Kenji Bourquin Quéva — Page8 Hotelby Michael Cleland
Kenji Bourquin-Quéva of Page8 Hotel on Airbnb, changing travel trends and what defines good hospitality.
The conditions for businesses in recent months have highlighted many fundamental truths of our industry. One such truth which has become stingingly clear is the ultimate dependency we all have on the ability of cafes and restaurants to succeed in their service of the public.
Yes, at-home consumption has grown but, as we've all seen, when you take away serving you take away supply.
Coffee businesses produce coffee, move coffee, taste coffee and roast coffee but hospitality businesses serve it. While the coffee industry is never short of new ideas this innovation has rarely, if ever, focussed as solely on the interaction between guest and host and the barista's ability to exchange value with consumer.
How to improve our service usually takes a backseat to how we can improve our product in the coffee industry but in restaurants and hotels they are viewed as the same thing. In fact, in the life of hotelier, Kenji Bourquin-Quéva, 'service is what defines (a business) and, in turn, its identity.'
Kenji is the Hotel Operations Manager of Page8 Hotel on Trafalgar Square which houses the Page Common Cafe. After graduating with honours in Hospitality and Hotel Management he held leadership positions at some of the finest hotels in Europe before making Page8 his home.
In the new world of altered hospitality, and promoting public safety, creating loyal customers has never been so complicated nor so important. To gain some insight I sat down with Kenji to find out what defines good hospitality, what hotels have learned from Airbnb and how to create customer loyalty.
How did hospitality become your career?
I was born into a house of French hospitality and then moved to the US when I was young. Growing up outside France I guess hospitality became a symbol of home and my way of wearing the French flag proudly.
By the time I finished school I was ready to explore living somewhere else and I found a hospitality school in Switzerland where I enrolled in Hotel Management. It immediately spoke to me -there's something about travel, hospitality, a dynamic lifestyle and connecting with people that all seemed to fit together.
My first internship placement was at the Elounda in Crete which is what cemented it for me. It was then that I knew this is what I wanted to do.
We talk a lot (in the coffee industry) about what makes good coffee but comparatively less about good hospitality. How do you define good hospitality?
This might be a bit romantic but you can trace hospitality back to early people sitting around a campfire at the end of the day and filling their bellies. It could be as simply defined as connecting and putting people at ease
In reality, this could be quite complex - it takes empathy, intuition and putting yourself in someone's shoes... it’s knowing if someone wants you to be as stressed about something as they are or whether they want to connect and chat... or just to be left alone.
How do you measure good hospitality? What is success?
Success is loyalty. There are lots of ways to measure that but good hospitality means building a lasting relationship.
Loyalty is won with service. It comes from connecting, being memorable and being available. But loyalty only lasts until you lose it. Loyal customers will tolerate some things but turning away a guest because you’re full or even one bad service can be enough in some cases to lose them for good.
So it's more about service than product?
Service is the DNA of a hotel. It is your brand. How a hotel looks will usually adapt to where it is and visually can be quite different but the service and experience provided is what defines a hotel and, in turn, its identity.
A bed is a bed at the end of the day and ten years from now you might not remember the bed you slept in but you will remember the human interactions you had. That is ultimately what decides whether a guest/ customer returns or not.
Hotels have Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that try and standardise the level of service guests experience and optimise loyalty but it can go too far as well. When interactions become an automated following of procedures you lose engagement and it undermines the purpose of having SOPs in the first place.
You need consistency in branding and a consistent level of service in hospitality because that’s who you are as company but it can't be at the cost of forming genuine connections with guests.
How much has Airbnb affected the hotel industry and what does its growth say about the service people seek?
You can imagine there's always a lot of noise in the hotel industry about Airbnb taking market share. My perspective has always been that those customers were already lost to hotels. By that I mean hotels in the past weren't doing enough to satisfy what the modern traveler was looking for but there just hadn’t been an alternative until Airbnb came along.
The idea of mass tourism is fading and people really want to be connected to the neighbourhoods they’re staying in. Historically hotels have been slow to evolve and it took Airbnb, and businesses losing money, to really wake up to this. Now you have the proliferation of Boutique hotels, Lifestyle Hotels and even 5 Star Hotels refocussing how they deliver that experience.
