Hotel Online  Special Report

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The Inside Story on How InterContinental Hong Kong Managing Director Jennifer Fox Teamed Up with Michelin Chef
Alain Ducasse to Create a New Benchmark for
Hotel Restaurants in Asia
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Sterling SPOON

By Steve Shellum, Publisher/Editor, HOTEL Asia Pacific, 
October 2003

When the world’s only nine-star Michelin chef, Alain Ducasse, received an out-of-the-blue phone call from Jennifer Fox, the determined MD of the InterContinental Hong Kong, it was the start of a beautiful relationship. “I have always admired that hotel,” the culinary legend told her. “Why don’t we start talking?”

Two years - and immense planning, refining and fine-tuning - later, SPOON by Alain Ducasse will open its doors on October 22 in the hotel’s former Plume restaurant. And, says Fox, it is set to raise the benchmark on hotel dining - not just in Hong Kong, but throughout Asia.

It’s a highly strategic move for the landmark, former Regent Hong Kong, which InterContinental purchased in 2001 for US$345 million. The eyes of the industry are firmly focused on the property, which is a showcase for what could be in store for other InterContinentals throughout the region and, indeed, around the world.
The move raises other interesting issues. It is also the first time the hotel, which self-manages four other restaurants [Steakhouse, Yu, Harbourside and Yan Toh Heen], has formed a joint venture with an outside partner. 

And the fact that five top members of Ducasse’s Paris-based team have been brought to Hong Kong on full expat terms for at least three years is raising a few eyebrows among competitors who are busy cutting the expat component of their payrolls.

Fox declines to reveal the restaurant’s development costs, or the exact nature of the InterContinental-Ducasse JV, citing confidentiality clauses. There’s also an air of mystery surrounding the restaurant – even the menus are being kept a closely guarded secret until the opening.

Why did the hotel decide to partner - and share the profits - with Ducasse, instead of developing its own culinary concept and operating the restaurant itself?

“Initially, we did think about renovating and reconceptualising Plume - just going for a modern French approach, perhaps bringing in a hot young French chef, and really just doing something ourselves,” says Fox.
“But I intuitively believed that the Hong Kong market was very sophisticated, and what I saw lacking was a fantastic French restaurant. Yet, there are very sophisticated customers who travel on a regular basis, eat French food and drink French wine. They are very brand conscious and want what’s new and hot – they don’t want the traditional and passe.”

The intense competition from innovate freestanding restaurants, which are stealing customers from often dowdy and unimaginative hotel outlets, is also raising the bar, says Fox.

“There has been phenomenal growth of freestanding restaurants, and many hotel restaurants are considered dull and lifeless in comparison. The pressure is on - and it’s been happening in other parts of the world a lot longer than in Asia. There has been a whole mentality change over the past few years, and consumers’ expectations have been raised to a certain level that they now expect.

“You have to be more creative and innovative in a hotel today, and compete with the best freestanding restaurants on a similar level. That is what we will be doing but, in fact, on a much greater level.” She cites Plume as a prime example of a hotel restaurant that had passed its sell-by date.

“When we rebranded this property in June 2001, we knew we had a great hotel and a great product. Our philosophy was to take what Regent did really well and build on it to make it a unique property.

“We looked at what was working and what wasn’t - and what wasn’t working, particularly, was Plume. When it opened 20 years ago, it was the most famous restaurant in Hong Kong – it was packed every night, had fabulous French food and was the place to be. 

“But over the years it lost a bit of its luster and, 10 years ago when it was not working as well as it used to, Regent divided it in two and created Yu. 

“Plume continued to do well but, over the years, people got sick of French fine-dining – tastes changed and that very stuffy, formal French style was no longer popular. It became very old fashioned – a ‘special-occasion’ restaurant for anniversaries and birthdays. 
 

“It was out of step with the way people live and was not delivering what customers want today, which is a lot more modern and casual.

“We didn’t want to sit on a restaurant that had no meaning to today’s customers, so we started thinking about what we wanted to do with it.”

Why not just come up with a trendy new concept, bring in a young, innovative chef, train your own staff and keep all the profits?
 

