Interview with Marcel Thoma by Chelsi Asulin
The essence of innkeeping gets to the heart of hospitality in its truest sense: ultimate care, warmth, pleasantness, and generosity. This innate sense of service is imbued with an intangible quality easily overlooked in the face of the systemized processes of large hotel brands.
People everywhere are looking for a richness of experience that is curated, personal, and edited for them in a distinct way. Mr. Marcel Thoma and his staff at The Upper House in Hong Kong offer their view on the nature of personal hospitality, with a focus on the human aspects of great service. Theirs is a unique ability to be anticipatory of a guest’s needs, attuned to both frame of mind and the context within which they are entering the hotel. Theirs is an approach that goes far beyond the expected. Because at its core, the inn-keeper’s story is ultimately one of love—of people, each with a distinct history, a wealth of experience that animates the innkeepers heart.
Chelsi Asulin: Take us through one of the craziest experiences you’ve had while working in the hotel.
Marcel Thoma: In hospitality, there are plenty of crazy experiences. We run a 24-hour business so there are many things that may go wrong. When you serve people in a luxury environment, and when people walk into a hotel paying hundreds of dollars per night, there’s always a certain amount of pressure to get everything exactly right. I used to work in a hotel where we had many different room types, and we had certain VIPs who would request a certain room with a certain layout, a certain view, a certain carpet color, and sometimes it happened that the particular room was occupied, or that we couldn’t get the person staying there beforehand to leave. Sometimes the previous guest had destroyed the room. Stressful moments are also arise when the hotel is fully booked and the guests don’t leave, and then the next guests arrive early. Obviously, it’s also not great when somebody drops the ball and you forget to set up certain reservations, and all of a sudden that guest appears in front of you.
There are particularly surreal moments, too, when – and this is really terrible – certain acts of domestic violence or suicide occur. Those kinds of situations are really unfortunate, and they happen in hotels more than you think. Quite a lot, particularly in luxury hotels. You would be surprised.
I can imagine. Any particularly bad accidents?
Yes, we’ve also had certain accidents. We have escalators going up to the 4th and 6th floors, and we had one guest who came wearing a beautiful long gown that had been specially designed for a fashion show, and somehow this gown got caught in the escalator. She was obviously screaming and shouting, and we were thankfully able to stop the escalator. The dress got half eaten, but because it was so long she was able to get out of it.
What about eccentric requests from guests?
Guests often make requests for things that are difficult to execute. Sometimes people want to get into concerts that are sold out, or they want certain flight tickets to go somewhere during busy periods, or they want to get into other hotels in other cities. We all deal with this, especially concierges and our guest relations department. It sometimes takes a lot of convincing to get people into the places they want to get to.
You have an extensive roster of loyal guests. What do you think it is that makes The Upper House so compelling?
There are several aspects to this hotel. First, if you look at the physical aspect, Andre Fu, who is a genius, beautifully designed it. You guys in North America, you are familiar with the luxury boutique concept. Here in Asia, even now, we’re not so used to it. Most hotels here are very large and very impersonal, with 10 different restaurants and a banquet space. We’re one of the first hotels to portray a kind of residence-feel. It’s extremely calm in an extremely busy city. It also has the largest rooms in town. Physically, it’s just a very big, comfortable, and homely hotel. So that’s number one.
And what is it about your service that sets you apart?
I believe that the way we deliver service is very unique because we don’t have a division in our front-of-house service. Traditionally, hotels have a concierge, they have guest-relations, and they have a front office department. We don’t have all of this. We have our guest-relations department, and each team member does absolutely everything from a-to-zed. They show guests up to their rooms directly when they arrive. This ensures a more seamless integration with the guest, as opposed to when somebody checks in at one desk and then goes to a concierge desk five minutes later, which may even be set physically apart from the front desk. And even then, the concierge doesn’t really know who the guest is, where they are from, and what kind of state they are in. This all influences the general interaction.
So it’s about understanding the guest and creating a genuine rapport?
Right. The Upper House operates in a niche market. It’s a very unique property, given the way we do business. It’s a more personalized and more familiar way of dealing with guests, and we do pride ourselves on being a little bit different. We absolutely don’t want to say that we’re better. We would never say that we’re better. We’re just different, and we’re trying to offer a different experience to the guests and travelers coming to Hong Kong and to provide them with a home-like atmosphere. Some of these international frequent travelers, they come here and they can relax, and we believe that they just feel at home because they don’t have to act or pretend. They feel at home like they would in their own apartment.
