By Anand Holla
At the vast Al Majlis hall, impeccable Italian fashion, style and fine dining came together with European precision to showcase what was aptly named as Italian Lifestyle Journey.
Sheraton Grand Doha Resort & Convention Hotel, under the auspices of the Italian embassy in Qatar, rolled out a sparkling evening last week, to present Starwood Hotels & Resorts Italy’s ‘The Italian lifestyle’, pegged as an authentic immersion into style and cuisine — a promise well kept.
ITALIAN COLOURS: The Giada Curti collection stole the show.
The occasion was also an opportunity for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Italy to familiarise its properties in Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, Costa Smeralda and Trieste to Doha. The highlights of the night were the two “Italian lifestyle events”: an Italian afternoon tea, starring a cool fashion show by famous Italian designer Giada Curti, and an epicurean dinner showcasing regional Italian cuisine, allowing guests to enjoy Italian fine dining prepared specially for this event by three top chefs from Starwood properties in Italy.
Curti turns dreams into fabulous gowns and has been in love with the world of fashion since childhood. After her art studies, travels and many experiences in the industry, Curti created her own Haute Couture brand in 2002 along with her life partner Antonio Curti, and has enjoyed great success since.
At the Doha event, Curti surprised guests by showcasing her latest collection among which some pieces were inspired by the lifestyle and high impact look of the Venetian noble lady ‘Divina Marchesa’ and “the futuristic ferment” that she had triggered with her life.
Nick Heath, Complex General Manager of Sheraton Grand Doha Resort & Convention Hotel, said, “We are very pleased and honoured to join hands with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Italy and extend our support them to bring a special lifestyle event to Doha.”
Starwood Hotels Italy — numbering 13 properties among luxury, upper upscale brands such as The St. Regis, The Luxury Collection and Westin in the top Italian destinations — are recognised internationally as some of Europe’s most iconic hotels, attracting both business and leisure travellers from all over the world.
Robert Koren, Vice President and Regional Director of Operations, Southern Europe Region for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, said, “The Middle East and specifically the UAE are incredibly growing markets, representing an important share of business for our Italian hotels with significant double digit growth in the last few years.”
Koren added, “Over the past few years with the support of our owners, our hotels have undergone significant investments with major restoration projects such as the two iconic Luxury Collection properties The Gritti Palace in Venice in 2013 and The Excelsior Hotel Gallia in Milan in 2014. Furthermore, we are looking into growing and developing our portfolio in the luxury and upper upscale segment in Italy with the new Falisia Resort & spa, a Luxury Collection in Portopiccolo, Sistiana.”
Koren, whose work covers 62 hotels, 44 owners, eight brands, 14,000 keys, and 6,300 associates, spoke to Community about customer trends and the ever-rising power of social media, among other things:
In Qatar, what are Starwood’s plans as of now? Are you expanding operations?
Yes, we are. There’s a lot of growth and new openings. Qatar is an important destination for Starwood to grow. From a customer perspective, it’s an important region for customers outbound into destinations like Southern Europe — Italy, Greece and Turkey. We have a lot of plans here to keep growing. There are new openings in the pipeline as well. But we are very dominant because this hotel has been, after the Sheraton Kuwait, one of the first openings for ITT Sheraton and Starwood, and now it’s the Sheraton Grand Doha. Obviously, we have the W Doha, The St. Regis Doha, and a lot else is happening. Also, our most important owners, if not all, are based in Qatar.
Are you mostly pleased with the guest feedback as such?
For us, the most important thing in the region is taking care of our guests, creating unique and memorable experiences. In the company, apart from the Middle East, we have the second-highest guest satisfaction index in Starwood, which for European hotels is not easy because we have different staffing ratios. So I am very proud of that because our guests are telling us that we are offering them great authentic experiences.
How difficult is it to adapt to the challenges that the current situation presents?
If you look at the cycles of the hotel industry, it’s literally cyclical — you go through ups and downs. You just have to live that cycle. At the moment, there’s no resistance to people coming in. It’s maybe more price-sensitive than it used to be but that’s driven by economic factors beyond our control. We must react to such factors by continuing to offer great service. That is the hallmark of why guests come to our hotels. Also, we don’t want to compromise on keeping our guests excited about what we are doing in Food and Beverage (F&B).
In the face of tough competition, how are you trying to set Starwood apart?
Innovation is one of our key core values in Starwood. We have, for instance, Let’s Chat. So we differentiate ourselves through a Whatsapp application that was invented right here at the W Doha. We created a Let’s Chat, using which a guest, using their number, can chat with the operator or a guest service agent and place requests such as: I’m leaving for a meeting, I need my pressing done in the next 15 minutes; I need my coffee and toast for breakfast at 6.30am, please organise; or, I am coming back from a meeting, I need orange juice. That’s a huge success in the company because the guests, wherever they are, are able to connect with our associates to get things done for them.
To continue with innovation of W Doha as a lifestyle brand in a modern luxury space is critical. For instance, if you go to most of our W Hotels in the Middle East, you will feel completely differentiated as a brand from our competitors. In our Aloft hotels, we have a little, three-foot-tall robotic butler named Botlr. So if you send a message saying; I forgot my toothpaste and my toothbrush, Botlr will knock at your door. You open a little lid on it and you will find what you had asked for.
What sort of trend do you observe in customer expectations and demands? Is there a clear shift in what they want now?
Definitely. What they want is authenticity. They want authentic experiences that create memories which they can Instagram, send through Facebook to their friends and connect with. Those memories then become opportunities of word of mouth, viral marketing, to create reservations, future customers, etc. They do not want to be part of the volume. Their memory of their stay is critical and they will tell their people because social media has become one of the biggest marketing brand trends we have out there in all industries. It impacts how guests, especially how the millennials are making their travel plans. Millennials are influencing travel trends and demand trends. Many millennials have younger parents and so they are influencing their choice of destinations as well.
What sort of strategies is Starwood focusing on to leverage social media presence?
The Excelsior Hotel Gallia in Milan launched an extraordinary Facebook campaign that brought it the highest number of followers that we have ever seen in Europe for a new opening. We linked it to F&B, creating cuisine and talking about that, and followed it up with Instagram. A hotel that opened barely 18 months ago has one of the biggest followings on Facebook. Social media is a massive trend, obviously with the hospitality industry, but also beyond, like the fashion or music and everybody has to tap into it and leverage. In Milan, we just hired a social media blogger. I have picked that up as a best practice from LVMH, which when doing fashion parades in Paris, sends a blogger who stays in a number of hotels, including ours. What that does to the brands is unbelievable. So we plan to do the same for online blogging with Vogue and Marie Claire and so on.
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