Inerview: Christopher Cowdray, CEO, Dorchester Collection


Doug Gollan | May 10, 2013

Christopher Cowdray, CEO, Dorchester Collection, believes the key to an absolutely flawless, efficient stay is, and has always been, the people

Christopher Cowdray, CEO, Dorchester Collection, believes the key to an absolutely flawless, efficient stay is, and has always been, the people.

Sometimes referred to as the most beautiful collection of luxury hotels in the world, classic properties such as The Plaza Athénée in Paris, The Dorchester in London and the Beverly Hills Hotel in California were brought under one umbrella by Christopher Cowdray, without sacrificing their individuality.

With a strategy for measured growth and amazing service and suites, Dorchester Collection properties consistently end up on Elite Traveler’s 101 Top Suites list. Douglas Gollan, Editor-in-Chief of Elite Traveler, paid a visit to Dorchester Collection CEO Christopher Cowdray in his London office, to better understand the group’s transformation and service-centric strategy.

“ We are never going to grow fast; we are never going to have 40, 50, 60 hotels ”

On the Collection

Dorchester Collection is now well established as a serious brand in the market. Five years ago we were just five individual hotels all working independently – today we are nine hotels all working under one brand. It is quite an accomplishment and we are very pleased with the recognition we are getting from both in and outside the industry.

This has happened thanks in part to our promotion and advertising, which has been very strong, and also because we have a niche within the international luxury market. That was our vision—to be an international management company offering both the highest levels of service and the best experiences.

The Presidential Suite at the Hotel Bel-Air, Los Angeles

On New Properties

The Hotel Bel-Air came into the fold in 2008. After acquiring that property, we closed it down for two years and reopened it in October 2011. It needed a huge restoration investment, which has now been completed and, for that matter, very well received.

The next property was Coworth Park, which is an estate that sits on 240 acres near Ascot. The property is a Georgian house that we converted into a hotel by adding extra rooms and a spa and opened two years ago last November.

45 Park Lane, which is adjacent to The Dorchester, opened a year later, in November 2011. That one has 46 rooms and provides a nice contemporary complement to The Dorchester. Finally, the Le Richemond, which we acquired last August, is about to embark on a renovation to bring it up to the standards of the rest of the collection, though it will stay open while that takes place.

We invest continuously into our hotels to make sure they are up-to-date, relevant and meet the expectations of our customers. We are also about to begin a restoration of the Hotel Plaza Athénée—adding some extra suites and rooms, as well as a ballroom—which will begin this October and continue for eight months. The hotel is already in very good condition but it just needs some updates and modernisation.

“ Our strength lies in the fact that we are able to look at everything from the owner’s point of view ”

On Growth

Most of our competitors are looking for rapid brand growth, looking to put hotels wherever they can put a flag, and I think that doesn’t always benefit those companies. There are destinations that don’t necessarily complement luxury hotels so we are looking to stay in key cities where we can offer the level of service, style and individuality that we demand from our hotels.

We are never going to grow fast; we are never going to have 40, 50, 60 hotels. If we achieve 20 hotels in the next ten years I will be extremely satisfied. It’s going to be very slow though, as our next target is going to be 15 hotels. We have various opportunities that we are currently looking at, and we will see where we get. I’m hoping to make an announcement this year, but finding existing hotels to which we can add our flag is not easy.

Though we are looking at new builds as well, they are particular and have to be located in the right cities. It’s quite complex and we don’t function like other hotel companies that say “there’s a hotel, let’s put our flag on it.” I think owners now have to be more discerning. They want to know what they’re getting from a management side.

There’s been a shift in ownership, which is a big opportunity, but we are a small team so we don’t have to look for mass growth. We want organic growth over the next few years.

Belle Etoile Royal Suite at Le Maurice, Paris

On Structure

The hotels are primarily owned by the Brunei Investment Agency. Le Richemond is a third party management agreement, which fits into our strategy to look not only for acquisition but also third party agreements.

Our strength in that field lies in the fact that we are able to look at everything from the owner’s point of view—because we also manage our own hotels—so we are not governed by the stock market as we are the desire to optimize our hotels’ performance. I think that is the salient difference between most major hotel companies and us today.

“ You need to make sure you are relevant to the future, that you recognize that technology is driving things forward ”

On the Experience

We have our pillars of hotels and service, but first and foremost we want to be authentic. That means we don’t use the same interior design throughout our hotels. Each one looks totally different.

The Dorchester is different than the Hotel Plaza Athénée that is different from the Hotel Bel-Air. We spend a lot of time and money making sure that the personality of the individual hotel is either retained or created, in the case of a new build. The feel of our hotels is very important as we want them all to have energy relevant to the city they are located in.

The second part of our focus is service. We take feedback from our guests very seriously – we are continuously pushing the bar higher. One of our key values is summarized in the phrase “We care.” We put our people first and a lot of time is put into making sure our employees come to work highly motivated.

We have an exceptionally high employee satisfaction rate. We hit 90% this year, which is exceptional when compared to other companies. At the same time, we look at customer satisfaction closely and always try to answer to the ethos of our company, which is constantly asking if we are meeting our customers expectations and, if not, why not?