“From the start, we knew that being authentic was critical to the success of the restaurant,” says Fox. “There are so many brandname restaurants, such as Vong, that don’t have anybody from the original team. They come out and do the training and set the menus – that’s fine and the food is good, but we wanted it to be as authentic and real as possible.”
 

When was Ducasse’s name first brought up as a potential partner in this crucial venture?

“Although I had not met him before, I was very aware of his concept. I had eaten in Spoon restaurants in Paris and London about a dozen times, as well as his Le Louis XV, and was a big fan of how he had taken traditional French cuisine and brought in his own modern-French concept: very fresh, modern, lively and exciting. It’s still very French, but with an exciting and innovative twist.”

Fox toyed with discussing the idea with Ducasse, then brought it up with InterContinental’s former regional boss Richard Hartman and his successor Patrick Imbardelli.

She told them: “Look, I believe this will work in Hong Kong”, but she admitted it was purely intuitive - a gut feeling that it would work superbly. 

They gave her the go-ahead, in principle, to pursue it – and Fox was straight on the phone to Paris. “I blindly called, and found out who the right contacts were. I did a beautiful big package about our hotel and our rebranding and said I would like to talk to Ducasse. I got a personal message back from him saying he knew the hotel when it was the Regent and that he would absolutely like to talk to us.”

This was back in July 2001 - and since then, says Fox, “this has truly been our baby”.

The next step was a conference call with Ducasse’s business manager, Laurent Plantier - then, purely by chance, Fox bumped into Ducasse himself in New York. “He was very enthusiastic, so I soon found myself in Paris for a formal meeting with Ducasse and Plantier. We talked about the opportunity and the space, and all agreed in principle that we wanted to do it.” 

Plantier flew to Hong Kong in February last year to take a look at the site and to ensure that the restaurant and kitchen space were workable and to conduct a study of the market.

“We went to just about every hotel restaurant in town over a three-day period - we had drinks in one, appetisers in another, then main courses somewhere else, followed by coffee elsewhere.” 

Plantier saw the potential, and Asia Market Intelligence was hired to conduct indepth consumer research to find out how the concept would be perceived in the local market.

“They sourced consumers based on different segments – including expat, Chinese and corporate business executive - and the research absolutely proved there was a niche in the market that was not fulfilled, and that this would be very successful,” says Fox.

“Once we reached that stage we knew it was not just a gut feeling, but based on solid research. 

It confirmed there was no fantastic French restaurant in town and that there was a niche for a modern French restaurant that was sophisticated and elegant but with a casual element to it.” The research results gave Fox and her team the confidence to go to the next step - the financial projections, which she presented to the board in April 2002.

“I did a beautiful board presentation, as you do, then went to London to present it to the major expenditure committee. They said it looked very good, interesting and financially viable, but that we should get someone else in to validate our financial projections.”

Fox hired Horwath Asia Pacific, whose independent market study supported the internal projections. “They said that maybe we were a bit soft here, and a bit hard there, but their financial projections were not far off what we had come up with. We made the adjustments that Horwath recommended and the board came back and said, ‘Yes, we want to do this, so go to the next step’.”

A couple of weeks later Fox was again in Paris to sign a letter of intent with Ducasse, with the final contract signed in December 2002.

Now that Fox’s vision was becoming reality, it was time to get down to the nitty-gritty, including choosing the right architect.

“The Ducasse team has many people they have worked with and we also have very many contacts, but we felt we needed somebody who could really help to put the restaurant on the map in terms of design, because it’s not just about the food - it’s the ambience, the mood, the lighting, the music and everything in between.” The job went to New York-based Tony Chi and Associates.

When the full contingent of Ducasse’s team of five arrived in Hong Kong in July, an auspicious and workable date was decided for the opening – October 22. “We gave ourselves a little breathing space because we didn’t want to get backed into a corner. Everything has to be perfect the night we open,” says Fox. 

“We didn’t force ourselves into a false deadline to open. It’s got to be perfect from day one because you don’t get a second chance in a market like this.”

Perfect? “Absolutely. We will have perfection from day one. Ducasse is a perfectionist, and we are perfectionists. 

“There are very few people in the world I would do this with, and very few who would make the kind of commitment that Ducasse has. He has totally invested in the success of this restaurant, and it’s a pure partnership based on a shared vision that reflects our total commitment, professionalism and passion.”