What does intuitive service mean to you?
Intuitive service is very difficult to deliver, and it is a daily challenge. Everybody can tell an employee or team member, “This is how you greet a guest, these are the steps you need to take.” I do believe that today’s world-travelers expect more than just being greeted and checked in and asked the basic questions. It’s more about the ability to understand what frame of mind the guest is in. There is a difference between someone who arrived on Monday morning on a 16-hour flight from Toronto with a big week of business meetings ahead, and the honeymoon couple arriving from Bali on a 4-hour flight who just spent seven days doing nothing. It's a completely different mindset and you can’t just welcome all guests in the same manner. You have to understand their expectations and think how you would feel if you were in their shoes. What would you crave? The guy from Toronto maybe wants to have a quick breakfast, go for a good shower, and get ready for his meetings. Or maybe he wants a massage before he gets ready. He doesn’t want to hear about sightseeing or about all the different shops on Pacific Place. He doesn’t want to hear any of this. Intuitive service is very much connected to anticipation.
Do you think it’s something that, to an extent, can’t be taught?
Absolutely. It is very difficult to train intuitive service with somebody who just graduated from hotel school. How are they supposed to understand that? The talent shortage these days is a big issue. HR has become even more important. Some companies understand that very well, and some companies understand it less well. How do you find the right people? How do you find the people who have a passion for this business? People who want to greet each guest and who get excited about it! People who want to challenge themselves to please a guest and to go beyond guest expectation to deliver intuitive service. It’s a very exciting task, but it is not easy.
Do you find that there are differences between hospitality expectations in Hong Kong vs. other cities in the world where you’ve worked?
Hong Kong and New York are very similar, together with London. These are really the three true World Cities. Most of the people traveling to these destinations are very experienced. They know what they want and can be very impatient. They just expect the best. For travelers, these cities are very different from going to Berlin, Barcelona, Bangkok, and maybe Buenos Aires. They’re very different cities with very different expectations. Much more fast paced. More unforgiving. Just a tiny bit more sophisticated.
So these guests want things done right the first time?
Correct. Whereas with other cities, you might be excused because perhaps there’s a language issue or something.
The cities you named are really the three big financial hubs of their respective regions...
Right. Culturally they’re probably the most diverse – in terms of business, in terms of the ethnic and financial background of the people. I think they’re just very diverse.
What keeps you visiting the same hotel?
For me, it’s the location of a hotel. I find it so inconvenient to be staying at a hotel that's not near where you want to be for pleasure, or where you need to be for business. In a large city, I don’t think it’s worth wasting all this time going from point A to point B. And also the people in it – you just get attached to the people.
So it’s as much about the hotel as it is the people in it?
Yes, it’s about the people. You come back and you’re comfortable with the people who serve you. You know exactly who they are and they know you, and it just makes things much easier and much more pleasant.
With The Upper House, what is the intangible ingredient that makes the service so exemplary?
Good service is very difficult to find, and I don’t want to say that I know it all. I do think I know what works for most people, though. Most people want to have the basics. They want to have things work. They want to be acknowledged. They want to be made to feel good. When a mistake happens – and mistakes do happen everywhere in business all over the world – it’s very important that you actually recover those mistakes and that you apologize and try to make up for them. You’re not trying to find excuses. You just deal with it. I think an honest acknowledgment of a mistake or a failure is much more powerful than actually providing a constantly seamless experience. Most of our guests are very loyal...it’s been proven that people actually go back to businesses because they know that the people working there are able to solve a problem. They’ve experienced and witnessed the staff being able to solve their problems.
Is it trust that you’re describing?
Exactly. It’s trust in the people. Most things in service are actually intangible. It has to do with acknowledgment, it has to do with trust, it has to do with anticipation, it has to do with empathy. There’s a lot of empathy in good service. Like if people see “Oh my god, this woman in her high heels has to go out in the rain and walk a mile to go to her next appointment. Why not offer her a house car to get there?” Or if somebody is coming back after a twelve-hour day, you don’t ask a silly question like, “Did you have a good day?” That’s probably not the right question because maybe the day wasn’t that good after twelve hours. So, again, maybe you think that person needs a massage or a stiff vodka or something like that, after you’ve read that person. It’s about hitting that right point. It has to do with discussions, and it has to do with offering the right thing at the right time. I don’t think you can work in hotels if you don’t like the people you work with or the people you serve. The staff who don’t like people just shouldn’t work in hospitality. I would say that 80-90% of our business actually is purely dealing with people, whether it’s the internal guests or other people. There are many other jobs where you don’t have to like people. If you deliver service, you can never be the best. That’s how it is with service and with people. You try your best every day, and when you fail, you get up and you try to do it better the next day.
