At the centre of five-star rejuvenation, Anna Olsson takes us behind the scenes of the glamour of the world of upscale hotels
Mrs Anna Olsson of Sweden has had a prominent management position working for two of YTL Hotels’ international five-star establishments in downtown Kuala Lumpur – The Ritz-Carlton and Marriott. In her capacity there she had the pleasure of engaging with and hosting the Nordic community when it comes to larger events arranged by the respective missions and business associations (in particular Sweden); such as the annual Nordic Christmas Gala and Nobel-themed dinners.
She was also getting to partake in major upgrades as well as the transformation, especially due to digital media, the industry is undergoing.
Talking to Anna, while the renovation of The Ritz-Carlton-branded property was still in full swing, ScandAsia shares more insights from how working life is like in her role as Marketing and Sales Manager for a team of 35 and two hotels.
Hotel legend César Ritz
The ongoing renovation of The Ritz-Carlton, to be followed by Marriott, was for Anna her biggest milestone since arriving to Kuala Lumpur.
The Ritz-Carlton, which opened back in December 1997, had until recently now not been refurbished – which is quite a long time in the life-cycle of hotels, and in particular when so much has evolved within the sector in recent years.
The Ritz-Carlton brand as such is on the march in terms of representing only exceptional luxury hotels and rapid expansion, while The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company is quite young (1983) in its current form. The first hotel of the company opened in Europe only in year 2000. By 1998 the brand had attracted all the attention and was purchased by Marriott International.
It should be said though, as interesting curiosities, that The Ritz-Carlton pedigree goes back to the very early days of hotel luxury: A Swiss (where else!) hotelier with the name of César Ritz was well known in the hotel industry for offering redefined luxury accommodation in Europe, as the “king of hoteliers and hotelier to kings”. He managed The Ritz in Paris and the Carlton Hotel in London, among others. Later he opened a la carte restaurants known as Ritz-Carlton on board the Hamburg-Amerika Line ocean liners SS Amerika in 1905 and SS Imperator in 1913. The Ritz-Carlton, Boston has served as a benchmark for all future Ritz-Carlton hotels and resorts worldwide into modern times.
Interestingly for these waters YTL Hotels recently announced that they will build The Ritz-Carlton also on the resort island Koh Samui in Thailand. The first ever Ritz-Carlton Reserve also opened in Thailand some years ago.
By late 2015 the rooms that stood ready at the Kuala Lumpur property, as result of the major renovation, unsurprisingly, indicated a significantly enhanced level of design and luxurious comfort. Guests will, eventually at both the hotels, be able to experience the finest of luxurious hospitality à la 2016, where at The Ritz-Carlton brand this translates into a hotel stay that “enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs” of guests.
Competition is also only going to intensify in the coming years, with new five star hotels in the pipeline in the vicinity and additional international luxury brands arriving, in particular to the KL Sentral gateway district. It is then a necessity to be, at the minimum, on par with the latest luxury trends and customer needs.
Social media impact
Anna, with background from F&B but preferring sales and marketing, knows her fair share of what this kind of hospitality luxury really means. Dubai and its (and the world’s first) seven star hotel Burj Al Arab – that is where she worked before coming over to Kuala Lumpur (with a stint at the Phuket flagship design hotel Indigo Pearl in between).
Much thought of course goes into the designing of all aspects of a hotel on this scale today, in order to deliver on the brand promises and to be able to also surpass guests’ expectations.
For The Ritz-Carlton this has to translate into providing exceptional service and genuine care to their guests across the globe. The brand’s motto says: ‘We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen” exemplified in the anticipatory service provided by all staff members.
And this is no mean feat in 2016.
“Things are completely different today, it’s like day and night,” says Anna, as she compares with only five years back in time.
“But it’s fascinating also. When our general manager came back from the most recent Ritz-Carlton GM conference, the beacon had been innovation; concerning trends, social media, applications, technology etc. How can one learn, first of all, and understand and be in the forefront and up-to-date with all these trends?! That’s not easy today. Things are happening fast, and this evolvement of the industry will continue, so one must embrace that change mode.”
Just take the crucial topic of PR and brand reputation today, where Anna says that social media plays a very important role for the hospitality industry.
