Giovanni Viterale on The Fullerton’s unique appeal to the most discerning luxury travellers

In city where all that is new and shiny has come to exemplify success, Giovanni Viterale, a veteran of over two decades in the Asian hospitality industry, with dignified understatement, steers The Fullerton to the appeal of only the most discerning luxury traveller.  In an exclusive interview with CPP-LUXURY.COM, the General Manager of the Fullerton Singapore talks about the changing trends in luxury hotels.

Giovanni Viterale, General Manager, The Fullerton Singapore

What is your definition of luxury?  It would appear that people from different parts of the world have very different understandings and requirements of the same concept.

Luxury is about having a sense of belonging.

Do you find there has been a shift in the definition of the luxury traveler and what they expect from a luxury hotel?

Through my interaction with our hotel guests, I find that discerning travelers appreciate personalized service and are interested in experiencing the vibrant multi-ethnic cultures of Singapore. Hence in addition to offering luxurious amenities and accommodation, we add value by remembering our guests’ needs and preferences, providing a range of options be it a pillow menu or wide in-room dining selection, and of course retaining experienced and knowledgeable staff.

Under your aegis, the Conrad Hong Kong came to represent a level of service that only the most refined luxury traveler sought.  How have you translated that to The Fullerton Singapore, competing against such established icons as the Raffles (if terribly tired now) and/or flashier debutantes such as the St. Regis?

The Fullerton Hotel has an illustrious history and legacy. It is an extraordinary opportunity to lead the team at such an iconic hotel which has remained relevant and part of Singapore’s skyline since 1928. The Fullerton Hotel is unique as we aim to deliver the best of the past and present, representing Singapore’s heritage as well as present.

We are committed to delivering excellence in all respects. Improvements to our service, dining offerings and even facilities have been rigorously implemented at The Fullerton Hotel in the past few years to provide our guests with an even more seamless experience when they return to stay with us. For instance, we launched The Fullerton Heritage Gallery at The Fullerton Hotel in July 2010. So as to bring history to life, we specially brought in a heritage red pillar post box which was first used in Singapore in 1873 to our Heritage Gallery. Guests can post their letters into the post boxes and mail will be collected by our very own uniformed Postmaster every day. Technology-wise, complimentary Internet connectivity is extended throughout our hotel for in-residence guests since January 2011. We also launched complimentary transfer services to our sister hotel, The Fullerton Bay Hotel, such that guests at either hotel can enjoy the combined facilities of both our hotels. Late last year, we introduced complimentary shuttle services to Singapore’s main business buildings in the Central Business District and shopping malls at Marina Bay and Orchard Road. We recently appointed a historian who will better share the hotel’s historical anecdotes with our guests through two guided tours five times a week and added local coffee, tea and toast to our breakfast spread. As for our facilities, our signature 25-metre outdoor pool, gym and spa just underwent upgrading.

We are grateful that our efforts have resonated with our guests as The Fullerton Hotel remains one of the few Singapore hotels to be on Condé Nast Traveller UK’s Readers’ Travel Awards and Condé Nast Traveler USA’s latest Gold Lists.

What distinguishes The Fullerton from a Mandarin Oriental or Four Seasons property?

Apart from our heritage, The Fullerton Hotel has a special identity as we are an independent and locally developed hotel brand. The Fullerton Building which houses our hotel was built during the colonial era. It was the largest and most expensive structure in Singapore built to celebrate the 100th year of founding of Singapore by the British. It was the centre of business, official and social life as it was home to the General Post Office, government offices as well as the Singapore Club. Because of the significance of the building, Singapore’s Prime Minister officiated our hotel’s opening on 1 Jan 2001.

As an independent brand, we are uniquely positioned to present Singapore’s culture and the authentic destination experience in our hospitality experience.

In a city like Singapore where worship of all that is new, shiny and flash seems to be the norm, how has rediscovering an old icon like the The Fullerton and converting it into a hotel been received?

The respect for heritage is a unique and distinct element of The Fullerton Hotel. The Fullerton Building exudes a splendour and grandeur that is difficult to recreate which makes it so valuable.

Our challenge is to protect its architectural integrity and to combine its rich history with the highest levels of luxury and technology. Given the recognition that we have received through international and local awards as well as guests’ comments, I am pleased to say that we have firm supporters who appreciate our blend of heritage and contemporary style.

Hotels have traditionally been home away from home for guests.  How does The Fullerton exemplify the lifestyle of its clientele?

Hotels form a quintessential part of a traveler’s destination experience. Our clientele are frequent and discerning travelers who are in Singapore for either business, pleasure or both. It continues to be important for hotels to be guests’ home away from home and in fact, more, when they travel. This means we have to learn about the lifestyle needs and expectations of our clientele.

As the hotel expands, what are some of the limitations of working with a heritage building, and how do you overcome them to offer world-class luxury to The Fullerton clientele?

In July 2001, The Fullerton Hotel Singapore received the Urban Redevelopment Authority Architectural Heritage Award which is Singapore’s highest honour in recognising contributions towards the protection and restoration of Singapore’s built heritage.

