INTERVIEW: PHILIPP WEGHMANN, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT EUROPE, PREFERRED HOTEL GROUP
With his finger on the pulse of hospitality trends − and a distinct opinion on what makes a hotel stand-out, Philipp Weghmann tells Sophie Harper how he began his career in the industry, how Preferred Hotels selects its members, and talks about the group’s exciting new sustainable brand.
Travel is in Philipp Weghmann’s blood. From a young age he travelled separately with both his mother, who was a travel agent, and his father, who was an executive in the steel industry. “We would travel a lot,” he says. “I loved it as a child, I was always
fascinated by the hotels.” So taken by his family travels, Philipp decided to study hospitality following high school. “A lot of my teachers were surprised as they thought anyone with high grades should be going to law school or medical school as going into hospitality was considered an alternative for people who weren’t as smart! Fortunately my parents didn’t feel that way so they never had any objections and so I ended up studying at a very good school in the Netherlands.”
Philipp graduated from the prestigious Hotel Management School in The Hague with a bachelor’s degree in both Hotel Administration and European Hospitality Management, at which point he decided to begin his career in South Africa, settling in the happy jostle of Cape Town. “I spent four years learning many different facets of the industry working with The Table Bay Hotel, Horwath Tourism & Leisure Consulting, and Wine Concepts.”
Philipp moved to Spain from South Africa seeking somewhere to settle long-term. “I moved to Spain without a job, but I just thought that Barcelona at the time was the most exciting city in Europe, even when you’re not making lots of money, so I thought it was a great city to be in,” he tells me. “I worked for HOTUSA Hotels overseeing the company’s international business development in North America, Europe and Northern Africa prior to joining Preferred Hotels & Resorts.”
Joining the Preferred team in 2006, Philipp’s first role was as Regional Director for the Iberian Peninsula and Mediterranean. “It had just been bought by the Ueberroth family – who still owns the company now – and they had put a lot of money and love into it already in the short period they’d owned it for, and I was impressed by that.” Philipp grew the region’s membership from seven to more than 50 member hotels in the space of five years before taking on the role of Area Managing Director for Latin America and the Caribbean for the next three years. Now, as Executive Vice President of Europe, Philipp oversees the company’s growth and evolution, as well as ensuring the retention of more than 200 member properties across 25 countries in Europe. “When I joined, the Ueberroth family had just bought Preferred Hotels, Summit Hotels, and Stirling Hotels and put them all under one roof, which is the Preferred Hotel Group – the parent company.” Over the years, new divisions were added to the company to include Historic Hotels of America and the Preferred Residences collection. Then there was the addition of the company’s consulting division, which has grown significantly over the last few years.
At the time of our interview, Preferred Hotel Group had just announced the launch of Beyond Green following the company’s acquisition of Beyond Green Travel at the beginning of 2020, which Philipp describes as a really exciting partnership. “In our space of the market, which is the upper end: ultra-luxury, luxury, and upper upscale, the preferences of the guest had already been changing and sustainability had become a pretty big thing for a good percentage of our customer base,” he explains. “We found sustainability wasn’t just one of those nice things to add in to surprise the guest with, but that actually it was forming their decision process when choosing one hotel over another.”
When Preferred Hotels & Resorts CEO Lindsey Ueberroth was introduced to Costas Christ – the founder of Beyond Green Travel, there were lots of synergies between the two companies. “Sustainability was already gaining momentum within the industry, but Coronavirus has expedited progress,” says Philipp. “As we look ahead to the future of travel, particularly during this period of economic recovery, we believe more than ever that the time is now to take sustainable tourism to the next level.” Launching the new hotel brand, Beyond Green, at the end of 2020, the global portfolio included 24 founding member hotels, resorts, and lodges, that exemplify sustainable tourism leadership and deliver on the three key pillars: environmentally friendly practices that go beyond the basics; protection of natural and cultural heritage; and contributing to the social and economic wellbeing of local communities. “When we acquired Beyond Green Travel, we added all of that knowledge that Costas and his team had built up over the years to our consulting division, so our hotels can come to us now and tap into this incredible wealth of knowledge and we can accompany them on their journey to more sustainability.”
