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INTERVIEW

Just keep it simple - more service and less Carrara marble

 

Hans R Jenni, former Partner and President of GHM is the man behind a string of boutique gems that have gained a fan following for their 'luxe' simplicity. He talks about hotel design, Covid-19, and the importance of whistling while washing strawberries.

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May 2020

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Interview with Hans Jenni, Partner and President GHM Singapore

Former Partner and President at the much-admired GHM known for its boutique gems, Hans R Jenni, is thoughtful, intelligent, curious, and a believer in keeping things simple. His laugh can bring down the house/ photo: Hans Jenni

Barely slowing down at 70, in his trademark black polo tee and khakis, the florid and cheerfully jowly Hans R Jenni is a quiet, prowling presence that looms disconcertingly large as he talks. A cross between a jolly Santa – with a mischievous twinkle in the eye and a belly shaking laugh – and a benevolent Obelix in search of the next wild boar adventure, Hans Jenni is the former Partner and President of the boutique and much admired Singapore-based GHM Hotels that carries his proud tagline, ‘A style to remember’. His understated demeanour belies a churning visionary mind and a manic energy that has helped GHM create a string of stunning gems (past and present, all widely emulated) with names like The Datai Langkawi, The Nam Hai (Hoi An), The Legian Bali, The Setai Miami, The Chedi Muscat, The Chedi Andermatt and the newer Ahn Luh brand in China. Picking up his early credentials at The École Hotelier, Lausanne, Swiss-born Jenni’s career spans The Peninsula Hong Kong, Shangri-La, Mandarin Oriental, Mövenpick, SwissBell Hotels (President and Partner 1987-1992), and a hugely productive collaboration with Adrian Zecha since 1992 at GHM. It has been an uncompromising quest for quality. On a sunny mid-April Friday sporting a trim moustache and swilling from a large bottle of mineral water, Jenni spoke via video-link with Editor Vijay Verghese about the nature of hospitality, the impact of social distancing, luxury, and evolving guest needs.

Smart Travel Asia: How did you develop an interest in hotels?

HANS R JENNI: It is typical when you’re a young kid you have ideas of being a pro footballer… and then reality kicks in. I had an uncle who was the executive chef at the Hilton Havana while I was finishing school. It was a big ticket to be able to travel to those exotic places. I didn’t get to Havana (this was 1964 and it would have taken quite a while on a ship across the Atlantic). But the thought of him in Havana, a tropical island, inspired me. I started as an apprentice in the kitchen at the Beatus hotel in Merligen on Lake Thum [the hotel is still there]. At that time this was one of the top hotels in Switzerland and the chef was one of the top chefs too. It was a fantastic start.

Did you take naturally to cooking?

HRJ: [Laughs] No my mother cooked at home and I avoided doing the dishes. It did not come naturally but when I started I got motivated. I just loved it. Wolfgang Ghenzi, the chef I apprenticed with, was a genius with his creations. A boss that loves his job automatically gets you in.

Was this your original dream?

HRJ: As a kid I wanted to become Pele and fly jets that zoomed in the sky. That’s what we dreamed at night.

How did you train and in what areas? 

HRJ: I enjoyed being a cook and when I graduated I was literally the best in Switzerland with the highest score. So you can see I was motivated. Now I was working with the best. Had I started elsewhere in some cookie-cutter hotel this would not have happened.

How did your early career shape you?

HRJ: At that time nouvelle cuisine was the big thing. And I wanted to become a nouvelle cuisine guru. When I left Beatus I went to a guy called Erwin Stocker… a top chef… he was the first to do fusion food – Asian and European. He had travelled to Asia, Thailand and Hong Kong and brought back the spices. It was a massive success. One day my father showed up and he said, “Hey do you want to go to hotel school?” So I left the kitchen – it’s still a bit of a regret [rolls his eyes wistfully] – and went to Lausanne and started a new life. The place was highly disciplined. Three times late and you’d be sent home. These were the basics of running a business. I didn’t do too well but I passed. I couldn’t bother about marketing and sales at that time [laughs, shrugs and trails off]…

What brought you to this part of the world?

HRJ: In 1970 my [Havana] uncle was now F&B Manager at the Park Lane Hilton London and he got me a job at reception at The Dorchester. This was one of the best hotels in the world. Everyone thought the snobbishness of the Brits just made it great. People had respect for the place. When the queen was in town she came for afternoon tea every two weeks with friends. Just walking through the lobby in coattails you felt like somebody. It was a fantastic experience.

While there I saw an ad in a Swiss hotel paper that The Peninsula Hong Kong was looking for an assistant manager. I wrote to them. Four weeks later I heard back from Peter Gautschi. He interviewed me in Zurich. It lasted two hours. He talked non-stop about what hotels in Asia were all about and what Asia was all about. I barely spoke and wondered who was interviewing whom [laughs heartily]. He finished and said, “I will let you know.” At that time he only hired Swiss with a cooking background from Lausanne. They hired me in late 1972 and my salary was HK$3,200. I was young and ambitious and thought I’ll teach them a few things. I was picked up from the airport in a Rolls-Royce… Gautschi had style… and when I walked into the hotel my jaw dropped. I realised THIS is what hotels are all about and not the snobbishness and stiffness of the Dorchester. Gautschi invented hoteliering in Asia and brought in quality.

How has the art of running hotels changed over all these years?

HRJ: You know nothing has changed. Hotels are still dealing with the same things. The only thing that has changed is the look, and the fact that travel is easier and reservations are faster. Social media has come in. The basics of running a hotel will never change. Service level over the years has become much harder to maintain. When I started in the kitchen we had just Swiss in the kitchens and Italians with their serving flair as maître d's. You had the charm in the service and the discipline in the kitchen. The Italians danced around the guests [chuckles]. The Swiss had discipline. The housekeeping lady at Beatus was not someone to cross. She was so strict. You cannot change the culture of a hotel. It’s impossible. While it may seem politically incorrect with the wisdom of hindsight, that is how I started. We were the vanguard, doing something new. It was exciting. Now of course Asian hospitality has caught up and overtaken the best in the world. International brands look to Asia for inspiration.

What is the role of the general manager in building brand and building relationships with guests?

HRJ: The old GM was always in the lobby greeting guests. At The Dorchester the GM was highly visible. The Pen was the same. This unfortunately has changed. GMs have become administrators. This is great pity. In the early days when we started GHM we felt there was no need to have an office for the GM. The GM would have nowhere to go but stay with guests [face creases into a broad grin at the recollection]. We needed a personality who spent his time interacting with guests - this was our main business we felt. Of course, when we opened Chedi Bandung in 1995 there was a GM’s office!  It was practical. Daniel Meury, our general manager, was an incredible host who carried it off in style. Now GMs hide. Chedi Bandung was a huge success and we learned something from this about the personal factor in the overall appeal. It was a radical idea to have no office but this was not really feasible in practice. We hired interesting personalities who were great hosts. People like Hans Jörg Meier at The Legian Bali. I have always felt the management team needs to sit with the guests.

How might this change with the Covid-19 issue?

HRJ: Covid-19 has had a huge impact on hospitality of course and the biggest beneficiaries will be the big brands who will gobble up smaller hotels. Social distancing will not go away until you find a vaccine. And even then some people will keep their distance because of fear.

Is the traditional lobby-cruising GM dead?

HRJ: No. GMs must stay up front. You cannot change that. Other things might change – ventilation in rooms and public areas, air purification systems and more robots helping with cleaning common areas. Personality will be even more important now. The GM may stand back and follow the rules (wear a mask and not shake hands) but he must be there. He must be cordial and show his face in some way. After a vaccine has been found things will slowly get back to normal. We run hotels the way they were run 100 years ago. Nothing has changed.

How do you see the role of women in hotels in what was very much a male preserve?

