SpotLight: Sofitel's European Flare.
By Sarah Muxlow ~ exclusive for 4Hoteliers.com
Wednesday, 24th May 2006
An interview with General Manager Mr Neil Scanlan of the Sofitel Brisbane on taking over a great new location.  

Sofitel ‘The European Brand' has recently taken over a prime location in the heart of Brisbane City. Previously The Sheraton Hotel operated at the site and had done so for 21 years. 

You've recently opened here…..How do you feel about this location?

"I've been here 16 months now and am happy to be back in Brisbane. This building is in a way a local institution". Upon taking over.. "the owners have spent a substantial amount, 2 ˝ to 3 million dollars so far on refurbishments; mainly on the Executive /Club Sofitel which is on the top floor. There has also been a refurbishment of the banquet floor, and a lot spent on IT; new computers, hardware and software. We've updated our programmes to what we believe to be state of the art, for example, front office has latest versions of Fidelio. We doing this to maintain a competitive advantage, and utilise the systems that Accor have. 

Do you have the automated Check-in and Check-out facilities?

"No, we don't have automatic check in check out here at this location and consider it to be a great leap of faith to consider doing so. Whilst our 5 star clients are used to such faculties at the airport, they expect a personal welcome here on arrival. We are however working with Qantas to enable customers to check in for their flights from us."

Are you planning any further developments?

"The next job is developing the F&B outlets. Dining has obviously changed in hospitality and it is very very important for us to have a restaurant that is succinct with the hotel. But we are also looking to create a restaurant that is an outlet of the hotel, not just a restaurant that is within the hotel. In the past there have been fine dining, grill and buffet outlets. With the way  peoples expectations of a 5 star hotel have changed, we really need to do something cutting edge.

We've spent a lot of time talking to our corporate guests and asking "what are you after?". We move in the direction of what they want. We have two distinct markets in this particular hotel, our corporate guys and the rest who traditionally come to this hotel and have done so for the last twenty years. What we are trying to do with the new style is to bring a balance to that, at the same time our number one goal is to make sure people stay in the hotel and avoid annoying our regular diners with totally changing everything.

We also have about a 20% capture rate in room service, that's 100 covers a night in room service. This last fact tells us that our guests are after a different dinning experience to what is offered here now. Well you can look at it two ways in fact; there is the guest who will come in, go up to his/her room ,check emails and order room service. Then there is the guest that simply, doesn't want a buffet, they may be after something a bit quieter."

How did the takeover effect staff?

"When we took over the hotel, we thought we would have Sheraton staff or no staff but we were very fortunate to find that the staff working here are very loyal to the establishment and the building more than anything else. The staff love this hotel. This has been the real success of this property. Our Management team, in contrast come from everywhere. There isn't a great wealth of 5 star managers in Australia so it's important to bring people in to assist us on our journey.

The difficulty in attracting managers to Australia is that it's not an expat country. There isn't an expat community or package, so that is the difficulty in attracting people who have been living in Asia with tax deductibles, accommodation and perks etc."

Sofitel Training

For Sofitel staff there is opportunity for movement within the Accor Group. Neil explains he has worked for Novotel, Ibis, Accor in various locations…. "one of the strengths as a company is cross-brand opportunities. This I feel makes me a better manager long term, to be able to understand that there are some great idiosyncrasies because individual styles and individual brands. A five star brand is obviously very different to a 4 and 3 star."

"Every staff member goes through our induction and then obviously at Sofitel we do a luxury training. This is to explain to our staff what we believe luxury is and what differences we have against our competitors. It's really important for our staff to understand what we are trying to achieve. We have refresher courses again every twelve months to keep emphasising customer services and expectations of guests.

We offer a learn and earn programme for our trainees. They work in F&B, for example, and study to get a Certificate at the same time. We also have an Academy, Academy Accor, who write and design programmes. We also recruit students with degrees from hotel schools, they come in at supervisory level. They are then put into several properties/hotels and moved around as part of their training so that they understand this is the nature of working for us. We have had some great GM's trained this way.

My concern with graduates from hotel schools is sometimes there is a lack of realism in expectations of the students. When they come to work they start by carrying plates, making beds, we've all done it. I do believe however that training at school shows that people have made a commitment but when they come out it is time to apply and work to develop the skills. They will advance faster than someone without the training background though. We're currently recruiting generation ‘Y', where everyone is in a hurry. Everything is so accessible, but for a hotel everything is still built on experience. It is also about common sense."

