Jumeirah is on the move and the man leading the charge in Asia Pacific is Serge Kaalof who describes himself as a "French rebel". He tells Yeoh Siew Hoon about what makes Jumeirah different.
He's a monkey and a Gemini. Plus, he is from the Basque area of France. That, he says, makes him rather mischievous, always wanting to challenge the status quo and "a bit of a French rebel".
You can tell Serge Zaalof is loving his new role as senior vice president, Asia Pacific, of the Jumeirah Group. Barely a month into the job, the 30-year veteran has got big dreams for what is surely one of the world's fastest growing hotel companies.
Dubai-based Jumeirah is looking at having 40 hotels by 2010 with Asia Pacific playing a key role in its expansion drive. Outside Dubai, it currently is present in London (Jumeirah Carlton Tower and Jumeirah Lowndes Hotel) and New York (Jumeirah Essex House).
The HanTang Jumeirah Shanghai, its first in Asia, will open in mid-2008 and Francis Killroy, vice president of development Asia Pacific based in the Chinese city, will be driving growth in the region. There is talk of the group entering Phuket fairly soon.
It is also in the midst of developing a new spa brand which Zaalof refused to divulge details on except to say "it will be a lifestyle spa".
You can tell he is tempted to tell more but stops at "it will be unique, it will be different".
"Think different" and "stay different (the group's tagline)" are two words that crop up very often in Zaalof's vocabulary when talking about Jumeirah. "I go to sleep thinking that," he said.
So how are Jumeirah's hotels different from everything else?
"If you go to a Ritz Carlton – with the exception of this one (Singapore)," said Zaalof, "you know you are in a Ritz Carlton. Dark wood furniture, classical, contrived.
"I am not a customer of Ritz Carlton. I am more a customer of W or Four Seasons and, of course, Jumeirah. We like to surprise our guests. I don't like people to take me to my room, show me where everything is – I prefer to learn more about what is your luxury because everyone has their own idea of luxury. For example, my own luxury is calmness and music."
He added, "I want to discover more about the human being. We like each hotel to have its own personality. It's not something you can put your finger on, but you know it when it's there."
To ensure his team stays true to delivering the "stay different" experience, Zaalof says he encourages his team to ask questions all the time.
"I like to question the minds of people. I like to ask why. Why is something done like that?
"In the hotel industry, we are creatures of habit. And habits are not always good. We are like doctors, we clone a lot. I believe we must ask questions all the time. Why? Why do you do this? People evaluate you by the questions you ask.
"Management in hospitality needs refreshing. We need to challenge some of the thinking."
And just as he believes in challenging the status quo, he also believes in protecting his people. "My team is very important to me, they are my family. I will not allow anyone to come between me and them."
Zaalof is also single-minded about his goal for the HanTang Jumeirah Shanghai, which is located in the Xintiandi area. "We are positioning it as the number one in rates.
"Quality doesn't cost us anything, the customer pays for it. We just have to deliver it.
"We are not driven by costs. By charging the right price, the customer is taken care of automatically. We must stay true to our positioning – quality and luxury."
Asked which hotel company has managed to stand out from the crowd, Zaalof named Four Seasons. "They are consistent and they have stuck to their principles. They don't bastardise their product and they mean what they say and they stick to it.
"Even during bad times, they don't cut."
Outside the hotel industry, he names Bentley Aston Martin as a company he would benchmark Jumeirah against.
"It's easy to be consistent when you are a Coca-cola – the same recipe for so many years – but when you are dealing in a high end product, it takes a lot of investment and commitment to stick to it."The SHY Report
A regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry by one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, Yeoh Siew Hoon. Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her company's mission is "Content, Communication, Connection". She is a writer, speaker, facilitator, trainer and events producer. She is also an author, having published "Around Asia In 1 Hr: Tales of Condoms, Chillies & Curries". Her motto is ‘free to do, and be'. Contacts: Tel: 65-63424934, Mobile: 65-96801460Yeoh Siew Hoon's other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com. Get your weekly cuppa of news, gossip, humour and opinion at Travel's Busiest Junction.