SECRETS OFA GRAND HOTEL
THE HI-TECH INNOVATIONS THAT BRING THE PENINSULA’S CREED OF PERSONALISED SERVICE INTO THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD ARE DREAMED UP, TESTED AND REFINED IN AN UNPREPOSSESSING FACTORY IN HONG KONG
In the back streets of Aberdeen, in the Southern District of Hong Kong, in a nondescript factory building and up a couple of flights of stairs, sits the nerve centre of Peninsula Hotels. It looks more like a small, busy IT company than anything to do with a five-star luxury hotel brand, but this is the engine room for the innovations that make a Peninsula hotel stand out from the rest. It’s Peninsula’s own technology laboratory where its famous in-room electronics are dreamt up, designed and tested. It’s in a very un-Peninsula location, tucked away in an industrial part of Hong Kong, so that it’s a secret from prying eyes. Peninsula prides itself on its in-room technology, and if you’ve ever stayed in one of its nine hotels around the world and not given the technology in the room a second thought, then that’s exactly how Peninsula would like it. Normally here at WISH our eyes would glaze over if we were offered a tour of a hotel’s IT department, but this is the Peninsula experience — a very modern incarnation of what makes this 85-year-old hotel unique. It’s been designed with the end-user in mind, which in a city such as Hong Kong could be absolutely anybody. Priding itself on its standard of service — there is a staff-to-guest ratio of three to one — the Peninsula sees the inroom technology as far from just gimmickry but as the contemporary embodiment of that legendary service, which has won this hotel accolades as one of the world’s best ever since it opened in 1928.
“The technology is very much part of our DNA now,” says Peter Borer, chief operating officer of Peninsula Hotels. “I think the beauty of this system is that it’s fully integrated. It doesn’t just operate the curtains and the airconditioning; it entertains you and gives you personalised service.”
The tablet-based interface is available in five languages and as well as operating all of the room functions such as the lighting and heating, guests can use it to order room service, call the maid, check the weather, read
about the city they’re in, make free local and international VoIP phone calls and control the television and sound system. Plenty of hotels have hitech rooms, but the Peninsula’s technology stands out for its ease of use, intuitive design and ability to enhance, rather than hinder, the guest experience. Every piece of technology in the room is connected in some way, so if you’re watching TV and the phone rings the volume will automatically lower so you don’t have to reach for the remote control. If the phone rings in the middle of the night, the night light comes on. It’s touch-of-abutton access to almost anything a guest might want while in the hotel.
“We believe that right now this is the most personalised guestroom in the world, and that’s what guests want — it’s what luxury is. It’s not about a cookiecutter approach to service,” says Borer.
The Peninsula Hong Kong recently underwent a $HK450 million (about $64m) refurbishment of its guestrooms and it is the first hotel in the company to showcase the new technology developed at its Aberdeen laboratory. The company has another laboratory in Hong Kong at an even more secret location. It’s where the company builds mock-ups of hotel rooms and trials them before they build them; they even have the views from the room mocked up in the windows. At present the room laboratory is fine-tuning the design of the rooms for the Peninsula Paris, which is due to open in August. Our request to inspect the room mock-up is politely declined. The Peninsula Paris is arguably the most anticipated hotel opening of the year and, understandably, Peninsula is keeping many of the details of the hotel under wraps.
“Paris will definitely open on August 1,” insists Borer. “Most probably I would say it will be about 90 per cent complete at that stage. You know, a hotel never opens complete and a hotel will always take, in my opinion, two to three years to be well oiled and running smoothly. It takes time to open a good hotel; it doesn’t happen overnight.”
For Peninsula, saying things take time is an understatement. The Peninsula Hotels company was founded in 1928 when the Peninsula opened at its current site on Kowloon. The company is part of Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Limited, which is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and is controlled by the Kadoorie family, who own 58 per cent of the business. Peninsula differs from other hotel brands in that it is the owner, or part-owner, of its properties as well as the manager.
