How do you maintain momentum when your hotel opening keeps getting pushed back? John Blanco, General Manager of the soon-to-open Capella Bangkok, discusses the challenges of ensuring his team of 240 ‘Culturalists’ remain focussed and engaged. Once it opens, he has high hopes the Capella will shake up Bangkok’s luxury market, with a new, more disruptive approach to high-end hospitality, from a different style of operations to a more bespoke, tailored service culture.
While John acknowledges many of Bangkok’s key international source markets will take time to return, he is confident that, for affluent consumers at least, travel will be a top priority as we emerge from this crisis.
David Keen 0:13
Hi, this is David Keen. At QUO, we’ve worked for the last 20 years with many of the world’s best-known travel brands. During this unprecedented global crisis, our world of travel has changed, possibly irreversibly. This series will see us speak with many global leaders to understand how they see the future of travel.
David Keen 0:45
John Blanco, General Manager of Capella Bangkok… or the soon-to-open Capella Bangkok. We hope soon-to-open Capella Bangkok in the fourth quarter. Welcome to The Future of Travel.
Thank you so much for crossing town and coming to see us in our office. And as always, I’m with Catherine Monthienvichienchai, our Chief Branding Officer. John, it’s great to have you on, and it’s great for us to witness the new higher-end… the new generation of luxury in Bangkok. What is this new generation of high-end hotels—yourself, the Rosewood, which of course is already open and doing famously already in Bangkok—what does the new generation represent?
John Blanco 1:36
Well I think it’s the ability to look at this market segment—this traveling market, very high-end—with a fresh set of eyes. To be able to react and respond and to create products and services that are uniquely positioned to satisfy that market to a higher level. Simply put, I think scale helps if… you think of the Rosewoods, Capellas, Amans.
David Keen 2:11
It’s interesting that… we were talking before we started recording. It’s interesting that you bring Aman into this equation, which is very much cross-generational. I mean it’s very much a bridging brand. And it’s fabulous that you use that. Why?
John Blanco 2:30
The reason why is Aman and Rosewood and Capella, for that matter, are in a 2.0 of their existence—online too, of course. Adrian Zecha, visionary hotelier; the Hunt family, Rosewood; and Capella; originally Horst Schulze, of course the founder of Ritz Carlton… So you come now with well-established brands, a very strong foundation, and under new ownership. Aman, of course, with a Russian gentleman, whose name escapes me. Rosewood, of course Hong-Kong based now. And Capella being Singapore-based, with Pontiac land by the Kwee family.
Taking these brands, and the brand equity, but then in a very entrepreneurial almost startup fashion, reintroducing them to the luxury market. I think there’s that tonality of this profile of brands. And in doing so, it’s the ability to disrupt a bit and a case of how do you do this? How do you understand that customer to a much higher level? And even more so now, you know that customer…
David Keen 3:58
Do you think that it’s the younger generations, the next generation of the owning families—and Sonia Cheng comes to mind, and I guess Evan Kwee also comes to mind for Pontiac land—but it’s this generation that is driving the new reality?
John Blanco 4:19
I think that generation, by all means. Supported by the preceding generation of course. The ability for that older generation that created the wealth, in the case of the Chengs and Kwees. But then to be open to reinventing, taking, really again, a much more entrepreneurial look at this investment, really. So the Kwees—if you know Pontiac Land is a very well-established, respected, real-estate development family in Singapore. The Chengs—very established wealth in Hong Kong. How do you evolve from that foundation and challenge a market that’s traditional?
When you think of luxury brands that we all associate with luxury, they’re very traditional and they tend to be larger. If you think of a cruise ship versus the Riva in Lago Di Como, the ability to maneuver, the ability to adjust and to come head in a very busy, noisy market is a unique differentiator for the smaller brands, including Capella.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 5:52
And having that entrepreneurial mindset, having that more disruptive philosophy, how do you think that will benefit these kinds of brands going forward as we look to recovery post the current crisis?
John Blanco 6:02
I think it’s, one, agility, so it doesn’t take a lot to move the ship. So you have very lean, young, dynamic leadership bodies—at least, at Capella, for example, it’s very much the case—that are able to question the existingthe existing…. what is expected from the luxury travel industry.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 6:34
Right, like the norms of luxury.
John Blanco 6:34
And say, “Okay, well, let’s shake things up a bit. How do we change it? How do we… One example: Capella, it’s a top brand, but typically a hotel is organised in a very fragmented fashion with departments. And they’re essentially handed off to guests… you have reception, front desk, concierge… it’s a very old system. We do away with that and we created this singular unit—our Capella Culturists, is the name— that is the 1.1 stop, no-one-else owner and dedicated hosts for that guest. So, things like that, looking at things very differently.
David Keen 7:34
Have you reimagined the guest journey from first touch with the brand? From the first integrated interaction with the brand? How technologically driven is the Capella relationship with a guest, and within typology, how well, do you know?
John Blanco 7:57
We do rely heavily on digital content and certain digital tools to facilitate communication, facilitate the preparation…What we would typically do before arrival to the hotel was very formulaic and very prescriptive. You’d receive an automated email asking you to fill out a checklist, or answer some questions. You would typically either delete that email or perhaps, if it was a special occasion you might say it’s my first date. We really do away with that sort of approach.
Again, when you have small scales—which means small number of rooms, less guests, high colleague or staff to guest ratios—you can then go much farther in that preparation. And then of course on the delivery of the service. So we look at digital assistance with that.
For example, when you book at a Capella, you can immediately—from a QR code—select the way you wish to communicate with us. It’s WhatsApp, or in Japan it’s Line, or if you’re in China it’s WeChat. You will immediately be linked to your Capella Culturist from the very beginning. So before you arrive, you booked, you have that instant communication which we’re very used to nowadays, to leverage customization of the experience when you arrive at the destination.
So, yes, digital tools are very important. Digital content which is freely available—of course, within all the parameters, PDPAs and whatnot. Trying to understand that customer without asking them, without order taking, is very important. Part of the task of the Culturist is to do the homework and understand who you are, what you enjoy, what your preferences are, and then restate that in everything that’s prepared for you.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 10:04
Do you think greater personalization is the feature of luxury? Is that what’s going to drive luxury going forward?
John Blanco 10:12
I think a lot of people… especially coming now out of the pandemic, we’ve all been sequestered with our own thoughts and digital media, where everything’s in question and everything feels very relative. And in this segment, the luxury segment, if you will, is now experiences. So, what can I have now that is a gratification? A concept of reward. Especially coming out of these periods of being alone with your thoughts. Being together with family and loved ones—a reconnection or connection.
And then of course elements of space and privacy, which are the obvious ones that come to mind. I think that wanting, even more fervently now, experiences that are unique, better tailored, that are about who I am, what I believe and perhaps what I’d be questioning now in light of what I’ve just come out of are what would be extremely valuable.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 11:26
So kind of experiencing the [travel] experience of meaning I guess is what you’re suggesting?
John Blanco 11:30
With meaning… again that’s relative, right? To you, it may be sumptuous meals—you’re tired of delivery for three months—but it can be much more, of course, soul-searching type meaningfulness.
David Keen 11:47
Do you think… it’s a big question, but there’s the grandeur that we were referring to of the high end – white gloves, the […], the traditional quote-unquote “high-end”. Is that now an anachronism that won’t go into the future, or is there still demand for it?
John Blanco 12:17
There’s demand for exceptional quality. I think what we’ve seen from past crises, pandemics, wars, etc. when people cycled out of them, their travel is still top of the list. If I’m going to do something or I’m going to spend my money, even though everything’s in question, travel—especially on the high-end, is top of the list. With that comes a desire for quality. For things that are exceptional, that are… in the sense of the traditional, perhaps, European defined classic luxury.
