INTERVIEW: DEAN WINTER, MANAGING DIRECTOR, SWIRE HOTELS

Posted in News, People on 1 September, 2020

After a restructure of its senior management team, Swire Hotels’ new Managing Director, Dean Winter, talks to Sophie Harper five weeks into his new position about the future for the luxury hospitality group.

Having spent his working life living and breathing hospitality, Dean Winter describes himself as an ‘ops man’ who gets his energy from the people around him; which I’d say are essential qualities for a leader in this industry. However, Dean didn’t start his journey with leadership in mind. “I always wanted to be a chef,” he states in a matter of fact kind of way, then smiles. “I was inspired by my mother, who is a great cook, an amazing cook, and I spent a lot of time with her in the kitchen. My father worked for a cruise company and all our holidays were spent on these wonderful cruise ships with huge smorgasbords and buffets and I was just fascinated by food and restaurants, so that was always my thing.”

After leaving school Dean went on to do his culinary and restaurant training and then worked in management training for the Savoy Hotels Group in London. “I loved London, it was just so inspiring. I worked at Claridges and The Berkley, and just those wonderful, glamorous hotels with celebrities and beautiful people and great teams and a super cosmopolitan and international setting was brilliant.”

Dean realised he wanted to see more of the world and worked hard to add to his experience in hospitality in the hope of finding work in Asia. “I came to Hong Kong in 1992 without a job – but in those days you could turn up here with a British passport and just work like you were still in London – it was incredible.” Dean eventually landed a job with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel as a restaurant manager. “That was in February 1992 and I thought I’d just be here for a couple of years, but almost 29 years later I’m still

here! Mandarin Oriental was a great experience for me, it was all the things I’d enjoyed about London but it was in the Far East. The attitude of people in Hong Kong, both then and now, is very much a ‘can do’ sort of spirit and the service culture in Asia is just unbelievable − I loved every minute of it. Then I met my wife here and, well, kids, mortgage, dog – suddenly you put roots down.”

Shortly after they were married, Dean and his wife moved back to the UK for a couple of years where Dean worked for Terence Conran. “I got that frustrated restaurateur out of me and ran Quaglinos in the West End but it was inevitable that I’d always return to this part of the world, so my wife and I came back and I went back to Mandarin Oriental where I was fortunate to be involved in the renovation of the Mandarin Hong Kong in 2005.” Involved with some of the project design and operations team during the hotel’s closure, Dean was able to reassess his career development. “Brian Williams (who was our MD at the time) had just joined Swire Properties and was starting the hotel division, which was a new thing – Swire Properties owned several hotels but then they would appoint an international operator – but they had three projects that they were thinking of operating themselves so they appointed Brian to help start what is now Swire Hotels. I became employee number two!”

Dean joined Swire Hotels in 2006 and describes his time with the group as ‘the most incredible journey’. “I started out as an operations project development type of ‘Jack of all trades’ and we were opening The Opposite House in Beijing at the time. We had two projects here: EAST and The Upper House, so I was very involved in the development of those three hotels and contributing on an operations level and working closely with all the architects and consultants, flying to China a lot and feel, looking back on it, that we were really creating something.”

Now in his new role, Dean tells me how the first few weeks have been as Managing Director. “On one level I’m really busy and I find the only time I have to myself is when I’m walking from one appointment to the next, but that’s just part of being in a new job,” he says. “Although I’ve been with the group for a long time, there are new stakeholders to manage and people to see, and other than talking about business recovery for this year we’re also planning next year. We’ve also got some projects on, which will happen next year but we’re just in the beginning stages at the moment – so there’s lots keeping us busy.”

Current operations, Dean tells me, aren’t too bad despite the current situation, although there have been peaks and troughs following the lift, then re-implementation of restrictions. “Hotel occupancy is really challenging because nobody’s flying and Hong Kong needs people to be able to fly here and there’s just not that activity at the moment… there are only so many staycations you can do in Hong Kong.”

Planning ahead, Dean tells me it’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen, especially when forecasting activity in different regions. “We’re trying to weigh up who’s more likely to be travelling: is it businessmen, is it leisure travellers, has the demographic changed? We can only assume so we’re working around different scenarios. Our China business is better – there’s massive opportunity domestically, so that’s been good to have that and that’s been across all cities without exception. Beijing has been challenging because it’s the capital and the government, rightly so, have been concerned about outbreaks there and have just been a lot more cautious about people coming and going, but we’ve had an excellent past few weeks at our Chengdu hotel, The Temple House. With great domestic leisure travel, we’ve been full and the restaurants have been busy – it’s been remarkable, so it’s sort of a mixed bag at the moment, but we’re confident that things will bounce back and the virus will abate and we’ll keep looking for those silver linings.”

