Filip Boyen, Chief Executive Officer, Small Luxury Hotels of the World
With more than three decades of international hotel management experience, Filip Boyen, Chief Executive Officer of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, opens up to Can Faik about the brand’s future…
Small Luxury Hotels of the World™ (SLH) matches independently minded guests with independently spirited hotels. The diverse portfolio of over 500 hotels in more than 80 countries around the world includes everything from cutting edge design hotels and city centre sanctuaries to historic country mansions and remote private islands – all SLH hotels are consistently different, however, they are all united by the fact that they offer the best locations, highest quality, personalised service and a truly authentic way to discover a destination.
What was your background in hospitality prior to working for SLH?
I’ve always worked in hospitality, starting out as a Commis Chef in my home country of Belgium. Since then I’ve had hands-on experience of all aspects of the industry around the world, from F&B to GM, and six years as COO at Belmond. As a result, I definitely approach my role as CEO from a hotelier’s perspective.
Where are you based?
I’m based at SLH’s head office in London.
What does your current position involve?
At SLH we champion our portfolio of independently spirited hotels and make sure we provide them with the best possible platform to connect with independently-minded travellers. As CEO, my role is all-encompassing with responsibility for the wellbeing of our employees, the financial position of the business and ultimately the success of the company both now and in the future as we navigate these ever-competitive times.
Personally, I make it a priority to interact with staff at all levels, both at our hotels and at our SLH offices around the world, to understand what and how they think and what they need to help them do their jobs most efficiently, productively and collaboratively.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
SLH is, and always has been, a dynamic company – it was setting the trend by championing small, independent hotels when it was set up 27 years ago, long before boutique hotels became a thing. A company like this attracts dynamic partners and I enjoy working and interacting with hotels that are able to be nimble and responsive, so we in turn can be creative about the ways we bring the brand to life and bring business to our members. This industry has given me the opportunity to meet so many interesting people throughout my career and our SLH hoteliers embody our independently-minded approach to life, travel and hospitality.
What are the most challenging issues you are facing within your current role?
I’m asked all the time now about how the big hotel chains launching soft brands has affected our business. The fact is it hasn’t – business for us increased by 16 per cent last year, and by entering this space 27 years after us they’re actually paying us a huge compliment. We have hotels that were members of SLH, then moved across to soft brands, and have come back again. This shows us that despite the apparent lure of the big brands our hotels, which as SLH members remain 100 per cent autonomous and retain all their individual character, begin to lose their sense of place when anything becomes standardised. For me, you should be able to close the curtains of your hotel room and know exactly where you are in the world. Now Airbnb is also joining the party, so it will be interesting to see how they reconcile their raison d’être with their boutique hotel offering.
What does SLH have to do to stay one step ahead of its competition?
SLH has always delivered culturally-relevant experiences and we’re constantly seeking out new, high-calibre, small, independent hotels to join the brand and offer these in new destinations and neighbourhoods. In 2017, we added 57 new hotels in places like Dubai, Havana, Panama, the US, Rome and Japan, including the Orania.Berlin in Kreuzberg.
One of our key focal points has always been ensuring the highest quality at our hotels, in terms of the product and the service. As a result, SLH has become harder to join and harder to stay a part of with Mystery Inspections carried on all 500+ hotels annually. These high standards are key to the ongoing success of our brand, and the trust which both guests and hoteliers place in us, and will always be at the very heart of our business.
On an operational level, in February we successfully migrated our reservations system to Sabre SynXis. This transition took over twelve months and many thousands of hours of work behind the scenes by the team. It is important to us to provide our hotels with industry-leading platforms like this and we’ll continue to invest to make sure we’re offering our members the very best.
What are SLH Unique Selling Points?
At SLH we want to engage with the local environment and culture rather than homogenise it and every SLH hotel is intrinsically linked to their street, neighbourhood and city. Over the last thirty years the definition of ‘luxury’ has progressed far beyond mere material consumption to experiential consumption, however, how these ‘experiences’ are defined is entirely subjective – for one customer it could be choosing a hotel with strong cultural links to its destination, for another it is simply finding the ideal place to spend quality time with their family. Luxury today means offering a personalised experience, and guests come to us knowing that we can find them the perfect hotel to fit their individual requirements.
What is next for the SLH as in new signings?
This year we have some really exciting new hotels joining the brand. For example Fendi Private Suites on the third floor of the Palazzo Fendi in Rome; Hotel Powers, a design journey through the 1930s and 1950s in a Haussmann building in Paris that will be opening later this year; Nobu Hotel Marbella opening in March following the incredibly successful opening of Nobu Hotel Ibiza Bay last year; and Lefay Resort & SPA Dolomiti, opening in Summer 2019 with a focus on sustainability and health, taking full advantage of it’s location in a ski area and UNESCO site.