The Terrace Suite at The Dorchester, London

On Feedback

The dominant comments are generally compliments on our staff. If you’re doing things right, customers are keen to tell you how well they’ve been received. It’s the little “niggles” they don’t like, such as if their air conditioning isn’t exactly right. It’s a little subjective because we find that American travellers love very cold rooms while other nationalities prefer them warmer. So how do we get that balance?

We have that understanding now, at least. It’s all about understanding. If someone is saying something about the air conditioning, what is it that they mean? What’s been great is that people are very vocal and they are giving us really constructive feedback to work with.

“ Customers want to have an absolutely flawless, efficient stay but the key to it is, and has always been, the people ”

On the Future

Customers want to have an absolutely flawless, efficient stay but the key to it is, and has always been, the people. Whatever happens in the luxury market it is the engagement with the customer that is key. It’s about finding the common ground between the business traveller who arrives with no luggage and just wants to get up to the room and then head straight back out for meetings and the leisurely guest who wants to fully experience the hotel.

At the end of the day everything has to be highly efficient and delivered with enthusiasm and a smile but because of younger clientele’s expectations changing on the technology front, we also need to play to that as well. The iPad’s are a revolution, we have put them in the Bel-Air and 45 Park Lane and they have been a phenomenal success.

We don’t have a formal, print directory anymore because I challenged our teams and asked them to find out who actually went to our directories to get room service or international dialling codes. So we did a survey and found that hardly anyone used them. If you knew the amount of time hotels put into making those directories, in printing where you can get an extra hanger and then reprinting the entire directory when the restaurant hours change, you would know that they were a logistical nightmare.

So we tried the iPad’s, and although I was concerned about room service because I thought the clientele, at the Hotel Bel-Air in particular, would want to have personal contact and physical menus, the sales improved. They’re going through, seeing the menu, ordering straight off that and it has become been a great success.

Presidential Bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Los Angeles

On Technology

The iPad has exploded today. My parents, who are in their late 80s, both have iPad’s. It has traversed all these age groups because it’s exciting, it’s visual and it’s fun. We have instituted the same touch technology on the phones, which took a little longer for guests to get used to but that’s the way it’s going so we had to do it.

You need to make sure you are relevant to the future, that you recognize that technology is driving things forward and that people like to have access to it. Of course, they still want their room service on time and beautifully served and when they arrive at a hotel they want to be greeted by name.

Luxury hotels, in my time at least, will never have an automatic check-in like on airlines though we are looking to find out where we can add a little extra alternative and automated service for people who want it.

I’m on the Lausanne Hotel School advisory board and last weekend a young man presented an app he developed that, when you arrived at the hotel, would recognize you and send your name and picture to the desk attendants so you could be greeted by name.

All your information and preferences were contained within, so when you went to the restaurant the waiter would know how you liked your food. It has its drawbacks, because some people don’t want to be recognized when they go to hotels because they’ve been with different people and so on. We live in a very complex world now.

“ Our customers want to be recognised, and we seek to do that, but not through a rewards program ”

On Loyalty

We have toyed with the loyalty card, points-system thing. Every two years we organize an extensive focus group where we use an independent company to assemble a group of travellers, both those who have used our hotels and those who haven’t, and ask them a whole variety of questions. We do this on the U.S. west coast, east coast and in Europe and build our strategy from there.

What is very clear is that people perceive a point-based loyalty program as something that does not befit a luxury company such as ours. If you look at a brand like Ritz-Carlton, they need to do everything they can to fill large 500-room hotels, whereas the biggest hotel we have is 300 rooms and the majority are around 200 or less. Our customers want to be recognized, and we seek to do that, but not through a rewards program.

The Penthouse Suite at 45 Park Lane, London

On Differentiation

One thing we have in all nine hotels is magnificent suites. I often get asked, “which suite is your nicest?” and I always say, “every one is different and they are all extraordinary.”

At Coworth Park we have The Dower House, which is the brilliant main suite. You open your front door and there is a pond in front of you, and you’re overlooking fields and trees in your own little microcosm of nature. It date backs to the 1600s and differs from what we have at 45 Park Lane, which is a rooftop view of London in a more modern, contemporary environment where you just feel like you’re floating.

We have a variety of top suites at The Dorchester, with studies, beautiful views, balconies and more. The Hotel Plaza Athénée has the Eiffel Tower Suite, where you feel as though you can touch the Eiffel Tower, and the new Royal Suite, which was completely redone last year with enormous 60-inch Bang & Olufsen screens and new furnishings kept in the Parisian style.

Our clientele have the most beautiful homes and our designers have all done residential work so they really understand the psyches of these travellers and try to design based upon what they would have at home. I’m very fortunate – our collection has the most amazing suites, from the penthouses all the way down to the one-bedrooms.

For more in our series of conversations with Luxury Leaders, please see our most recent editions as follows:

- In Conversation With Francesco Trapani, CEO, LVMH Watch & Jewellery
- In Conversation with Herve Humler, President, Ritz-Carlton Hotels
- In Conversation with Luc Perramond, CEO, La Montre Hermès