The Australian - Wish Magazine - - Arts - STORY DAVID MEAGHER

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

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