

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What are your top priorities coming into The Set? This may surprise you, but my top priority is our staff. I love the camaraderie of the hotel business. My focus has been to lower employee turnover, I want people to feel time spent at The Set is good for their career and their lives. I’m spending money on training, but not in typical ways, we offer courses in yoga, wellness, nutrition, wine tasting, and planning courses in photography, pastry making, and many more. Anyone can take these classes, we have a genuine commitment to giving people balance in their lives and enjoyment in coming to work.

Has retention of staff led to increased performance? Yes, even in just eight months, since we’ve introduced the staff programs, we’ve improved staff retention and had double digit growth in RevPAR, guest loyalty from mid-20 percent range to over 30 percent. My goal for guest loyalty is 60 percent, so we spend a lot of time speaking to guests at departure, to understand the intricacies of their stay and their lasting impressions. 

Who is the typical guest of The Set? We have about 20 percent from North America, 18 percent from the UK, over 20 percent is EU, about 12 percent from Asia, roughly 10  percent from UAE, and then the rest of world. In London, most of our guests are from finance, fashion and technology, we’ve doubled the number of local corporate accounts by telling our story better to area businesses. Across the brand, we’re not getting our fair share from North America, so we are opening a New York City sales office by September to increase business from the US market. 

Any special plans or programs for travel advisors? We hired Mattias Kaeswebber last year from the Dolder Grand, as our VP of Sales and Marketing, he’s communicating our new strategy of building value added experiences within the pricing, giving Travel Advisors the ability to deliver more to their clients. We’ve also launched a new website with an improved platform, more languages and much better pictures, this has increased our web bookings by 60 percent. 

What are you most excited about? We have a spirit of continuous improvement, even if guests say we are doing a great job, we're thinking how do we do better? I’m excited about what’s happening at the Hotel Café Royal where we are about to transform the arrival experience, rearrange the dining, and add layers of styling in the guest rooms. The restaurant as you see it now will become the new lobby and entrance, where we currently have a private members club in the gallery, this space will become a gastronomy and wine cellar experience, and we will add a second restaurant. All this is being done by the uber talented Piero Lissoni, who also did the conversion of the Conservatorium. We expect to have these works completed by the end of September, it is all being done gradually not to disrupt our guests.

Of course I’m excited about the Lutetia in Paris, opening at the end of 2017, which will be the only palace hotel on the Left Bank, in the best location across from Le Bon Marché. I’m in Paris every week to see the progress, it is such a magnificent building, and top French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte is doing a renovation worthy of a Parisian palace from 1910. The new configuration will have 184 rooms, we’ve removed single rooms to make suites, we will have seven signature suites and about 40 suites in total. Of course, we will have top chef in the hotel’s famous brasserie, but I cannot tell you who it is just yet!

What are your growth plans for The Set? We are looking regionally in Europe, at the moment we are considering properties in Switzerland and Italy.  Our sweet spot is an historic building between 150 and 200 rooms, within that range we can deliver a highly personal experience, yet still support the amenities: two bars, two restaurants a spa with a pool. Most importantly, we plan to continue to bring the luxury experience to cultural locations, similar to how the Conservatorium, our 135-room property in Amsterdam, is by the museums rather than the canals, in London we are on Regent Street near all the best shopping rather than Park Lane, we know our guests want to stay in the areas they plan to explore.

Coming from Maybourne and your history in luxury hotels, what are the top trends you see now? There is less formality in how people consume luxury today, guests want ease of use, in terms of technology this means being able to use their own devices, Apple, Google Chrome and Netflix accounts, our job is to facilitate that; in terms of service, they want personalized attention that is intuitive, so everything flows together seamlessly. 

Visit www.thesethotels.com.

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