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Sofitel's Robert Gaymer-Jones: I don't want to be consistent, I want to surprise

The luxury hotel world is driven by personality, says Robert Gaymer-Jones. He is building that through passion, service and a touch of local flavours

By Robert Gaymer-Jones
Published: Jun 28, 2012
Image: Sunil Raju For Forbes India

I started in the hotel business at the very bottom as an apprentice chef and rose through to become GM. I felt it was important to understand all parts of the business. The only place I haven’t worked at is HR.

I was brought in [as chief operating officer of Sofitel in Paris in 2007] to reposition the company. The brand was all over the place. Accor, the mother brand [which is a French company], is renowned in the budget sector of hotels; they make a lot of money in that segment. I convinced Accor to move Sofitel into the luxury segment. It was a challenge to put Sofitel on the map in the luxury level. We created an independent company within Accor and got autonomy to make the decisions. For this, we had to sell the vision of where we wanted to take the company. We were pulling hotels out of a multi-brand structure and putting them into an independent company called Sofitel and a management company called Solux.

We then went hotel by hotel and decided which hotel would fit the new positioning of Sofitel. At this point, people had doubts whether our strategy [of Sofitel as a separate company, of reducing our network of hotels and our play in the luxury hotels sector] would be successful. But we were consistent on what our direction was going to be.

Fortunately, I had a boss who was supportive of our strategy. He showed that we were aligned to fight the fights necessary to let the guys at Sofitel do what they’re supposed to do. It wasn’t brutal, but there’s a confidence thing. A strategy works as long as you don’t waver. The people who questioned our strategy are now our biggest fans. However, there was a negative impact as some of the hotels were not right for Sofitel’s strategy. We had to change the perceptions of clients who felt that Sofitel would not be able to reach the level of luxury we were talking about. We had to change both internal and external negative perceptions, and at the same time reposition the brand and come up with two new brands, So and Legend. The tipping point was financial profitability. When we started to make more money with 120 hotels than with [the earlier tally of] 206, it showed that the company was a valuable asset to the organisation.

We created a vision without intimidating people with numbers. That vision aligned everybody to the direction we wanted to go. The company realised that we were strong in our strategy, that we weren’t going to waver—and we had a lot of chances to move away from the strategy! Particularly during the global financial crisis. We made a decision not to cut back on amenities. Since 2009, we have won several globally recognised awards.

At Sofitel, I’m surrounded by some very talented people. My team creates the look and feel of the hotels, while I bring in a little Anglo-Saxon directness of getting things done. The mixture works really well.

As an international company, there are some things that are important such as design and gastronomy, and blending it into the local culture. So, we’ve created this cultural adaptation, with me joining the company and working with my French colleagues to create something that is quite unique. It’s not too French, not too Anglo-Saxon, but it resonates with the guests in each country where we have hotels.      

What we’ve done is create a cultural exchange in design, training, style and service. Whether it’s Mumbai or Bangkok or Paris, you try to adapt to the location. Not just in design, but in gastronomy, food, wine and training. We don’t allow ourselves to be stereotyped; we want to make sure we adjust to the cultural diversity of the location.

I think the luxury hotel world is less about strong brands and more about personality. The idea of a brand being consistent…I don’t want to be consistent, I want to surprise you positively. [A guest] should think, this is not what I expected.

We focus more on the senses—smell, sight and touch. We give each of our designers a blank canvas. Isabelle Miaja, who’s the designer here [Mumbai], came to us with her own designs from a blank sheet of paper and we interpreted it from an operational point of view. Our designers are not restricted by what they should and should not do.

Even though we use famous designers, we have them working with local designers. You cannot know everything about India sitting in Paris.

Because we’ve focussed so much on design, women have started noticing the small things that we have done, accessorising the bedroom, etc. So, we became popular among female business travellers. It just happened by chance, and we like it.

We focussed on French cooking blended with local cuisine. We’ve identified one of the best chefs in India— Shaukat Ali Qureshi. And we have a chef who’s Australian, but obviously does not know Oriental cooking. Making sure you have the right chef, the right designer and the right cultural training are all as important as the actual investment itself. Otherwise, it becomes wooden dollars.

I think right now for you to be successful in the hotel business, you have to have a personality that can engage people—fellow workers, clients etc. There is expertise everywhere. My job is to rope in the expertise required to make decisions that are right for the company. The thing is to ask the question, how can we make this work? I walk the departments—through the kitchen, the laundry—I just chat with the ladies there. I learn as much from them as they do from me. Nobody likes to be micro-managed; the GM is here to support the people and the organisation.

I turn to my team. They’re the ones who validate, through discussion, what works and what doesn’t. Once we all agree on the direction we want to take, we all feel committed and go in the same direction. It just takes time to agree. Once everybody agrees, it’s amazing how involved everyone is. I speak with the owners [Sofitel’s partners in each location] and I speak with my boss. But I’ve never had a situation where I don’t know what to do. The way it works, at least in our team, is that once we’ve gone through the debate and we agree, we just do it. If it’s a mistake, all are responsible and that’s the kind of vision I’d like to create.

It takes passion from the GM to get your people to show true passion for what they do; to be creative; to use your heart to make decisions versus using your head.

In our business, amazing things are happening all around us. Amazing levels of service are happening. What we don’t do is talk enough about it. The more you talk about those sort of things, the more people genuinely relate to doing that kind of service. And then you see people who did not give that level of service before being able to read what the guests want.  

We sometimes choose our own locations, and not necessarily where everyone is. We felt that the BKC [Bandra-Kurla Complex in Mumbai] was the right location because it is in the middle of the diamond trading area. Plus, there are lots of embassies and schools here. We feel this area has a lot of potential.

Once the hotels are in the right location, the opportunity to develop a new client base significantly improves. We own 40 percent of this hotel [in Mumbai]. It tells the investment community that you’re putting your own money and not just using other people’s money to run hotels.

In 2012, we’re opening seven hotels. By the time we get to 2015, we’d like to have 150 hotels and that’s a really nice size for a hotel company.

(As told to Bharat Bhagnani)

(This story appears in the 06 July, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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