Luxury Travel Advisor met up with top sales and marketing executives at luxury London hotels to get the pulse of how business is faring in the city. Hosted by The Lanesborough, we exchanged ideas one morning on the state of London hotels and the travel advisor market. On hand was our host, Paula McColgan of The Lanesborough, who was joined by Ruth Jones of The Ritz; Simon Gilkes, Mondrian, London, which is opening this year; Dagmar Noe, Belgraves - A Thompson Hotel; Robert Touzel, The Langham London; Kristien Deleersnijder, senior director of marketing at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts; Jill O’Hare, London Edition, whose hotel had just opened the week before the roundtable was held, and Ruthanne Terrero and Megan Meeres of Luxury Travel Advisor.
Note: The Lanesborough has since announced it’s closed for a year for a full renovation.
Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: What’s been the top news for your hotel lately?
Pictured: Paula McColgan of The Lanesborough.
Paula McColgan, The Lanesborough: It’s our Forbes Five Star Award this year, which was a big thing for The Lanesborough.
Ruth Jones, The Ritz: For us, it was being part of the Coronation Festival that took part at Buckingham Palace in the summer; it really was a unique experience to be part of that. It was great for our awareness, and a great experience for the staff.
Simon Gilkes, Mondrian, London: I’m looking forward to our opening early 2014. It’s a sizable property with 359 guest rooms and suites on the Thames in the South Bank area, which doesn’t have any luxury lifestyle hotels. The area has Tate Modern, and then there’s bit of a gap by OXO Tower, and then you’ve got the Southbank Centre. It will really open up that area. This will be the fourth Mondrian; we’ve got one in Los Angeles, New York in SoHo, and one in South Beach.
Dagmar Noe, Belgraves: We opened two years ago. One of the exciting things we did in 2013 was with the Chelsea Flower Show for the 100th anniversary. We created an edible garden on our terrace with a living wall of flowers, which was a huge success. The most exciting thing is our restaurant opening; Sophie Michell, an up-and-coming chef, has created a beautiful contemporary seafood restaurant. She’s a media chef, too. She’s been in the U.S. doing Iron Chef as a judge and she has four cookbooks out.
Robert Touzel, The Langham London: Our most exciting thing has been our bar, Artesian. At the end of 2012, Artesian was voted ‘World’s Best Bar’ in the World Cocktail Awards in New Orleans. That came off the back of the previous year where Alex Kratena, our head mixologist, won “International Bartender of the Year.” We’ve really gained momentum in establishing Artesian as a destination bar in London.
Kristien Deleersnijder, Four Seasons: I’m in charge of marketing for the three UK hotels for Four Seasons (Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane, Four Seasons Hotel London at Canary Wharf and Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire). Two years ago, (Four Seasons Park Lane) was the new kid on the block, and it’s extraordinary how we’re not the new kid on the block anymore. Clients are already asking, “What’s new?” Which is just extraordinary to me; we only opened in 2011.
Pictured: Dagmar Noe, Belgraves - A Thompson Hotel.
What’s excited me is that we’ve gotten the three hotels in the UK under a shared-services model. We have one sales team now and one public relations team. We’re pulling together reservations and revenue management. We have a much wider reach under three vastly different properties, from a country house hotel to a corporate hotel in Canary Warf and then, of course, Park Lane.
Jill O’Hare, London Edition: Our opening last week was also the global launch of the Edition brand; this is the first new brand that Marriott, as a company, has launched in over 15 years. There has been a big gap in the Marriott portfolio in terms of luxury lifestyle, and that is where Edition sits. We actually sit in, what I call, the Beverly Hills of brands in the Marriott portfolio. We sit beside Ritz-Carlton and Bulgari. Ritz-Carlton is a more traditional brand; Bulgari, is a beautiful jewelry box full of jewels, and now Edition, which is the luxury lifestyle brand.
Our development pipeline is strong; we’ll open the Miami Beach Edition in 2014 and straight after that we open the New York Edition. That’s three key gateway cities in the space of a year, so it will really push up the brand front and center. After that, we go to Bangkok, to Sanya in China; Abu Dhabi; Gurgaon, which is just outside Delhi in India, and lots more in the pipeline. (Now that we have) London open, people can touch and feel the brand.
Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: How are you positioning for the U.S. market?
Kristien Deleersnijder, Four Seasons: We’ve got town-and-country packages. Hampshire’s really benefited from Downton Abbey and the big hype, because it’s very close to Highclere Castle. We’re doing tours of Highclere with Hampshire.. We have a very easy program between Park Lane and Hampshire that lets you sign off your bill at Hampshire without staying in the hotel, if you’re staying on Park Lane.
Pictured: Ruth Jones of The Ritz.
Jill O’Hare, London Edition: We are part of the Ritz-Carlton Stars (travel advisor) program. That gives us great exposure to the luxury travel agency community in the United States, and we’ve already had quite a few Stars guests into the hotel. We had the Ritz-Carlton travel industry team to stay with us for five days (shortly after we opened). We also now have representation in Brazil and we’re about to open a global sales office in Mexico. I really see potential for this hotel in those markets. I’m sure Robert will say the same; we’re so close to shopping and that’s all they want. You can talk to them about culture and touring, but really it’s just about shopping.
Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: Let’s talk about the luxury traveler. Have you seen their behavior changing over the past few years? Are you seeing that when they arrive at your hotel they have different expectations?
Kristien Deleersnijder, Four Seasons: When they get here, what they want to do is very immediate, it’s “We want to do this, and we want to do it now.” It’s urgent. It’s not, “Oh gosh. We have a few days here, what should we do?” That puts a huge amount of pressure on the operation, particularly for those people who didn’t think quite as far in advance. For those who sell London, first and foremost, it’s about selling the destination. We’re in a city that’s got a fabulous choice of hotels and fabulous choices of things to do. From our customers’ perspective, it’s still the very traditional things that drive them when they come. They still want to do theater. (I hear) Les Miserables (which has been running for years) is still difficult to get tickets for. Book of Mormon is doing hugely well.
Simon Gilkes, Mondrian, London: Certainly shopping, but a lot of guests want to do the things that London is known for: theater, the performing arts, ballet, opera, theater. I would say there’s been a sizable shift; guests are much better informed before they get here. They’ve done research on the Internet so that they know what they want to do. They’re saying, “I want to go to the Justin Timberlake concert that’s sold on this date” because they’ve seen it online.
Pictured: Simon Gilkes, Mondrian, London.
Kristien Deleersnijder, Four Seasons: Then there are the restaurants. They always come with a list of four or five restaurants they have to go to.
Simon Gilkes, Mondrian, London: It’s “I’ve heard about this,” or “Friends recommended this. Is it the hottest restaurant now?”
Kristien Deleersnijder, Four Seasons: We have a very hot restaurant scene in London now.
Ruth Jones, The Ritz: We’re seeing no differentiation between the leisure guest and the corporate guest anymore. They seem to be merging into each other. A business traveler can bring a spouse and kids or they can tag on a couple of days, which is good. Everybody benefits.
Kristien Deleersnijder, Four Seasons: We have a spa now on Park Lane and what’s astonished me is we have more men than women in our spa. Men actually are into their manicures and the pedicures. Not necessarily the Americans. I was reading recently in the Financial Times, how all these captains of industry are into meditation and mindfulness now. That’s something they would never have been admitted to 10 years ago.
Going back to unique experiences, people want something that’s their own. People have a life coach; people have a meditation guru and people have their own travel agent. They talk about their travel agent like they talk about their shrink or doctor or their architect. It’s so different in this country. In the United States, it’s a profession that’s up there on par with my doctor, my architect. People are very possessive of “my travel agent.”
Dagmar Noe, Belgraves: What’s great is that everybody thought that the Internet would take it all away and it hasn’t.
Pictured: Robert Touzel, The Langham London.
Ruth Jones, The Ritz: The travel agency community in the United States really addresses travel differently from everywhere else in the world. In this country, you tell travel agents what to do. There are exceptions but predominantly, that’s the case. The shift in the business model for travel agents in the U.S. where clients pay for their services really ups their game.