I think travellers want to feel an intimate connection to the cities they visit. This used to all be facilitated by the hotel's concierge who was seen as providing the guests with the ‘inside track’ so to speak. That puts a lot of faith in one small element of the hotel experience though and also, in time, various factors had meant that the concierge's recommendations weren't always as insightful as other sources. Don't forget you’ve got the internet now and people are generally more prepared than ever when they travel. That being said we've all learned that you can't trust everything on the internet so personal recommendations are still important.
Ultimately what Airbnb has meant is that if the hotels want to compete it's not just the concierge but the entire staff who need to offer that level of knowledge. In fact - it's the entire experience of the hotel that needs to revolve around providing a connection to the city that the internet can't.
What’s the difference between a boutique, lifestyle, and 5-Star hotel?
Boutique hotels are about incorporating local culture, modernity and creating unique and independent experiences. Then you have Lifestyle which is sort of a hybrid Boutique in that it channels the connectedness to local culture but is usually more refined. Then you have 5-Star which is providing every service you can think of.
You could measure it by the number of facilities provided, the layers of service and the number of staff per guest. In Airbnb it’s really not about service per se and then In 5-Star you could be talking 3 staff for every one guest
Now you have Autograph by Mariott, Unbound by Hyatt and Curio by Hilton. There’s a lot of public interest in the Boutique experience and, thus, movement from the industry towards both Boutique and Lifestyle.
In coffee we often think we have to 'win' a customer from the chains to prosper (implied that the same customer can't frequent both). Based on your experience of hotels what do you think?
In hotels, guests can definitely be loyal to more than one type of service simultaneously. If you’re on more of an adventure-seeking holiday maybe you’d go Airbnb because it’s almost like staying with a friend who is a local. But if the same person is staying in a bustling city and wants to come home each night to a space that's shut-off from the outside world and be catered to they're going to choose a hotel. Airbnbs can provide immediate immersion but without the comforts or services of hotels. in hotels you're offered safety, reliability, service standards, specialty coffee sometimes...
Coffee chains are standardised and familiar and exist for a reason. The boutique (or independent cafe) is the place for new concepts and may be outright better but is also the risk of the unknown for someone who might just want to stick with what they know at that point. Once you serve them once though then there’s the opportunity that if your service is good they'll continue to come back.
So are 5-stars losing out to the Boutique and Lifestyle hotels?
The Savoy has been here for over a hundred years and it isn't going anywhere in a hurry. These are landmark properties and, pre-Covid at least, there are enough people in the world that demand that level of service when they travel. That doesn't mean they're not going to try and introduce something new to remain fresh and relevant.
Food and drink as a general area has been a big focus at any level of hotel in recent years. In the 1920’s you’d eat in the ‘hotel restaurant’ or drink in the ‘hotel bar.’ These days travellers view these places as cold or uninteresting. These days it's about restaurants, cafes and bars that have their own identity to stand alone while within the hotel space. You'll notice these days most even have private entrances to help create that distinction.
And Page8 have the Page Common coffee concept which stands alone but you also have your own coffee in the rooms. Why is it important to a Lifestyle hotel to have this and not just Nespresso?
If you’ve made the choice to stay as a guest of a Lifestyle Hotel then, more than most, you have certain expectations about the things offered to have some form of story attached. People want to know more about what they’re consuming and are looking to understand the deeper meaning of things. Coffee is one of those things that can create value for people in that way but it also just tastes amazing.
We have our own coffee (Page8 blend) in the rooms. We could have Nespresso and people probably wouldn’t complain but they’d be unlikely to remember it and definitely wouldn’t talk about it. They came for an experience and a story so being able to deliver that right down to the coffee is all part of the service we provide.
What do you think the future holds for hotels?
It’s hard to say. Laws will play a part in that and public confidence is affected by lots of external things too. People will start traveling at some point and the security in knowing that hotels have rigorous hygiene standards already but will also be implementing protocols for public safety might take on heightened importance.
In hospitality, first impressions count always but now more than ever. That’s human nature. If things look tidy and professional you’re definitely going to feel slightly more at ease.
In any case, I don’t think it goes back to normal. It’s an interesting thing to think more broadly about the idea of hospitality behind a mask being an indefinite thing. Connection is fundamental to the idea of hospitality and, if you can't see someone's face, a significant part of that is lost.