|Plaza Athénée is frequented by Paris’ movers and shakers.|
The Dorchester Collection Fashion Prize Final—held at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris last month—was a dazzling catwalk affair, where finalists’ designs were paraded in front of a chic audience of judges (such as Kenzo Takada) and VIP guests. On the occasion of this buzzed-about event, Travel Agent sat down with Christopher Cowdray, the CEO of Dorchester Collection, on a whirlwind trip from the group’s London headquarters.
Cowdray took the reigns as CEO in November 2007. A native of Zimbabwe and a graduate of the Columbia Business School Executive Program, he has over 30 years’ experience in hotel management; previous positions include general manager of The Dorchester in London, managing director of Claridges, London, and general manager of the Al Bustan Palace in Oman.
The Hotel Plaza Athénée on Avenue Montaigne serves as the glam setting for the city’s movers and shakers, and the Galerie des Gobelins was abuzz with morning meetings as we discussed the Dorchester Collection’s five-year plan. What we’re most keen to learn: where can we expect to see Dorchester Collection expand next?
The group is currently assessing key cities in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo. Middle East destinations like Dubai and Qatar are also on its radar. “Since we were set up as an international management company in 2008, we’re actively looking to take on management contracts, as well,” Cowdray explains. On August 1, 2011, Dorchester Collection took over management from Rocco Forte Hotels of Le Richemond in Geneva—its first management contract. All the other hotels in the Dorchester Collection are fully owned.
“Our goal is to operate 15 hotels by 2015; the ultimate size of the company will be between 15-20 properties, never any bigger than that,” he says. Currently the collection comprises nine prestigious hotels in Europe and Los Angeles.
And New York? “There will be a Dorchester Collection hotel in New York. I don’t know when, but it’s top priority,” affirms Cowdray. The group sold the New York Palace last year because “the 900-room hotel needed a significant investment. Even if we had spent huge sums of money, we wouldn’t be able to get it to the collection’s standard. You have to be true to what your brand is about. Ours is all about luxury.”
For Cowdray, luxury comes down to heritage. The Beverly Hills Hotel, for example, was recently designated the city’s first historic landmark; at 100 years old, it’s two years older than the city of Beverly Hills itself.
“Some brands today open hotels and think just because it’s expensive, that it’s luxury,” Cowdray says. “It’s so much more than that. It’s about the hotel’s personality, culture and history. It’s not a monolithic approach, and we achieve this by working with top interior designers who understand the importance of personality. Hotel Plaza Athénée is completely different from Le Meurice, less than two kilometers apart.”
|Cowdray with award-winning design team Annelie Augustin and Odély Teboul.|
He continues, “And then we come to the service component. Not just the levels of service. It’s about the interaction between the customer and staff who are motivated, friendly, and really identify their clients’ needs. There’s been a shift in the service model. Years ago, luxury hotel service was seen as ‘stiff.’ Today, the luxury traveler is looking for the same efficiencies, but also wants friendliness, and that little bit extra. Are their needs anticipated, delivered on time, and with flair? Are they going to be recognized? And the final aspect: the luxury traveler likes to stay with like-minded people. You find, what develops, is communities of like-minded people. Our hotels are where business is done, where social interaction takes place. History, stories, people’s experiences…it all happens in our hotels. Memories are made here.”
Social Media Strategy
The Dorchester Collection’s social media strategy is a reflection of this service standard. The Communications department, for example, has a policy of responding to TripAdvisor comments within four hours. Twitter followers now number close to 7,000. “You have to be in tune with social media,” Cowdray says. “It’s going to be there for the future—even if it’s difficult to measure the relevance, and quantify the value today. Lady Gaga stayed at The Dorchester last week and twittered to her million of fans—and she has the most followers on Twitter—what a fantastic stay she had. We were thrilled—but how exactly do we assess that tweet’s value?”
Social media is really about engagement. Communications Manager Alpana Deshmukh adds, “Twitter is a way of expressing yourself. It’s another way of carrying on the conversation with @DC_Luxury Hotels. When we respond on Twitter, people become even more enthusiastic about a great meal or cocktail that they’ve shared.”
Accent on Food and Beverage
Twitter and Facebook generate buzz about the group’s restaurants and bars, which are a key part of the business. Cowdray explains, “The view is: Our hotels are located in cities where people like to go out. So why not bring the top restaurant experience to the hotel? For quite awhile, the philosophy in the hotel business was to get rid of F&B because it was too expensive. But we’ve done the opposite. F&B contributes significantly to the whole Dorchester experience.”
In the restaurant kitchens, Dorchester Collection is switching to induction as part of their focus on environmental sustainability. “Induction is just as fast and efficient as the stove, but when you remove the pan, you’re saving energy. Also, in our new-build properties like Coworth Park, the architectural construction focuses on sustainability from the get-go.” Next year the Hotel Plaza Athénée will be celebrating a big birthday (100 years young!) and we’re eagerly anticipating the calendar of events, along with details of the pending renovation.
In conclusion, Cowdray confirms that luxury travel advisors are “exceedingly important to our business.” He told us, “We work closely with the top agents, and nurture those relationships. When you look at the bookings into the hotel—across all channels—the phone is still 70 percent of our business. And it just continues to increase, because of that personal contact.
“Clients may look at the website, and get ideas, but at the end of the day—it comes down to the voice. After the reservation and prior to check-in, correspondence by e-mail takes over: with car service reservations, restaurant bookings, etc.—sometimes 40 different e-mails for one reservation. It’s a lot of work, and all part of what distinguishes the luxury market.”