Preferred Hotels has a sizeable global development team and Philipp tells me that they spend a significant amount of time developing the brand, which involves seeking out hotels that would be a good fit for the group’s various collections. “We are deeply interconnected with hotel owners, GMs and financial institutions that own hotels and so they usually know about most of the great independent hotels out there,” he says. “We constantly do research, which includes reading great publications like SPACE – sometimes we’re reading about them for the first time in a magazine.” The group also receives thousands of applications from hotel owners and asset management companies looking for a brand partner that meets their individual needs to represent them globally but there’s an extensive vetting process. “We quite simply look for the best independent hotels in each of the different categories in the luxury space,” Philipp says. “The hotels can be quite different because they’re all independent. There is no one-size-fits-all model. Instead, we choose to partner with luxury properties that demonstrate a true connection to their surroundings and local communities, whether that’s through history, food, design, sustainability, or art. We strive to maintain an exemplary portfolio made up of diverse luxury properties, including castles in Ireland, island resorts in the Maldives, and safari lodges in Africa, so we proactively seek out hotels that we believe are distinctly unique and locally relevant.”
From 35 locations around the world, with departments ranging from sales to marketing, Preferred Hotels does all the work independent hotels simply aren’t able to do. “To run global campaigns for extended periods of time wouldn’t be feasible for an independent hotel to do themselves, even for a large independent hotel. We have specialists across all areas and so we help with everything from strategy to distribution with our in-house experts,” Philipp explains. “We give hotels access to an infrastructure that allows them to really position their hotel internationally – outside of their own country. It’s not really necessary for hotels that rely on domestic business to be affiliated with an international brand, but if you’re in a major city or a resort destination like Mykonos or St Tropez, your business comes from all over the world, maybe 10 or 20 different countries, sometimes even more, and that’s what luxury hotels need to do, they need to curate their clientele because it’s too risky to rely on one market. It’s smart to diversify and we’re really the best partner with this global infrastructure to be able to position them in these markets.”
Philipp is reluctant to pick out favourite hotels as he feels every Preferred Hotel has something uniquely special to offer, “In Europe alone I have 200 ‘children’, but my favourite hotels are the ones that aren’t big boxes (not that we have many of those) but that still have all the facilities you’d want from a hotel over a three or four day stay.” When pressed for further information he says: “Two really good examples of what I think are perfect city hotels are The Beaumont in London and Sans Souci in Vienna. Both have around 70/80 rooms and are boutique hotels but each has a really decent gym – not huge but well equipped, a really great spa, and then a private area where you can have business meetings and not be disturbed as well as a great restaurant, which shows how a business trip can become a luxurious experience just because you select the right hotel. Leisure is a whole other story – how much time do you have?!” he laughs.
Describing himself as someone who is ‘obsessed with design’, Philipp tells me how important it is to the hospitality market. “It impacts us and certainly everybody in our target market, whether it’s business or leisure, or ‘bleisure’, it affects the whole travel experience. I think it affects the decision-making process for sure, but it doesn’t always have to be unbelievably expensive design – you can still have materials that aren’t outrageously expensive but that are of high quality.” He adds: “Construction is very important too; you can’t make up for a room with fancy design if it has been poorly sound insulated.” However, a unified design isn’t something Preferred Hotels pushes onto its members as the point is that the hotels are as independent in their style as they are in their location. “One of the points in our ideology is that we are forever curious. We are not a cookie cutter company, our portfolio is pretty significant in size now, so the traveller can express their curiosity with us as there is just so much choice and variety.”
The essence of Preferred Hotels’ aims and ambitions is that it doesn’t look at a hotel as a singular entity, but that it’s much more about an experience – and not just for the guest, but for every hotelier, travel agent, guest, and member of staff. “We gave a lot of time to defining our ideology, which is made up of 15 different phrases that try to give all our different stakeholders a flavour of what we stand for, what we strive for. The overarching message is ‘believe in travel’ – that’s our ethos if you like – it’s what connects all the dots and speaks to all of our audiences; travel is good for us, it makes us better human beings and affects us so positively in so many ways.”