Philippe Leboeuf, Managing Director, Raffles London at The OWO
As Raffles London at The OWO nears completion, Managing Director Philippe Leboeuf remains outwardly cool, calm and collected as he prepares for the much-anticipated opening. Well-rehearsed in providing luxury to the world’s most discerning travellers, his previous role as Regional Vice President of Operations for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group has earnt him industry recognition. Wanting to know more about the man behind the title, Philippe shares his sporting family background, his dreams of becoming an airforce pilot and the honour of working in one of London’s most iconic buildings with SPACE.
Where did you grow up and how would you describe your childhood?
As a young boy I grew up deep in the French countryside and spent most of my childhood outside – spending my days exploring, fishing and foraging mushrooms.
Were your family in the hospitality sector?
Yes, my family ran a small bed and breakfast in Remiremont Vosges. Although there are lots of athletes in my family – my father was a football player and my cousin, Frank Leboeuf, played for the French national team who won the 1998 FIFA World Cup and 2000 European Championships.
When did you realise this was a direction you wanted to go in?
After visiting family in South America and being exposed to travel, I realised I wanted to get out of the French countryside. I guess I had a ‘globetrotter’ mindset and wanted to move to Puerto Rico. Initially, I was set on becoming a pilot, but my eyesight was not good enough. At the age of 15, I went to hotel school and, as part of this training, I spent three months in a travel agency in France. Almost three years later, graduating from hotel school, I still dreamt of travelling so I packed my backpack once again, not returning until five years later!
My first job in hospitality was in Front of House in France, and then in NYC I worked as a reservation’s agent, but I didn’t last very long – my English was poor, and I would not have passed my probation. It is fair to say I have experienced highs and lows throughout my career!
I understand your Masters is in Finance and Management, was this with the hospitality industry in mind?
Before my Masters, I did get to live part of my pilot dream. I worked for a year as a flight attendant in the French equivalent of ‘Air Force 1’ travelling all over the world – to Africa, Asia, US and Polynesia. After this experience, I started working my way up the ranks in the hotel business before deciding to do a Master’s in Finance and Strategy to hone my skills. I had a lot of operational Front of House experience but felt I needed a more formal education on running a hotel. It was clear the role of a General Manager was becoming more strategic and operational.
How would you describe your management style?
I have always been very hands on. I make time for everyone, so I know what is going on in every part of the business. Not all GMs will necessarily know where all the engineering or plant rooms are located – I make it my business to keep up to date with housekeeping, engineering, maintenance. One thing I have adopted into my management style is to learn from others. From experienced industry experts to the younger generation – they can offer a fresh take and are forward thinking, leading the way towards the digital future. There is always more to learn and a perspective I hadn’t considered. Generations sharing knowledge has and will continue to allow me to grow and fine tune my management style.
It is quite an achievement to be at the helm of what is described as the ‘hospitality industry’s most significant global openings in 2022’! In simple terms, how do you see your role as Managing Director?
Although my role as Managing Director is that of a leader, I see it more as the conductor of a grand orchestra with every member of the team vital to harmony and success. Outsourcing specific talent and seeking support from experts is essential, I couldn’t be a Managing Director without a team just as when one note is wrong, the melody slips. I must credit the team I am fortunate enough to depend on. Sales, marketing, and PR are all part of my management role. Today, I feel human resources are more important than ever before and forging professional relationships with colleagues and employees is key to success.
How would you describe your vision for OWO?
My vision is to transgress the boundary of the hotel category and go beyond an experience to become transformative and educational. Raffles London at The OWO will not only be a hotel, but a destination for food and drink and wellness. The comparison I can make is LVMH and the way they have shaken the retail industry, transforming the face of flagship boutiques into engaging and experiential experiences. One day, I would love The OWO to offer a butler school to educate generations to come, providing service synonymous with the Raffles brand.
What does your day look like as you prepare the OWO?
Every day at 9:30am we have a briefing to review the day ahead and touch base on the previous day. Once a week, I aim to have coffee outside and break office routine, spending time with colleagues in a more relaxed setting. Once a month we hold team drinks. In terms of my day, I am always reverting to our critical path. Approximately 20% of my time is taken up with recruitment, I research talent, hold interviews, and discuss candidates with colleagues to make a final decision. I also stage rooms and suites as well as other spaces in The OWO including the F&B spaces.
Is the OWO comparable to any other hotel you have worked on?
Frankly, no. Other hotels I have worked on are much greater in scale with 1000s of rooms, but nothing compares to the destination that Raffles London at The OWO will become. I love how all the elements of restaurants and bars, spa, hotel is coming together to create something bigger than the traditional hotel.
The OWO is a remarkable building, is its sense of history ever overwhelming?
The history is overwhelming but working on this project is an honour. I am fascinated and spend much of my time off reading and learning about the rich history and stories behind this landmark building.
What are the challenges of working on a Grade ll listed building and how does it affect your role?
We remain respectful of the listing whilst seamlessly integrating the technology and comfort that our guests expect. Fortunately, the building has blessed us with high ceilings and windows and long wide corridors that are filled with light. Every move is carefully considered with a solution found that does not disturb any listed area of architecture, the extensive sub-basement works to create a ballroom for 750 guests and a 20m swimming pool demonstrate this. The new alabaster ballroom entrance staircase is perhaps one of the finest examples of how we have overcome challenges.
What emotions should a luxury hotel evoke?
Guests should feel at peace and a sort of stillness or calm in a luxury hotel. Smell is also something which springs to mind. A luxury hotel should evoke fond memories whether that is a childhood nostalgia or the scent of delicious food.
What is your definition of luxury?
I think times have changed from ostentatious being the immediate association with luxury. Now simplicity is key.
Do guests’ expectations differ between the different cultures?
Guests’ tastes, desires and expectations differ greatly from culture to culture and from country to country, even within countries there is huge variation. Sensitivity to differing expectations is what I envisage as the essence of service at Raffles London at The OWO – we are all about intuitive, personalised service.
How do you remain calm when there is chaos all around you?
I strongly stand by the opinion that one must remain calm in crisis. I am not always calm, but I try to stay cool and collected in the office in order to work through issues strategically.
‘The devil is in the detail’, or perhaps ‘The angel is in the detail’. What small details do you consider paramount in hotel hospitality?
Having worked in housekeeping roles, I have developed an acute attention to detail. I know what to look for and most of the time I find it. I am a stickler for cleanliness, I even think the building site should be kept clean and tidy or it can ruin the quality of work.
Do you enjoy living in London?
Yes, I enjoy living in London. It is now busier than ever and has such an exciting buzz. But I occasionally miss the French countryside landscape and the swimming clubs.
What is your favourite city and why?
I love Rome – I have never lived there but this would be my favourite city for holidays. It has everything you could want – food, wine, culture and style.
In your opinion, which country leads the world in hospitality?
In my opinion, Singapore leads the world in hospitality. However, it will be interesting to see how this shifts over the coming years ‘post pandemic’. I also think London has the most competitive hospitality scene in the world, and I would place it amongst the top three- alongside Asian competitors such as Singapore, Shanghai and Tokyo.
Describe your perfect day away from work?
I start the day reading. At present, I am reading Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘All Said and Done’ because my daughter is writing a thesis on this. I would then go swimming or cycling followed by a dog walk with my beloved Archie (who you can find on Instagram!). I find time to check in with my daughters and family. My dream day away from work, would always involve lunch with a friend which would probably end with smoking a cigar. Then I would do a little bit of shopping. The day would be complete with some Netflix. Kingsman is my current recommendation.