Changing With The Times
First opened in New York City in 1904 by business mogul John Jacob Astor IV, The St. Regis brand has been built on the principle that each of its discerning guests will live to remember being touched by the personification of sheer luxury. Setting the standard in the City of Angels for the past 10 years, The St. Regis Bangkok occupies the capital’s most envious address with splendid views across one of the largest green spaces in the city, The Royal Bangkok Sports Club.
At the helm of The St. Regis Bangkok is Klaus Christandl, a hospitality professional whose career has taken him from his native Austria to Asia, then to the Middle East and now back to Asia working for some of the most famous luxurious hotel brands along the way. After spending 23 years with Starwood Group, he was involved in the mega-merger between Starwood and Marriott in 2016, spent time with two very diverse properties of The Luxury Collection before arriving in Bangkok via a stint as General Manager of The St. Regis Singapore.
“In hospitality, I am a great believer in the fact that the brand must be driven and positioned with customer focussed strategy. Hospitality is and must remain hospitality. It is so important that regardless of the number of stars your brand carries, it is the promise that you make to take care of all your guests that ultimately counts. Over the past few years, guest expectations have significantly evolved and the biggest element we can contribute to a guest experience is to provide more certainty, especially these days with Covid-19,” said the charismatic General Manager.
Around the world, traditional heritage hotels are experiencing a seismic shift in guest profiles and behaviour. The old-money travellers of North America and Europe are quickly being replaced by a new generation of young, financially independent travellers who appreciate the unprecedented levels of personalised service typified by brands such as The St. Regis.
“Our guest profile has changed dramatically over the past decade. The diversity of our guests has significantly increased and the once archetypal St. Regis guest is now rarely seen in Asia. Our brand is attracting a much larger Asian portfolio than we could have imagined just a few years ago. It is a very different type of customer we are welcoming today, a more fast-paced, transient customer base.
“For us the key has been, and always will be, the service we provide. A key selling point for us is our Butler Service experience, which is available to every guest at The St. Regis Bangkok. The fact that during a guest’s stay there is a dedicated individual that looks after your needs, takes care of your preferences and continuously evolves with the guest to provide a unique experience. Our Butlers are quick to pick up on new clues on guest preferences and make sure it is taken onboard and communicated internally so we have consistency in delivering on these guest preferences.
“We have a lot of guests that use the unpacking and packing service provided by our Butlers. These are busy corporate guests who are in and out of the hotel very frequently during their stay. I’d say it is the finer touches of our team of all Thai Butlers that really fascinates me. They are empowered to go that extra step and excel in leaving personalised messages wishing guests a happy birthday or happy anniversary. The feedback and photographs we receive from our guests make us feel so special. The service that sets us apart is the level of personalisation that creates a comfort for our guests so they feel as if they are at home,” adds the soft-spoken Christandl.
The St. Regis Bangkok has its own in-house Learning and Development Department where wannabe Butlers are put through their paces. Training modules have evolved over the years to include a Service Culture component where butlers are trained on the nuances of individual guests so they can better craft personalised experiences. While many hotels would look towards diversity as an important aspect of teamwork, Christandl believes that his Thai team of Butlers is a huge asset for the property.
While all hotels around the world continue to adjust their guest services and product offerings due to the changing pandemic, Christandl remains confident that The St. Regis Bangkok has struck the right balance between guest comfort and adherence to the strict social distancing and health and safety protocols. Covid-19 has been the most problematic issue facing the hospitality industry with forced shutdowns, partial openings and continuously evolving restrictions on operating, but thanks to coordinated global efforts the sector is slowly finding its footing again.
“Covid-19 has definitely been the most challenging in terms of the unknown. In order to protect both our workforce and our business, and I purposefully say it in that sequence, because that is where our strength lies. We had to act fast. It was very challenging to get through 2020 but I remain confident that our team came through it much stronger because we crafted solutions towards building a safer future. I am also a great believer that despite everything we’re seeing and experiencing right now, global travel will return. It is simply human nature to see, explore and travel,” he says with a wide smile.
So, as the festivities kick off to celebrate The St. Regis Bangkok’s tenth anniversary, Christandl tells me there are a great deal of projects in the pipeline that would have been undertaken by now were it not for Covid-19. While more work intensive elements such as guest room upgrades have been postponed for the time being, overall maintenance has not been affected. Furthermore, guest-facing services such as food and beverage offerings, spa and medical health therapies continue apace.