You’ve collaborated with luxury brands in the past. How do partnerships like these enhance the guest experience?
As far as luxury brands are concerned, we’ve had past collaborations with Net-a-Porter and Mr. Porter. I just learned yesterday that the third-largest market for the online retailer is Hong Kong. The US is number one on the list, followed by the UK. Pretty good for a small place like Hong Kong! We also do afternoon teas with brands like Diptyque and Elie Saab. Recently we have this special package called #LouboutinWorld, where we special-rate studios and suites, and Louboutin throws in special gifts for people who book them. When you reserve the room, you can actually personalize your shoes with a special tattoo. It’s comes down to the intangible things in luxury paired with a special physical product. You can’t touch a night, you can’t touch a room, but you can enhance it with something like a pair of shoes, a name cardholder, or a key-card holder. It reminds the guest of that special night, that special stay, that special week at the hotel. Not everybody likes Louboutin and not everybody needs to like Louboutin, but people who are really into the brand swear that they’re the greatest shoes and the most fun to wear. And we’re a little bit like that, too. Not everybody loves us. We don’t want to be loved by everybody. And it’s good that way.
The Upper House features a number of commissioned art works. How do you see contemporary art intersecting with the hotel?
We commissioned a lady named Alison Pickett, who’s a corporate art consultant. She’s collecting art for various projects of ours and she’s collaborating with artists such as Thomas Heatherwick, who is becoming more and more famous not only for his design of the UK Expo 2010 pavilion in Shanghai, but also for redesigning the red London buses, he rejuvenated the Pacific Place Wall, and he recently designed the torch for the Olympic Games. I heard he has just been commissioned to do a museum in LA. We had a recent collaboration with him. He’s a great guy.
What place does having notable artwork hold in your hotel?
We have artwork placed throughout the hotel, including the rooms, and we commission various artists to do sculptures. I think this differentiates us from other hotels. A big luxury hotel maybe has a painting on the wall that you can find anywhere else in the world. People sit on a toilet and look at an artwork and study it and can dwell on the shape and form. We have these beautiful sandstones that are placed in our bathrooms, and these sandstones have been created exclusively for the Upper House. We have 117 of them in the bathrooms, and after the hotel opened we had many guests that wanted to buy them, but they only exist in our hotel. They’re really beautiful pieces. People touch them constantly. The material is so soft that it almost feels like a piece of wood, but it’s actually a piece of stone.
So you value singularity with your art choices?
Absolutely. With an emergence of interest in contemporary art, I think people love to stay in places that exhibit special types of art.
What about technology? What ways do you see technology integrating with hospitality?
Technology surrounds us. People have their iPhones and they have everything on this one device: communications, ads, shopping, TripAdvisor. Our lives have become so easy. We have this discussion all the time – the upper 10% of travelers who travel in luxury, they may read TripAdvisor or they may book a flight themselves, but most people of this caliber actually still have a travel agent because they have no time. They’re picking up the phone, calling their agent and saying, “I’m traveling from London to New York next week, and then afterwards I need to dash to Brazil. Book me what you recommend there.” They don’t have time to spend an hour on TripAdvisor and read all of those listings and dwell on the stress of Oh, where do I stay. They still trust an old-fashioned travel agent who deals with this stuff day in and day out, who lives and breathes this kind of business.
Right. You can’t replicate that type of service?
It’s actually really interesting because we’re surrounded by technology and it makes life so easy, but people still like face-to-face interaction. Why do people like to stay in luxury hotels? One aspect is the interaction with the people there. Our guests have their iPhones, they read stuff online, but they still ask us every time, “What’s new in Hong Kong? Where should I go?” They might as well open a browser and just Google it, right? But there’s so much. Does he have time to read all of this stuff? No, he doesn’t. We have all of these fabulous things like paperless check-in and check-out – that’s all enhancing the service experience – but the ultimate service is delivered by a human, luckily. In certain ways, technology will replace humans, and there’s a danger there. I believe in a good mix of both. Technology is great, but so is human interaction. Working in hotels should be a pleasure, and I think whoever is not a fan of people shouldn’t be working in the industry. The moment you genuinely love humans, that’s when delivering service becomes easy.
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