Robert Gaymer-Jones in front of the “Life is Magnifique” campaign shot by Tim Walker in 2008
Sofitel’s Worldwide CEO Robert Gaymer-Jones tells us why he shuttered scores of hotels to get the brand’s positioning right and why even the Arab Spring uprising doesn’t deter his upcoming expansion plans
PARIS – It has been four years since Robert Gaymer-Jones was first ushered in as COO and charged with repositioning Sofitel into a brand with exclusively five-star hotels at the very top end of the luxury market. Most observers at the time agreed that it was a bold and daring strategy for Sofitel’s parent company, Accor Group.
Accor not only bestowed an unprecedented amount of autonomy on the new division but also on its principal brand architect, Mr. Gaymer-Jones. Beyond the development of a finely-tuned identity, there was a vast amount of hands-on work to be done. Renovations, retraining schemes, the building of sub-brands and, perhaps most painful of all, hotel closures were all on his daily agenda.
Now that the news of several Sofitel grand openings is percolating up through the hospitality grape vine and since Mr. Gaymer-Jones’s rebranding mission is complete – and duly rewarded with the ultimate promotion – we sat down with the CEO to talk shop…
Sofitel Los Angeles, USA
“ This was a difficult decision to take but we felt that it was the only way to “prune and grow ”
In repositioning the brand, you reduced Sofitel’s core portfolio from 206 to 120 properties – that was quite a cull. What was the bottom line in terms of the criteria you used to decide which hotels to sell off; which to weed out; and which to upgrade?
This was a difficult decision to take on the repositioning of Sofitel on such a large scale, but we felt that it was the only way to “prune and grow” and develop the brand and at the same time reposition into the luxury segment. The background of how we chose which hotels that would leave the network was purely based on a ‘luxury index’ that we created using five key criteria.
First, was if the hotel was in the right location. Second, did the hotel have access to a luxury clientele? Then, was the revenue per available room in line with the luxury competition and did the hotel have the right amount of suites, food and beverage offerings, the sorts of spa and amenities that would meet the most discerning guests? And, finally, we asked whether there a real passion by the owner to invest and bring their hotel up the new operating standards that would be required for the new branding of Sofitel.
How has this repositioning so far translated into sales, growth and earlier financial projections?
We always knew that this would be a three year journey to create the financial success of this project, but clearly now that we are going into the fourth year we are going from strength to strength in financial performance and seeing some very strong RevPAR (revenue per available room) growth across the globe and we’re able to demonstrate to future owners the positioning of Sofitel and the performance we’re able to achieve using all our distribution channels, taking full advantage of the engine of the Accor systems.
Now that you’ve completed your mission to elevate Sofitel as the luxury flagship of the Accor group, which marketing and publicity strategies are you taking to inform the existing customer of Sofitel’s more exclusive cache?
We rolled out our recognised “Life is Magnifique” ad campaign, linking to the four dimensions of luxury, the perfect sleep (the ‘my bed’), well being (the bathroom), gastronomy and entertainment. We positioned the brand advertising so that existing clients could see, feel and touch the difference of Sofitel.
Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam
About a month ago, with the opening of the Grand Amsterdam, you officially launched the Sofitel Legend sub-brand, which is a new collection of palace hotels and properties with a grand heritage that you’re building. But competition for such legendary properties and historical hotels among the other luxury hoteliers must be fierce. How aggressive do you plan on being to acquire these distinctive properties?
We are very excited by this brand as they are the true and authentic flagships of hotels in such locations. The historical importance of these hotels being carefully restored to the smallest detail – and in many cases using the various countries’ own heritage departments to help oversee this restoration – is quite inspiring. The Old Cataract (in Aswan, Egypt) that will open in September this year will be followed by the Santa Clara in Cartagena, Colombia. Then with 4-5 other Legend properties thereafter in the years to come.
What about the Sofitel So concept? How is that coming along? Am I right in describing it as a contemporary designer boutique sub-brand for a younger consumer target? As such, do you plan on being more adventurous in terms of choosing exciting and under-the-radar locations within cities?
You’re right, it is certainly a contemporary lifestyle brand that is geared towards the fashion-conscious guest. We launched our first So in Mauritius as we felt there was a need for something totally different in a country where there are so many traditional hotels. So with the exciting touches of Kenzo as the signature it is truly a different style. Our next So will be in Bangkok where we have used five different designers, four of whom have their own designs on four floors each and the fifth designer is creating the public areas. Each of the designers has created totally different room concepts but all under the signature of Christian Lacroix.
Do you still plan on pursuing an “asset light” strategy by selling off more of the hotel buildings in the coming years to eventually transform Sofitel into a pure management company? Aren’t there substantial risks that come with this which concern you?
Yes, the plan is to continue to have an asset light strategy that focuses all our energy and resources in creating a successful management company supporting our owners and delivering results.
Sofitel trades on its “French-ness” quite a bit. Through the renovation and rebranding stage, how did you translate French-ness in tangible ways besides the obvious (such as cuisine in the restaurants) and without it becoming forced or a cliché? How did you decide on the creative director who would realise this?
It’s very important that our French elegance and style comes through our brand imagery and the design of course as well as our food and wine is important too. So we have focused a lot of our time in developing the brand touches through the lens of French elegance. This strategy has blended into our training modules, service styles, design and, of course, our approach to how we live our life in Sofitel. We have created and defined French touches from bathroom amenities to uniforms to scents and candle rituals all of which have to be presented in what we feel is a truly elegant French way.
Sofitel So Mauritius Bel Ombre – view and room
There’s now no denying that the Asia-Pacific market – and more specifically China where you now have 20+ properties – is going to be where luxury brands either make their fortunes or get slaughtered by the competition. It must be quite easy to over-project or accelerate expansion too quickly. How important is instinct, compared with market research when there are still so many unknowns in these territories?
We have been very fortunate in China as we have worked hard with our partners to rationalise the network, receive capital support for new investment and of course develop some of the top flagship hotels in the country. So we have a clear understanding of how and where we want to be in China and also by making sure that we have the best in luxury accommodation in every market there that we enter.
You’ve now been CEO of Sofitel for just a few months. Although it’s still very early days, have there been any surprises that came with your new responsibilities? What has been your biggest challenge so far?
The role is exciting and I feel very fortunate to be able to work with the exceptional talent in Sofitel. I am very proud of our general managers and their teams. It’s thanks to their leadership and these are are really the reasons for the success of our brands. Surprises and challenges are always there so the most important decision is not to let the impact of world events such the recent Arab Spring uprising distract the direction of our ambitious strategy.
Finally, could you tell us a bit more about your personal and professional background before joining Sofitel? What was your very first “luxury memory” and when did you know that the luxury industry was your calling?
My first luxury memory was going to tea with my family at the Savoy. I must have been eight or nine at the time and thinking how grand everything looked. Remembering how my mother dressed up for the occasion is still a very vivid memory for me. I’ve been working in the hotel business since graduating from hotel school in England back in 1974 before starting my formal training in Switzerland followed by hotels in the Bahamas, Bermuda, the US, Egypt… And more recently, before joining Sofitel in Paris in 2007, I was holding senior positions with Marriott based in London. What else? I’m married with two beautiful children, living between London and Paris…
For more in the series of conversations with Luxury Leaders please see our most recent as follows: