As strong as the luxury travel market has been for the past few years, can that success continue? One&Only's COO Philippe Zuber thinks it can, as long as brands don't forget about the essentials of service.
One&Only Resorts, which is owned by Dubai-based Kerzner International, is growing quite a bit in 2017. The brand, which got its start 15 years ago, has built an acclaimed reputation for itself as a luxury brand favored by celebrities and affluent travelers, and in that time, its portfolio has grown to nine.
This year, it’s adding two new resorts — One & Only Seef in Bahrain, and One&Only Sanya in Hainan, China — as well as reopening two others — One&Only Le Saint Géran in Mauritius and One&Only Ocean Club in The Bahamas, which just reopened last month. And over the next few years, it’s also planning to open properties in Montenegro and two others in Mexico, with additional resorts in the works.
Overseeing the expansion of the One&Only brand is Philippe Zuber, One&Only’s president and chief operating officer, who joined the company in December 2015.
Skift had an opportunity to meet with Zuber in early February to discuss One&Only’s growth plans, as well as the continuous challenges and opportunities of operating as a luxury hotel brand today.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Skift: Are there specific regions or destinations that you’re focused on growing in particular going forward?
Zuber: We’re very opportunistic, you know? We believe our choice will always be made with the location. We just want to make sure that each site, each location we’re going, has something different to offer. But that being said, we have selected a few number of countries which we believe our clientele is desired to travel to. We would like, as well, to develop as a company, areas where we have different hotels in order to work as a cluster.
For example, we have another hotel in Mexico, the Mandarina [which broke ground in 2016]. We have One&Only Palmilla, which is an acclaimed resort and having received so much awards, and specifically from this market. They are two different offerings. Palmilla is a very mature destination, offering standing beachfront locations, and you have the mountain, you have the desert, you have the food and beverage. You have a 27-hole golf course. Mandarina, which is coming to 2018 in the middle of the jungle, is an absolutely a breathtaking setting. It’s Rick Joy designed. That’s our wish, and then in the future we’ll try to have those kinds of developments to make sure that we can have one or two within a destination, or not too far away from each other.
The fact that we have a resort in Sanya [in China] opening this year will definitely set the tone and will create, for sure, demand. We believe in this market, but we believe that we have opportunity all around the world.
Again, we believe in the U.S. as well. This is a market which we can grow easily. We believe in the Caribbean as a destination, by the fact that we have succeeded so well with One&Only Ocean Club. We believe in this market strongly.
Skift: One&Only has always been known for its resorts. As you grow the brand, will you continue to always have the resort model? Or will that model be shifting more toward an urban market?
Zuber: Resort is our DNA, you know? It’s where the markets have recognized our expertise, and our capability to really sustain and to develop and to mature those resorts. We’ll definitely continue to be very, very active on this front.
That being said, we realize as well that some of the destinations that we do have already, for example One&Only Cape Town, it’s already a city resort. It’s really in the middle of the city, and it has an amazing location.
One of our hotels in Dubai, the One&Only Royal Mirage, is also close to a city that is attracting a clientele which is coming purely for vacation, or clientele which is coming, as well, for business purposes.
I think the future will give us opportunities, whether it’s cities or beach resorts, which I think we’re so good at.
One area which we’re interested in as well, and it’s a natural evolution of our current beach resort, is to develop One&Only branded residences. This is already happening in Mandarina [which is opening in the Riviera Nayarit part of Mexico]. It’s already happening as well in Montenegro and Mauritius.
We believe that our guests who have been coming up, year on year, to our hotel, love it so much, and [because they are] totally addicted, they have such a trust and confidence in the level of services being provided by One&Only that they say, “Why shouldn’t I have my home here? But I still want the service of One&Only.” That’s why we merge in those two services, and we’re entering into this private homes segment.
Skift: There’s been a lot of interest lately in vacation rentals, especially in the luxury space. AccorHotels has mentioned that they’re thinking of buying Travel Keys, and they already own onefinestay, for example. Is this something that One&Only would ever consider? Making available more residential accommodations for short-term use or as a timeshare?
Zuber: The fact that we’re entering into this private residence, private homes model, it will definitely have opportunity for our investors, and our guests, to put back their villa into a rent-and-pool business model. That will be developed through similar processes. We believe that, on that end, we want to control the reservation process, that we would guarantee anything related to that.
But in this particular segment, what we, as a brand [that’s] changing quite a lot, is we have our classical hotels. Within our hotel we’re developing private villas.
If you think of what we have done in Palmilla with Villa Cortez [a four-bedroom villa at the One&Only Palmilla), it’s just talking to a different market than the market which is coming into our hotel. This community of individuals who can afford to go on those ultra-luxury villas with all of the service which is attached to it, it’s already providing whatever those companies are trying to attract for, like onefinestay and whatsoever.
