The Dorchester Collection
The Dorchester Collection includes some the world’s most famous hotels in some of the most important world capitals. Its Chief Executive Officer is a former General Manager who has guided the likes of Claridge’s, the Al Bustan Palace in Oman and the group’s flagship, The Dorchester, all while building a considerable shelf of awards.
As an in demand speaker, his profile describes him simply: “A first impression of Chris Cowdray is of a gentleman and professional. His qualities include inner calm, absolute integrity, belief in others, astute business awareness and a passion for excellence and world class customer service. His skills include the ability to transform business through people, the capacity to lead others in both self-reflection and innovative thinking, and highly effective communication. It is not surprising therefore that he commands the loyalty and love of his staff.”
Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan caught up with Cowdray at the company’s head office just off Hyde Park in London to find out how the exclusive group is navigating the crisis and how it is moving forward despite the trials of many other luxury hotels.
ET: Tell us about your career.
Chris Cowdray: I’ve been in the industry for 20 years. I’ve had a very global career working in the Middle East, Far East and here in London. I didn’t start in the industry. I was a chartered accountant and through certain circumstances wound up in hotels and have never regretted it.
ET: Can you give us an overview of The Dorchester Collection portfolio?
Chris Cowdray: We have The Dorchester in London. In the U.S., we have The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air, which is currently closed and going through an extensive renovation, and The New York Palace joined the Collection last year. In Paris, we have The Plaza Athénée and Le Meurice, and in Milan The Principe de Savoia. We have coming Coworth Park, a country house estate and spa in Berkshire, and 45 Park Lane in London, right next to The Dorchester.
ET: What separates The Dorchester Collection from other luxury hotels and groups?
Chris Cowdray: Our hotels are iconic, so in all cases we enjoy a clientele who experiences the very best and expects the very best. So that’s the clientele our hotels appeal to. Aside from the physical product side of it we spend an enormous amount of money investing in our product. We have amazing locations and we have an enormous amount of heritage in our hotels. We also have guests whose fathers and mothers and grandparents have stayed at our hotels so they identify with the level of service we provide and the personal attention they get from our staff.
ET: Are all the hotels owned or do you also manage hotels?
Chris Cowdray: We own all the properties.
ET: Have you made any cutbacks since the start of the crisis?
Chris Cowdray: In terms of what guests see, there are absolutely no changes at all. At the start of this crisis we pledged that in no way would our guest experience be affected. In fact it’s gotten even better. We haven’t deviated from service standards or employee satisfaction standards. What we did do is look behind the scenes. In any organization a recession makes you stop and think if you really need to do that, whatever that may be. We put on weight. Yes performance is down but we don’t have the debt others have and we’ve been able to weather it extremely well by focusing on our employees and our guests.
ET: What were the places you shed some weight?
Chris Cowdray: Absolutely behind the scenes: things like printing stationary, negotiating contracts, the relationship you have with your suppliers and that side of it. When it comes to capital investment we actually increased our capital investment. We moved forward some of the programs we had scheduled for 2010-2011 and brought them forward to 2009 so our overall expenditure for the company was even higher. We didn’t hold back on anything that was going to affect the physical status of the product or guest services. We have a huge reinvestment program again this year and going on through next year in our hotels.
ET: Can you give us some examples of the capital improvements?
Chris Cowdray: At The Dorchester we opened a new spa last quarter last year, and it has been a fantastic success. At Principe de Savoia we are rolling program main areas, the bar—it’s absolutely stunning—and redoing guest rooms.
At both Le Meurice and Plaza Athénée one floor is out for renovations and at Plaza Athénée we have purchased two adjoining buildings and are assessing how to integrate them with the hotel. We particularly need banqueting space. The Bel-Air is completely closed and it is going to be spectacular when we are done. At The Beverly Hills Hotel in November we will have two new very large and luxurious bungalows, each self-contained with three bedrooms and private swimming pools.
ET: What’s a typical day for Christoper Cowdray?
Chris Cowdray: It’s a fantastic job. A lot of my time is spent visiting hotels, finalizing designs for projects, looking at financial performance and looking for opportunities. My role is fairly strategic.
ET: Ever miss being a General Manager?
Chris Cowdray: I loved being a hotel manager, but it is very exciting to build what is a very incredible company.
ET: What do you look for when you walk into a hotel?
Chris Cowdray: Has it really got a soul to it? Are the people happy? Does it all connect? Does it look in good condition? Is the entire property nourished? You quickly pick up the atmosphere and if it’s working or not. You always look at whether the staff is well groomed, but I really look for what the overall experience is. As I guest, would I enjoy being there?
ET: What does it take to be a top General Manager?
Chris Cowdray: I think there are two things. The first is you have to believe in yourself. It’s a people business, and if you don’t get your people behind you, you won’t succeed. The other is to have a clear strategic focus and always get every employee aligned with that. It takes great attention to detail and then finding a way to inspire people to work towards that.
ET: How do you support staff when you have a demanding guest who is unhappy?
Chris Cowdray: We do have the most demanding guests and that’s what differentiates us, and we try to train our staff to deal with it. It’s knowing what your clientele wants, supporting your staff and a lot of time it’s just stepping in there and listening. In this business mistakes happen. How do you recover? We try through good communication and being calm. But in the end you don’t beat up the employees.
ET: Are your roots as an accountant helpful?
Chris Cowdray: Being able to look at financial performance and quickly identify where you may have issues is a plus. I enjoy figures and I enjoy the business side of it.
ET: Any concern about getting into management agreements where you have less control?
Chris Cowdray: We are going to be very careful about the partners we choose. I’ve been on both sides. Owners hate surprises. The way it works at the moment is while we own the hotels in The Dorchester Collection we are managing the hotels on behalf of our owner. You have to make sure you understand their expectations.
ET: When you’re not working, what are your favorite escapes?
Chris Cowdray: I love sailing and walking. The British Virgin Islands and Sydney Harbor are both fantastic.
As for resorts, One&Only Le Saint Géran in Mauritius is probably my favorite hotel in the world for just getting away as far as the location, the way it’s run and its sensitivity to the local environment, and also Little Dix Bay in Virgin Gorda is a favorite.
ET: Any final thoughts or comments?
Chris Cowdray: I think Coworth Park will be something your readers will really enjoy. It is close to Ascot, in the heart of five of this country’s top golf courses, right near Heathrow and Biggin Hill for private jets. It will be excellent for meetings and board meetings. It has an equestrian center and polo fields. The Dow House is a three-bedroom cottage dating back to 1775 with its own garden and little pond and swimming pool. It is very eco-friendly with a lot of emphasis on sustainability.