“What we really want to develop over the next few years is to make The St. Regis Bangkok the best address in the city in the sense of it being a very unique place to experience the next level in culinary diversity and wellbeing options. A brand like The St. Regis cannot sit idle, to the contrary we need to be ahead of the competition in terms of evolving and developing. We’re creating new food and beverage experiences on the ground floor with the successful Zuma and the opening of a world-class dining venue with IGNIV Bangkok.
“We are eyeing with the idea at taking IGNIV Bangkok into the lobby lounge area when the situation improves and in the meantime we are working closely with Master Chef Andreas Caminada to plan for that. When we do launch, the whole ground floor will be a high-energy, bustling top-class dining experience. Likewise, we want to create a wellness centre on the 15th floor where Clinique La Prairie Aesthetics and Medical Spa is located. It will become an oasis in the middle of the city and will not only provide guests with wellness spa treatments but also very specialised treatments from the medical aesthetics side of the spa. There will be a whole suite of holistic programmes that tap into areas such as workout guidance, nutrition and well-being.
“A lot of the traditions of the original St. Regis in New York, now 117 years in the making, are alive here. For me, it is so important that as a team we celebrate these traditions rather than just have them in place. Our Afternoon Tea, for example, is a very old-style catering tradition that we don’t just replicate here in order to have it here and tick the box, but every time we host it, it is a celebration; it’s different. The St. Regis Bangkok is leading the pack and our team believes it is something that needs celebrating and we help our guests experience it differently all the time but never letting go of the core element of fine tea, inspiring pastries and flavours and always incorporating a little “Thai-ness” into the selection,” says Christandl.
As vaccination rollouts around the globe continue to ramp up, there is a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel that hospitality will witness the green shoots of growth again. The next few years, will be about the energy and culture of hospitality as hotels implement staff development and training to deal with the ‘new normal’. Christandl also continues to make himself readily available to his team members with open breakfast meetings and afternoon tea chats. It is here that hosts from various departments can speak their minds and seek answers from the man at the top.
“It is great that our hosts can experience breakfast and afternoon tea with me, but nothing is given freely and I expect every host to come well prepared and armed with questions and suggestions. So far, I’ve been asked all types of questions and I find it so rewarding not only to take these questions but to also give answers. One of my core principles throughout my entire career in hospitality has always been that every question gets an answer. These interactions are great because the hosts go back and share ideas, which are then published on the host notice board for everyone to see,” he adds.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it more than one problem for hotels and a unique challenge that many hotels, including The St. Regis Bangkok, are facing is people looking at last minute reservations. With so many hotels in need of clients, customers know they can pitch up at the last minute and grab a room or a table without a hitch. The widespread use of apps has made choosing where to stay or where to eat much more convenient for customers.
“In a hotel like ours pre-Covid-19, I could not recall reservations for room stays on the day for the day. It just would not have happened very frequently. Now, despite low volumes, we are receiving bookings every day. Guests’ booking behaviour – not just for accommodation but also for F&B – has gone to a very last minute model. This makes it more challenging in terms of being prepared. We need to be very agile and flexible to meet these last minute demands.
“I think after reopening in July last year, we now have a good balance. Like most luxury hotels, we did not quite understand the domestic market to the fullest. Normally, the local market would equate to less than ten percent of our business, now though it is exceeding 90%. Encouragingly, we are seeing small domestic corporate groups coming back and our corporate related business meetings are on the rise,” he informs me.
As part of The St. Regis Bangkok’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme, the hotel’s team has taken part in numerous grassroots charities and fun runs, while from a corporate perspective the hotel has hosted annual charity gala dinners which have raised substantial funds for charities under the royal patronage of HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. One particular CSR event that resonated with Christandl, was that for a colleague who suffered a life altering accident. The hotel’s teams organised a football tournament with many other businesses and raised a great deal of money to help in their colleague’s rehabilitation.
When Christandl is able to tear himself away from work, he tells me he relaxes and takes inspiration from nature. “Being Austrian, I love to breathe clean air; that’s in my DNA. Here in Bangkok, I enjoy taking long walks with my wife in King Rama IX Park in Suan Luang. It is a beautiful place and I draw my energy from nature. You can see nature regrow and I believe with positive energy we can all make great things happen.”
While it is not guaranteed to happen in 2021, the global hospitality industry will eventually regrow just like plants in nature do. The industry will be led by corporate clients, who while happy to use technologies such as Zoom and Skype to communicate with customers, know that face to face personalised meetings followed by drinks and dinner are the key to doing business. Slowly also leisure travel will re-gain in numbers.