Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH) is sporting a new look under the helm of a new CEO for its 25th anniversary year. As the luxury brand looks forward to 2016 and the launch of a new risque marketing campaign, plans to expand into South America, Asia and North America—namely Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego—are top priority for Filip Boyen, the newly appointed CEO of Small Luxury Hotels of the World and former COO and senior v.p. of Belmond Hotels. Although the brand has been championing small hotels for 25 years, Boyen noted that there is “lots of room for improvement” in an interview I had with him earlier this month. Read on to find out how SLH plans to adopt an edgy persona while maintaining its commitment to representing the “local flavor of luxury” within its member properties.
Melissa Bryant (MB) What attracted you to join Small Luxury Hotels of the World’s team?
Filip Boyen (FB): I had some experience, or should I say a lot of experience, with affiliation companies, such as The Leading Hotels of the World (LHW), Relais & Chateaux, and so on, and the organization has always interested me. However, what really drew me was the memory of an experience I had with SLH when I was in Lima, Peru, when Orient-Express Hotels (now Belmond) bought the Miraflores Park Plaza (now the Belmond Miraflores Park)—a member of SLH. I still remember the pride it gave me to be part of such a reputable brand, and the feeling of togetherness. So I’ve been following SLH for a while, and then when I had the opportunity to join SLH that intrigued me.
On top of that, the competitive landscape has changed dramatically compared to 30 years ago. Not only are we dealing with competition from LHW and Relais & Chateaux, but in addition to that we have competition from the OTAs, the online travel agencies, such as Airbnb. So it’s a very interesting and challenging time. Competition is fiercer than ever and I still have a lot of energy in me and I thought that this would be a great challenge for me to see how we can improve the quality of the brand and how we can take the brand forward and grow brand awareness.
MB: What does your new position entail?
FB: One task that I will be focusing on is expanding our portfolio, because I have some very clear ideas on that. Expanding the portfolio for me is not about quantity, it is all about quality. We’ve just done a new inspection reform, which leans much more towards the emotional relation that there is between service and the guest, because I want to make it harder for people to join and harder for people to stay in the brand. In other words, we are increasing the level of inspection to once a year, instead of every two years, and we’ve just hired another 30 or so inspectors to make that possible. As of 2016, we will do inspections every year for every property. The reason for this is two-fold. If you are a GM of a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, you want to know that there is consistency across the portfolio, and more importantly, our travel agencies, travel partners and the consumer deserve and expect a level of excellence across the portfolio.
MB: What specifications must a hotel meet in order to be considered by SLH?
FB: The good thing about SLH is that the style of hotel can be classic, a chateau in France, or a very modern and contemporary hotel, it doesn’t matter. The main requirement is having a top-level product, impeccable service, a very, very strong sense of place and integration in the local community. Guests need to know where they are in their room without opening the curtains. They need to be very much connected with the community because that is what the modern traveler is looking for.
MB: What is in high demand from customers nowadays as far as what they expect from a luxury hotel? How is SLH responding to these demands?
FB: They are looking for loyalty programs that are meaningful, so we are currently in the process of revamping our loyalty program. In 2016 we will come out with a brand-new program; I can’t tell you what that is going to be because we have not finalized it. Seventy to 75 percent of our clients are leisure travelers, so the principal and basis of that program has to be completely different than what the big brands are offering. And apart from that, I think high-quality rooms and impeccable service are expected, as well as guests feeling as though they are apart of the community. I think social responsibility is becoming more and more important. A good example is when I was in Bora Bora. We went swimming with sharks and stingrays, and then later on, they brought us to a private island with a dining table in the water and the best china, silver cutlery and crystal glasses was used, and we had this beautiful little barbecue. Fast forward 10 years to my experience in Peru and the luxury experience was much, much, much simpler than it was in Bora Bora. Between Machu Picchu and the salt mines somewhere on top of a hill, we spread a Peruvian blanket on the floor and had a picnic. A llama was carrying the whole picnic for us, and it was all simple meal with local cheese and local meat. I think luxury is becoming a lot more simpler. I think luxury is becoming something about what do you leave out and not what do you add.
MB: What are SLH’s membership fees?
FB: The average size of one our member hotels is 48 rooms, and for a 50-room hotel the membership fee is close to 20,000 pounds ($30,337) a year, and on top of that you have the transaction fees for reservations. We have 86 planned sales events happening worldwide next year and SLH members have the opportunity to join any of those road shows, so to speak, and for that we charge as well. I’ve attended two a few months ago. I went to Amsterdam and Paris, just to make sure that whatever we do, we represent the brand well. In Paris, there were about 50 hotels and 113 travel agents, journalists and consortias in attendance, and we held the conference on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, so it doesn’t get any better than that. But that’s what our services are all about, connecting the right hotels with the right type of clients.
MB: How does SLH differentiate itself in the international luxury hospitality scene?
FB: Well first of all, I think we have a major advantage. Most of our hotels have been in their destinations for a long time, so they are sort of embedded in their destinations, they are an actual part of the community. So for them to provide those kinds of experiences for the client is basically second nature. My opinion is that to hang a few local paintings in the lobby does not give you a sense of place and what ultimately happens is that the brand DNA of these big companies always creeps into hotels like that. In the end, they find it very difficult to run these hotels differently than the way they run their bigger hotels. So that means that the personal touch in not as spontaneous. I don’t feel that the experiences there are as deep and as meaningful as they are in our hotels. They’re also not used to it. We’ve been championing small hotels for 25 years and I think we’re pretty darn good at it.
MB: Tell me about SLH’s new logo?
FB: We’re all very excited about our new logo that we recently created. We think it’s a lot fresher and it’s a lot more modern with a little contemporary touch. I think it will differentiate us. We’re also working hard on the brand campaign that we are going to launch next year. I want it to be a little bit sexy, a little bit naughty and a little bit different, because I want the campaign to also play around being independently minded. What I have in mind is to feature a few people that are well-known, not celebrities but well-known individuals that are a little bit controversial in a good way, people with a bit of a reputation. I would love to involve them in our brand campaign. I think a brand is good if a customer or a consumer recognizes themselves in that brand.
MB: How important is travel agents’ role to SLH?
FB: Very, very important. Two-thirds of our profits are made through travel agents or are made by travel agents and more than 50 percent of that two-thirds is from North American travel agents. So we haven’t even scratched the surface there. So you can imagine what the potential is once we have hotels in the North American cities that we are targeting.
MB: What benefits/incentives do you extend to agents for their bookings?
FB: We’re launching a new program that is called Small Luxury Heroes for travel agents, so we will reward them for the bookings they are making and also because it is our 25th anniversary, we are giving out 25 $1,000 gift certificates to top-selling travel agents. Those agents will also be rewarded complimentary hotel stays.
MB: What is in the works for the future of SLH? Is there any exciting news on the horizon?
FB: We have an existing club with 400,000 members, but I want to increase the level of activity of those members and increase their level of engagement with the brand, because a good club member is also an ambassador to the brand. We have our Small Luxury Hotels of the World iPhone app launching for iPhones next month and for Android next March. We have a new Internet booking engine that is currently being rolled out to our member hotels; it has a mobile function as well. We are updating our Chinese website to make it more meaningful and functional and then in 2016 we will launch a Spanish website and in 2017 we will launch a German website.
For more information, visit slh.com/travel-agents.