Symon Bridle is Hong Kong-based COO of Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts. He joined the company in 1989 from Westin.
Discerning consumers today expect product consistency – but service delivery must also be consistent, and that is not as easy as getting the product right.
Consistency in service, amongst other things, require training. In Shangri-La we are generous on training budgets, allocating two to three percent of payroll. 50% of this is then allocated to corporate-initiated training programs while 50% is left directly under the hotel’s control. If you can get the quality of training right and underpin this with your standards and procedures, then you can have consistency.
Whilst service is a key, it must not be robotic. You must allow naturalness and personalization. Service must become a seamless delivery, underpinned by training.
You also need to train the right people, and we like to say “hire for attitude, train for skills” as those people, well-trained, will have confidence in their customer interactions. You have to get the recruitment process right and I have seen one of our properties reduce turnover by simply going back to our recruitment tools and reviewing this vital process to ensure suitable employees with the right potential were hired, as opposed to the mistake of hiring without adequate due process.
When Shangri-La first went into China in the early 1980s you had a very raw labour market and you had to train, for example, down to the details of the difference between a knife and fork, and even basic personal hygiene. Now there is already a more aware and sophisticated employee base of people coming into the industry. I do not see an issue for getting line staff and training them. The challenge is in middle and senior management because these are the really competitive resources. I also do not think it is all about money. People are also looking for more than salary: they want career opportunities, real responsibility, and to be valued within a company that they can be proud of. This is a very important part of attracting and retaining the right people.
The Shangri-La Academy in Beijing, which opened in 2004, is training about 800 students a year, mostly on courses of three to six weeks. Our employees see this opportunity, paid for by their property, as a reward as well as an opportunity (all expenses, including accommodation, are paid). The Academy will probably be relocated in the future so that it can accommodate up to 1,400 students a year. Shangri-La is also working with three or four hospitality institutions in China and we are looking at how best to become more directly connected to a suitable hotel school. What level of courses and accreditation will then be offered is still under discussion.
The Academy can cope with our Asian and Middle East properties but I am not sure that it is suitable logistically for our forthcoming properties in North America and Europe. The labour market in these locations is more mature and I think that for these hotels, once open, we may opt for placements in sister hotels regionally to help develop our people there.
For our Vancouver Shangri-La hotel, which opened October 2008, we had 10-15 of its already-hired employees working in our Asian hotels for the last 18 months as we wanted to ensure that we could impart the Shangri-La style and essence into our first property in North America. Coupled with this, we are confident that for Vancouver, where there is a large Asian population, many of whom know our brand and with an established Shangri-La GM, Stephen Darling, at the head, that we can deliver the Shangri-La promise in our first entry to the West.
We will also always look to ensure that we have an element of where you are, a sense of place, in each location where we go. The customer must feel the essence of our company, but not be overwhelmed by it, so I see details such as our unique Shangri-La welcome tea extending to hotels in other parts of the world, but I don’t see our guest relations officers in, say, Paris, wearing a cheong-sam.
Our already-announced hotels in North America and Europe are primarily new builds although in Paris it is a conversion of a palace and in Vienna also a conversion to an historic landmark building. With room counts from 100 to 220 rooms, they are smaller than our Asian hotels, and rather than have dedicated Horizon Club floors the entire property will be run with the club concept in mind: very personalized service, focused on recognizing individual guest needs. Staffing counts will vary, but in some instances such as Paris they will be higher than the ratios we have in Asia, it could be 2.5 to three staff per room for example. Another difference will be that in these markets, the use of part-time or hourly staff is more prevalent and we certainly found this when we took on our Sydney hotel, where we built in a mix of fully-employed, part-time and contract employees to support the full time staff base.
But whichever Shangri-La luxury hotel you come to, as a company with our routes and heritage in Asia, you will certainly find Asian touches, but also a sense of place and respect for the local environment and location of that particular property, whilst not forgetting the need to deliver such basic essentials as a spotlessly clean room, a great restaurant offer and natural, yet efficient, service.
The Shangri-La regulars, such as members of our Golden Circle (guest loyalty) program, are not attracted by collecting points, which we don’t offer, but by genuine recognition, attention to detail and consistency in how we deliver our service and product.