CEO of SOFITEL on repositioning and ambitious expansion plans worldwide

Robert Gaymer-Jones, CEO Sofitel Luxury Hotels has recently spoken exclusively to CPP-LUXURY.COM about the French chain’s re-positioning, re-branding, competitive advantages and expansion plans worldwide.

Accor has repositioned the Sofitel brand in the past year, creating So by Sofitel and Sofitel Legend. What are the main differences between the two brands? And how does the Sofitel Legend hotels brand compare?

Sofitel has recently completed its repositioning in the luxury sector as a project which started in 2007. The brand is the only French brand in that sector present in 40 countries. As part of the repositioning Sofitel created two new labels, Sofitel So and Sofitel Legend, both offering a new experience and complementing the Sofitel offer. Also they both nourish the core brand.

Sofitel Legend is a label, a seal, a private club of timeless establishments, often housed in registered buildings with hundreds of years of history, legendary locations that have witnessed the march of history and major destinations in the city or country that serves as their backdrop. Each Sofitel Legend is a unique jewel, offering a journey to the heart of luxury and history, where the line between myth and reality blurs.

The first Legend was the Métropole d’Hanoï in Vietnam, which became the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi in July 2009. The group has since launched Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam and Sofitel Legend Old Cataract in Aswan in 2011 and is launching Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena in Colombia at the end of this year.

Sofitel So is the designer, “boutique hotel” vision of Sofitel, featuring trendy, resolutely contemporary locations. Each Sofitel So blends design with pleasure and style with personality to express the very essence of the designation. This concept combines the Sofitel art de vivre and a style that contributes to an international signature derived from fashion, art or design. The first location was the Sofitel So Mauritius, which opened in December 2010 while the second Sofitel So, So Bangkok opened in Thailand in February 2012.

In terms of competitors which would you rate as direct competitors? – JW Marriott, Four Seasons, Park Hyatt, Me by Melia.

While Sofitel properties compete with brands such as Intercontinental Hotels, Sofitel Legend hotels would compete with brands such as Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton. Sofitel So’s main competitors are groups including W hotels and Ian Schrager. However this depends on the locations.

What are the main competitive advantages of Sofitel as a luxury hotel brand in terms of management agreements with third parties?

Its Expertise in the luxury sector and a strong DNA are key. Sofitel has also progressively modified its business model by becoming an operator rather than owners meants the company has been able to grow rapidly. Sofitel has seen an upturn in profitability in particular since 2010, barely 4 years after repositioning. In spite of an unfavorable economic conjuncture, brand activity has progressed faster than its direct competitors with significant growth of 8% of the global Rev Par in 2011 vs 2010, sustained by an increase of the Average room rate in the order of 8%, and by customer satisfaction levels in constant progression. The rationalisation of the network, a new business model and numerous renovations have allowed us to achieve rapid results which have set the Sofitel brand right on track.

What are your company’s priority cities in terms of expansion in Europe?

The major European cities are a priority in terms of expansion. London, Paris, Rome, Milan, Madrid, Barcelona, Istanbul and Moscow; main capitals are key for the group if the right opportunities come along.

Some of the new Sofitel hotels bear the signature of famous architects and interior designers. Do you plan to pursue this strategy for future properties?

Yes, this is very much part of our strategy, we want to work with the best people possible. As design is one of our key pillars. It is a way to blend our French roots with local culture

Apart from New York, Sofitel does not have any other properties in the U.S.. What are your plans regarding the U.S. market?

We do have nine properties in the US currently but we are looking to expand in cities such as San Francisco and Boston where we do not have a presence yet.

In the current volatile international economic environment, what is your assessment of franchising versus management in luxury hospitality? Sofitel’s model has progressively changed over the last few years from being owners to being a management company. This light asset structure is key to develop quickly in our target capital cities and other emerging countries. We do not franchise

In certain key international emerging markets, do you also consider investing in properties or you prefer management agreements?

We do consider management agreements first but every opportunity is different, and sometimes we can have share equity

Most of Sofitel’s Paris properties have not been renovated in the past five years. Are there any plans in this respect? Are there new openings planned?

Sofitel Paris Le Faubourg added in 2010 some stunning Couture Suites designed by Didier Gomez while the restaurant, library and lobby were entirely renovated this year. We are now working on the refurbishment of Sofitel Arc de Triomphe with Andree Putman Studio. The works should be finished by the end of 2012.

In your advertising campaign, Sofitel is pictured as a glamorous lifestyle brand, with a rather feminine approach. Does this mean you are not targeting business men any more?

We are targeting the discerning traveller, man or woman. Sofitel Luxury Hotels are increasingly leisure hotels but also cater for Business men and their needs with great rooms, technology, meeting rooms and business centres to make their trips as easy and comfortable as possible

Which is your best performing hotel in Europe?
Sofitel London St James and Sofitel Paris Le Faubourg and Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese are among our best performing hotels worldwide

Many international hotel chains have been introducing F&B offerings with Michelin starred chefs. Do you have plans to have a similar approach?

We work with fantastic chefs around the world and F&B is an area which is very important to Sofitel Luxury Hotels. We already have some Michelin starred chefs working for us including Antoine Westermann at Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom and Sébastien Crison at Hotel Scribe Paris by Sofitel who received his first star this year. But our strategy is to have a very good F&B first and foremost, including same French rituals. We are not running only for Michelin star chefs.