HRJ: If you look at how women have moved up it’s amazing. They bring a feminine touch. A lady greeting you in the lobby is different. In the old days women did housekeeping and men were out front. Now with education they have become stronger and stronger. In my old days at The Peninsula Hong Kong we had maybe 60 to 80 expats and this will be down to a handful now. Local people gained skills, training and education and climbed the ranks to change the balance. It’s the same with women. They are the perfect hosts. And with more training and opportunities they have become a very welcome positive force. We had a lady GM at The Datai Langkawi…

Did she discipline the monkeys?

HRJ: [Chuckles] We never learned our lesson at Datai [set in the Malaysian rainforest] despite having a wonderful lady, Eleanor Hardy, as GM. We always served welcome fruit in the rooms and the monkeys would go wild. We never learned our lesson [cracks up laughing].

What does luxury mean to you? How do travellers see it?

HRJ: For me luxury is simple – something pleasant to have or to experience. It is not to do with price. It is the experience. At the hotels we developed over the past 28 years, we always said simple is better. Taste is not objective, it is subjective. Ultimately there is a fine line between bad taste and good. Good taste doesn’t mean crystal chandeliers and Carrara marble walls [laughs]. This is of course right. You cannot create an experience with Carrara marble. You create it with service. Luxury is service because you can’t get it any more these days and you cannot buy it.

Talking of experience, are you for increasing technology in the room or cutting it down? 

HRJ: I’m the sort of guy that wants to turn off a light switch at the end of the day. At The Chedi Andermatt we started iPads. But I think these things can go too far. As soon as someone needs to explain how to operate something you have a problem. Keep it simple. Keep switches. You can have both. Automation may lose that personal touch. Room service? Call down and talk to somebody. They can give you hints and ideas. Why lose that personal touch?

How do you build brand in the traveller's mind - especially today with the fear and restrictions?

HRJ: I don’t think you want to change the vision of a brand because of Covid-19. It is here. It will go and will be forgotten by 2023 and people will look back and say, “What a terrible time that was.” But you cannot change the brand philosophy because of a crisis. We had SARS and so on. Brand recognition from a guest point of view will never change. If he likes you he likes you. You can never satisfy 100 percent of your guests.

Does the hotel product define its market (like a luxury car) or do your target travellers define the product? What comes first, design or audience? 

HRJ: You have to start with the design and see what is best suited to a site. What fits in best with the environment. And then we bring in the local culture. Authenticity was the key to the GHM experience. We are design led. We define our audience. The ambience attracts the people. If you look at The Datai, the destination was not Langkawi the island back then. The Datai was the destination. It had the architecture, the rainforest, and the Malaysian experience. We’ve never considered the competition when planning and positioning projects in the market.

Once built, can a property still respond to guests' changing needs (as new markets emerge) or evolve in any way or is it a fixed offering?

HRJ: In the old days, Amanpuri [Phuket] had no TV or telephone. At GHM we have all the conveniences of the home – radio, TV, phone. Guests may use them or not. It’s up to them. All our hotel designs are timeless. That’s the word for it. The Chedi Muscat launched in 2003  and we have never had to do a major structural renovation. We focused on the experience and created one of the best spas, gym, and a 100m pool. So some wonderful enhancements came in but we didn’t change the set-up and the look.

Will Covid-19 impact on hotel design?

HRJ: Some things will change as mentioned earlier, like ventilation systems, air-con, air treatment and so on but other stuff may stay same. You might bring back what was so popular in the old days – a boy in the lobby pressing the lift door open. I received a letter from Singapore Airlines recently making a big fuss over the fact that it was really improving the cleaning process. My question is “Shouldn’t you have been doing this before?”

Is there any such thing as original design? Or is it all the reworking of earlier themes? 

HRJ: The biggest ideas come when you dream. We had a project in Dubai just before the financial crisis in 2008… we wanted to do something totally different and create a triangular room with a bathroom in the middle [laughs with delight]. We had this crazy idea! But the basis is still the same. You need the bed, the bathroom, the wardrobe and so on. Unfortunately it didn’t happen. Triangle rooms haven’t arrived yet. More than 60 percent of hotels are designed the way Mr Hilton did it in the beginning. In the old Hilton rooms when you opened the door, on the left was the bathroom, on the right the wardrobe, followed by the luggage rack, TV, desk, two chairs and a coffee table. Opposite the TV was a bed. The Hilton bathrooms in the early days had the toilets always in the centre sandwiched between the bathtub and the vanity so even blindfolded you couldn't miss with your midnight pee [chuckles]. A large proportion of today's hotel rooms are still based on these design principles. Each GHM hotel is unique, elegant and contemporary. Take The Chedi Muscat with its understated elegance and Omani architecture...

