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Christopher Cowdray, CEO, Dorchester Collection

Christopher Cowdray

Sometimes referred to as the most beautiful collection of luxury hotels in the world, classic properties such as The Plaza Athénée in Paris, The Dorchester in London and the Beverly Hills Hotel in California were brought under one umbrella by Christopher Cowdray, without sacrificing their individuality.

With a strategy for measured growth and amazing service and suites, Dorchester Collection properties consistently end up on Elite Traveler’s 101 Top Suites list. Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan recently paid a visit to Dorchester Collection CEO Christopher Cowdray in his London office to get an update.

ET: Can you start by providing a background to the Dorchester Collection brand?

Christopher Cowdray: Dorchester Collection is now well established as a serious brand in the market. Five years ago we were just five individual hotels all working independently – today we are nine hotels all working under one brand. It is quite an accomplishment and we are very pleased with the recognition we are getting from both in and outside the industry. This has happened thanks in part to our promotion and advertising, which has been very strong, and also because we have a niche within the international luxury market. That was our vision—to be an international management company offering both the highest levels of service and the best experiences.

ET: You mentioned the brand portfolio has recently grown from five properties to nine. What are the most recent additions?

Christopher Cowdray: The Hotel Bel-Air came into the fold in 2008. After acquiring that property, we closed it down for two years and reopened it in October 2011. It needed a huge restoration investment, which has now been completed and, for that matter, very well received. The next property was Coworth Park, which is an estate that sits on 240 acres near Ascot. The property is a Georgian house that we converted into a hotel by adding extra rooms and a spa and opened two years ago last November. 45 Park Lane, which is adjacent to The Dorchester, opened a year later, in November 2011. That one has 46 rooms and provides a nice contemporary complement to The Dorchester. Finally, the Le Richemond, which we acquired last August, is about to embark on a renovation to bring it up to the standards of the rest of the collection, though it will stay open while that takes place. We invest continuously into our hotels to make sure they are up-to-date, relevant and meet the expectations of our customers. We are also about to begin a restoration of the Hotel Plaza Athénée—adding some extra suites and rooms, as well as a ballroom—which will begin this October and continue for eight months. The hotel is already in very good condition but it just needs some updates and modernization. The Hotel Principe Di Savoia is also recently completed, on which we spent a lot of money, while we just redid all the suites at The Dorchester and are now rolling out a two-year program to update all the rooms as well as The Grill. We also started a two-year renovation at The Beverly Hills Hotel last year. We did the lobby, which has been very well-received, and just re-opened the Polo Lounge. We will be starting the rooms in September.

ET: How would you describe Dorchester Collection’s niche in the luxury hotel market?

Christopher Cowdray: Most of our competitors are looking for rapid brand growth, looking to put hotels wherever they can put a flag, and I think that doesn’t always benefit those companies. There are destinations that don’t necessarily complement luxury hotels so we are looking to stay in key cities where we can offer the level of service, style and individuality that we demand from our hotels. We are never going to grow fast; we are never going to have 40, 50, 60 hotels. If we achieve 20 hotels in the next ten years I will be extremely satisfied. It’s going to be very slow though, as our next target is going to be 15 hotels. We have various opportunities which we are currently looking at, and we will see where we get to. I’m hoping to make an announcement this year, but finding existing hotels to which we can add our flag is not easy. Though we are looking at new builds as well, they are particular and have to be located in the right cities. It’s quite complex and we don’t function like other hotel companies that say “there’s a hotel, let’s put our flag on it.” I think owners now have to be more discerning. They want to know what they’re getting from a management side. There’s been a shift in ownership, which is a big opportunity, but we are a small team so we don’t have to look for mass growth. We want organic growth over the next few years.

ET: How does Dorchester Collection’s ownership structure differ from other luxury hotel companies? Do you have a specific strategy?

Christopher Cowdray: The hotels are primarily owned by the Brunei Investment Agency. Le Richemond is a third party management agreement, which fits into our strategy to look not only for acquisition but also third party agreements. Our strength in that field lies in the fact that we are able to look at everything from the owner’s point of view—because we also manage our own hotels—so we are not governed by the stock market as we are the desire to optimize our hotels’ performance. I think that is the salient difference between us and most major hotel companies today.

ET: What makes the Dorchester Collection experience unique for the consumer?

