Shangri-La is leveraging its legacy of Asian service sensibilities to differentiate the brand amid a robust global expansion in a booming and increasingly competitive luxury hotel market.
Editor’s Note: This interview is part of Skift’s 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. Also, enjoy the previous series on the Future of Travel Booking, with online travel CEOs.
Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts has been rapidly expanding beyond its original Asian borders over the last decade, with some especially notable openings like Shangri-La Hotel at The Shard in London this year. The hospitality group launched six new hotels altogether in 2014, with another 11 scheduled to open next year. It also rebranded some of its Traders Hotels under the new Hotel Jen flag targeting the Millennial travel segment.
According to Greg Dogan, CEO of Shangri-La Hotels, the successful translation of the Shangri-La experience outside Asia rests on the consistent delivery of “hospitality from the heart,” which he says is at the core of the hotel group’s DNA.
That signature brand pillar is expressed in its the tagline: “There is no greater act of hospitality than to embrace a stranger as one’s own.” It is beautifully portrayed by this award-winning promotional video from 2010, as well as this recent video series in October chronicling Tibetan singer Yangjin Lamu‘s journey to the new Shangri-La Hotel Lhasa.
The central brand message expressed by Lamu in those videos communicates the power of a grateful heart. With 88 Shangri-La properties presently operating, Dogan says his primary mission is developing new product in global gateway markets that remains true to that message.
Following is a slightly edited version of our conversation with Mr. Dogan:
Skift: What are the biggest challenges you’re facing to improve the guest experience today?
Greg Dogan: Nowadays hotels are not merely a hospitality company, they’re lifestyle providers. Guests expect us to inform them of the things that are happening at a particular location, which includes food and drink, and obviously shopping. If you look at the type of hotels that we have, we’re not a cookie cutter hotel company. We’re very local-centric and we bring out the best in each local environment that we go into so we try to care of our guests in that way.
Skift: What are the unique selling points of the Shangri-La brand?
Greg Dogan: Unique selling points vary from property to property, but the common thread through each of the hotels is probably our heritage and our hospitality from the heart. That exists throughout the whole organization. Now, that is obviously different in each part of the world, but the DNA is there throughout the whole group.
Another unique selling point is certain touch points within each hotel that come from our Asian heritage. This includes the Chinese tea and the Chinese restaurants, with traditional Asian dishes from chicken rice to laksa to curry puffs, that we have in 99% of our hotels worldwide.
I also like to think that in most of our gateway cities, we’re building iconic buildings with great views that the majority of hotel buildings don’t have. For example, The Shard overlooks the whole of London and the Turkish property in Istanbul overlooks the Bosphorus.
Skift: What role does technology play in improving the guest experience?
Greg Dogan: When guests are searching for us, we’re obviously up there in terms of making sure that all our data is available on what each location offers.
However, I look at technology in a different way. Technology is moving so fast that it is difficult for the industry and individuals to keep up with unless they’re a technology buff. The angle that I’ve taken with the group is to keep it simple without it becoming gimmicky.
That said, we obviously have to keep up to speed with the basics. We were the first group to offer Wi-Fi free throughout the whole group, which now includes the inside all of our cars. We’ve taken a bold move not charging for it. When I travel to other hotels, I’m still surprised at the exorbitant prices being charged in some of the cities.
There are other pieces of technology that we’re looking at. One which we’re rolling out in January is called “Your Voice.” The guest will be able to interact with us very quickly and tell us about their experience, and, ideally, we can react on any concerns or look at anything they’re happy with before they leave the property That will be an app, but we’re also looking at an online portal.
Skift: How prevalent is the discussion of millennial travel psychographics internally at Shangri-La?
Greg Dogan: It’s been a major discussion point and major policy decisions are being made throughout 2014 with myself and my executive committee. So much so that we launched a new hotel brand called Hotel Jen, which is designed to tap into that market. We will have 10 hotels by March next year and have identified that we need a separate management team that reports to myself to work on the millennial market. Our research shows that they want efficiencies, everything at their fingertips, and the basics including security, a good shower, a great bed, and Wi-Fi. These are the four things that every hotel must have.
In terms of our service attitude within Shangri-La, I’ve intentionally gone out to all my general managers in the field, and told them to make sure that we pull back from the white glove syndrome. The days of being ostentatious are long gone. We need to cater to our guests today. Whether that’s a multi-millionaire staying with us or a person who just comes in for a cup of coffee, their priorities are good quality and fair price.
Skift: How has the hiring process changed to match changes in the guest experience?
Greg Dogan: We’ve changed our hiring policy in a major way. It used to be a one-shoe-fits-all scenario, whereby everybody used to come through our human resources department and everybody came out as a stereotype.
When I first came into this role, one of the things I changed was that I started asking our hiring teams to look for different personalities. The way we recruit had to change completely. We’ve done this by looking for the right person for the right job. That may sound very simple, but what happens now is that the department manager is the first person to interview a candidate coming into his or her area. A young person coming into a fine-dining restaurant will not be the same as a candidate that we’re looking for in a fun pub.
Skift: Shangri-La is investing significantly in content marketing and social media. Do you envision that this will continue to grow?
Greg Dogan: Most definitely. It’s becoming the greatest force in marketing. There’s more money being spent in this area and it’s much more targeted in comparison to being blanketed.
Our brand campaign focuses on service from the heart. When we launch a new hotel, we spend a lot of time to share that through this these channels. For example, when we launched our hotel Tibet we knew that our guest would not travel to Tibet to visit a Shangri-La Hotel. They were going there for a personal and spiritual journey.
We brought in a Tibetan singer, Yangjin Lamu, and took this lady on a journey on her way up to Lhasa. It was one of our most successful campaigns that we’ve ever had.
Skift: As Shangril-La continues to expand globally, what keeps you up at night?
Greg Dogan: Next year I’m opening 11 hotels, including Doha, Bangalore, Ulaanbaatar, two in Sri Lanka and more properties in China. My concerns are the global political situations, the hot spots in the world. Whenever there’s a major incident, it seems to have a major ripple effect throughout the world, which affects travel and the business of hotels. That is the biggest concern that I have.
The second concern internally is making sure we have a pipeline of good young talent coming up through the system to work in our hotels and have great careers.
Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development. He can be reached at [email protected].
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Photo credit: A headshot of the Shangri-La Hotels CEO Greg Dogan. Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts