ZURICH— Meinhard Huck wants to set the record straight: Swissôtel Hotels & Resorts isn’t shy about its Swiss heritage.
“In all our Swissôtels you find Swiss icons,” said Huck, who has served as president of the Zurich-based brand since June 2003. “If you can’t come to Switzerland, we bring a little bit of Switzerland to you.”
Huck said the brand represents the modern Switzerland from its contemporary hotel designs to its modern employee uniforms. In addition to the Swiss approach appealing to guests, Huck said it appeals to developers who want a product that makes a statement.
“We’re not a cookie-cutter brand—all rooms are differently designed,” he said. “And while we celebrate the Swiss tradition we have, we respect local heritage where we are located.”
With 28 properties open (comprising 9,831 guestrooms), the brand is large enough to have a global footprint—it is located in 17 countries—but it is still small enough have the hands-on approach for things such as employee training.
“Everyone talks about service, and we work closely with (Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne hotel management school in Switzerland) for training,” Huck said.
Swissôtel Hotels & Resorts
Swissôtel is strictly a management company that services third-party owners. While Huck said he would never say never, owning hotels is currently not part of the grand plan. Delivering service to the guest and the owner is what the brand is built on, he said.
“There might always be an exception,” he said. “If we need to invest in strategic locations, that is what we will do.”
Swissôtel’s literature describes the brand as a deluxe offering. STR Global, a sister company to HotelNewsNow.com, lists Swissôtel as an upper-upscale brand in its chain-scale segment listing.
Expanding around the globe
The company is growing through conversions. It is converting a property in Phuket, Thailand, which should be completed by November, Huck said. Other hotels under development include projects in: Makkah, Saudi Arabia (opening in 2012); Dresden, Germany (2012); Kiev, Ukraine (2012); Bangalore, India (2013); Odessa, Ukraine (2013); and Sochi, Russia (2013). Huck said more expansion in India and China are key areas for the company’s growth plans.
“The pleasant surprise is we’ve seen in the last 12 months a big acceleration in the interest in Asia,” he said.
Other target markets include Paris, London, Madrid, Rome and Barcelona, Spain. Swissôtels also would like to expand its footprint in the Americas, where it has three hotels (including one in Chicago).
“We would love to have more, particularly for brand recognition,” he said. “Entering the American market is a little more difficult right now.”
Huck declined to set a specific goal for the brand’s growth.
“The momentum from our growth strategy perspective is very good. I expect—I hate to give numbers—in the next five years we will substantially increase our portfolio,” he said.
Huck, who previously worked with Raffles International and spent 20 years with Holiday Inn International, said being a small brand has its advantages.
“We are working very much with the owner and developer. We understand and respect that at the end of the day, it is their property, and we are the guardian of their property,” he said. “We will never forget it is our brand but their hotel and we look after their property.”
Swissôtel is owned by Toronto-based FRHI Holdings Limited, the same company that owns the Raffles and Fairmont hotel brands. Combined, the brands have 101 hotels open around the world. The three brands have shared services such as global sales, IT support and development support, Huck said.
“Keeping those three brands separate from guest perspective and respecting brand DNAs is taken very seriously,” he said. “But there are great synergies as well. Today, as president of Swissôtel, I have 72 global sales offices. I wouldn’t have that by being alone.”
Bright future for brand and industry
Huck said the future is bright for his brand and the industry in general. There are plenty of markets where hotels are needed, but the biggest challenge is finding the human capital to operate those hotels.
“In Europe you have trained people, you have more hotel schools apprenticeships, but there are not enough people around,” he said. “In India, China and other emerging countries, you have a lot of people around, but they need training.
“In some parts of the world, the service comes easy to the locals; in other parts, it comes more difficult because the service isn’t part of the culture.”
Operating training centers, such as the ones Swissôtel has in India and China, are essential to long-term success, according to Huck.
“It’s not getting people through various classes for two or three months,” he said. “I call it the ‘drip, drip effect.’ You must do something daily. It needs to be shown, lived by the supervisors and people that are training them. We need to be able to understand the culture and communicate with them accordingly.”
Adapting to local dialects and cultures is essential not only in attracting guests but also in having a happy and productive work force, he said.
“The product is what it is, the process obviously is about selection—making sure the right people are working for you and the people staying with you are identifying with the brand, and the soul and the heart is all about emotions,” Huck said.