Editor’s Note: This interview is part of Skift CEO interview series. This particular series is with hospitality CEOs talking about the Future of the Guest Experience and the evolving expectations and demands of hotel guests. Check out all the interviews as they come out here. Check out the previous series on the Future of Travel Booking, with online travel CEOs.
Dubai hotel group Jumeirah is, at times, better recognized for its iconic property inside the Burj al Arab than the brand itself. The group; however, has grown to 22 hotels across 11 countries with plans for more than a dozen more in the works. It also recently announced a second lifestyle brand Venu to offer a more modern guest experience.
Driving this expansion and the brand’s evolution is CEO Nicholas Clayton who has been with brand for two and a half years following an international career built at luxury hotel companies including Viceroy, Mandarin Oriental, Ritz-Carlton, and Four Seasons.
Clayton recognizes his brand’s potential to emanate worldwide from the heart of tourism growth in the Middle East and is acutely aware of guests’ changing definition of luxury. He pulls inspiration from both his new home in Dubai and his travels including a recent trip to New York City where his described the restaurant’s buzzy but casual vibe as an ambiance he’d like to aim for.
Below is an edited interview with Clayton about the blending of luxury and lifestyle guest experiences:
Skift: What are the biggest challenges you face today when it comes to improving the guest experience?
Nicholas Clayton: We are really asking ourselves what we need to add as it relates to guest experience. In some ways, we’re also asking ourselves what we need to subtract. Our tagline has become “Jumeirah: Stay Different” and the intent there is to celebrate the difference in our customers, how they use the hotels, the different architectures, and interior designs. Our hotels don’t look the same in any two locations and there is something unique about the experience of staying in each of our hotels.
For example, the Madinat Jumeirah is an Arabian-themed hotel. It has a series of canals and people take a water taxi from spot to spot. We’re just lucky because the people responsible for designing the hotel put a unique feature there, and no one else in Dubai has that. Our “Stay Different” brand means, to us, having being memorable whether it’s in Frankfurt, Rome or Dubai.
We also have to ask ourselves about when it is appropriate to take some of those steps in the process away because they’re actually burdening the guests or the guests’ preferences are changing? This came up when we recently re-launched one of our marquee restaurants. I was there with another hotelier and we were watching the staff and how they went through their steps of service, and I had to follow up with the leadership of our restaurant group afterwards because I felt like we were doing things to do them, but we weren’t being perceptive about the customer.
For example, people will come to wipe down the table, but if there are no crumbs then they don’t need to do that step. If you come to ask me what I would like to drink, you can get my water preference and you can get my wine or spirit preference. Do both at the same time. It saves you steps and I get placated faster as a customer.
Another example is from a recent event that we did. It was at a 100 person event and the ambiance was done in the typical luxury fashion with a piano guy playing. The mood was just not really contemporary. It could have been more hip and groovy, but it was more this kind of old luxury. We should have let people go right up to the chef stations instead of passing things or go up to a cold bar instead of passing warm beverages. We probably could have performed a better event with less people if we had done it in a new way of thinking, which is “Let it be prepared as you like it at that moment. Let people participate in the experience and not have servers coming to ask you a question that the answer will probably be no to.
Skift: It sound like you’re recognizing and recognizing the evolving guest experience. What are some of the major changes you’ve seen in terms of guest expectations or demands?
Clayton: I’ve had a chance to enjoy some of the restaurants in New York City and we would like to kind of adopt this general philosophy of remembering that we’re in the entertainment business and can still take the formality away. You can pay people great respect. You can create what I think is a luxury experience, but you don’t have to have airs, formality, or be snobby. I think it’s so important to have the social IQ to know when to engage or withdraw.
Skift: Jumeirah is in the luxury sector so it’s interesting that you’re saying you want to make that experience not less luxurious, but less formal.
Clayton: Have the right amount of steps for the right customer. In other words, we have to better train our teams of people, our colleagues, in the industry and specifically at Jumeirah, to read people and free them up from what is a documented standard if they can tell that their standards are irritating somebody. We need to tell staff, “Although this is a written standard and sometimes you’re tested against that, we would rather you make intelligent decisions.”
Skift: Let’s talk about hiring for a minute. How has hiring changed over your time at Jumeirah and throughout your time in the hospitality industry?
Clayton: Yeah. It’s the ability to read how people are using the hotel. When we have an arrival in Frankfurt, some people are using the hotel for leisure, some for business travel, and some for both. You can usually tell the difference.