We’re already very, very much active into this area. And at each of our resorts where we have distinguished villas, they’re just developing as an independent project within our classical hotel inventory. It requires a different reservation approach. It requires different concierge services. It requires a butler who has to really understand to whom they’re engaging, and that they have to do the service for.
For us, it’s already a purely integrated system within our business model. We understand that some other companies are looking at [that], as an [addition], but we have that already. So for us, it’s just purely the work to continuously make sure that those villas within our different resorts, remain different and unique so that the guests will be continuously attracted to them.
Skift: Luxury has gone through a lot of dramatic shifts over the past few years. But how do you define ultra-luxury today, given everything that’s going on, or these dramatic shifts in consumer preferences or demographics or tastes. How does One&Only define “ultra-luxury,” or how do you maintain that level of luxury?
Zuber: I mean, that’s a very vast question. First of all, and what’s differentiating One&Only, I think, is the quality of the services. It’s the engagement of our team, and specifically the butler experiences. And the fact that as a company, we never have, in any cases, compromised on the dedication to our services. We’re [always] investing into our workforces, and we make sure that there is a tremendous consistency within this area. And that’s definitely into this ultra-luxury sphere, to get the most of the stability within this area. That’s giving you the guarantee that you will never have any customer who might be disappointed.
It’s the reputation of the business. It’s definitely ultra-luxury, it’s recommendations. You go there because someone told you that it was fantastic, and it’s really great. So as soon as you’re not able to deliver the promises, you just break the waves. And on that end, over the last 15 years that One&Only has been in this market, it has been tremendously so stable within that front. That I think is as well, despite the cycle, despite the fact that you have had some positive years, and some negative years. We have been consistently focused and stable.
We also consistently reinvest in the properties. Meaning, our products are absolutely in top condition, and you know, whenever you run a resort, you are sometimes in areas which could be quite demanding in terms of weather conditions and whatsoever. We pay a lot of attention to always keeping the resort on the top of the conditions.
One&Only, amongst some other companies, is one of those companies which has, potentially, the highest level of returning guests. So this is unique as well to a certain extent, that the clientele feels so good about the hotel that, year on year, they’re booking, and they’re coming back and they’re asking for having the same butler. Because they have these recognitions, that this becomes home for them.
Everything is about recognition of the services. It’s something which makes the guest feel extremely comfortable. At the end of the day, we are a resort, and they are on vacation.
We place so much emphasis on creating activities, soft experiences, life, music. We’re a place where we want to have energy, life, you know? Where we make sure that we can create space for adults, space for children, space for them to reconnect, space for them to be together.
And One&Only was one of the first company really understanding family resorts. The fact that you can really entertain the whole entire family, but as well respecting the time when you just want to lie by the beach, be extremely quiet, and have the children away.
Skift: You mentioned authenticity, and something we’ve seen for years is hotels attempt to offer more authentic, local experiences. Is that hard to incorporate with your resorts since they’re often kind of secluded and purposely resort-like?
Zuber: In any resort we do, we start with a white page. The authenticity, the respect of the environment, and the place that we are in, it’s element No. 1. And after the architect it’s really based on the whole space element. So the authenticity comes from day one. And then after it’s very easy to build in. Because after you can add the food and beverage, you can add some other type of activities. But first it comes with respecting the site, and the understanding, and the architect will have, within his mission, to really make sure that it’s on the bones of the building.
Skift: Why do you think wellness has become such a big part of luxury today and how are you going to capitalize more on that going forward?
Zuber: It’s not an option anymore, exactly. Again, the clientele that we’re talking to, they’re already so much advanced into this space. They know what they want, they know what they like.
For example, our hotel in Reethi Rah in the Maldives, has won the best [overseas] spa in the world from Conde Nast [Traveller]. Again, it doesn’t come as a surprise, because it’s exactly what the guests want. They don’t just want to have a spa which is just a series of massage rooms and whatsoever; it’s all the activity that we are proposing too. It’s much more than the classical massage. It’s reintegrating the sport and whatsoever.
We are in partnership with Henri Chenot for the Montenegro property in 2018. He has a very successful medi-clinic based in Italy. The way that he’s transforming wellness is quite interesting. It’s a mix between a medical nutritional approach as well as all of the benefits of the spa and the massage.
But we don’t want all of our resorts to have the exact same offerings. We want to make sure that we’re differentiating our locations by having some specialties, local treatment which really make it that the guests will be embark to something that he doesn’t know. And that’s what they like in our wellness center.
Skift: When we speak to a lot of luxury hotel companies, they always say, “We don’t need a loyalty program. We recognize our guests, we know about our guests, we know what they like. We know their preferences.” So what are your thoughts on loyalty, especially at a time when there’s so much consolidation taking place in the hotel industry?
Zuber: Our clientele is not interested in points and getting any redemption of anything. We believe the level of response that we do have, with the number of returning guests, that the loyalty is the recognition. The loyalty is the fact that we can guarantee that, year on year, they will come back, and they will be always recognized as individuals. This is what the company is really good and capable to provide.
