Owner & Operator relations are changing in the current hospitality landscape in the region, explains Laurent Voivenel of Swiss-Belhotel International.
Hozpitality Group in conversation with Laurent Voivenel, Senior Vice President, Operations and Development for the Middle East, Africa and India, Swiss-Belhotel International.
Laurent A. Voivenel is the Senior Vice President, Operations & Development for Middle East, Africa & India for Swiss-Belhotel International, spearheading the group’s expansion in the region. He holds over 30 years of extensive international hotel and asset management experience with some of the world’s leading and most prestigious hospitality brands including Starwood Hotels & Resortsand Hilton Hotels & Resorts.
Prior to joining Swiss-Belhotel, Laurent was the Chief Executive Office of HMH – Hospitality Management Holding for over three and a half years and was the primary driving force behind repositioning HMH as the Middles East's largest and most credible operator in the dry segment while setting in motion aggressive expansion.
With a Master’s degree in Business Administration (MBA), Laurent has a proven track record in areas of corporate mergers and acquisitions, hotel development and investment, multi-brand operations, as well as outstanding management experience across Europe, Asia Pacific and the Middle East.
Being based in the Middle East for the last 18 years, Laurent also has a deep understanding of the region's unique business dynamics and culture that has resulted in a solid network and close ties with hotel owners, developers and investors.
Hozpitality Group:- Tell us about your group, how many hotels do you currently own?
Laurent A. Voivenel :- Swiss-Belhotel International currently manages a portfolio of more than 145* hotels, resorts and projects located in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Australia, New Zealand, Bulgaria, Georgia, Germany, Italy and Tanzania. Awarded Indonesia's Leading Global Hotel Chain for six consecutive years, we are one of the world's fastest-growing international hotel and hospitality management groups and counted among the top 100 hotel brands.
Hozpitality Group:- What are your expansion plans in the next 3 years in this region?
Laurent A. Voivenel :- We have identified the Middle East, Africa and India as the key growth markets for us and have got an aggressive expansion strategy that is aimed at giving more choice to our guests with new destinations and products. Therefore, we are expanding our portfolio of brands across the region both in the upscale as well as in the mid-scale segment. For the first time in the region we have introduced brands such as Grand Swiss-Belresort, Swiss-Belresidences, Swiss-Belboutique and Swiss-Belinn. Our goal is to have 20 hotels signed by 2021.
Hozpitality Group:- UAE, specially Dubai is a very competitive market, how do you manage to keep yourself different from competition?
Laurent A. Voivenel :- Our aim is to position Swiss-Belhotel International as the best alternative to blue chip companies offering superior returns, unbeatable value and unforgettable experiences. One of the most important differentiators of Swiss-Belhotel International is our award-winning service. The essence of our brands revolves around the heritage of Swiss hospitality with the passion and service of Asia, and our hotels deliver on this promise. Therefore, Passion and Professionalism are the core of our brand culture. Our philosophy is to work hand-in-hand with our owners and business partners to maximize the financial returns and exceed the expectations of our guests, investors and associates.
Hozpitality Group:- What are the challenges in Owner & Operator relations? How these are changing in the current hospitality landscape in the region.
Laurent A. Voivenel :- The business is, no doubt, becoming more complex and competitive and as operators we are grappling with multiple challenges. The pie is shrinking with far too many hotel brands and regional operators. Market is being disrupted by new forms of competition such as Airbnb. Rates are constantly under pressure due to oversupply of rooms. Increasing costs of operations are adversely affecting profitability. Guests profiles and preferences are changing too who are looking for greater value for money along with better quality, greater convenience and unique experiences.
Both parties have to look at the equation differently. There is need for greater communication to build lasting relationships. It is important for operators to understand and listen to owners, and react with solutions. Innovation is the key in every aspect of the business. We need to be inventive by outsourcing services, clustering roles and boosting efficiency by tapping into new technology. Alternative revenue generators should be developed. For their part owners must give operators a fair chance to implement new ideas with ample space and time.
Hozpitality Group:- Is the traditional hotel management contract still valid and how it is set to change in the future? Are operators responding to the changing needs of the market?
Laurent A. Voivenel :- New patterns of ownership, finance and management are emerging. Contract terms are swinging in favour of owners who are primarily performance driven and are no longer satisfied with long-term capital appreciation. The bottom line is the yardstick that operators are being judged by. Hence, operators need to understand better today’s owners and investors who are far more active and involved in all areas of hotel operations from selection of general managers to driving social media.