Christopher Cowdray: We have our pillars of hotels and service, but first and foremost we want to be authentic. That means we don’t use the same interior design throughout our hotels. Each one looks totally different. The Dorchester is different than the Hotel Plaza Athénée which is different from the Hotel Bel-Air. We spend a lot of time and money making sure that the personality of the individual hotel is either retained or created, in the case of a new build. The feel of our hotels is very important as we want them all to have an energy relevant to the city they are located in. The second part of our focus is service. We take feedback from our guests very seriously – we are continuously pushing the bar higher. One of our key values is summarized in the phrase “We care.” We put our people first and a lot of time is put into making sure our employees come to work highly motivated. We have an exceptionally high employee satisfaction rate. We hit 90% this year, which is exceptional when compared to other companies. At the same time, we look at customer satisfaction closely and always try to answer to the ethos of our company, which is constantly asking if we are meeting our customers expectations and, if not, why not?

ET: In terms of customer feedback, what are you hearing from today’s modern, luxury traveler?

Christopher Cowdray: The dominant comments are generally compliments on our staff. If you’re doing things right, customers are keen to tell you how well they’ve been received. It’s the little “niggles” they don’t like, such as if their air conditioning isn’t exactly right. It’s a little subjective because we find that American travelers love very cold rooms while other nationalities prefer them warmer. So how do we get that balance? We have that understanding now, at least. It’s all about understanding. If someone is saying something about the air conditioning, what is it that they mean? What’s been great is that people are very vocal and they are giving us really constructive feedback to work with.

ET: What is the future of luxury hotel service? How does Dorchester Collection balance the rise of new technology and classic hospitality principals?

Christopher Cowdray: Customers want to have an absolutely flawless, efficient stay but the key to it is, and has always been, the people. Whatever happens in the luxury market it is the engagement with the customer that is key. It’s about finding the common ground between the business traveler who arrives with no luggage and just wants to get up to the room and then head straight back out for meetings and the leisurely guest who wants to fully experience the hotel. At the end of the day everything has to be highly efficient and delivered with enthusiasm and a smile but because of younger clientele’s expectations changing on the technology front, we also need to play to that as well. The iPads are a revolution, we have put them in the Bel-Air and 45 Park Lane and they have been a phenomenal success. We don’t have a formal, print directory anymore because I challenged our teams and asked them to find out who actually went to our directories to get room service or international dialing codes. So we did a survey and found that hardly anyone used them. If you knew the amount of time hotels put into making those directories, in printing where you can get an extra hanger and then reprinting the entire directory when the restaurant hours change, you would know that they were a logistical nightmare. So we tried the iPads, and although I was concerned about room service because I thought the clientele, at the Hotel Bel-Air in particular, would want to have personal contact and physical menus, the sales improved. They’re going through, seeing the menu, ordering straight off that and it has become been a great success.

The iPad has exploded today. My parents, who are in their late 80s, both have iPads. It has traversed all these age groups because it’s exciting, it’s visual and it’s fun. We have instituted the same touch technology on the phones, which took a little longer for guests to get used to but that’s the way it’s going so we had to do it. You need to make sure you are relevant to the future, that you recognize that technology is driving things forward and that people like to have access to it. Of course, they still want their room service on time and beautifully served and when they arrive at a hotel they want to be greeted by name. Luxury hotels, in my time at least, will never have an automatic check-in like on airlines though we are looking to find out where we can add a little extra alternative and automated service for people who want it. I’m on the Lausanne Hotel School advisory board and last weekend a young man presented an app he developed that, when you arrived at the hotel, would recognize you and send your name and picture to the desk attendants so you could be greeted by name. All your information and preferences were contained within, so when you went to the restaurant the waiter would know how you liked your food. It has its drawbacks, because some people don’t want to be recognized when they go to hotels because they’ve been with different people and so on. We live in a very complex world now.

ET: A lot of major luxury hotel brands have instituted loyalty programs recently. What is Dorchester Collection’s philosophy on such programs?

Christopher Cowdray: We have toyed with the loyalty card, points-system thing. Every two years we organize an extensive focus group where we use an independent company to assemble a group of travelers, both those who have used our hotels and those who haven’t, and ask them a whole variety of questions. We do this on the U.S. west coast, east coast and in Europe and build our strategy from there. What is very clear is that people perceive a point-based loyalty program as something that does not befit a luxury company such as ours. If you look at a brand like Ritz-Carlton, they need to do everything they can to fill large 500-room hotels, whereas the biggest hotel we have is 300 rooms and the majority are around 200 or less. Our customers want to be recognized, and we seek to do that, but not through a rewards program.

ET: Out of the nine hotels in the collection, what our some of your highlights?

