Nick Walton speaks with Stefan Leser, chief executive officer at Langham Hospitality Group, about the return of business travel, the post-COVID-19 travel world, and expanding the group’s footprint in Europe and Asia.
How do you think business travel will look in the years following Covid?
People have adapted and made the best use of technology to meet and negotiate business virtually but it cannot replace the face-to-face interaction. Once it is safe and people are confident to travel again, I think business travel will come back, although not immediately as companies will be careful with their budgets due to the impact on businesses during COVID.
Langham Hospitality Group has an extensive footprint in China across The Langham and Cordis brands; how is the China market faring and what can other regions learn from this?
China was hit with the pandemic much earlier than the rest of the world and, being based in this part of the world, it is good to see the market on the road to recovery.
Business in China has been very encouraging and in addition to domestic tourism, corporate/ business travel has also resumed domestically. Incentive trips, events, and big meetings in China are allowed and our hotel in Shanghai has been the venue for many luxury fashion events recently. Exhibition venues are busy and filling up.
Since the Chinese cannot travel internationally, people started having holidays domestically. China is a huge country and the cities and provinces can be very different. With just a train ride, the people in cities will retreat to domestic destinations with natural landscapes with lakes, mountains, and tea plantations for staycations and those in these provinces will head to the cities for weekend staycations, shopping holidays, or to just wine and dine at Michelin-starred restaurants.
Staycations became the only holiday option and resorts started filling up. It was very encouraging to see how creative the hospitality industry can get. Take The Langham in Shanghai, for example; the hotel worked with a popular educational institute and created summer programmes for young children which not only offer creative, fun and educational activities curated by educational professionals, but our F&B team also developed delicious and healthy menus for our little guests.
Resorts like our Cordis, Dongqian Lake in Ningbo is hugely popular as we not only have standard rooms but also villas that can accommodate bigger family gatherings or for those who want more privacy and space.
Langham recently launched its first single key residence property, in Munich. Can you tell us about this unique retreat and why the group has decided to enter into the single-key property market.
The Langham Nymphenburg Residences, Munich is a very special property. The private residence is a spacious 9,000 square feet with unique handcrafted artworks from the world-renowned Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg in every room. Steeped in royal Bavarian history and set in the grounds of the Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg, the new residence offers luxurious comfort, privacy and unparallel exclusivity. It has four bedrooms, seven bathrooms, three living rooms, an airy dining room, a fully-equipped kitchen, fitness centre, conference suite, home cinema and wine cellar. The private sun-dappled terrace in the middle of a beautifully landscaped garden offers enough space to seat 100 guests for an exclusive outdoor event. Guests have ample space, privacy and exclusivity, alongside the full complement of The Langham signature services in a beautiful regal setting. It is perfect for family holidays, smaller corporate meetings and incentives.
The deep-rooted passion for craftsmanship and excellence shared by Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg and The Langham Hotels and Resorts will create a splendid private retreat for our guests. The heritage of The Langham brand (first Grand hotel to open in 1865) and likewise the legacy the Prozellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg upholds present similar values which both brands share. I truly believe this remarkable residence will play host to countless celebratory moments and the level of personalisation will be second to none.
When we travel in the near future, we need to adapt to the new normal. This might include wearing a face mask on the plane, more waiting time at the airports, and temperatures to be taken before people enter any premises. Therefore, people will take longer vacations, and travel slowly and more selectively. There will be an increase in demand for private jet and charters and from an accommodation perspective, resorts with private pool villas will continue to grow and I see the interest in unique private residences, especially those with interesting stories and backgrounds. Complimented and elevated with the services and amenities of a luxury hotel and the personalised touches of an exclusive private home, we are looking forward to introducing other similar properties in the future.
The Munich property is only Langham’s second after its flagship in London; should we expect to see more properties in Europe? Where else is the group looking to expand?
At The Langham Hotels & Resorts, I am looking forward to increasing our footprint in Europe. Europe is a favourite destination for leisure and its key cities are crucial for business travellers and I am confident it will continue to be so. In addition to Munich, we are also looking at Italy, France and also more cities in Germany.
We continue to grow and are not slowing down in the opening of our hotels in the rest of the world. In early 2021, we will be opening our first property in Southeast Asia, The Langham, Jakarta.
Over in Australia, The Langham, Gold Coast (below), with its own private access to the beach, is scheduled to open at the end of 2021.
China continues to be a key focus and we look forward to opening a new hotel in Changsha and another one in Hangzhou at the end of this year and more in the next five years.
And of course, in the US, the highly anticipated re-opening of The Langham, Boston which is housed in the Federal Reserve Bank will be welcoming guests in the summer of next year (2021).
How do the expectations of business travellers differ in the different regions that Langham operates?
One of the things that all our business travellers like, and want, are our Club Lounges at our hotels. They appreciate this exclusive and private space where they can have their breakfasts quietly, go through the news, and also retreat to for a drink or light refreshments or dinner after work. Business travellers, regardless of where they are from, wants efficiency. Guests who are on our Club floors also check-in and out quickly at the lounge.
Many hotel groups have emphasised newly introduced hygiene initiatives due to the pandemic. What has Langham done to bolster consumer confidence and what are the most important elements consumers are looking for as travel returns?
As luxury hotels, we already have a stringent hygiene routine in place but we have increased the frequency of sanitization and put in precautionary measures in place (eg. Thermos sensors, hand sanitizers, masks, air purifiers) to protect our guests and colleagues.
We are also working on contactless check-ins, apps for in-room dining and for guests to communicate to hotel concierge/staff.
How have you seen the approach towards how work, meetings and events are conducted during the pandemic and do you think the age of the in-person meeting is over?
We have all adapted and meetings are held via Zoom and events are held virtually but if anything, I think we are all waiting to meet in person, negotiate business face-to-face and network and make new business contacts at events and conferences. With less budget due to the impact of the pandemic, the business travel events in the next 12-24 months may not recover immediately to pre-COVID 19 levels but I am confident that people are more eager than ever to travel for business and the in-person meeting is far from over.
Commentators have said that the Covid-19 pandemic will be the death of business travel. Do you think there will see be a market for business travel after the pandemic and how can hotels better cater to business travellers under the new norm?
With what has happened, what will not change is our desire to travel. Although we have made the best of the pandemic with Zoom meetings, catch-ups and webinars, we have all missed the human interaction and engagement. Once people are assured it is safe and have the confidence to fly, I am certain we will all be travelling for business and leisure more than ever.
As I have shared earlier, we will have to adapt and understand that there may be precautions in place when we travel in the near future but we will still want to travel.
The hospitality industry has put in place stringent sanitisation protocols and strict precautionary measures. The next step is to make sure that we have medical assistance if needs be at all times and this includes contacts with doctors/nearest hospitals in case any guest requires assistance.
Hotels must understand the preferences of business travellers better. People will travel better, longer – so even for business trips, people will make the most of each trip instead of travelling frequently to the same destination as before. We need to look at wellness and fitness options and also for dining options at the hotels, especially for in-room dining; and provide healthier and more plant-based options.
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