It’s about the planning process being different and saying, “I have a segmentation of different customers. They’re going to use it different ways. If it’s a honeymoon, then I have to do something different than for the long-staying guest that’s here on a consulting project. We need smarter, better-trained, better product knowledge, to give better service over all. Back to the recruiting, we have put a lot more incentives in place. Some of our compensation schemes have a stronger variable component in order to drive performance. Our receptionists, our reservationists, people in our food and beverage outlets, the manager or general manager of an outlet, the culinary in the back, they make up to 90% of their salary on a variable component basis, for example. I think that has changed the mindset a little bit.
If you want great people you also have to think about how you’re compensating them and how you’re setting them up for success. We also have an online learning initiative. The majority of our colleagues are guest-facing and performing some type of service tasks so we’ve developed this partnership where people, at a self-paced basis, learn what a Cappuccino is, how to make it, the history of it, why it’s important to do the cream a certain way, and then they get certified and tested on this material.
Skift: Let’s talk about technology a little bit. What role is customer-facing and back-end technology playing in improving the guest experience?
Clayton: Everyone is going app crazy, but we think we should just make our mobile site work really well. Our company doesn’t have the road warriors that stay in Hilton for 200 nights per year. If we did, we’d make them an app to check-in.
For us, an application would be more around telling customers what’s happening over the next two weeks while they stay with us in Dubai. It’s really telling them about what there is to do and how not to missing out on something.
Skift: How do you communicate that to them right now?
Clayton: We do that in a very rudimentary fashion today. We have looked at certain apps, and perhaps we piloted them at the wrong hotels, but the usage was quite low. I think we can do new stuff through our TVs, which are becoming more friendly and interactive. I think they’ll be a powerful tool moving forward.
From a guest service standpoint, technology is all about the in-room occupancy detection, knowing when the room is occupied, and communicating to the staff which rooms are to be serviced. It’s really about being proficient at expediting service to guests. It’s not very sexy, but it’s important.
On the technology front, we have not chosen to be a leader within the industry. I think we want to provide just the right amount and the right quality. The entertainment systems in the rooms is really important when people are their for leisure. If you don’t have reasonable content, big screens and nice equipment then you’re out of the game. We choose not to lead, but not be behind. In some of our bigger suites, we recently installed a remote that controls everything in the room from lighting to music to temperature. I think things like that will become powerful tools just to make a room more comfortable.
Jumeirah is also one of the first in the luxury sector to offer free Wi-Fi in all their hotels. That was differentiating for quite a while. Whether customers are there on business or on leisure, they still want it. The average family carries two, if not three, devices with them and they need that bandwidth. Another is to make sure it easy to stay connected with the devices and we’re hyper-sensitive to adding international outlets. If you make it easy for them, people notice is.
They bring their own technology. They just need to be able to give it juice. Connect. That’s all.
Skift: After building a career at luxury hotel brands, what insights do you have about the future of the luxury sector given customers’ changing expectation? They want to be able to connect only, experience local culture, and integrate business and leisure trips.
Clayton: The luxury sector is changing. Jumeirah will have to, over time, become more aware and become more of a lifestyle brand. It’s what people want overall. All of these lifestyle brands, including our announcement of Venu, means less steps of service, less process and orientation, and less to build and construct if you’re a developer. This is no accident that you’re seeing these lifestyle brand announcements.
Going forward we need to build our hotels with more of that in mind. I saw a perfect example of this this morning at the Palace Hotel. The only place they do breakfast is at this small patisserie coffee shop that’s very cute and a grab-and-go kind of thing. On the way over there, I noticed the music was very well done. The sound was right, the context was right.
I think the conservative, predictable nature of some of the more established luxury hotel groups will become passe. I have a lot of respect for the brands that I used to work for, but some of them keep building hotels that are really good and solid but not interesting. You can’t find a pop-up counter where they’re going to do slices of pizza and glasses of red wine. They would never think of that. I think luxury will become luxury lifestyle.
Skift: Has Jumeirah’s marketing changed to reflect this focus on a lifestyle experience or to communicate that side of the brand better?
Clayton: The biggest marketing single tool that we have would probably be our website like everyone else. When we re-launched it nearly a year and a half ago, we really focused on imagery because that’s what sells. That’s what people are looking for.
Pictures do one thing but movies do a whole other thing. What Jumeirah has done, which no other hotel has done, is invest considerably into video to the point where Jumeirah is now the most viewed hotel brand on YouTube. We’re currently running at more than 16 million views and the next brand is at maybe 3 million views, based on Google research that looks at the influence video has on the decision-making process of high net worth travelers. It’s disproportionate compared to other segments.
The numbers in terms of views have been quite high and we realize that we’ve got a bit of a time advantage, because we began earlier than the others. In so ways videos tell a more real story than pictures do because they’re harder to manipulate.