Hozpitality Group:- How are local and international hotel brands capitalising on the opportunity in the mid-market segment?
Laurent A. Voivenel :- The future belongs to hotels that meet the expectations of travellers in terms of location, price, product, technology and experience. In any market boutique hotels and global chains complement each other and have their own target clientele. There are many factors that make mid-market hotels a lucrative investment option for owners at the moment. The most important is that despite the strong demand only limited budget hotels inventory (be it local or international) is entering the market, making the supply and demand dynamics far more favourable for mid-market hotels and, therefore, giving investors a great opportunity to capitalise on.
Hozpitality Group:- Technology is transforming the hospitality sector faster than ever. But do the regional and medium size companies have the resources to take advantage of the advancements in hotel technology?
Laurent A. Voivenel :- Technology holds the key to a more advanced, sustainable and smart future. Like the rest of the world, the future of the hospitality industry in the Middle East, is being shaped by unparalleled advances in technology. Hotels are compelled to rethink the hotel design, guest services, experiences and concepts in keeping with the travellers’ expectations. At the same time travel tech ecosystem is getting bigger with more diverse players getting involved.
We will see more change in the next 10 years than what we saw in the last 250 years.
Emerging technologies like virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, blockchain and 3D printing are all giving new shape to our industry.
It is important for technology providers to understand that while, as hotel operators, we all wish to move in the direction of smart hotels adopting the latest advancements in technology, it is not always easy to convince owners to make the necessary investments in that direction nor are the guests willing to pay any extras. So how can we make technology affordable both for investors and consumers?
Hozpitality Group:- Competition in the hospitality sector is getting stiffer – supply outstripping demand, disruption by Airbnb, OTAs, etc, growth of mid-market travellers and emergence of low-paying markets, which is putting pressure on the room rates. How are brands coping with this?
Laurent A. Voivenel :- We are in an era of shared economy. Rate pressures owing to supply and demand chain dynamics, expanding middle class in key source markets, growth of low-cost carriers, changing requirements of travellers based on changing demographics, continued challenges from OTAs, emergence of new forms of competition such as Airbnb, rapid digitalization and advancing technology are all pushing our industry towards a new ecosystem defined by collaboration, quality and consumer value.
This change requires a new strategic approach from hoteliers – one that enables hotels to understand market trends and build the internal capabilities needed to succeed in a new environment. The more we tailor our products to offer local experiences and value for money the better conversion we can expect. There is need to build on experiential travel and hospitality.
Hozpitality Group:- In the age of digital marketing and social media, how is hotel marketing transforming? Are hotels making optimum use of the new developments and forms of marketing.
Laurent A. Voivenel :- Guests today want SEAMLESS integration of mobile technology into their travel - and that transcends into every aspect of our business. Under-investing in direct online booking-generating and managing technology and digital marketing is one of the main reasons why hospitality has allowed the OTAs to gain market share by 40% over the past 5 years. To drive and manage direct bookings and stay ahead of the competition, hoteliers must invest adequately in the digital technology and marketing. In addition to growing and retaining existing market share, a strong digital and social media strategy will help to open new business opportunities from the region’s 12.8 million Millennials.
Hozpitality Group:- World Expo is coming to Dubai, how would this effect your business, are you excited?
Laurent A. Voivenel :- The legacy of Expo 2020 will expand well beyond the event. The huge investment in airports and hotels, broadening portfolio of attractions and facilities, diversification of source markets and collaboration between various business sectors are all accelerating the pace of Dubai’s leap into the future. Let’s put it this way, the Expo 2020 has given a great boost for development of tourism infrastructure and attractions in the emirate which will serve as a new foundation for growth of tourism.
Rapid Fire questions:-
Hozpitality Group:- You are a very good-looking hotelier. What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?
Laurent A. Voivenel :- It is very easy to do business with me.
Hozpitality Group:- What kind of people do you find it difficult to work with?
Laurent A. Voivenel :- Indecisive.
Hozpitality Group:- If you are caught speeding by a cop, what would your most creative excuse be for speeding?
Laurent A. Voivenel :- Opps!
Hozpitality Group:- You do not like a dish at your boss's dinner party, what is your reason to not eat it enough?
Laurent A. Voivenel :- Cannot happen as I eat absolutely everything.
Hozpitality Group:- Do you ever fake smile for pictures?
Laurent A. Voivenel :- I don’t have to because I don’t smile for pictures. If I have to sure the answers is yes!