Posted in People on 17 June, 2024

From chef to CEO, Bob van den Oord discusses his latest role, plans for growth and The Langham Way.

WORDS BY Emma Kennedy

As his profile image would suggest, Bob van den Oord is warm and welcoming when we meet in the newly decorated Portland suite at the Langham hotel, London. It’s spacious and elegant in cool neutral tones, and deeply comfortable. Taking in the view of Portland Place outside, he smiles broadly. “It’s great to be back,” he says with feeling, “I used to run this hotel for eight years, so yes, I miss London.” Does he miss being a hotelier? “Sometimes I do. It’s in my blood to take care of guests and being in a corporate role involves very different priorities and focus. But don’t get me wrong,” he’s quick to add, “That’s not to say I’m not enjoying my current role, because I’m having a lot of fun!” And judging by his relaxed demeanour, I have no reason to doubt him. “But it’s always great to come back. London’s such a thriving and happening city.”

Born and raised in Holland van den Oord’s introduction to hospitality began as a chef some 30 years ago. “A girlfriend and I started our own catering business, cooking for wealthy people in their homes and as you can imagine, that too was a lot of fun. But obviously I wanted more, so I took a degree in Economics specialising in Hotel Management, and went to work in restaurants and kitchens, and literally learnt from the ground up.”

Joining the Langham Group in 1999, van den Oord climbed the ranks and was perfectly positioned in 2023 when he was appointed CEO, succeeding Brett Butcher. Under his leadership the Chinese group comprising four brands – Cordis Hotels & Resorts, Eaton, Ying‘nFlo and The Langham Hotels & Resorts – currently has 33 hotels across four continents, and a further 12 hotels in the pipeline.

The Langham, Jakarta. Photographs courtesy of Langham Hospitality Group

Built in 1865 and steeped in history, the Langham London has a storied past, and one which Hong Kong based Great Eagle Holdings were respectful of when acquiring it in 1995. Following a reported £100 million pound refurbishment and the re-branding of five other hotels in its portfolio, the Langham Hospitality Group was born. Now with 18 Langham Hotels worldwide, and 12 in various stages of development, I ask van den Oord about the brands ethos. Careful to stay on brand he double checks the running order before telling me, “We like to say, we have a British heart, an Asian soul and a global mindset. We call it The Langham Way.”

Fusing together the best of both worlds, Langham Hotels has held on tightly to its British heritage, all delivered in customary Asian style. Their award-winning Afternoon Tea is still high on the hotels extensive list of offerings and has been used as a signature – ticking the quintessentially British box across all The Langham hotels. But equally desirable, is Chuan Spa – based on traditional Chinese medicine – and their Michelin starred Chinese signature restaurants. It’s the coming together of the two cultures, that the “Langham Way” is referring to. Is this what sets them apart from other brands? “I think so,” he says, “but it’s also the culture we have created in our hotels, where staff are actively encouraged to be themselves, to share their stories and to really engage with the guests.”

The Salon lounge at Langham Place Changsha

Approaching his first anniversary as CEO, I ask van den Oord what his main challenges have been since taking up the post. After carefully considering his answer, he begins. “The challenges are threefold. First is about coming out of Covid,” he states. “Although we have successfully got back to pre-covid levels in most of our markets, it is still a challenge in Australia and Hong Kong – and we’re not quite there yet in terms of their profit levels. Australia in particular has been hard, because the international markets haven’t returned – meaning it’s very much a domestic market with less compression, which doesn’t allow us to grow the rates. In addition to that it is probably one of the most expensive markets to operate in making payroll expenses very high. That’s probably the number one challenge. The second is the labour market, which has become very competitive. It’s a global issue – everyone is looking for good people and there simply aren’t enough of them. We need to make working in the hospitality sector sexy again.”

The T’ang Court restaurant at The Langham Gold Coast

Post-Covid, labour (or lack of it) is a recurring theme when talking to anyone in the industry and I ask van den Oord why he believes it’s still an issue. He cites many reasons, all of them valid, but ultimately, he feels the younger generation aren’t seeing the appeal their predecessors did. “I think the young are wanting to work in social media, and marketing believing it’s more creative. So, as an industry, we all need to do more to spread the message that it is fun and creative. Everyone wants to be part of something, to work towards a common goal and have a true sense of satisfaction – and that’s what hospitality is. It is hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun!”

Leaving the fun aside, van den Oord considers the third challenge. “The third challenge I guess, is signing up new hotels. We’re doing very well in Asia and in China, but Europe and the Middle East is a far more competitive market.”

Despite a challenging market, van den Oord is flying off to Venice the following day, to see progress on one of the groups many hotels in development. Slated to open in 2027, he tells me about the forthcoming project on Murano Island – the site of the old glass factory.

The Chuan Spa at The Langham Jakarta boasts a serene ambiance and timeless design palette

During the restoration of the listed building, emphasis has been placed on preserving its original façades, while inside, the building will pay homage to Murano’s rich glassmaking heritage, showcasing contemporary pieces throughout the 140 guest rooms and suites. A secluded courtyard featuring a pool area – a rare find in Venice – enveloped by the surrounding buildings will serve as the focal point of the resort. Visibly excited, van den Oord continues. “It’s one of the very few hotels in Venice that will have an oversized pool. Matteo Thun & Partners is the architect, and Richmond International is responsible for the interiors, and I think it will be the best in Venice, which I know is quite a statement given the competition. But we are extremely confident it will do very well.”

Securing new properties is a major part of his role, and I wonder what the overriding criteria is when considering potential sites. “Location always comes first. That’s the most important part because only the right location will allow us to do a good job. That will then be reflected in the numbers. Secondly, we own around 60% of inventory – the other hotels are management contracts – so obviously, when we look for a hotel with another owner, we need to make sure that our aspirations and vision are totally aligned. And then thirdly, we look at which of our brands fits that hotel best? Not every location can become a Langham, you know, it’s expensive to run a Langham Hotel, and we need to be able to command the appropriate average rate for that. You can’t do that in every market, hence us having the other brands as well.”

With an ‘A list’ of designers and architects – including the afore mentioned Matteo Thun and Richmond International working across the brands – the diverse line-up of creatives continues with the likes of Renzo Piano, Kengo Kuma, David Collins Studio, Yvette Adams and Martin Brudnizki (MBDS) ensuring the hotels’ architecture and aesthetics are in the best possible hands, and in turn allowing van den Oord to focus on other areas that fall under his watch.

His latest initiative, Brilliant by Langham, is the group’s new loyalty and experiences platform, replacing the Langham Supper Club and 1865 Privilege by Langham programmes, which focused solely on loyalty. “It’s a platform where you can earn points, or indeed burn points in any of our hotels around the world, which I think is quite important as it comes with a whole new CRM program. It’s not just about loyalty, it’s about getting to know our members and seeing what we can come up with specifically for them in terms of experiences around the world. So that’s quite different from traditional loyalty offerings.”

Finally, as we come to the end of the interview, I ask him how he feels eight months into his tenure and what his goals for the future involve. “Well firstly, it has gone very, very fast! – and as for my goals, well there are many. We are about to launch a new brand campaign which is going to be fun and different, then there are all the new hotels in the pipeline including more in Southeast Asia which we haven’t announced yet – so there’s a lot happening. But long term it’s all about growth, especially new hotels in this part of the world – and my overall goal is to have 100 hotels by 2040.”

Having overseen the most profitable year in the company’s history, coupled with infectious enthusiasm and quiet confidence, I’m left in no doubt that if anyone can do it, then van den Oord’s your man.


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