Trade Talk: Iain Langridge of Belmond

The luxe hospitality brand’s Divisional Managing Director for the Asia Pacific shares how Belmond is adapting to current circumstances and staying connected to its guests and followers worldwide.

All photos courtesy of Belmond

What is the operational status of Belmond’s hotels, cruises, and luxury trains in Southeast Asia?

This year has been an extraordinary year for all of us, but at Belmond we have been guided by our principle: to do the right thing. We strictly follow the guidelines issued by local authorities and reopen our properties when it’s safe and legal to do so. Three of our properties in Southeast Asia—namely Jimbaran Puri in Bali, Napasai in Koh Samui, and La Résidence Phou Vao in Luang Prabang—have reopened since July following our heightened hygiene and safety protocols. After a temporary re-closure, Governor’s Residence in Yangon will resume operations from mid-December in time for the festive season. Domestic travel has provided much of a tourism boost in these destinations and through our hyper-localization strategy, we have been able to quickly adjust and respond to this pent-up demand for local weekend getaways.

We also hope to see travel restrictions across Southeast Asia being lifted in 2021 and as soon as we have clarity on when this will be, we look forward to resuming the operation of our iconic Eastern & Oriental Express that takes our guests on a remarkable journey across Southeast Asia.

How does the group balance the need for human contact, warmth, and high service standards with current requirements for social distancing?

This is a great question that touches on the core of what we do at Belmond—hospitality with personality. Along with a remarkable, eclectic nature, one of the red threads that ties our 46 properties together is our signature Belmond hospitality—rich in warmth, personality, and genuine care.

We have a history of making the old new, and the new feel comfortable. At the start of the pandemic, we knew that many of our day-to-day interactions would have to evolve and as such, have taken the period of temporary closures to re-examine every aspect of our guest experience. During this time, we asked our talented team to think creatively, so that we can protect the guest experience as much as we enhance it. An example: our teams around the world have been working hard to adapt our food and beverage services—extending our alfresco options to make use of our extensive grounds, private beach access, and manicured gardens, as well as rolling out exciting in-room dining choices.

The veranda of an Oceanfront Pool Residence at Belmond Napasai in Koh Samui, Thailand.

In areas where the outbreak is not yet under control, are there additional safety measures on top of those outlined in the Belmond Protects initiative? For example, a testing requirement for guests or staff members?

There has never been room for complacency when it comes to the safety and wellbeing of our guests and our colleagues. In this regard, our commitment to excellence will not change, though our already robust protocols have of course been reinforced. We have been working continuously with our dedicated in-house experts and in close collaboration with leading health and hygiene authorities to ensure our even-higher standards are achieved and upheld.

All of our Belmond properties underwent a deep clean by our highly-trained employees prior to reopening, following our established pre-opening procedures, and further specific measures designed to protect against Covid-19 were carried out. All our employees are well-trained to identify the symptoms of Covid-19, and have been instructed not to come to work if they are feeling unwell or had contact with anyone who is suspected or confirmed as having Covid-19. Temperature screening will also be completed before starting work.

Above all, we understand the importance of instilling consumer confidence in the wake of Covid-19, which is why we created our ‘trusted for travel’ promise on matters of safety, hygiene, and booking flexibility. We have a comprehensive pre-stay communication plan to ensure that we keep our guests informed of our latest safety and hygiene protocols, as well as the latest government updates or travel advice. Our team regularly reviews and updates our booking policy so that our guests can book with confidence and amend their plans as needed, and our dedicated reservations team is on hand to assist our guests throughout the planning process. At the same time, we have worked hard to reassure our loyal guests that Belmond hospitality—so rich in warmth and personality—has not changed.

Taking in the sunset from the beach at Belmond Jimbaran Puri, Bali.

Since the early stages of the pandemic, Belmond has been running online performances and workshops. Are any of the brand’s Southeast Asian outposts participating in these virtual events?

Certainly. From the outset of the crisis, when the world of travel was put on pause, we expanded our brand presence online and developed Belmond Invitations and our Digital Care Packages, with at-home content to nourish mind, body, and soul while our guests could not travel. This allowed us to stay connected with our guests during this unsettling time and provide them with a sense of luxury escapism. For instance, guests can learn how to make bath salts from Bali Jimbaran or create their very own Bellini in the exact same way our famous barman does it in Venice. These online workshops also extend to our trade partners and customers. Just last month, our team in Bali hosted a special Invitation Series for our key trade partners in Australia & New Zealand as part of our Belmond Tomorrow Time Virtual Roadshow. While international borders remain closed, the General Manager of Jimbaran Puri was able to show our travel partners the beauty of Jimbaran Beach as well as their ongoing collaboration with the Bali Sea Turtle Society to inspire the travel community.