What does a hotel have to be to become part of SLH?
All our hotels go through a strict vetting procedure before they become members – we get around 800 requests a year and only about five per cent make it. At the same time, our Development team is busy proactively seeking out the very best new, and established, small hotels. Firstly, the hotel must be independently owned – and obviously offer a unique luxury experience in a new location for our guests. Most importantly, however, they must guarantee the highest standards of intuitive service right across the board.
What are the personality traits that define a successful and happy hotel proprietor, in your opinion?
Any host must have a passion for people, and I think it’s vital that guests at a hotel see their host as it takes their experience of a hotel and a destination to the next level. Our GMs, and very often the owners, are very hands on and visible and it’s something that’s often commented on by our guests – they feel wanted and special and take away yet another memory of a remarkable trip.
Have you noticed any particular trends in hotels in Europe compared to US and Asia?
This year in our trends report it was evident, right across the world, that customisation is key – allowing people to tailor their own experience down to the scent of their room, the fabric of their linen or when and where they eat a meal. Where this trend differs across the continents is how the same person would customise a room in Europe as opposed to the US or Asia. There was also a noticeable move to help people switch off on holiday – whether it’s from literary perspective with initiatives such as a Book Butler at Kristiania Lech in Austria, Poems on Pillows at the Besty in Miami and the entire concept on which a hotel is created like the Owl and the Pussycat Hotel in Sri Lanka – or enabling them to engage spiritually with their destination in Power Spots at Sankara Hotel & Spa Yakushima in Japan, or with a Massage under the Stars at Spa Village Resort Tembok in Bali.
Destination-wise there is a definite emergence of independent, luxury hotels within destinations that are newly on the luxury travellers’ radar – Iceland, Japan and Portugal are all examples of these – in Portugal we’ve grown our number of hotels by 25 per cent and in Japan by 70 per cent since 2015.
Have you noticed any particular trends in hotel interior design?
Hotels are embracing their locality serving guests an authentic dose of local culture within their design. We’re seeing less opulent décor and lavish interiors, instead hotels are going for pared-back luxury, uncluttered spaces and a laid-back ambience. More and more hotels are going natural with their design, bringing an earthy feel to their décor and using local materials to bring in this authenticity. The walls at The Sukhothai Shanghai, which will be opening in April, are made from clay, which sounds basic, but is highly effective in air purification, humidity regulation and sound absorption.
How important do you feel hotel design has become when launching a new hotel?
While design is important in telling the world who and what you are, comfort will always be the driving force for our hotels and guests. Small hotels need to create a space where guests can be themselves and at Dormy House Hotel, our current SLH Hotel of the Year, people love the cosy and homely vibe they have created – the hotel just wraps its arms around you.
What role does technology play in improving the guest experience?
Technology has been a total game changer for the whole industry and is something that small hotels have had to embrace to remain competitive. While it’s easy enough for hotels to provide wi-fi – and members of SLH’s new loyalty programme INVITED can enjoy free wi-fi at all our hotels – it’s much harder for a small family-run hotel to make significant investment in more revolutionary technology. What is important is that, where there is technology, it’s seamless and uncomplicated from a guest perspective – no one needs to feel as though they’re launching a nuclear missile when trying to log into the wi-fi! SLH hotels cover the spectrum from remote retreats to modern architectural statements, and the technology they’ve implemented reflects that. If you’re staying in a castle there’s something special about still being given an actual key to your room.
What advise would you offer to those who aspire to become a successful hotelier?
Be humble, love people and have great attention to detail. The best hoteliers are those who understand guests’ needs and background and therefore can deliver not just great service but also resolve any issues elegantly. They are also team players and don’t steal anyone’s thunder – ultimately your team makes you look good but it is vital to give credit where it belongs. Also, be able to admit when you are wrong!
What would you say are the three best places you’ve ever stayed?
Since joining SLH I’ve had the opportunity to stay at some amazing hotels – Canaves Oia Hotel in Santorini, Abba Resorts Izu in Japan and Casa Madrona Hotel and Spa in San Francisco are all high up on the list.
Where currently ranks highest on your travel wish list?
I’m an explorer, whether I’m in a city, on an island or in the countryside, so for me Antarctica would be the ultimate exploration. Maybe a bit closer to home I could get a taste for it in Iceland.
Let’s finish with the issue of personal and work life balance. How do you aim to achieve a good balance and what do those closest to you think of your attempts?
I am on the road for about five months of the year so spending quality time with my family, either at home or on holiday, is always my priority.