Swire Hotels’ two brands, EAST and The House Collective have plenty of similarities in their guest experience approach, but are easily distinguishable from each other. “Previously we’d positioned the EAST brand as being this sort of upper-midscale business lifestyle, fresh, young, rooms-driven brand and that’s evolved into a slightly more playful element. We’ve had a lot of wonderful feedback on our EAST Miami property, which we deliberately designed to be a lot more aligned to the sort of Southern American market so the restaurants, the bars, the uniforms, the interior aesthetics were geared towards that and it’s worked really well,” Dean tells me. “Whereas The House Collective is clearly a more premium ‘upper upscale’ brand. The average rate of a The House Collective hotel might be double that of an EAST hotel, but there will be fewer keys and we’re appealing to the discerning traveller who has probably grown up on Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons, and Ritz Carltons during their travelling careers.”

Each hotel in the portfolio is designed to offer its guests a truly authentic experience, and so although there’s strong brand messaging for both brands, guests can expect something different from each hotel. “Fundamentally they’re all different – we purposefully choose different architects and different designers. Sense of place is a bit of a cliché but we try as much as possible to become part of our neighbourhoods, we adapt to the local culture, which in Hong Kong isn’t difficult because we’re from here, but I think we’ve had a lot of success working with neighbourhood partners and being able to offer genuine, authentic experiences – whether that’s in an EAST branded or The House Collective branded hotel.”

Dean hints that there are some exciting plans in the pipeline for new projects over the coming years, and although he’s not allowed to divulge, he does speak about expanding. “We’re looking to expand and grow with both brands. We’ve made ourselves known to developers because of The House Collective, because the hotels receive travel and leisure awards, but EAST Miami has also generated interest from developers.”

A relatively small number of hotels at current, Dean tells me there are plans to grow from seven hotels to ten and then hopefully 15 over the course of the next eight years, which is an incredible expansion rate and just goes to show the success of Swire Hotels’ existing portfolio. “We’re very much hoping that both brands could be rolled out in equal measure,” he says. “There’s a geographical restriction at the moment for us – from South Korea to Australia – so it’s that Asia-Pacific band, but there are a handful of potential projects that we’re very excited about. Despite all of this apparent uncertainty in the world, there are people out there who are still planning and developing and working on exciting things so hopefully next time I can tell you more.”

We talk about design, of course, and Dean tells me just how important it is that they get the design right for both EAST and The House Collective hotels. “Design is so important for our brands; like I mentioned before, we intentionally select different interior designers for each of our projects. Often we actually have different designers doing the rooms to the design of the public areas in the same project – so that we create different moods and different experiences as the guest moves through the hotel.” By way of explanation he tells me about The Temple House in Chengdu where the rooms were designed by Make Architects in the UK and the restaurants were designed by AvroKo in New York. “It’s great because you go from your room to the restaurant and it feels different and I think that is important in a hotel that is differentiating itself in its market because of its brand and because of its people. We rely a lot on design to help us deliver that brand as well and as we’ve seen in the last 12 years, we are appealing to guests who also appreciate it.”

Selecting the right design studio for a new project is of the utmost importance and Dean and his team are constantly on the lookout for designers to work with. “We scratch our heads a lot about which designers we want to work with,” he says, “and we’re constantly reading magazines like yours to find out who the up-and-coming designers are in various parts of the world. We try where we can to work with local design studios – André Fu of course was a great example where The Upper House was his first hotel. It was just such a great pleasure to work with him on that and be part of it with him and I hope we can do more of those kinds of projects with young up-and-coming architects and designers. Design is a really important part of what we do, it stimulates people, it’s about storytelling, it’s about how hotels make you feel emotionally and helps us to differentiate ourselves from our competitors, who perhaps might have more of a formulaic brand.”

Dean says how lucky he feels that Swire Properties are such patient and resourceful owners; that they understand the customer journey and investment in people within the company. “Strangely we still feel like a start-up!” he exclaims. “We’re only seven hotels and we feel that we’re still learning – that we’re changing and tweaking things – and when I talk to friends who are in start-ups of their own there are a lot of parallels in the way they’re doing things. I think that also reflects our culture in that whilst we have strong brands we don’t have big egos; we’re quite happy to get feedback from other stakeholders and change and adapt and continue to innovate. So that keeps us on our toes and gives us that feeling to some extent of entrepreneurialism, but definitely a start-up mindset which is great, and I think that also appeals to a lot of the team we have here.” He summarises: “It’s been very organic and constantly changing. It’s a lot of fun and I hope it stays that way.”

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