How does the Sofitel Brand differ to Other Hotel Bands?

"The Sofitel is the fastest growing brand in this region but is still fairly embryonic. If you look at other brands, such as locals to here, the Hilton and the Marriot, they are mainly American. We bring some form of Europeans style, given that we have the Accor behind us. Guest systems and feedback comes from Accor. We've proven ourself as having an ability to do 5 star….yes, one main difference is the European flare….."

The Customer Market

"The market has changed dramatically. In previous years, especially with 5 star hotels, we could wooo our guests with plasma televisions screens. Now most the people who stay here have houses that are 5 star standards anyway…they have big TV's and spa baths. So the whole strategy of ours has had to change. The expectations are no longer the wow factor and the only way we are going to get a competitive advantage is customer service. We have a loyalty programme: Sofitel privilege, and we have many guests that know and understand the brand, especially Europeans. People like to know what they are buying, if coming to a foreign county, or city. If looking for a hotel and thinking which one will I go for? A person will choose a brand they are more comfortable with. Sofitel is well known in Asia and well established, we are still having amazing growth in Asia….."

How do you enhance and retain Brand Loyalty?

"Guests have a card with a point system which are topped up when they check-in and stay here. The loyalty card is all connected to guest recognition and the things that are important for guests. We also have welcome gifts in the rooms.

What's the gift?

"I can't tell you, it's secret squirrel business" LOL "You have to join to know!!!! …..ok, It varies. It needs to be different and something with a local feel. We have people stay here many times a year so the gift really changes regularly.

We also have luxury bathroom products – they have a French touch to them. We don't have Sofitel branded bathroom products or non-branded. We want to show we have put thought into our choice. We do a lot of work on our product, particularly these kinds of details. This is where we get the wow!"

Have you had an increase in Women Travellers?

"We have a fairly large female proportion of travellers here and we aim to cater for them particularly with security and safety. This for us also explains the increase in room service tabs. Not many women want to sit in a restaurant alone.

The traveller today are a lot more savvy we can't just put our customers into boxes and say ‘there is the corporate traveller' and ‘there is the lifestyle traveller'. We've got people with different demands and we try to read their different needs. We get more and more requests for our gym, pool and sauna from our leisure guests so we're having a look at what we're offering."

How do you find the local Competition?

"Brisbane doesn't really have a truly designated 5 star market. If you compared to Sydney, or Melbourne to a lesser extent, they have the in-bound international visitors. The global guys aren't coming in at present. There is a very limited executive market here in Brisbane, which is another important market segment for 5 star hotels. From the conference point of view, we are very competitive locally. When you look at any of the conferences in town, who people will go for, it is dictated by size of the hotel. Now with the demand going up, hotels are fuller so there is an opportunity for the 5 star hotels to increase rates and separate from the competition with the 4 star."

"For us it's important to be part of the community. We're not simply a hotel we are also part of the local community."

How would you describe Hospitality as a Career?

"A career in hospitality is a lifestyle, and I don't mean a lifestyle where you sit back and relax. I think you either are a hospitality person or you're not and you can see that in people and the relationships people have. Many marry in the industry or associated industries. When people are training it isn't particularly well paid and it is still perceived by some in the market place as not such a great job. To go through all the times when your friends are out and you're working, or to be getting up at 6am for a breakfast shift, you've got to be dedicated. I love the industry and wouldn't leave it for the world. I've been working in it since I was 17. There is a big push for us from the human resource point of view to find the right people, because we loose a few. Some people want 9-5, Monday to Friday and that isn't the nature of the job."

Any final comments on recent changes in the hospitality industry?

The change to our business now and for the last few years is the transparency in room rates. We are still very much educating our guests in how we set tariffs. The education being about what various methods can and are used. The internet is not the cheapest way necessarily to book a room, it is an access into hotels. The internet is a distribution channel.

SpotLight is the weekly column exclusively written for 4Hoteliers.com by Sarah Muxlow, it is highlighting the challenges and issues which the global hospitality is facing today.

Sarah is writing for hotel and restaurant owners, hotel chain managers, producers/growers/sellers of food & beverage, restaurant associations, governing bodies and hotel schools. She is looking at the problems they face...competition, trends of branding, staff shortages, unskilled staff, turning out students who are looking for good in-house management training schemes with hotel chains, what makes a good quality training course at a hotel school and more... 

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