Skift Take

Upper House's general manager details how the Hong Kong-based hotel finds the balance between tech, customer relationship management, and frontline service.

Colin Nagy, head of strategy at Fred & Farid, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality, innovation, and business travel. “On Experience” dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across hospitality, aviation, and beyond. 

The Upper House Hong Kong, the flagship property in the Swire Hotels portfolio, is an example of a hotel that blends technology and human hospitality. It is a model that works, and although it is operating at an elevated luxury level, it points the way in some respects for hotels focused on an intuitive guest experience.

But these types of experiences require direction, teamwork, vision and a spirit of continual improvement.

To understand the approach at The Upper House Hong Kong, I caught up with the hotel’s general manager, Swiss-born Marcel Thoma, an alumni of Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne and hotels such as The Carlyle in New York.

Thoma represents a new, progressive generation of hotel general manager, adept at bridging classic hospitality ideals with what is required to innovate in terms of service design. He talked to Skift about Swire’s approach, how the company thinks about tech, including giving customers flexibility in how they communicate their needs.

Skift: How does the Upper House balance digital customer relationship management and data with classic ideals of hospitality?

Marcel Thoma: I think they are equally important and complement each other, and the definition of what “classic” is, may no longer apply in today’s hospitality industry. It is still vital for us to engage with our guests face to face, gather information and receive feedback. We listen. The close communication and data behind the scenes is just as important as the way it is utilized by employees on the frontline day to day. It’s about offering the highest level of personalization and having that human connection.

Skift: What did you learn earlier in your career in places like The Carlyle that you apply now?

Thoma: In my previous roles, I learned how to deal with high-profile guests and to understand that no matter how important, wealthy or famous the guests are, they need to be handled in an equal manner to those who are less high-profile, whilst also making them feel at home.

Skift: What does The Upper House innovate or alter to a typical guest experience?

Thoma: The innovation, which might sound rather basic, is really to have a great guest experience team that makes our guests feel welcomed and as though they are home. We broke down the job barriers between concierge and front office so that each member in our guest experience team is in charge of a guest in our house, thereby fostering a more vibrant relationship.

Skift: How are staff so knowledgeable and contextual on a regular basis throughout a stay?

Thoma: We share local and international news, industry trends and happenings with our team on a daily basis. It is important to be on the pulse of what is going on around us to ensure that our guests have the best experiences possible. Our internal communication is key; we run like a well-oiled machine and have to be prepared for our guests’ ever-changing needs.

Skift: Why do you use email as a key touch point for communication? Is it the lack of friction?

Thoma: Nowadays we are in touch with our guests via multiple channels including WeChat, particularly as about 35 percent of our guests are from Mainland China and it is sometimes their preferred method of communication. We really try to customize the way we keep in touch with our guests. Luxury hospitality is about preference and that shouldn’t be limited to what they want to eat or drink.

Skift: Can you outline anything you have coming up on the horizon to optimize the process?

Thoma: At the moment, we are exploring a new system which will help us better utilize the information on guest preferences. There are specific companies which help hotels respond to guests via WeChat, Whatsapp etc. according to guest preferences. It basically changes the way guests engage with the frontline staff, either before their arrival or whilst on property.

Skift: How do you hire staff? What sorts of backgrounds do well at Swire?

Thoma: We hire individuals that reflect our core values of passion, creativity, enthusiasm and spontaneity. Those who flourish in our dynamic work environments have a traditional education but, more importantly, possess an entrepreneurial spirit and curiosity to explore and try new things. A unique part of Swire’s culture is encouraging employees to embrace challenges, take risks and learn from mistakes.

Skift: What other hotels or experiences in the world do you look up to or respect as a peer?

Thoma: I have personally learned a lot from previous mentors and one of the most important in my career has been Mr. James McBride, co-owner of the Nihiwatu Resorts. He taught me the importance of delivering an excellent experience and to always exceed customers’ expectations.

Dean Winter, director of Operations for Swire Hotels, has ingrained in me the importance of pursuing a vision, to be who you are and to never pretend to be something you’re not. I’ve also been fortunate to work alongside a diverse and talented group of colleagues across the hospitality industry who share their experiences and whom I continue to learn from.

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Tags: luxury, On Experience, upper house

Photo Credit: Pictured is Studio 70 at Hong Kong's Upper House, which assigns an individual staff member to each guest. Upper House