Trade Talk: Dean Winter of Swire Hotels

A Q&A with the group’s Managing Director about how he is navigating the current crisis and what changes guests can expect at Swire Hotels in Greater China and beyond.

All photos courtesy of Swire Hotels

Swire Hotels prides itself on the individuality of its properties. How would you describe its DNA to someone who isn’t so well-acquainted with the group?

We are a group of individual hotels in the United States, Hong Kong, and Chinese mainland, designed to offer new experiences to our guests. At Swire Hotels we are refreshingly individual. We think differently to create authentic, unscripted, and unforgettable experiences.

We are committed to creating highly distinctive hotels that are each designed by talented architects and designers. Every one of our hotels under our two brands The House Collective and EAST is unique and has its own character. Whilst many hotel groups design hotels and restaurants to have the same look and feel, we want ours to be different — each location should reflect the unique surroundings.

 

The Covid-19 pandemic has completely altered the guest experience at hotels worldwide. What changes can we expect at Swire’s properties in Mainland China and Hong Kong? And is buffet dining still possible?

The core purpose of Swire Hotels is to provide authentic, unscripted, and unforgettable service to our guests. This purpose remains the same, however, we are of course adapting to the ever-evolving situation as we emerge from the pandemic. Our service philosophy has always been extremely personal — we actually refer to our guests as “individualists,” meaning that we respond to each in a personalized, open-minded, and receptive manner, and this will certainly continue to be the case. This approach is how Swire Hotels defines luxury, and is the most important element to our brand.

A key change during this pandemic has been the use of technology throughout the guest experience. We were already witnessing widespread digital innovation, however, with hygiene as the driving factor, this process and implementation has really sped up. For example, some of our hotels are using QR codes extensively (to view menus in our restaurants and bars), and also removing a lot of the traditional administration around receipts with digital payments, eliminating the need for handling cash.

We have also been working hard to innovate our offerings in light of the “new normal,” with a particular focus on stimulating domestic business. Our properties have come up with creative ideas for different staycation offerings to cater to different guest needs such as The Upper House “24-Hours at Our House” package with unlimited on-demand popcorn and in-room blockbuster movies for guests who like to just stay in to relax. For those with furry pals, The Opposite House in Beijing has designed a staycation package with beauty treatments, amenities, and delicious treats specially prepared for pets.

A new-look guest room at EAST Hong Kong.

With the pandemic situation in the United States being so different, how is the team at EAST Miami overcoming the challenges they face?

Whilst it’s true that different countries have taken different approaches to dealing with the pandemic, our dedication to our guests is consistent across all Swire Hotels.

Our operations have of course been adjusted to incorporate enhanced hygiene practices, social distancing measures, etc., however, we are going about this in our unique Swire Hotels way to ensure that the experience at our properties continues to inspire and rejuvenate.

For example, in EAST, Miami, we have some playful floor stickers throughout the common areas which help to remind guests and locals to keep their distance from each other. What has perhaps been most surprising is how quickly business has returned to East Miami, albeit with softer rates and reduced restaurant capacity. The hotels’ online presence and creative communications has generated solid occupancy and satisfactory results, which is especially pleasing for what is still seen as an independent brand in the U.S.

The outdoor pools at EAST Miami.

As a leader, are there any particular lessons that have stood out for you from the past 12 months?

Whilst it’s been an unusual time in the industry, it is an honor to be taking the “driving seat” as it were. A key priority for us has always been our people. I’ve been blown away by the exceptional attitude of our colleagues throughout the last 12 months — everyone has really taken the time to look out for one another, be kind, and continue to create incredible experiences across the Swire Hotels properties.

With this in mind I think the lesson that has really been reiterated to me this past year is that building and maintaining a strong team is vital, and as we continue to attract strong talent at all levels of Swire Hotels, we look for and encourage individuality and people who love to interact with others. It’s also been a time to communicate and be present and accessible. We have held physical and virtual “townhalls” to help with this and the feedback been very positive – reminding me again, that you can’t do enough of this during times like these.

Guests enter The Temple House in Chengdu through a century-old courtyard building.

What steps has Swire Hotels taken to support employees during this time of great uncertainty?

At Swire Hotels, people are the heart of our brand and during this time of uncertainties it’s absolutely important to look after our team members and keep everyone motivated.

For the wellbeing of our team members, besides distributing care packs, we’ve also organized wellness-related activities, online health webinars, as well as allowing work arrangements with flexible schedules. We provided opportunities for upskilling and cross-function training to enable our team members learn new things, share creative ideas, and have fun together.

Inside a Studio 70 room at The Middle House in Shanghai.

What can you tell us about the group’s recovery strategy moving forward?

Continuous creativity and innovation across all areas of the business is key, in addition to our continued focus on the people of Swire Hotels. From initiating new CSR partnerships to pivoting to create unique pop-up events and brand collaborations, our people have been incredible in learning from one another and continuing to create amazing experiences.

On the overnight stay front, the domestic market is, now more than ever, a huge focus. In the Chinese mainland specifically, where we currently have four properties, we were witnessing increased appetite for domestic travel even prior to Covid-19, and had started to grow a community of Swire Hotels brand advocates, who were very loyal to the brand and valued our international presence and outlook and aspirational qualities.

In line with this trend, as the Chinese mainland has been able to ease restrictions on domestic travel, we have, naturally, seen an uptick in staycation and domestic bookings, whilst local residents have been eager to return to the restaurants and bars.

One of the key differentiating factors about the Swire Hotels brands is that each hotel has a unique personality and character, so those who live in Shanghai and may be familiar with The Middle House will experience an entirely unique and surprising stay at The Temple House in Chengdu, whilst still enjoying the familiar Swire service.

The beautiful entrance courtyard at The Temple House.

How do you think luxury travel as a whole will shift in response to the pandemic?

Hygiene is becoming travelers’ first consideration. And inevitably there’s a growing trend that people are increasingly seeking private and personalized luxury experiences. Hotels definitely have a role to play in providing these experiences by creating connections to the surroundings in which the guests find themselves. Whether it be with design, service, food or experiences, people want to be surprised, delighted, and even intrigued. Moreover, we do see travelers’ increasing needs regarding wellness programs.

Among all that we’ve learnt this year, it’s clear that we all want a well-balanced life where we can put wellbeing first. To response to this change, MI XUN, the wellness center in The Middle House, launched its new holistic wellness program in Q4 of 2020, which is more than just keeping fit and burning calories. These programs at MI XUN are designed to help improve guests’ physical and mental wellbeing through breathwork, sound therapy, and classes in disciplines such as hatha yoga, flow yoga, and yin yoga, together with some fashionable ones like Zumba and beginner ballet.

Superfly, a recently launched bar and casual eatery at The Opposite House in Beijing.

Swire Hotels has so far put down roots in major cities. Is the group open to developing hotels in non-urban destinations such as Bali and Phuket?

There are no plans to develop resort hotels in the short to medium term, although a House Collective Hotel in either Bali or Phuket could be a very special hotel!

 

Are there plans to expand Swire Hotels’ footprint to other parts of the Asia-Pacific region — or the wider world — in the next few years?

We do have some evolving plans for a number of deals in the pipeline, both for The House Collective and EAST through management contracts throughout Asia Pacific. Unfortunately, we are not able to reveal details at this time!

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