We do not believe in a loyalty program. We do not believe it will enter into this particular sphere. We believe that we’ll continue to do what we do extremely well. Over the last 15 to 16 years, One&Only has been a tremendous success without any loyalty program.
We believe that if a guest is coming back, he might not look for an upgrade, some point and whatsoever. But spending an amazing time, having a popup event creating only for himself and his family, having a memory, planting a tree that every year he can go there and then he can have a storytelling with his family and looking after that. Having a class of champagne with the general manager and the team, that’s just more important than any of the loyalty programs.
That’s why our GM and our team, and the people on the ground, they understand that extremely well. They’re just consistently reinvesting in the relationship with the guest.
Skift: What’s One&Only’s approach to the demand for more technology and more efficiency and mobile capabilities and things like that? How are you going to respond to that but still maintain a high-touch experience?
Zuber: In anything related to booking engines, Internet, reservations, pre-reservations, post-stay, we need to believe in the benefit of the technology. And we invest lots of money, lots of energy into that. And we believe that what the technology is giving to us, it’s absolutely fantastic, you know? So we’re absolutely a fan of that, and we believe that mobility, making sure that the guests can book directly, getting any type of information of their stay and all information about the resort and whatsoever, we’re absolutely pushing extremely hard. And we’re making sure that we’re on top of it, you know? Technology as well and the fact that we are publishing with the best photographers for doing the pictures in our resort, and really displaying to Instagram, Facebook, and all of those social media.
On that front, we believe we are premier, we are a leader, and we are pushing extremely hard. When it comes to the technology at the hotel, as a luxury company and talking to an ultra-luxury audience, we believe the Internet on the resort needs to be really good, and making sure that we can give to our customers the mobility and the access to the world and to their life.
Then afterwards from the technology within the rooms, we are not too crazy about electronic curtains and whatsoever. We still are a resort, we want to make this continuous approach, you open your curtain, you see the scenery, you see the waves. You see, you can go to your terrace.
We just want to make life easy for our customer. We want them, as well, to reconnect with the basics, to reconnect with their families. On that side, of course, everything is absolutely spotless and absolutely functions in all way. But we’ll never be the type of the company pushing room automations. We’ll not push to have iPads in the room and all those kind of things. We don’t believe in that. We believe in the service. We believe on the human communication. We believe that if you want to have a coffee, you just ask your butler and he will just do cappuccino and serve at the taste you like, and making sure you enjoyed it. This is our approach to services, so we’re very much focusing on the human to human approach, that’s very important to us.
Skift: Would you ever get to the point where you could text your butler to ask for anything.
Zuber: No, no, the text and the WhatsApp and the messaging — it’s something which works extremely well. It’s what the guest wants, we just do for the guest. He’s by the pool, he wants something special, he just texts it, we are into that you know. Again, it’s the guest who chooses to make it happen.
Skift: Does the current political or geopolitical or economic situation here in the U.S. and globally, do you think that’s going to have an impact on your business going forward into this year and beyond? Or is it a concern at all in any way?
Zuber: We don’t believe it will have an impact. We still believe that the year is strong, and that the appetite for travel is absolutely incredible. I don’t think, anyhow, it’s a risk for us.
I think we’re very confident. We’re very confident. We’re even more than confident that, you know we’re based in Dubai and we see how much so many communities are living together, working together, performing together. I think it’s a chance, and seeing that it works and being in a city which is so powerful, that you can benefit. That’s our culture, that’s our richness you know, that we’re working with 67 different nationalities within our company. It’s just an interesting approach. I think what’s happening in the world tell us that our business model is standing. It’s amazing.
Skift: Looking ahead, are there any sort of big challenges or opportunities that you see for expanding or maybe branching off into new types of alternative spaces or things like that? Other businesses or other opportunities that you’re looking at? Maybe acquisitions or expanding more into certain sectors?
Zuber: I think with the current market and the current situation that is going on, we’re very much excited with our current growth. The fact that we are moving into these private homes, this residential piece is, for us, an area which we believe there is tremendous opportunity. We’re definitely observing anything which is happening into the wellness area. You know, we could tell that if tomorrow there is some opportunity, into this area knowing that our clientele and ourselves as a brand with so much into it, that if we have to partner tomorrow with somebody which is in the best of the industry.
We’re a very agile company, we’re very entrepreneurial. Nothing stops us and, as I said, today we are here [in New York], we have lots of appointments, lots of meetings. The idea for us is that it’s such fast-growing area environment and we such have a solid base that anything we add on the top is a benefit for our customers. So we’re exploring, we’re constantly exploring, and then tomorrow is just as exciting.
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Photo credit: The remodeled One&Only Ocean Club in the Bahamas. The company is growing notably in 2017. Sargent Photography / Kerzner International