Poolside at Belmond Napasai.

Some of Belmond’s Asian hotels are in countries with large populations. With most borders still shut to foreign visitors, how is the company tapping into the domestic markets of those places?

We know that the world of luxury travel will return but also know that it will take time until we can travel freely again, especially to long-haul destinations. In fact, a recent survey from Euromonitor International reveals that 76 percent of travelers prefer to holiday closer to home than internationally in the short to medium term. We have pivoted our sales and marketing activity to focus on capturing the domestic markets for our reopened properties in Bali, Koh Samui, and Luang Prabang.

We have recently launched a Belmond + You campaign that invites domestic travelers to rediscover hidden gems in their own backyard. The pandemic has given travelers the opportunity to recalibrate what it is that matters to them. We now know that travel is a luxury, and as such, there’s a greater desire to really make each trip count—to slow down, reconnect, and savor life’s simple pleasures, as well as a nostalgia to return to fond and familiar destinations.

Beyond that, there’s a growing demand for travel to be more meaningful and purposeful. We are tapping into our well-established connections with the local community and invite our guests to get under the skin of each destination. For example, in Koh Samui, guests will be immersed in the Samui way of life—from discovering a hidden Magic Garden that only up until now is known to local residents on the island, to visiting a local village to learn the art of kalamae (caramel) making. These are Thai snacks that many Thais have grown up eating but are now on a verge of extinction. As Belmond is a heritage brand, I strongly believe we have the responsibility to preserve rich cultural heritage and local expertise in each destination and ensure that these skills still exist centuries from now.

A hands-on caramel-making experience is now offered to guests at Belmond Napasai.

With the year-end holidays coming up, what special experiences are being offered in the various Belmond properties that have reopened?

We stay responsive and adapt quickly to guests’ needs as the current climate is changing so rapidly. This season, we are celebrating timeless traditions together with travelers who wish to cherish the moment with their loved ones. At Belmond Jimbaran Puri, guests are invited to experience a taste of unspoiled Bali—a destination where local culture, timeless traditions, and exquisite cuisines are celebrated—through a New Year’s Eve celebration dinner and stay package, where they will have the chance to win a ticket for a special journey aboard the iconic Eastern & Oriental Express train for a memorable experience in the coming new year.

We have also launched Festive Invitations, a series of virtual workshops and events celebrating timeless traditions that bring us together in a year like no other. By offering guest experiences online through this series – with activities such as a winter wreath workshop, a Thanksgiving bake-along, or a concert livestreamed to people’s living rooms—we are able to spread joy and provide some much-needed escapism to our followers who may not be able to join their family and loved ones due to travel restrictions.

Inside a Garden suite at Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam have all done an excellent job of eradicating the virus within their borders. Are you optimistic that we could see a future “travel bubble” between the three countries?

We of course will welcome the news and the possibility for the formation of these travel bubbles. It is extremely difficult for anybody to accurately forecast more than a day or two ahead, and even then, we have seen the world shift in the space of 24 hours more than once this year. We will continue to prepare for the status quo and strive for the best. To quote astronaut and oceanographer Dr. Kathy Sullivan, “A plan is nothing, planning is everything.” With our strategy and agile team, we are well-placed to respond and capture a changing trend—whenever it comes and whatever it may be.

The Vienna Grand Suite aboard Belmonds Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

We’re keen to learn more about the group’s expansion plans. Within the Asia-Pacific region, what new properties or experiences are in the pipeline for 2021 and 2022?

We are working on expanding our footprint in Asia. Although we have nothing concrete to announce yet with respect to a specific new property in the region, we do have a very clear vision of the type of product that constitutes a ‘Belmond’ property. The key for us is finding a one-of-a-kind product that fulfils our brand criteria and would complement our legacy as pioneers in luxury travel.

Globally, we continue to invest to preserve and enhance our remarkable assets and have some exciting plans that will further elevate our guest experiences. The three new grand suites will join the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express for the first time in March 2021. These new suites—named Budapest, Prague and Vienna—evoke the individuality of each city’s spirit while incorporating the 1920s art-deco design. In April 2021, Splendido Mare, the sister property of Hotel Splendido in northern Italy, will re-open following an extensive renovation under the direction of Paris-based design firm Festen. This charming 14-room guesthouse is located right on Portofino harbor. The renovation speaks to a growing demand for intimately sized gatherings, a private escape for you and your loved ones to reconnect and savor life’s simple pleasures. We have more initiatives in the pipeline and will definitely share these with DestinAsian readers when the time comes.

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