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Grand Hotels have to Stay True to their Heritage

Stephen Alden, CEO of Maybourne Hotel Group, Discusses
the Operation of Three of London's Iconic Hotels

By Arun Janardhan, Mint, New DelhiMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

March 26, 2012--Stephen Alden tells an anecdote related to one of the hotels he administers. The chief executive officer of the Maybourne Hotel Group-- which operates three of London's most iconic hotels, the Claridges, the Connaught and the Berkeley--says the Claridges is often considered an extension of the Buckingham Palace. Therefore, not surprisingly, there was once a call to the hotel by someone who wanted to speak to the king. The hotel staff, who answered the call, asked which one.

"There were three kings staying at the Claridges then," explained Alden, while speaking at the Mint Luxury Conference at the Taj Land's End Hotel in Mumbai on Friday, as a way of reiterating the significance of the property.

The Claridges is in its 200th year now, while the Connaught was built in 1897, giving the Maybourne group new challenges and forcing Alden to wake up every morning "worrying about each one of them". He says what's needed in the future of the hospitality business is sustainability by making culture a part of the business plan, great design, individuality and further education of hotel managers. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How do you stay relevant with hotels that are over a century old?

Even if it's a traditional old-world hotel, that's just the architectural aspect, that it's been there for 200 years or whatever. The hotel's personality needs to remain vibrant and current with the times. So you stay up to speed with the staff, investment, etc. Those are the values to be carried forward, not that they physically need to look the same.

There was a suggestion sometime back that the Maybourne was expanding to other cities. Does India or Mumbai figure in these plans?

A few years ago, during the heyday of expansion, we were looking at other cities. But we are still three in London, because we have chosen to stay closer to home. If we were to execute a longer term, strategic plan to expand overseas, it would be difficult to ignore Mumbai. As an internationally recognised luxury hotel company, if you have to pitch 7-9 cities in the world, this would be one of them. It's difficult to achieve but possible.

It was suggested earlier at this conference that the luxury industry in India just cannot afford to ignore the hospitality industry.

I would agree. In the preservation of heritage, if you add good service, you have the formula for luxury hospitality. India has core strengths relevant to luxury hospitality. The culture is so strong it would preserve the distinctiveness of luxury hotels, which is critical and so the business does not become standardized. You should never lose the distinctiveness or sanitise it.

You don't get too many guests from India in your hotels?

It is true, we do not get a large percentage, but we have not been present in this market. We are in others. We are taking it one at a time. It will happen when the affluent travelling population from India visits London, and understands what we have to offer. We are right now having conversations with travel organizations and companies that can help us understand how to communicate while travelling.

The identity of the international, luxury traveller is changing a lot...

We consciously put in place a strategy for a globalized customer base because you don't want all eggs in one basket. The success of our business has been to work harder to do it, if you look at a long term plan, to maintain competitive advantage you need a broad globalized customer base. The staff needs to be constantly trained, sometimes with technology, sometimes of cultural preferences for market you see more of.

With three classy hotels in one city, how do you manage not to compete with your other properties?

When I joined the group six years ago, my business plan was to define the individual identity of each to establish each hotel as an individual brand. When we did that, and it took us one -and -a -half years, we put as much effort as any of the large chains would. The core essence of the Claridges brand is about a sense of timeless glamour, at an intimate, personal scale. At Berkeley, it's exquisite innovation. Those are the guard rails of the initiative put into place. The hotels are underpinned by the values of the group and those values don't change. But the way they are interpreted are different. If we ever let this slip, the hotels will get into competition with each other. We do battle with other brands not with each other.

Is it possible for the modern to exist with the traditional?

We did a £70 million renovation of the Connaught. It's a challenge and everything worth doing needs to be planned carefully. It's difficult and important. When you make that level of investment, you don't want to get it wrong. When you look at a historical building, many elements have been added over the course of the years which have no architectural significance.

That's essential to understand--what is true heritage and which is someone's idea. You have to strip it to the bones of the true structure, you want to preserve and you can layer on to that. People will like the shape of the old windows but they don't want to feel cold because the windows don't conserve heat. The window will be the same technology but the glazing will be different. They (modern and the old) can co-exist. For example, we are restoring a section of the Claridges. We are able to buy the brick from the same, original kiln that made it over a hundred years ago. The buildings are protected by English heritage but we will do what is responsible. We don't want to change for the sake of change. Grand hotels have to invest in design and infrastructure or they will fall behind. But you have to be in sync with what people like and stay true to the heritage.


(c)2012 the Mint (New Delhi)

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