How important is pricing in the digital online booking age? 

HRJ: Pricing is important for the big boys – the Marriotts and the Hyatts. They have huge volume. At GHM we never looked at the competition. We created a product and charged a price to match the service. It’s as simple as that. At The Setai South Beach Miami, we were charging US$900 and people said we were crazy as other high end products were charging $300. But we wanted to bring in Asian GHM service. With our prices we could do just that! In San Francisco I go to a top hotel and pay maybe US$300 but no one greets you at the door. But at a top address in New York where you pay US$1,100 people come up to you and pay attention to your needs because they have a rate that can afford the service.

That’s what it is. If you charge US$300, how many people can you employ? The success of The Setai was the level of service. Our hotels are smaller so we make money on yield, not on occupancy. And yes we can hold our rates in an online market. Our 20-30 percent repeat business comes online in Muscat for example. They pay our prices.

Can smaller intimate properties that do not have economies of scale survive and expand their share?

HRJ: Yes. Smaller exclusive high quality high priced products will always survive. Then if you look at China with 100 million travellers, the four-star hotels show the biggest growth. But our segment always has enough people who want recognition, no crowds, and top service.

How do you hold on good people as new hotels keep vacuuming them up? Is there a secret sauce?

HRJ: You know, when you go hunting for people who can 'grow' with you it's no use picking people who are at the peak of their career, though of course sometimes this is appropriate. We have picked younger people who are passionate and hungry and groomed them in our philosophy. They bring no bad habits, as do some seasoned hoteliers. Careful selection is where we see potential. We give them the authority to manage. You cannot run a hotel from the head office. I’ve seen this in large groups. That doesn’t work.

Are there any bizarre or amusing experiences that shaped your thoughts?

HRJ: Bizarre I can’t recall… but amusing I can. When I started in hotels I was peeling potatoes and washing pots. From time to time the chef would come with a big bowl of strawberries for me to wash and he asked me to whistle right through the process. If I stopped he’d shout, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU”. The idea was if you whistle you cannot eat the strawberries [erupts in gales of laughter]. Back then if someone said, “You bloody whistle then you did” [wipes his eyes and reaches for the water].

What one thing would you change about your experience or current hotel directions if you had the opportunity?

HRJ: [Looks thoughtfully into the distance] Nothing. I was fortunate and lucky to work with some of the best architects and designers in the world like Ed Tuttle, Jean-Michel Gathy, Tadao Ando, Kerry Hill, Reda Amalou, Jaya Ibrahim, Yasuhiro Koichi, Nathan Thompson and so on...   and worked with a fabulous visionary Adrian Zecha. And this was just massive – to sit with Adrian and listen to him and see the simplicity with which he dealt with things. He’s a man with a passion that words cannot describe. He is an experience up close. An amazing guy! So I would not change anything about my life. In an ideal world we should take hospitality back to where it started – small family hotels with personality.

What might come next? Do you have any special passions?

HRJ: I was lucky to be associated with the best of the best for the past 28 years. There will be plenty of opportunities to continue with Ahn Lu in China with Adrian and Haan with Evan Pavlakis. At the end of the day a hotel needs a personal touch or you end up with a machine. In 1988 [when Aman launched with Amanpuri in Phuket] people said Adrian Zecha was creating a white elephant and that it wouldn’t make money. They were wrong. Everyone had been searching exactly for this [smiles]. There will always be opportunities to do more things. But we need to keep things simple. I enjoyed my time at GHM and our hotels while representing the best of the local culture were also financially successful. I hope this style to remember will continue for a long time at GHM.

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