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Belmond: Creating Extraordinary Experiences

Senior Vice President at Belmond, LVMH

Why is this interview interesting?

  • Why customers crave differentiated experiences
  • How smaller hotel groups like Belmond are positioned versus larger chains
  • How Belmond chooses new hotel locations
  • The importance of ‘recognizing’ guests
  • How luxury hotel groups create loyalty without loyalty schemes
  • Storytelling and balancing local culture with Belmond’s brand
  • How to train and organize frontline staff to provide a great experience

Executive Bio

Robert Koren

Senior Vice President at Belmond, LVMH

Robert has over 30 years of experience in the hospitality industry and has ran hotels across all segments on all continents globally. He is the current Senior Vice President at Belmond, a LVMH-owned hospitality group, where he runs the European hotel portfolio which includes hotels across Italy, Portugal, and the UK. Robert started his career at ITT Sheraton where he spent 13 years before moving to Starwood Hotels, part of the Marriott Group, where he ran hotels across Italy. He spent 20 years running the Luxury Collection of European hotels at Starwood before joining Belmond in 2018. Read more

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Interview Transcript

Robert, can you provide a short introduction to your background, please?

I’m Robert Koren and I’m Sydney born, raised and educated. I miss it incredibly, especially when you are living in Europe and it’s winter time and it’s wonderful and summer down there. I learnt, at an early age, in the land down under, as the son of migrant European parents, it was a place that could offer me unbelievable opportunities. I grew up with this spirit of strong determination, passion and drive, to want to achieve.

I also knew that I had this strong desire to travel internationally and live and experience the world. In high school I said, where am I going to end up and how am I going to plan and work on a career that’s going to give me international experience? So I chose economics and it had accounting and marketing and a bit of law and it gave me a 360-degree view of running a business. After working in different industries – three or four at the time – I landed a job in the early 80s in ITT Sheraton and that’s where it all started, thanks to being born in the lucky country and getting the opportunity to start in a great big multinational, like ITT was at the time.

From there, I worked in a number of different places in Australia and then moved into China, Thailand, countries in Europe, the US and then, eventually, here I am, living in Rome, Italy, many, many years later.

What are your responsibilities, today, at Belmond?

Today, after a 30 plus year career and living, as I mentioned, in a lot of other countries, I’m actually Senior Vice President for Operations, for Europe and Africa, where the group has the majority of its portfolio and with the goal of also developing and expanding the portfolio with new resort destinations. As some listeners may know, Belmond was taken over by LVMH; it was acquired in April of last year. We are now part of this unbelievable fashion, stellar, luxury group, which has, in its portfolio, not only Belmond, but also Cheval Blanc and the Bulgari hotel and jewelry division, so we’re part of a bigger group, which is very high-end luxury.

How do you think Belmond being part of a large fashion group, like LVMH, has impacted the philosophy of the brand?

Actually, it’s interesting. When you look at the fact that Belmond is part of a fashion group and you see how fashion has evolved, you can also see many similarities with hospitality. If you go back into the 90s, fashion was very much linked to logos and everybody had to wear something with a really big logo plastered across their t-shirts or along the side of their glasses. I’m not saying that that was bad; it was a trend. It still exists today, in many fashion brands, but it’s much more subtle in its evolution. You don’t want to be what we would define as, all over the place, with big giant billboard logos. You want to be subtle; you want to be understated and that is what is also evolving in the Italian fashion industry.

The origins of Belmond go back to the Orient Express, where in 2014, there was a name change. It’s all about journeys; it’s all about experiences. How it’s evolved as a group, especially in the last 18 months to two years, is that it’s very much inciteful, understated and focusing on developing unique and memorable experiences. It’s not as commercial as how fashion and retail was in the late 90s or in the earlier part of this century.

How have you seen customers and their preferences change, given we’ve seen this shift from the logos on the shirts to a more understated experience in luxury?

We’ve seen it shift incredibly in probably the last five years, where the value of the brand is certainly very, very important. People are prepared to pay for the brand and the experience, but they are also prepared to pay for something that differentiates itself, that isn’t common. We use it a lot in the group. The way Belmond was built up, over the years, the hotels had to be in very particular destinations, as far from the madding crowd as you wish. But if you wanted to be in the crowd, you could have access to the crowd. You were close, but far. When you checked in, you checked in to disconnect. There would always be beautiful gardens, landscaping, pools and the opportunity to disconnect. If you wanted to reconnect and go and see the iconic destinations and the architecture, you could.

As each market is different, so is each customer. The needs of the customers and their preferences changes, according to who they are as a traveler, at what point in time. That’s a given, if you are a leisure traveler or a corporate traveler or a family traveler or a couples traveler. The point is, everyone, over the last five years, is much more interested in refined features, timeless touches, authentic experiences; living the destination, but not in a commercial way. Having the keys to open up places that are not typical. If you go to Florence, everybody goes to the Uffizi, but not everybody does the Vasari Gallery. Going to Venice, yes, you go to St Mark’s, but not everyone can open up the doors to the private Basilica entrances. Looking for these unique experiences and bespoke, curated touchpoints has become much more important to our customers and to luxury customers, in general.

How would you compare the brand position of a group like Belmond to larger chains in the industry?

Larger companies tend to have a more standardized approach. In January, you do this; in February, you do that. Belmond does also have calendars and timelines to program events. Larger chains, however, tend to take a more standard approach. It’s spring, so let’s do the spring campaign. That works well. They are also very much linked to loyalty programs. Small chains, like Belmond and some of its competitors, don’t have loyalty programs. Experiences and the positioning is more driven around creating authentic, unique and memorable experiences and having the keys to open up doors that are not common.

Belmond and its sister companies take more of that approach, rather than being overly commercial or being overly standardized. That makes the difference and customers are prepared to pay for that difference.

The smaller hotel companies, like Belmond, are more focused on creating and building on authenticity and what the destination has to offer. You’re coming for a different experience, that isn’t necessarily linked to ticking a box and saying, okay, I’ve been to Venice and I got my points. You’re looking for something completely different and you’re not a pointsaholic. That’s the different approach. It’s like retail. You can choose high-end, bespoke luxury brands to buy a bag or you can go more commercial, because you’re looking for something else, yet they both serve the same purpose.

Do you rely on the experience being that much better or unique that it actually drives loyalty, without the points system that the larger chains have?

Yes. The experience, linked to what we can offer, in the hotel and the gardens and the pools and the food and beverage culinary experience, is what will create loyalty and that will drive us to continually attracting the guests and customers to come back and, therefore, recognizing them stay after stay after stay, by offering these different and special curated experiences. Every winter, we research, we develop and we create new programs and new initiatives to offer something that is different and that you can’t buy with a shopping cart approach, which some of the larger brands prefer to do, to market their hotels. Don’t get me wrong; they’re very successful at it.

Keeping in mind Belmond is also a smaller inventory of rooms, so we like to position ourselves very differently from the larger, 100-plus-room brands.

How do you create a direct customer relationship if you don’t have that loyalty program that the bigger chains might have?

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Belmond: Creating Extraordinary Experiences

December 23, 2020

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