“Only five years ago it wasn’t that important; whereas everything you do now in a hotel will be all over the Internet minutes later – be it good or bad feedback – and one cannot control it. One must therefore have a completely different PR and marketing approach, and engage in dialogues with these guests online.”
“It must be integrated within the hotel’s departments too, as it affects everything,” Anna adds. “One must talk to operation. If a guest talk to a staff member in the restaurant, and let’s say this servant happens to be seen as impolite, that will then result in a negative recommendation online. So it’s just not us within sales and marketing – but every single person in the hotel team having some kind of touch point with guests becomes a kind of front person for the hotel and must be aware of that. And yes, you are an ambassador for the brand, and one must educate everyone on this within all levels of the hotel staff.”
The guest satisfaction level is today measured across the board and includes online reviews – in addition to the post-stay questionnaire sent to guests and obtained onsite.
“Reviews on social media are taken into consideration. They will pull from social media platforms as well; what rating you are getting on Tripadvisor and so on – which then becomes your KPI as the hotel that we get from our corporate office,” explains Anna.
“Therefore social media grows in importance, and we must ensure to get a particular score.”
The guest perspective
Coming from marketing and sales Anna participates in the refurbishment with her insights.
“My role is to meet, together with the General Manager, with the designers and the designer for Ritz-Carlton from New York. So we meet together with the owner, as a mood board of the branding; what they want Ritz-Carlton to look like.”
“Then I comment from the perspective of the guest, looking back at our sales, what I believe could work and how it can match; we might need to consider more or less meeting rooms, restaurants etc.,” she continues. “And then, especially as we will get an inventory of 88 suites, we must think about how we will be able to sell that. And there will be many families, and from a brand perspective we then have what is the ‘Ritz Kids’ and must implement that. When it comes to Club Lounge – what do we have to do there, and how many rooms should be club lounge rooms? So, on that level I get involved.”
“And it’s a lot about technology as well: what is it that today’s guest wants to have in a hotel. We have received a lot of feedback to go back to and look at in this regard. We have to follow what are the trends; of which one is about that everything is about mobile, hi-tech and fast internet. We have installed 55-inch TVs, and everybody wants HD – with capacity to synchronise the TV with their mobile etc.”
“Our hotels are very much business-driven. And then one must look at: what will the market look like for the coming 12-24 months. Oil prices are going down and there is a lot of cost-cutting in companies so one must look at other industries that are doing better – a bit of campaign-thinking. Many companies have cut down on meetings.”
One has to be more active and compete with other destinations with similar attractions in the region and work closely with governments, says Anna.
The new 2-3 bedroom suites at The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur, Anna thinks, can also attract young affluent travellers.
“I think so, and it’s also a status symbol for the newly rich. Looking at the price point also has impact: in the old times the parents decided whereas now it’s the children deciding what to do, where to go and how they want things to be. So that works for us in that we can then offer a two-bedroom suite which is 176 square metres with en-suite for both the parents and their children, coming with a large living room and kitchenette. And it won’t cost much more than booking two rooms they would need anyhow. So here we have a new way of thinking; in looking at what can one do to approach this target group in a completely new way.”
They can of course also tap into brand followers.
“For sure, both are very strong brands in people’s minds, and if they have had a good experience in a JW Marriott or in a Ritz-Carlton they of course think about that when selecting a stay. And we also have loyalty cards, helping as well.”
Last, how about timeless hospitality traditions, where one can sense a “revival”?
“I absolutely believe in the traditions. I think that all the service elements – the classic – will remain. People want to be recognised and have service and pampering – that is why they go on holiday. And especially today in the fast-paced society, when they have a holiday they feel: ‘Somebody must take care of me.’ And I also think that the classic is a bit trendy, but I think that style will remain, and you have waves what is seen as modern and out of date, respectively, within hotels, and one can be out there and set trends.”
“But as for social media etc. things will become more and more digital, no matter the rest, because for the Millennials this is their ordinary life. The same goes for working with that generation. One cannot tell them that it is not allowed to use one’s mobile phone the whole day! Because everything is integrated; they do social media and all the work at the same time.”
Footnote: Anna Olsson has left Malaysia, returning to Dubai and a role at the Kempinski-branded five store hotel Emirates Palace.