5 Questions with: Toby Smith, MD of Swire Hotels

Swire Hotels was created to manage soulfully individual hotels in China and the USA, providing a characterful experience for well-travelled, individually minded travellers who seek originality, style and personalised service. Their hotels offer a sense of place that breaks with convention. Currently, Swire Hotels includes The House Collective – The Opposite House, The Upper House, The Temple House and The Middle House, in Beijing, Hong Kong, Chengdu and Shanghai respectively – and the EAST hotels in Beijing, Hong Kong and Miami.

At an exciting time for this distinctive brand, we spoke to Toby Smith, MD at Swire Hotels to talk consumer preferences, future plans and what hoteliers need to look out for:

After moving into the hotel world after your previous role with Cathay Pacific, what have you noticed or learnt the most?

The most inspiring thing that I have noticed – and appreciated – in the past 12 months is the level of dedication of Swire Hotels to providing incredible service to our guests. As a result, my perceptions of what constitutes contemporary service luxury – and the work that goes into delivering it – are very different from they were on day one.

Nowadays there are many ways in which hospitality brands are aiming to please Chinese travellers – but what do you see as necessary to stand out from the crowd and please the Chinese traveler?

Offering personalised services and experiences beyond simply the hotel stay is key. It’s easy to find tourist info everywhere, and so a hotel needs to provide curated cultural experiences or access to offbeat, distinctive events in the city. The appropriate use of technology will also play a crucial role to enable us to better understand and look after our guests.

Even with the rapid development of all of China, how are the HKSAR affluent travellers different from their mainland counterparts, in terms of the marketing needed to reach them, and their preferences in the hotel experience?

One observation is that travellers visiting from the mainland are constantly looking for something new: new destinations, brands and experiences compared to HK’s affluent travellers who tend to prefer what they are more familiar with. To market to the affluent consumer from the mainland is beyond just communicating about brand. They are probably more open to explore and have the appetite to engage with new things. So for it to stand out to them, a brand will need to succeed in a number of different areas: a regular flow of fresh content to create on-going engagement; though- leadership to establish a distinct identity; creating differentiated experiences to strengthen the emotional connection; and a sense of exclusivity through events or private clubs.

The sheen of hospitality talk in China is understandably keen to focus on the positive – huge opportunities, huge growth, many brands entering in various cities etc – but what are some of the challenges that few are brave enough to talk about?

When a brand grows quickly and aggressively, it’s always a challenge to maintain high quality, personalised service and exclusivity. The key is attract and retain good staff, people that embrace and deliver your brand’s service philosophy. Good marketing is no substitute for delivery if the actual product does not meet the guest expectations.

How much can you tell us about what 2019 has in store for Swire Hotels?

Our latest hotel, The Middle House, is still very new, and establishing its position in the competitive Shanghai market remains a top priority. At the other end of the scale, our first hotel, The Opposite House in Beijing, is now 10 years old and we have some exciting new developments under way in the hotel to celebrate this major milestone. Elsewhere we are looking to expand both The House Collective and EAST brands into new markets in the Asia Pacific region. There are certainly exciting times to come.

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