INTERVIEW: STEPHEN ALDEN, CEO, RAFFLES & ORIENT EXPRESS

Posted in Business, Future, News, People, sticky-news on 9 November, 2021

Following a remarkable career spanning three decades in the hospitality industry, Stephen Alden was appointed CEO of Raffles and Orient Express in May. Sophie Harper caught up with him to find out more about his vision and hopes for the future of the two luxury brands.

Looking over Stephen Alden’s career history is like reading a who’s who in luxury hotels. He tells me he knew from an early age that he wanted to pursue a career in hospitality, and so left his childhood home in Malta to study International Hospitality and Tourism Management at Glion Institute of Higher

Education in Switzerland. From there he began his career in luxury hospitality at Starwood, where he opened The St Regis in New York and led the St Regis and Luxury Collection brands globally.

“My first general manager posting was at the Prince de Galles in Paris, followed by a seven-year stint in Milan and Rome with the iconic portfolio of properties originally known as CIGA (Compagnia Italiana di Grandi Alberghi). For nine years I was CEO of Maybourne Hotel Group’s, Claridge’s, The Connaught and The Berkeley in London.”

Before his appointment as CEO of Raffles and Orient Express, Stephen assembled a best-in-class team, based in Milan, to create The Dedica Anthology, a new brand in luxury hospitality with nine distinctive properties across Europe.

“I have also had the privilege of serving on the boards of Walpole British Luxury and Ferragamo’s Lungarno Collection and I remain a member of Bain & Co’s global advisor network on luxury and hospitality verticals. I hold an honorary title of ‘Console di Roma’ for restoration and renovation works carried out to support the Italian Jubilee celebrations in 2000, mainly on Le Grand Hotel, a Cesar Ritz original property from 1894.”

Stephen tells me how he has operated in a diversity of cultures where each role has progressed from the last with varying levels of engagement with owners and investors. “Each role has been unique and taught me in different ways. I have led several renovation projects that have helped define a period of change in our industry, whether re-opening The St Regis in New York as a flagship for the brand or re-introducing The Connaught in London,” he says, explaining that the last 30 years’ accumulated experience has prepared him for his new role at the helm of Raffles and Orient Express. “Nothing brings a team closer together than the planning of a hotel opening and the pressures that come with it,” he adds. “Nothing is more rewarding either, when you can take a step back and see the impact of what you have created in terms of the social dynamic, art and design, community, and the opportunity to develop talent.”

Talking about his working week, Stephen tells me how no two days are the same and that essentially there is always a lot of travel and collaboration involved. “I live in Milan and my office is in Paris. I fly to Paris on Sunday night and travel back to Milan from wherever I may be on Friday night. Mornings often start with calls with Asia Pacific, normally linked to development opportunities, talent, or product. I prefer small in-person meetings, when possible, with the brand teams. Most days I will have an informal lunch with a colleague to discuss an ongoing project and the rest of the afternoon is spent on our digital activities, marketing programming or developing new ideas, design and interior configurations, validation of new projects or projects under development with our Development and Design & Technical Services teams. Evenings, unless I have an event to attend, are reserved for reading.” As if that wasn’t enough to keep Stephen busy, he also travels throughout the week to attend site visits and to keep connected with brand partners. Then there’s the strategic planning as well as regular communication between schools, investors, and the industry in general.

I ask Stephen if he has a specific agenda or personal goals he’d like to implement in his current position and he says: “Yes, very much so. My personal goals include the creation of a new form of hotelcraft – a term I have coined to describe a style of hotel management designed for our times that is more in sync with the rapidly evolving contemporary lives of our guests, colleagues, partners and friends.” He explains how he’d like to bring about change and help to sculpt an exciting future for the industry. “I believe that as custodians of these two magnificent brands, we have the scale and ambition to participate in a meaningful way in the transformation of our industry. We have a responsibility to act together on initiatives to develop talent; and we must also act responsibly when it comes to sustainable development and operations.”

Stephen tells me he’s working closely with their management and hospitality schools to inspire current and future generations of hoteliers. “A dedicated academy is something I’d like to bring to fruition.”

On countering climate change and other environmental issues, he says how proud he is that Accor (Raffles and Orient Express’ parent brand) has joined the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance. “I firmly believe that partnerships can be a catalyst for improvement. Accor has a strong track record and best-in-class team that’s excited and motivated to achieve its targets. Beyond implementing new technology and protocols to address plastic use, energy efficiency, water consumption, waste reduction and carbon emissions, we are working closely with local communities and organisations dedicated to cultural preservation and biodiversity to support sustainable growth.

