The Best Job in the World: An SLH Hotel Inspector.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon
Saturday, 6th February 2010
Yeoh Siew Hoon catches up with CEO of Small Luxury Hotels, Paul Kerr, in Singapore and finds out how you can land the best job in the world. I reckon it's got to be one of the best jobs in the world – to be an "inspector" for Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

You've got a choice of 500 of the world's best hotels in the world, some of them to die for, in stunning locations.

CEO Paul Kerr tells me that they no longer advertise for candidates because now, applications just fly in year after year. "When we used to advertise, we got so many that we stopped."

Part of SLH: Hoshinoya Karuizawa, an hour by bullet train from Tokyo

The company has about 100 inspectors who make about 250 inspections a year. SLH checks its hotels every two years.

These inspectors are all former customers of SLH. Each year, interested candidates pitch for the hotels they want to inspect and SLH then selects the ones they want. Sometimes, Kerr chooses the ones that have complained about a stay.

"So I whinge and I get a free stay? Does that encourage people to complain?" I asked.

Kerr shrugs this aside. "We have 26,000 rooms, and we sell 12,000 to 13,000 rooms, that means about 18,000 people a day stay at our hotels. Out of that, we get three to four letters a day, if that," says the former chartered accountant, who joined SLH in 1991.

SLH inspectors act like mystery shoppers. They book directly through the website. They stay one or two nights. They pay their own travel and then charge it back to SLH. Then they write a report, about 20 pages, after their visit.

Based on these reports, the company then decides if the hotel should stay within the SLH family.

Last year, SLH added 65 hotels, and lost about 40. In a tough year, particularly for the luxury market, some hotels went broke, some closed down for alternative use and some switched brands.

Also part of SLH: The Emperor, Beijing

"Very few – and perhaps that's a testament to our choice of properties – part company because they are not up to scratch," says Kerr. "If people leave us, it's mostly due to non-payment.

"We are quite lenient and considerate and we recognise our members' problems but if there is non-payment, we cut off the reservation system."

As for those who switch brands, Kerr says, "I don't take it personally. Some switch to us, so all's fair."

He counts among his closest competitors Design Hotels, Leading Small Hotels Of The World and Relais & Chateaux. He feels Relais & Chateaux probably comes closest but says that because they are more focused on food & beverage, their room product is not as good as SLH's.

"It's hard to make money out of f&b in hotels – it's more of a marketing cost than a profit centre, unless you do big weddings. If a hotel concentrates on f&b, it's hard to be a profitable hotel."

Of the 500 hotels in its portfolio, about 100 are in Asia Pacific and recognising this shift in representation as well as changing demographics, SLH has moved its regional office from Sydney to Singapore. The office is headed by area director Asia Pacific Mark Wong, formerly of Preferred Hotels, and Brandon Chan, as area director of sales.

There are about 20 hotels in Australia and New Zealand and SLH is maintainng a small presence in Sydney.

"Our goal is to grow our network and grow our business for our hotels," says Kerr, who was in Singapore to open the office.

In 2009, SLH's revenues dropped 17% compared to 2008. "It wasn't a good year for anybody. Its average rate was US$320, a drop of 20% from 2008.

This year, Kerr is looking at no more than a 5% growth. The chartered accountant in him is realistic.

The luxury customer: Has he changed? Next week

Photos courtesy of Small Luxury Hotels of the World

Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com

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