When Krister Svensson was appointed General Manager for the prestigious hotel St. Regis Bangkok he was already a seasoned hotelier, having then arrived from W Hotel Hong Kong where he had turned a struggling hotel into a success. Since his arrival to this Bangkok luxury hotel (also the return to the city where he spent his childhood days between 1971-1982) he and the hotel have also had their doses of challenges, though seeing strong improvement in 2016 and into this year 2017 that might just end up being the record year so far.
Five and a half years later, on the day of this interview with Krister, a movie legend has just passed away whose persona signifies impeccable class and gentleman style. He is no other than Roger Moore, and the connection to St. Regis could not be more evident.
The original St. Regis in New York (opened in 1904) is perhaps the ultimate example in hotel heritage, where Roger Moore was a guest several times and where he, perhaps last time, stayed in the fall of 2008. And the connection started much earlier.
In the Ian Fleming novel Live and Let Die, James Bond stays at the St. Regis and has a drink with Felix Leiter in the King Cole Bar. In the movie, the first to star Roger Moore as the fictional MI6, James Bond spends his New York nights at the St Regis.
The inventors of yesteryear
Fast forward to 2017 – when even robots are being tested in hotels for room service deliveries – the challenge lies in taking this classic hotel brand and adapting it for today’s ultra-digitized society and lifestyles. A mix of the brand heritage and the latest mod cons is very much the blueprint for St. Regis – with a strong nod to the brand’s history.
“Going back to 1904 John Jacob Astor who built St. Regis in New York, was the first person to introduce lifts in hotels. And midnight supper. Or extravagant parties! That was his thing, and he had the entourage around him who were high-end, self-motivated inventors of xyz, the persons always in forefront of technology and new things.”
“We want to put that proposition forward: We are St. Regis, and that should continue but in the modern era. So we still want to be ahead of the business game when it comes to services or what we put forward as new things; check in with the mobile – all those things.”
This also steers the brand towards its main target customer in modern times: the Nouveau rich (newly rich). “This is the St. Regis client we have identified as the people we want to target; the entrepreneurs. That is not to say we do not accept other types of clients also, but it is how we present ourselves.”
Quoting the branding text it describes St. Regis in “today’s new Golden Age of luxury travel” as “bridging generations by providing a luxury experience that combines modern conveniences and technology with timeless design and personalized service to appeal to a new generation of high-powered, multinational luxury travellers.”
“If we take the example of Roger Moore, we do get quite a lot of stars from within entertainment, royalty etc. from various parts of the world and who have stayed here numerous times. So in that we definitely have that Roger Moore scenario, the persona we want,” says Krister.
Comparing with other prominent luxury hotels some of those brands offer a more old-fashioned, classic style of service and presentation, says the Swedish GM.
“Within Marriot you have The Ritz-Carlton and us, and it’s a bit elderly people who love to stay at The Ritz Carlton and get the Martini presented in an old-fashioned Martini glass; a bit more old-time style.”
“For us it’s about being a bit different within the luxury segment, having gone away from the traditional to being ahead of the game. But we still want to keep our traditions, such as champagne sabering each evening, and our Bloody Mary, which was founded in the Nat King Cole Bar in St. Regis New York in 1926.”
“We have established one for every St. Regis, so we have 32 different Bloody Marys. And we also have the butler service, which we want to keep as it is quite unique to our brand. But again, we must be with the time, callin it e-butler, and communicating on What’s Up. It is not the traditional service anticipation of knocking on the door to ask if the guest wants the tea served now.”
In tune with the times
“And that’s how the world works today. And therefore we want to be in tune with the times, even though we are luxury and with the heritage that goes back in time all the way to 1904. But back then John Jacob Astor IV was ahead of his time, and that legacy remains as we bring forward it with a modern style instead.”
Here and now 60 per cent of the world’s population today consists of Millennials (Generation Y). “That is the future so we have put in a whole lot of thought into how to get them to work with us, as they have a completely different view on how working life should be compared to what we 50-year-olds and the elderly think. And that has not been easy, it has been very difficult, partly to employ but also concerning those coming as guests.”