“We are small because we don’t just manage our hotels but we also invest quite heavily into each property; and hence, our expansion over the last two decades has been fairly slow,” says Borer. [Peninsula opened its second hotel, in Manila, in 1976.]
“First we felt we had to look after Asia and we’ve done that and then we went into the US. We have done three cities there [New York, Los Angeles and Chicago] that we feel are the key cities in the United States, and then it was Europe’s turn. We are also slow because we really want to capture the very best location in each city so we are very patient and we wait.”
According to Borer, it took the group 15 years to find the right location for its Shanghai hotel. It took even longer to find the right location in Paris and longer still for its London hotel, announced late last year and due to open “in about seven years from now”, says Borer.
The Peninsula Paris will be located on Avenue Kleber
in the 16th arrondissement in a building that originally opened as The Majestic Hotel in 1908. After World War II the building became a conference centre and then a government office building. Then, a few years ago, the French government decided to sell off some of its real estate assets. Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels bought the building in partnership with Qatar National Hotels, which owns 80 per cent, in early 2009.
Since acquiring the heritage building, Peninsula has been painstakingly restoring it and transforming it into a hotel at a cost of almost € 340m (about $520m). “It will be a grand hotel,” says Borer, who now divides his time between Hong Kong and Paris as the hotel nears completion. “It will have a very big lobby, not as big as the lobby in Hong Kong but almost.” The hotel will have two entrances, one more public than the other. The rooftop restaurant will have uninterrupted views over Paris from the Eiffel Tower to La Defense. The top level will have four suites, each with its own outdoor terrace.
“We will bring a very elaborate Chinese restaurant to Paris, the decor of which will take its inspiration from Chinese opera meeting French opera. It’s a space that has enormously high ceilings; it will be very theatrical,” says Borer. The hotel will also have an underground carpark for 80 cars as Peninsula hopes the French, as well as international tourists, will embrace the new hotel.
Peninsula is the latest Asia-based hotel brands to open in the French capital. In the past few years Shangri-La, Mandarin Oriental and Raffles have all opened in Paris and their arrival has sent some of the city’s more storied hotels packing. The Ritz Paris is closed for renovations, as is the Hotel de Crillon. The Asian hotel chains have a reputation for impeccable service. In Asia, where labour costs are lower, it’s achieved by a high staff-to-guest ratio, but Borer insists the legendary standard of service at Peninsula has nothing to do with labour costs and all about the mentality. “In Asia hospitality is in people’s heart and it’s part of their culture. So we will take a lot of people from here [Hong Kong] to start educating our new colleagues about that mentality and what a pleasure it is to actually serve people. You can’t do it overnight. I remember 25 years ago when we bought the New York hotel — it was an existing hotel — and overnight it became a Peninsula. Today they’re very integrated and a lot of them have been to Hong Kong to see what we do here. It’s easy — it just takes time.”
Last June, Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels paid £132.5m to acquire a 50 per cent stake in 1-5 Grosvenor Place at Hyde Park Corner, a site currently occupied by two nondescript 1960s office buildings. The remaining 50 per cent is controlled by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, a group that has entered into a joint venture to redevelop the site into a Peninsula hotel.
“So we are playing a management game, an owner’s game and an asset appreciation game,” says Borer. “When we enter these deals we do it for the next two or three generations. Yes, we are a publicly listed company. Yes, it is about making money, but when it comes to return on investment we are patient with that too.”
The hotel group is also patient when it comes to Australia. Borer makes no secret of the fact that Peninsula would like to open a hotel in Sydney and he is a keen reader of the property news about Australia. “We’re very interested in Sydney, we would like something with a harbour view and so we are patient and continue to look.”
Clockwise from left: The Peninsula offers a helicopter transfer service; Salon de Ning, L’Afrique Room; tea ceremony at the Peninsula spa; the grand lobby; the bar
Clockwise from top left: Peninsular Suite living room; Marco Polo Suite bedroom; Marco Polo Suite living room; the hotel spa; Grand Deluxe Harbour View Suite; Peter Borer, chief operating officer of Peninsula Hotels