“Within this framework of creative collaboration, I am deeply committed to seeing both the Raffles and Orient Express brands take their place at the pinnacle of the industry – inspiring young people to make hospitality their career of choice, collaborating on initiatives to make the world a better place, continuing to be relevant and building on their reputations as winning competitors for our hotel owners and investors.”

The past year has been transformational for Raffles, and it is seeing long- awaited projects such as Raffles Udaipur (see page 84 for the review) and Raffles The Palm, Dubai coming to life, which Stephen says makes him proud. “I enjoy seeing our team of high calibre professionals, artisans and craftspeople come together, and the spirit of camaraderie across our international locations. I love our storied hotels, which are often witness to history being made as we bring together the worlds of fine and performing arts, literature, culinary arts, business, and politics in each destination.”

Undergoing an unprecedented period of growth, Raffles has several prestigious projects in the pipeline including the brand’s first North American property opening in Boston in 2022, and the eagerly anticipated Raffles London and Residences at the OWO. “This is a rare opportunity to acquire a piece of Winston Churchill’s legacy in the former Old War Office in London, a storied building which has been the subject of a magnificent five-year transformation. I am particularly excited about launching Raffles London at the OWO as it will be our first Raffles hotel in London, featuring 120 rooms and suites and a collection of nine fantastic restaurants and bars.”

Stephen says his aim for Raffles is to ensure it is a progressive brand that listens, keeps an open mind, and is fundamentally relevant to people’s lives. “We have just announced an exciting new resort project in Saudi Arabia, Raffles Red Sea, working with Foster + Partners, Antonio Citterio and Patricia Viel, which will be a bold and audacious showcase for new ideas and concepts. Here, and elsewhere, we’ll be designing imaginative suites that resemble stylish apartments rather than traditional hotel rooms, with the atmosphere of a luxurious, residential pied-a-terre. Everything we do should create a sense of space, privacy and time.”

Talking about the Orient Express brand, Stephen is just as passionate about creating meaningful experiences. “We have the privilege of reigniting the timeless Orient Express brand, bringing its exotic glamour to a new generation of hotels starting with our first property in Rome,” he says. “The original Orient Express train route was exciting in the way it brought cultures together – the Occident with the Orient, history with modernity. Travellers would experience new places and rare, extraordinary moments. As artisans of travel, this is the type of old-world and awe- inspiring travel we aim to revive – creating intimate, glamorous places where magic happens.”

He goes on to tell me that architecture and design are integral to creating that ambience of enchantment. “Irrespective of whether we’re working with a carefully preserved historic building, or a completely new project delivered by contemporary designers, architects and landscapists working at their peak, we’re always looking for that perfectly judged, subtle flow between the interior spaces and surrounding landscape that creates an immersive sensory experience. We must inspire our guests with spaces to celebrate or escape, places of natural contrasts which are also in harmony with their contemporary lives.”

As Stephen talks of inspiration, relevance, and experience so fluidly in relation to travel, I ask what he feels has changed over the years and how luxury brands are now defining their place in the market. “We have come a long way from the days when formality, excess and physical product defined luxury,” he says. “Today luxury is a state of being, grounded in the powerful combination of humility, humanity, sustainability, design, craft and technology that truly makes a difference when they come together. Consumption is more conscious, and people want to be comfortable with how things operate behind the scenes. Our well-travelled guests expect a luxurious experience to have a meaningful impact on them as a person: they seek to be educated or even transformed into a state of comfortable wonderment. They want to explore and discover in their own time and their own way, and so hyper-personalisation is key, delivered by blending technology with discerning service that comes from the heart. Luxury is about spending precious moments together with friends and family of all generations. Post-pandemic, the attitude is to make every trip count – and ultimately, we are all travellers!”

Stephen’s work is testament to his passion for, and commitment to, the industry and he tells me how he has always loved hotels and being in the hotel environment. “I believe that as hotels become woven into the fabric of their cities and communities, they can start to make a difference, whether they have been newly created or have centuries of history-making. Each hotel is like a small universe, from recruitment and training through to creating vibrant, fun and imaginative food and beverage concepts, conferences and meetings, elegant galleries and beautiful landscaping. I could spend my days actively engaging with management, working from anywhere and enjoying moments of comfortable wonderment. I am never happier than observing the day run its course from the vibrant lobby of a grand hotel, where multiple rituals unfold, ideas are born, and history is made.”

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