Luxury is more and more looking at SEA, and Thailand, among others, is one of the most promising markets. Besides sectors such as fashion, jewellery and accessories, hospitality seems to be winning their pockets as studies reveal millennials’ growing interest for experiences rather than possessions.
Hilton’s luxury brand, Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, will welcome its first guests in South East Asia in the third quarter of 2018 with the opening of Waldorf Astoria Bangkok.
For the occasion, Retail in Asia has interviewed Daniel Welk, Vice President of Operations, Luxury and Lifestyle, Hilton, Asia Pacific to know more about Waldorf Astoria’s expansion in SEA.
RiA : What does Waldorf Astoria represent?
Daniel : As one of Hilton’s luxury brands, Waldorf Astoria represents the utmost in luxury hospitality. From Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills to Waldorf Astoria Chengdu, our global portfolio of nearly 35 iconic properties all create a unique sense of place with a relentless commitment to personal service and culinary expertise in landmark locations around the world.
One key thing the Waldorf Astoria brand represents is the prime of culinary excellence. Credited with reinvigorating the Eggs Benedict and inventing the Red Velvet Cupcake, culinary expertise continues to be a key component of today’s Waldorf Astoria, with some of the most famous and Michelin star chefs leading the culinary innovation at our properties.
Additionally, Waldorf Astoria is also known for our trademark True Waldorf Service, which encompasses our relentless commitment to personalized, graceful services, supported by Personal Concierges who deliver bespoke care to guests at all of our properties. At the same time, each of our iconic hotels and resorts consistently offers a strong inspirational environments, authentic moments and culinary excellence, and we could not think of a better place to launch our flagship property than Bangkok, especially given its enclave of creativity and cultural richness.
RiA : Why Bangkok?
Daniel : The vibrancy of Bangkok is also indicative of South East Asia’s potential and the vast room for growth here. Making our grand entrance here allows us to bring something new and completely innovative to the next generation of luxury travellers who have global aspirations in Southeast Asia.
Of course, in addition to finding the right place, finding the right partner was also of paramount importance, and we are very fortunate to have found this in Magnolia Finest Corporation Limited, who shares Hilton’s visionary outlook and innovative spirit. The owner’s steadfast support, as well as deep expertise and understanding of the local context have all been instrumental in driving this groundbreaking development for Waldorf Astoria and bringing this dazzling new experience to the region. The launch of Waldorf Astoria Bangkok stands as a testament to the solid partnership we have forged.
RiA : What is your customer profile for Waldorf Astoria Bangkok?
Daniel : The Waldorf Astoria brand appeals to luxury travellers seeking unparalleled experiences, inspiring and personalized stays, and timely but timeless environments that allow guests to make the most of their time. And, while the luxury audience in Asia is extremely diverse, the proposition of Waldorf Astoria Bangkok does resonate with different types of luxury travellers, from the established captains of industry and successful luminaries of Asia to the emerging stars who are pushing the boundaries and innovating in original ways.
RiA : What is the plan for Asian expansion in the coming years?
Daniel : At the moment, we have 441 hotels in the pipeline across the Asia Pacific region. Opening more than one hotel a week in Asia Pacific, we are one of the region’s fastest-growing global hospitality company, with nearly one quarter of rooms under construction carrying a Hilton flag.
A key part of our plans for Asian expansion is the development of our luxury portfolio. Currently, in addition to Waldorf Astoria Bangkok, we have an additional four Waldorf Astoria hotels in the pipeline or at various stages of development in other parts of Southeast Asia. This includes the Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi, scheduled to open in Q1 2019, as well as three others in Indonesia – Waldorf Astoria Bali, Waldorf Astoria Jakarta, both of which launch in 2020, and Waldorf Astoria Bali Ubud, launching in 2021. At the same time, we also have 11 Conrad hotels in the pipeline, including Conrad Hangzhou, Conrad Shenyang and Conrad Shenzhen.
On the side lines of this, we also aim to introduce more new brands to the region, such as Canopy by Hilton. This begins with the opening of Canopy by Hilton Chengdu City Centre later this year, marking the first foray of the brand into Asia. Further down the line, we also have Canopy by Hilton Hangzhou Jinsha Lake, opening in late 2019, and Canopy by Hilton Kuala Lumpur Bukit Bintang, opening in late 2021.
RiA : What is the future of hospitality in the millennials and GEN Z’s age?
Daniel : With Instagram very recently hitting 1 billion monthly users, it is clear that, when it comes to millennials, social media will continue to play a critical part in the travel experience. Knowing this, we need to continue to give our travelers those “Instagrammable moments”.
At each of our Waldorf Astoria hotels and resorts around the world, these moments arise in the form of Unforgettable Experiences, which are delivered at every touchpoint of the guest experience by the brand’s signature True Waldorf Service. These thoughtfully orchestrated moments, in the form of bespoke culinary journeys, exclusive helicopter rides and indulgent spa retreats, deliver an experience well-worth capturing and sharing, and which will last long after their visit ends.
At the same time, millennials are also known to be a generation of digital natives, and we are seeing digital break new ground in the modern travel space, with travelers today expecting integrated and personalized digital interactions across channels throughout their travel experience. Travelers are also now more willing to let brands use data from their past travel choices to deliver a more customized experience.
To meet this demand, we have innovations such as the Hilton Honors App, which puts smart luxury at guests’ fingertips, completely integrating with hotel management systems, providing guests with services including restaurant reservations, the ability to check into and select their preferred room, as well as pre-arrival and room service features to enable personalization during their stay.
