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The Langham London is renowned for its seamless joining of innovation and tradition, from the early adoption of hydraulic lifts, electric lighting and indoor plumbing to the Change-of-Day ritual Europe’s first “Grand Hotel” has conducted every day since it opened in 1865.
A century-and-a-half later, that single hotel, which served the likes of French emperor Louis-Napoleon III and Charles Dickens, has become the global empire Langham Hospitality Group, and chief executive officer Stefan Leser is fanatical about ensuring that reputation extends to all of the group’s properties.
Leser, a 30-year practitioner in the travel and hospitality industry, took the helm of the group’s global portfolio of hotels, resorts and residences in May.
Since 1995, Hong Kong property developer Great Eagle Holdings has owned the asset. The real-estate company, chaired by billionaire Lo Ka-shui and listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 1972, boasts extensive international hotel portfolio, comprising more than 38 hotels with more than 11,000 rooms at 33 locations spanning four continents.
The Langham Hospitality Group, set up in 2005, manages all hotels in its portfolio, which consists of two brands covering more than 20 countries: Langham Hotel and Resorts and the more recent five-star brand Cordis Hotel and Resorts. In Hong Kong, it operates Langham in Tsim Sha Tsui and Cordis in Mong Kok.
For Leser, the change in how people communicate is part of the secret behind the disruptive change in the traveling ecosystem. He recalls when he first started working at a travel agency, staff communicated with their colleagues in foreign countries via telex machines. The idea conjures a scene from an old movie of a printer connected to a telegraph that operates like a typewriter — in real life today, one would have to go to a museum to see one.
“In our days, everything is real-time. In the past, people relied on us (travel agents) for information; now, information is in your smartphone,” says Leser.
“Still, people rely on us (in the hospitality industry) to turn their personal information in terms of preferences into the right experiences for them, so what we do has, maybe, not changed, but the use and the context have changed.”
After leaving the travel agency, Leser spent eight years in information technology with Swissair, the former national airline of Switzerland. That experience equipped him to make rational judgments when it comes to technology in the tourism landscape, such as what platforms are appropriate, whether it is just a gimmick or of real value to customers.
The hospitality industry is no exception, as technology is transforming every sector and job role throughout the world. Leser’s experience could, therefore, benefit himself much as customers’ appetite now ranges from human interaction to more advanced, convenient technology.
To meet the latest trend, Langham uses technology extensively in areas such as building maintenance, automation, resource deployment and distribution support, Leser says. However, he highlights the uniqueness of the hospitality industry.
“We are operating a high-touch and service-oriented product, and the personal interaction, the attentiveness, the proximity to our clients is a major aspect we don’t want to replace with robots,” he explains.
“We might use the technology as optimization the background, but the human interaction for us is the key value proposition.”
In the next three years, Langham aims to double its portfolio from more than 30 projects currently either confirmed or in a developed stage of negotiation from Asia, Europe and North America to the Middle East.
The Chinese mainland is an important destination for Langham, with 10 hotels already opened and six to be operational next year in Chongqing, Dalian, Changsha, Ningbo, Shanghai and Hangzhou.
Leser sees the mainland as one of his focuses due to its mega market growth. “We take those clients when they travel abroad, and they stay in our properties in the US, in Australia, and in Europe. We will take them to travel China as well, as it is such a great travel destination.”
The group opened a flagship hotel in Hefei, Anhui province on Oct 22.
“One of our signatures is the color pink,” says Leser, showing a picture of Langham Hefei to China Daily. With a nod to the hotel’s British heritage and its signature color, the group decorated the inside of the hotel with pink roses.
Langham has created many surprises. The hotel, which claims to have invented the tradition of the afternoon tea, extends its high tea culture in almost every hotel in its portfolio. It also redecorated several classic black London cabs into “pink cabs” for guests taking short trips in major cities around the world.
Leser always believes in the tourism ecosystem, which led him back to the travel industry in 2005 with Swiss company Kuoni. Staying with the company for so many years, his philosophy is “people work so hard and we are there for the one or two weeks in a year where they recharge their battery, to give them the energy they need for the remaining of the year”.
Following that, he joined the Dubai-based Jumeirah Group as chief executive. This time, no longer sticking with the distribution side, he worked for the hotel from the hospitality perspective.
Both Hong Kong and Dubai, he says, are very good destinations for luxury branded hotels. But, he reckons Hong Kong, as the Asian financial hub, is a lot quicker, and more metropolitan, while Dubai is much more leisure-oriented and mainly focuses on the Middle East, richly endowed with its beaches, sun and sands. In Europe, there are a lot of unbranded family hotels and homestays, yet America offers more branded ones, according to Leser.
Hailing from Europe and having worked in Switzerland and Dubai, Leser, now stationed in Hong Kong, can meet clients, colleagues and customers from very different backgrounds.
Meeting them in the elevator and talking a few minutes is his habit. “I don’t think cultures are, necessarily, so different. But, the needs or the passion of people are different,” he says. “I think they all appreciate the personalized service that we are offering in an unobtrusive way.”
In terms of personalized service, he cites their pet-friendly accommodation, pet-sitting and dog-walking services in Langham Sydney with a charge of $120 per pet, per night. “We take care of your dogs, we take care of your cats, and almost as good as we take care of you.”
Staying in this industry for three decades, it makes him feel rewarded. “First of all, you have the opportunity to make people happy, which gives you a lot of energy, and even influence over people’s lives, be they clients, customers and guests, or colleagues,” he explains.
According to ForwardKeys, a global travel intelligence analyst, Chinese weekly bookings to the US from late March to August suffered an 8.4-percent slump on year as of August, likely due to the ongoing trade tensions between China and the US.
However, Leser sees tourism as a robust industry because while “tensions have come and gone, geopolitical issues, as well as other short-term issues or other phenomena, have always been the case”.
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