Simon Gilkes, Mondrian, London: Think of all the experiences that advisors create, that you can’t create or can’t get to yourself or on the Internet.
Paula McColgan, The Lanesborough: Also, if you’re using a travel agent and there’s an ash cloud over Iceland or there’s some disaster, the travel agent can help you. If you’ve done it online, you’re on your own.
Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: Are the newer hotels in the room promoting cultural attractions to draw people in or is it the shopping, bars and nightclubs?
Simon Gilkes, Mondrian, London: We talk about what makes us different, such as the “Cultural Mile,” which is really hot. On social media sites we’re not showing photos of the hotel yet but we can generate content from what’s happening in our neighborhood, the markets, the shops, and every new restaurant that’s opening. If you’re coming with your family, you’ve got the aquarium right there. It’s also definitely a neighborhood to think about for those who are into the arts. It has more of an East London feel, so it’s a little bit cooler.
Pictured: Kristien Deleersnijder, The Four Seasons.
Kristien Deleersnijder, Four Seasons: I think that’s good for London because there are so many different propositions. It’s not just the inscription, such as Four Seasons, Park Lane; it’s about where you are.
Ruth Jones, The Ritz: We’ve seen that people stay in more than one hotel in London to get different experiences. Staying at the Ritz is unique because we’re independent but then they may well go off and stay at somewhere completely different to get variety within the same city.
Dagmar Noe, Belgraves: Agents (who work with) my hotel have been looking for an edgier luxury lifestyle brand. Of course we have the restaurants and the shows and all of the sightseeing that everybody offers. But we try to offer something a little bit different. We have a beautiful art curator program; we put in art into the hotel that’s a talking point, but it’s actually also being sold in the hotel as well. It’s like, “Wow it looks different here.”
Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: Those who have been open for a while, you’ve got several newer hotels opening and there are more to come. How are you positioning yourselves in the market place?
Ruth Jones, The Ritz: It’s about awareness and making sure your name is out there in front of people; it’s about keeping it fresh for travel agents and having new things to work with. We feel very strongly that our personal relationships are really important. There’s no substitute for it when it comes to the caliber of travel advisors and the caliber of clients that we work with. What I talk to my team about is, “Pick up the phone.” It really fascinates people when you actually bother to take the time to call them. And it saves a lot of time.
Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: How do you work with the luxury travel advisor market?
Pictured: Jill O’Hare, London Edition.
Paula McColgan, The Lanesborough: We have 93 rooms but we have two sales people that work solely in the U.S. just for the Lanesborough. Their job is 95 percent looking after North American travel agencies. We do a bit of communication via HTMLs, using brochures, also using Signature and our networks. That’s the primary marketing focus.
Ruth Jones, The Ritz: We market similarly; we have regular e-communication with travel agents and we have a GSA that’s mostly in the U.S. but who travels extensively. I go to the Us> at least four times a year to visit the agencies and to thank them. Travel agents are overwhelmed with information and supply so it’s about maintaining those relationships.
Paula McColgan, The Lanesborough: It must be exhausting for travel agents to always have people coming in.
Ruth Jones, The Ritz: I understand why agencies want to control it because people have to do their jobs. But if they’re not learning about the product they are not going to be able to do their job. Visiting with independent consultants can be challenging.
Robert Touzel, The Langham London: If an agency has 100 agents and you go into the agency and see only 20 people, you wonder where the other 80 are. It turns out they work from home, so reaching out to those is a challenge; you can’t go visit them in their home.
Pictured: Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor.
Kristien Deleersnijder, The Four Seasons: It is true; in some cases they are all over the place. Which ultimately leads to the great old-fashioned fam trip and getting people to come and stay with you. There really isn’t anything like getting people to experience the property. What has changed is that it’s difficult to get air from the airlines. And people like to travel on an individual basis. We’ve adapted the policy that you don’t have to come en masse with 10 agents you’ve never met.
Jill O’Hare, London Edition: As for reaching the home-based agents, and this probably applies to those of us who are from bigger companies, we do a lot of events in the United States—big, glamorous food-and-beverage events. It’s a huge investment but it does draw out the home market.