Christopher Cowdray: Well, one thing we have in all nine hotels is magnificent suites. I often get asked, “which suite is your nicest?” and I always say, “every one is different and they are all extraordinary.” At Coworth Park we have The Dower House, which is the brilliant main suite. You open your front door and there is a pond in front of you, and you’re overlooking fields and trees in your own little microcosm of nature. It date backs to the 1600s and differs from what we have at 45 Park Lane, which is a rooftop view of London in a more modern, contemporary environment where you just feel like you’re floating. We have a variety of top suites at The Dorchester, with studies, beautiful views, balconies and more. The Hotel Plaza Athénée has the Eiffel Tower Suite, where you feel as though you can touch the Eiffel Tower, and the new Royal Suite, which was completely redone last year with enormous 60-inch Bang & Olufsen screens and new furnishings kept in the Parisian style. Le Meurice’s Belle Etoile Royal Suite offers probably the best views of Paris, 360 degrees, right above the clouds. Le Richemond is going to have the beautiful Royal Armleder suite right on the roof when it’s done. It will be all glass, looking straight over Lake Leman at Mont Blanc. The Principe Di Savoia has the Presidential Suite with beautiful views over Milan. Finally take the Hotel Bel-Air, which has the most extraordinary suites that open onto your own courtyard, swimming pool, Jacuzzi and grand piano, and the two new bungalows at the Beverly Hills, which have their own swimming pools and indoor-outdoor living spaces. Our clientele have the most beautiful homes and our designers have all done residential work so they really understand the psyches of these travelers and try to design based upon what they would have at home. I’m very fortunate – our collection has the most amazing suites, from the penthouses all the way down to the one-bedrooms. If you’re interested in learning more, we also have an iPad application that has all the suites for all our hotels. It’s basically a suite brochure that exists in digital form.

ET: With restaurants from Wolfgang Puck to seasonal ice skating rinks, what is Dorchester Collection’s philosophy on special services?

Christopher Cowdray: Food and beverage is very important to us and the feedback we get from our guests shows that they really like the variety of dining options that we have, so we continue to look for those. We now have a three Michelin-star dining option at The Dorchester, a two Michelin-star option and an Alain Ducasse outpost at the Hotel Plaza Athénée and Wolfgang Puck restaurants at both 45 Park Lane and the Hotel Bel-Air. We don’t have synced chefs everywhere but there is a big focus on making sure our food and beverage options are relevant for both our travelers and our properties’ local societies because we want locals to want to dine at our hotels; at China Tang, at The Grill, at Alain Ducasse. That’s why we are redoing The Grill at The Dorchester this year. CUT at 45 Park Lane is a phenomenal success because it brings local relevance to the hotel.

We also focus on spas and each of our hotels have lovely ones. Some we do by ourselves and some we do with other brands, such as Christian Dior at the Hotel Plaza Athénée, which is relevant there, and La Prairie in Los Angeles. But at Coworth Park and The Dorchester, which are our two most profitable spas, we run them with a whole variety of different treatments and products. We are seeing a shift toward selective treatments based on whether you have dry or oily skin, allergies or no allergies and so on. We also made a concerted effort not to go exclusively “Asian” in our spas. Over the years, if you went to a spa, whether in London or America, they had to be Asian-themed because that was the experience. I don’t agree with that. I think the experience should be relative to where you are. At Le Meurice we have Spa Valmont, run by a French brand, which we just redid in order to make it relevant to Paris. Same with Coworth Park, where the spaces feel like the outdoors have come inside. Basically it’s just about being comfortable.

ET: Can you talk about Dorchester Collection’s meeting facilities as well?

Christopher Cowdray: All the hotels have facilities for small board meetings, with room for just a few people and larger groups as well. The only hotel that doesn’t have its own dedicated facilities is 45 Park Lane, which uses The Dorchester board room. At the Hotel Plaza Athénée we are adding more meeting rooms to the pre-existing two. All the hotels are well-versed in catering to board meetings at the highest level.

ET: Do you have any closing thoughts?

Christopher Cowdray: Going back to the topic of technology, I think what is particularly crucial, and what is expected from all travelers today, is high-speed, wi-fi connectivity. That has to be an absolute must. The connections can be very hit and miss because of the capital investment. If you go down to Starbucks you can get connected, but if there’s ten people there you aren’t going to get the speed you want. Our travelers are coming with their laptops and devices and they want high speed connections and large volume downloads and yet you have 200 full rooms all wanting the same. You have a lot of people who want to get onto the internet, and they don’t care if there are another 20 people trying to do the same – it is irrelevant. What people don’t realize is how much it costs to deliver and maintain that infrastructure. Not only do you need the infrastructure, the wi-fi points and connectivity and so on, you also need bandwidth and failsafe bandwidth so that when the bandwidth goes down, as it will, even if you get the best provider, you will have a backup. All of this is expensive, totaling thousands of dollars a month to provide what our customers are expecting for free. I think the people who understand, who really want high-quality internet access, don’t mind paying for it. The people who just want to send a email or two, however, want it for free. So what we have done is create service grades. The first one is absolutely free if you just want to check your email and so on, but if you want to download movies or, like a lot families, are bringing five devices with you, then you can pay for upgraded service.