“We have definitely aimed incredibly at that target, for the brand to attract that kind of person and style, also non-Millennials. And all of us in the team today must continue to be part of this. Otherwise it won’t work; you’ll be way behind if you don’t have a smart phone or an iPad and knows how to handle these gadgets to do certain things.”
Those in the hotel’s signature St. Regis Butler Service undergo a rigorous training programme to work as butlers and many cannot cope with it because you need to be the master of all trades.
“They have to be digital savvy, and are the only ones running around with their own phone here. They are in high demand here at the hotel,” says its GM. “The butler service in every room is something incredibly appreciated.”
“At St. Regis we are incredibly focused on that. We try to find out as much as possible about you as a guest; what you like and do not like and what other hotels you have stayed in before etc. And based on those insights we should deliver when you stay with us.”
An incredible communication system is needed to keep this apparatus going where a whole team is involved. Unsurprisingly, the expectation for fast Internet is also high. St. Regis Bangkok has therefore installed Wi-Fi that goes way above the norm, currently with a download of 120 mbps and capacity for up to ten devices in each guest room.
And a lot more, says the GM, is still coming when it comes to digital.
TripAdvisor, the travel portal with user-generated reviews, is another key element for any hotel of significance these days. St. Regis Bangkok is ranked 13 in the Thai capital as we speak.
“We have a KPI to me, where I must manage to be top ten for example, and we do that only towards TripAdvisor so that is the number one communication tool for guest satisfaction. So we have established ourselves completely with them and have had conferences about it and what on can do – which is not really a lot because they have an enormous network.”
Getting a user comment removed, even if that comment can feel very unfair at occasions, is practically impossible.
“We have a study today saying that 70 per cent of travellers look at TripAdvisor today before they pick a hotel. So it’s super important for us.”
Often, the General Manager personally replies to the guest’s comments. “We adapt every time depending on what the guest has written. So we have a well-defined reply but with personalised parts to what you have said.”
Bangkok’s fierce competition
The other two challenges is the price war on rooms that persists in Bangkok, along with fierce competition with food and beverage, where the hotels relies a lot on drawing in outside guests to the bars and restaurants.
“The average rate war in Bangkok is the most difficult thing we have. We try to increase every year.”
Bangkok still has the lowest rooms rates in the whole region and priced between 7,000 and 8,500 bath St. Regis is 2,000 baht higher than most five-star hotels, explains Krister.
“Staying in a hotel like this should however cost between 300 – 400 USD per night, but it’s impossible to charge that unless the hotel owner is O.K to have 50 per cent occupancy and with a rate of 10 000 baht.”
“You’d rather have more people in the hotel that might then also use the bars and restaurants and other services.”
“And here in Bangkok with the trends within F&B, it’s not easy! You have really good restaurants in many districts and a crazy amount of them these days!”
“So I have started again with buffets. Thais want to see a lot food to say: ‘I’m paying this amount and I’m getting this spread!’ All restaurants outside do not serve buffets so I have initiated theme nights Mon – Sat. Eat as much as you can. And that’s the only way to bring in the people actually, though I have tried so many different things here. 95 per cent of the F&B revenue here comes from outside guests.”
“Then we have of course special nights: Oysters & Bubbles, Seafood Plateaus and Wine, and Wine & Cheese – priced just under or 1000 baht. Eat and drink as much as you want for two hours. Those nights are popular and that is how we must draw in the people.”
New hotel every fourteenth hour
The St. Regis has opened more luxury hotels in the region, most recently in Kuala Lumpur and on Langkawi, which also benefits drawing in brand followers who can go stay in several of the properties within only a few hours of travel.
With the brand now belonging to the Marriott family, the expansion of hotels within the group is at the same time enormous. “We will open new hotels, every fourteenth hour in the next three years worldwide!”
While Krister, being married to an Australian and having also worked there for many years, is aiming at ending his career there – going back to the brand he left for St. Regis is what comes next. W hotels. And he will remain in Southeast Asia. So it is time to turn a chapter in the book of Krister Svensson’s career – and the story will soon continue…