The heritage and the new blend harmoniously over here at The Fullerton Hotel. Within our hotel’s conserved architecture, our interior designers, Hirsch Bedner and Associates created a style of décor that is contemporary and stylish in both our lobby and guest rooms. The balance of elegance and luxury is reflected throughout the hotel, though nowhere better than in the Governor Suite, featuring wall motifs that date back to 1928 and a balcony flanked by 20-foot Doric columns, yet furnished with modern furniture in warm tones and offering every conceivable amentity to meet the requirements of the contemporary traveller.

Jade has come to be known as one of the finest dining experiences in the region.  Given there are plenty of restaurants offering Asian cuisine, what makes dining at Jade a unique experience, and at times almost theatrical in splendor?

We refurbished our Chinese restaurant Jade in resplendent shades of silver and gold that complements the lofty ceiling height, the natural light that streams in from our East Garden and its wall motifs that date back to 1928. We are delighted that the combination creates an exquisite air of elegance and splendour.

Led by our Chinese Head Chef Leong Chee Yeng, we serve traditional Chinese cuisine with dishes in their authentic flavours but in refined, exquisite presentations. Chef Leong is exceptionally talented in culinary presentation and this can be appreciated, most recently, in his artistic Eight Happiness Gold Rush Yu Sheng with Champagne Jelly for the upcoming Lunar New Year. On the serving plate are Lunar New Year well wishes written in Chinese calligraphy style in olive oil and then dusted with cinnamon powder.

The latest most up-to-date technology seems to be de rigeur in hotels today right from the most luxurious to motels, but how important is it for the leisure traveler?

I believe complimentary Internet access is greatly valued by the leisure traveller as well. Whether it is to access personal e-mails, check travel itineraries or flights or post social media updates, our guests can enjoy complimentary connectivity anywhere in the hotel – by the pool or in the comfort of their room. They no longer have to select internet packages or review the charges upon check-out.

How has The Fullerton been received by the local market, and is it an audience you also cater for, and what are the similarities and difference between catering for the locals and travellers?

Many locals have fond memories of The Fullerton Building and affectionately remember it as the General Post Office or GPO where they purchased stamps and posted mail.

There is keen interest from locals in our weekend stay packages. Many also choose to celebrate their special occasions such as wedding anniversaries or spend a short getaway with us during the school holidays. There are also numerous other occasions in the year that make it particularly appealing for locals to stay with us such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year and the National Day. At our strategic location, our hotel has beautiful, unobstructed views of the Marina Bay fireworks on several of these occasions. We will hence create special room packages which cater to the local audience’s preferences.

How has the global financial crisis affected The Fullerton?

We have enjoyed healthy room reservations over the past year, and we remain optimistic this year. Singapore has become an exciting destination for both business and leisure and its headline events such as the Singapore Grand Prix continues to draw buoyant arrivals. Especially with the new attractions like Gardens by the Bay and the Marina Bay Cruise Centre that have developed around us, we are very grateful that our hotel has been busy.

What are your principal target markets internationally, the nationals of which are the fastest growing customers of your hotels in the past year?

Our guests are mainly from America, United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong and South East Asia. We have also been welcoming more guests from India and China.

What is your approach to social media and the internet, especially review websites such as Tripadvisor?  Do they have a significant influence on traveller’s choices? 

We are certainly engaging our guests via social media which allows us to share with our guests more about the different interesting facets of our hotel. The Fullerton Hotel has a Facebook page and Twitter account through which we are able to communicate our latest news and promotions to interested guests swiftly and with richer content in the form of videos and photos.

We held a Post A Memory contest in conjunction with our hotel’s 10th anniversary in 2011. We invited guests to share their fondest memories of the hotel via post in a tribute to The Fullerton Hotel’s history as the country’s General Post Office. When we shared the winning entries on our social media channels in October 2011, we received tremendous positive comments on the wonderful entries submitted and resonance from other guests on their own memories of their stays.

We also constantly monitor guests’ feedback on our own social media channels as well as online review sites. However, our objective is to seek our guests’ opinions during their stay with us so that we are able to address their needs immediately and not only after their stay.

Apart from price sensitivity, would you say consumers have become more sophisticated or more demanding?

I find that travelers are becoming more discerning and at the same time seek value when choosing to stay in luxury hotels. As mentioned, we place utmost importance in recognizing and anticipating our guests’ needs, and in providing excellent value through creative ways.

How do you manage to maintain a high level of customer service by hiring the very best personnel in the business and yet maintain profitability?

We take pride in our service standards at The Fullerton Hotel, and have always sought talents who are committed to providing excellent service to our guests. We place great emphasis on having a two way communication with our staff, grooming them and enhancing their skills so that they can grow with our hotel. I aim to build a sense of belonging and camaraderie amongst our team. Having a loyal team means that our guests will see familiar faces when they return to visit us and their names will be remembered.

Over the years, what changes have you observed in the Asian hotel industry?

The Asian hotel industry has become increasingly competitive with the entry of new brands and concepts. The industry players are also adept at reinventing themselves and hence we continuously strive hard to improve ourselves.

Interview by Kersi Vajifdar

The Fullerton, Singapore