I think it can be addressed 1000 ways. It could be in a white glove or it could be a casual tailored costume. The details of it—the quality of a beverage, or a food item, or the bedding—people will always be appreciative. It may not be at the top of the list. Again, it’s unique to each person.
So in short, I say yes, because I think we all—particularly now—want gratification. We want to reward ourselves. We may be thinking of how I consume differently. You know: do I want a meal that’s more sustainable? Do I want to know that this brand is very conscious of their footprint, and how they consume and how they leave their market on a destination? Certainly. I think inherent to the luxury travel market is this desire for unique, exceptional, curated—I don’t want to overuse a word—experiences, which are generated by humans.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 14:16
If you think of Bangkok, your own hotel is being delayed for various reasons and now the biggest kind of hurdle to opening is this current global pandemic. How have you, as a general manager, coped with these delays? Particularly the biggest one we’re dealing with right now. How have you kept your team spirits up, have you kept that kind of energy going, how have you reacted and adapted over the last year or so?
John Blanco 14:41
I have to say, it has been extremely challenging… not only on a personal level, but also… I have been on the project three years now, on pre opening. We have 240 staff that have been on board for almost four months. So it’s been a very unique challenge to keep them engaged, keep them motivated. In pre opening you have this building of momentum, energy and excitement. How to maintain that over a much longer period?
But I have to give credit to my team. Through tools like Zoom… but also bringing them in occasionally, and keeping them engaged with content, training them to be the most trained opening teams on the planet. It’s truly about a team of leaders that are able to maintain that motivation. That energy. That focus.
We have always been communicative with our teams about what Capella will mean to Bangkok: what we endeavor to do, what is our vision—to really come in and shake things up a bit, and do things a bit differently and inject this energy into the riverside. So focusing on those more technical things. Making sure they’re adept that all the agencies of service, so when the four doors do open, we’ll be more than prepared.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 16:23
When your doors do open, hopefully later this year, you’re still going to be opening to a very different world…a different market. Perhaps, you would have expected to open earlier this year. International travel, even if it started again, will be a trickle probably by the end of this year. How, in a market like Bangkok, where I believe around 80% of occupancy is generally reliant on international travelers… how are you going to build success when you open your doors? What do you look for?
John Blanco 16:53
Absolutely, longer-haul markets, international markets will take some time. Regional markets will be back on in China, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, and so on. One thing that we are very blessed with and uniquely positioned is to have the benefit of this period to relook and revisit. Make sure that what we are proposing to the market to those travelers… in a much more targeted fashion knowing that the US market will likely not be back for six months or more, Europeans, so on and so forth. We have that luxury of time to look at how we prepare for these markets.
Unique as well because… by design. Thankfully, our product design as I mentioned earlier, leverages space and open air and privacy. If you don’t want to spend time at the main pool, there’s space in other rooms that have private puddles to spend time in.
We also have quite a bit of food and beverage. And that food and beverage of restaurants or bars, relies almost entirely on local market. The viability of those outlets entirely depends on local market. Which thankfully the Thai market adores dining out and absolutely must socialize—as we’ve witnessed already now with some eased restrictions or easing of restrictions, already is consuming graciously. Even delivery has done so well in Bangkok. So I think we’re fortunate to be in a city with that dynamic, where I believe the destination by the river with unique restaurants—our Mauro Colagreco restaurant, we’ll plug it, and our Thai restaurant and whatnot, will be of interest. Very al-fresco, very open air, be appreciated.
David Keen 19:26
Talking about the river in particular, and talking about the plethora of higher- end products… Not just of the Mandarin Oriental, the Peninsula and obviously the Shang, which people may or may not consider it too high-end. Now with your hotel coming online, how is the river going to be supported? How are all of the hotels going to be supported by the slipping demand? It’s going to be tough, right?
John Blanco 19:51
Sure, it’s more mouths feeding from the same or smaller pie. I think the benefits are in the extremes. The higher-higher-ends, I believe, benefits from the initial traveling markets. Because the more affluent will be more readily or more able to travel and will have a higher desire I think to travel. Look at China alone: that traveling segment is huge, it’s millions and millions of people. They will value space and they will value new shiny objects as well, right?
David Keen 20:42
Traveling around Bangkok right now is pretty fast. It’s pretty good to go and stay on the river.
John Blanco 20:48
Absolutely, you don’t need to leave. You don’t need to set foot farther than Charoen Krung, to that great little neighborhood that’s behind us. Otherwise, you can get everywhere by boat.
David Keen 20:59
What are you doing as a hotel: one, to become more a part of the creative district and to become more integrated into Bangkok? Talking about trying to attract local gourmands and people who are coming to eat in the hotel. We all know that… we live on the other side of town and going to the river for dinner is a bit of a higher commitment. We may or may not do it. But, with the right incentive, with the right destination we certainly will. […] experience which struggled with that. How are you going to do that?
And the other question, which I was thinking about before that I’d like to ask you is, you were talking about before the associates that are already online and are being open to the consumers mentality and the way you form culture. How are they going to drive the personality of the hotel? Two different questions.
John Blanco 22:01
Sure. So the first and foremost, our destination by the river… You’re absolutely right—for a local to make a conscious decision to drive, whether it’s Thanon Charoen or Sathorn, to get to Riverside for a meal to spend the day is a decision. Do I stay on Sukhumvit? Depends where you are and do you have a car.
But I think what we’ve found with our estates is the development, and I’ll plug my neighbor, our estate actually comprises of Four Seasons—a brand new Four Seasons—with several beverage outlets and bars, as well as our own. That becomes a much more interesting proposition. You can come and spend the day by the river… it’s a beautiful riverfront promenade. Have a drink at the Four Seasons, have a wonderful Michelin dining experience at Capella, a desert and a nightcap at Stella, our bar, and really spend the day. Then that investment in driving down or getting to the destination is less than they think. So I think that the robustness of the estate and what the property owner and developer has created there is really a destination for itself.
David Keen 23:38
I think that there will be, […] coming up, and your product. There is going to be a regeneration of the river. I think it will come, and with a better transportation system,
John Blanco 24:00
Absoultely. That neighbourhood alone… wonderful work has been done on the Bangkok river. A fantastic job there. Think of the creative district in promoting the river. There’s even more to it. This side of the bridge, behind us on Charoen Krung—still very old, authentic neighborhood with tremendous potential—we have our own little walking tours and bicycle tours that we offer our guests to discover the neighborhood. We have a wonderful collection of residents, very unique stories and whatnot which we gathered for people to have authentic experiences if they want them. It’s a fascinating area and beyond the typical temples and elephants that one would think of traveling to Thailand. It has much more layers, as you will know, you’ve been here so long. That’s our intent. To really help you discover something beyond expected in Bangkok and do so in a way that’s safe, and within easy access—ideally if you can reach it by boat, even better.
David Keen 25:17
And the Culturalists?
John Blanco 25:21
This is something at all Capellas. All of our guest contact staff must be certified by a local university—we use Chulalongkorn University—on history, specifically neighborhood knowledge and history. One, so that they can be armed with wonderful knowledge about this fascinating city beyond the expected. Two, the second layer to that is we train them on: how do I read and understand you within a very short window of time and tailor my dialogue, as opposed to a monologue. Let me share my field that I was trained on, and more, let me understand who David is and how I can then tailor that—I know he loves coffee and as a matter of fact there’s a dozen wonderful little coffee roasters within a stone’s throw of the hotel. Really create a story that’s your Bangkok story.
David Keen 26:26
General Manager of the soon-to-open Capella Bangkok, thank you so much for being on The Future of Travel.