With the ever-changing demands of the millennial traveler, it is evident that, amidst these developments, we still need to constantly seek to innovate. We recently opened our Innovation
Gallery, an incubator and experiential showcase for cutting-edge product developments that will shape the future of Hilton hospitality. This allows us to show off innovations, ranging from a noisecancellation/sleep-improvement device called Nightingale to a digital-art concept, a real-time translation tool called Pilot, and a self-sustaining moss wall that absorbs humidity and odors.
RiA : What is the future of hospitality in Asia and especially in emerging markets such as SEA?
Daniel : The future of hospitality in Asia will be driven by the trends that we’re seeing emerge among the travellers of today. These are travellers who would rather spend money on experiences than things, and immerse themselves in adventure travel tours, and arts and culture tour experiences. These are travellers who now want to live like locals, to feel inspired by the places they visit and experience a transformative journey which is wholly their own.
On the back of this, we’re bringing Canopy by Hilton to Asia, a brand that very much goes back to the basics of hospitality, offering guests simple service at their pace, local choices that make sense, and comfortable spaces that invite guests to stretch out and make themselves at home.
At the same time, when it comes to emerging markets, we believe that there is a huge opportunity for the growth of our brands in the SEA region, in line with our strategy to fill gaps with the right brand, in the right location, at the right time.
For instance, with markets in the region like Myanmar and Vietnam seeing strong rates of growth in inbound tourism – Myanmar tourist arrivals grew by 18% last year to 3.44 million visitors, while Vietnam ranked sixth in the top 10 fastest growing tourism destinations globally – we see huge potential to increase our presence there. At the moment, we have ten hotels in the pipeline in Vietnam, and two in Myanmar.
Thailand, too, remains a key growth market for Hilton, with a forecasted rise of 6 percent in tourism numbers this year after hitting a record 35.38 million in 2017, equivalent to half of Thailand’s population.
As the most innovative hotel company, we seek to provide exceptional experiences – every hotel, every guest, every time, and we look forward to being a key driving force behind the future growth of hospitality in Asia.
For this project, Waldorf Astoria chose André Fu, Hong Kong-born architect educated in England from the age of 14, and graduated from the University of Cambridge.
Fu is very well known in the architecture world for his unique way to combine East and West in his works. His idiosyncratic design style – a quietly thoughtful, carefully considered yet analytical approach marked by a highly refined aesthetic – to his peripatetic cultural upbringing is his trademark.
Retail in Asia had the chance to ask him about the Waldorf Astoria’s design concept and also about his long history in hospitality and luxury.
RiA : What’s the concept behind this new Waldorf Astoria?
André : I would like to dedicate Waldorf Astoria Bangkok to a notion of ‘modern reflections’ – in many ways, I conceive the hotel as a personal reflection of my memories of visiting the legendary Waldorf Astoria New York as a child.
My vision seeks to translate the essence of the experience – a hotel that is visually majestic, bold in proportions, and iconic in experience, into the context of the modern Bangkok today.
RiA : How is it different to work in Thailand compared to working in Hong Kong?
André : I feel very strongly for the artisan quality in the heritage of Thailand. The richness in its culture – from architecture, culinary art and design – serves as key inspiration to me. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is a city rooted in its juxtaposition of cultures and its dynamics in multiple levels.
RiA : The Upper House has given you popularity, and you have been working on few other creations in Hong Kong. They all carry your distinctive style which epitomizes elegance and minimalism. Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
André : I have been extremely honoured to be entrusted with very unique opportunities, from the likes of the Pavilion Suites for London’s Berkeley Hotel, to such collaborators as Louis Vuitton for their Objet Nomades collective. I draw inspirations intentionally – it could be a certain visual imagery, a piece of music or a scent that naturally comes to my mind when I am conceiving a concept.
Perhaps the most important source of inspiration is through some in-depth discussion with my collaborators – some of which are visionaries in the history and the working relationship that I typically prefer is to balance respect with a mutual desire to challenge each other. To me, the process to curate an experience is probably the most intriguing and rewarding part of each project.
RiA : Your creations hold a timeless charm that attracts both local fine diners and international visitors for the hotel, restaurant, or bar. What do you think are the features that will go out of fashion?
André : To begin with, most hotel projects take years to realize. Whilst it is impossible to predict trends, my personal interest is to focus on guest experience – the notion of comfort – that I trust should remain a quality that shall stand the test of time.
In the context of Waldorf Astoria Bangkok, the inspiration of the hotel is birthed out of my personal reflection of many artisanal aspects of Thai culture, whilst infusing these elements with what I felt evoke the quitessential Waldorf Astoria experience. I am also hugely inspired by the art deco motifs in the original Waldorf and I would like to challenge myself with the goal to juxtapose these elements into a new form of expression in the hotel.
RiA : What is your definition of luxury and how can brands preserve their aura in the digital era?
André : To me, luxury lies in the quality of an experience. it is about the experience from within.
I believe the key is to create designs that revolve around the guest experience – it is the thoughtfulness in the design that shall stand the test of time.
In our digital era, trends become ever more transient and my personal preference is to observe the world from afar – my philosophy is to focus on guest experience and the core quality of comfort and quality. It is about creating timeless experiences that are personal and unique.
RiA : What’s next for design in the hospitality and retail industry?
André : To me, I rarely predict what’s next for the industry. It is an ongoing process and I constantly remind myself to keep an eye on the latest trend and an open mind to learn, listen and react on a day to day basis.
RiA : The fast-pace nature of our society pushes creatives in any industry to continuously strive for innovation, but also give arise to the risk of thoughtless and rushed decisions. What’s your view on the debate about how technological speed has been killing creativity?
André : It is inevitable that we are all living in the digital era and there is nothing more precious than having the time to reflect and give considerable thoughts to each design proposition. I believe the key is to strike a balance – like everything in life.