Fox says that one of the main reasons the hotel went with the Spoon concept is that it is “very adaptable, and in no way cookie-cutter”. 

“We are taking Ducasse’s philosophy and adapting it to local products and tastes. He and I had a big discussion in Paris about the menu - he said I knew the local market better than him, and that if I thought there was anything the local market needed or wanted, or anything not appropriate, then just work through it with Laurent Plantier.

“It’s the best menu I have seen for a long time anywhere in the world. The desserts are just brilliant.”
Fox credits the hotel’s F&B director, John Cheah, for his “great input” on the project. “He’s been to Paris a couple of times to meet with the Ducasse team and looked at all their restaurants. I spearheaded the negotiations, the contract and the deal, and John surged ahead with actually getting the restaurant open.”

If Spoon turns out to be the stunning success that Fox and Ducasse are confident it will be, it begs the question of why bother operating the hotel’s four other restaurants inhouse, rather than partnering with other famous brandname chefs?

“All our other restaurants are running successfully, while Plume was not. We might think about branding the Steakhouse later on – we have had some internal conversations about that. We will look at it next year,” reveals Fox.

“We don’t think Spoon is going to cannibalise business from any of our other restaurants. In fact, we are confident that people who, perhaps, have not been to our other restaurants will be inspired to try Yu or Steakhouse after having experienced Spoon.”

A crucial part of the contract was that Ducasse must commit some of his top people to the restaurant on a full-time basis.

“It’s unheard of to have five top expats in a hotel restaurant in Hong Kong,” says Fox. “It speaks volumes both for Ducasse and for our expectations. Between them, the team has been with Ducasse for 42 years - we have really taken some of his best people, and they will be here, full time, for at least three years.

“The team has been highly professional from day one, and has delivered on every single promise. There have been no clashes of ideas or culture – we all share the same vision for the restaurant. 

“It’s very important for Ducasse because it bears his name, and it’s equally important for us because it’s a real reflection of what the whole InterContinental brand is about.”

© Copyright HOTEL Asia Pacific

Contact:

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Hotel Asia Pacific
Steve Shellum
158 Wong Uk Tsuen
Yuen Long
New Territories
Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2882-7352
Fax: +852 2882-2461
http://www.hotelasiapacific.com
steve@hotelasiapacific.com

 
Also See Chiller Replacement Project; How The Grand Hyatt Singapore Applied a Holistic Commercial View / HOTEL Asia Pacific / October 2003
Assessing Hotel Security; HOTEL Asia Pacific Magazine / Pertlink Re-Issue Hotel Security Checklist / August 2003
Pressure Cooking: Florian Trento, Executive Chef at the Peninsula Hong Kong, Explains How He and His Team Coped During the Bleakest Days of the SARs Crisis / HOTEL Asia Pacific / June 2003
Crisis Management: Could You Cope if the Unthinkable Happened / HOTEL Asia Pacific / June 2003
Back to Normal After SARS? Let’s Hope Not.../ HOTEL Asia Pacific / June 2003
Fighting Spirits! Rank-and-file Staff at Bali InterContinental Resort Talk About Their Hopes, Fears, Dreams / HOTEL Asia Pacific / April 2003
On the Chopping Block; Are You Prepared If You Get Your Marching Orders? / HOTEL Asia Pacific / April 2003
Trevor Bilney, Executive Chef at the Bali InterContinental Resort, Fights Hard Since Last October 12; Keeps Morale Up  and Costs Down / HOTEL Asia Pacific / March 2003
Hotels Stepping Up Security; Learning to Live with the Threat of Terrorism as Part of Conducting Everyday Business / HOTEL Asia Pacific Survey / March 2003
50% of Hoteliers Have Not Increased Investment in Security – More than a Year After the September 11 Attacks / HOTEL Asia Pacific Survey / December 2002
Security: Something No Hotel Can Ignore / Geoff Griswold / Summer 2002
Biometrics Lend a Hand to Hotel Security / Feb 2002
Hotels Near Airports Provide Better Safety and Security Features According to The Center for Hospitality Research - Cornell Hotel School / Dec 2002


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