How inconsistency is bringing down Mandarin Oriental’s luxury positioning

I became a Mandarin Oriental FAN eight years ago, when I first stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park in London and have, since, developed huge admiration for the brand and its unique positioning in luxury hospitality worldwide. Later on, I had to opportunity to discover other properties, some of them even months from opening. I was also fortunate to meet some of the worderful people behind the brand – outstanding hospitality professionals.Each new Mandarin Oriental I would stay at, would only raise my expectations bar even higher, feeling proud to be a guest of the Mandarin Oriental.

I would often perceive the Mandarin Oriental as the Hermes of hospitality. To me, Mandarin Oriental meant outstanding personalized service in spectacular properties, defined by a unique sense of Oriental luxury, understated and glamorous at the same. Whether it was Tokyo, Munich, New York or Hong Kong, I have always appreciated the consistency of Mandarin Oriental hotels both in terms of service and properties (hardware, as some in the industry call it).

As the chain expanded in the past three years, each new property would only enhance my loyalty and admiration for the brand – Las Vegas, Barcelona and more recently, Paris. With each new property, I would be amazed by the innovations Mandarin Oriental would introduce – most advanced in-room technology, ever more comfortable beds, larger bathrooms, more luxurious and sophisticated SPAs with bespoke treatments developed at each location, not to mention the finest dining by Michelin starred Chefs – Thierry Marx at the Mandarin Oriental in Paris or Carme Ruscalleda at the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona. Innovative ideas by Mandarin Oriental included the valet box (now available in Paris, Tokyo and Las Vegas) or the bespoke ”scent” of each hotel – for instance, one could not miss the unique scent of the Mandarin Oriental Landmark in Hong Kong, an instant draw for all passers by.

At the level of service, Mandarin Oriental would always excel in what I call name recognition, a service detail which other luxury chains would not even attempt to implement. I was so pleased a month ago, while in Paris, to be greeted by the doorman at the Mandarin Oriental and I was not even staying at the hotel. The arrival experience at the Mandarin properties I stayed at, would always have a WOW factor, both from a decor point of view but also from a service point of view – ”majestic” as I would often call.

Last year, while returning to London, from a trip to the Middle East, I went back to the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park and to my disappointment, no renovations have been made since my last stay – rooms being in a very tired condition. Today, the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park is ranked 61 of 83 five star hotels (ranked 197 among a total 1079 hotels) on Tripadvisor. I was told that since the hotel runs such a high occupancy and with the Olympics coming up this year, it made no sense to start renovations. What about the reputation and consistency of the brand? – I asked myself. But then, on a more positive note, I thought to myself, it is only a matter of time before the London property would be brought to the standards of the chain.

Earlier this year, during my travels, I visited Prague and the Mandarin Oriental was my obvious choice. Despite the outstanding service level, the property fall short of all the previous Mandarin hotels I have visited – an airport hotel type of entrance with basically no arrival experience. Rooms were also far from the standards of all the other Mandarin hotels I have stayed yet and I am not refering to design, which is a matter of personal taste, but I am refering to what I call ”basics” of the Mandarin Oriental. Even the wi-fi internet was a challenge at the hotel. Apart from service, the SPA was the only other feature which reminded me of the Mandarin Oriental standard.

This summer, I stayed at two other Mandarin Oriental hotels – Jakarta and San Francisco - the two most disappointing experiences for me at a Mandarin Oriental hotel. Both properties which had been part of the Mandarin Oriental chain for more than a decade, have been communicated as being recently ”renovated” (Jakarta – 2009) and ”refreshed and redesigned” (San Francisco – 2012). None of the two properties are even close to the stadards of the Mandarin Oriental chain!

While Mandarin Oriental Paris prides itself with a state of the art sound proofing, with certified testing of the lowest noise levels of any luxury hotel in central Paris, both the Jakarta and San Francisco would feature the old air-conditioning systems, at times quite noisy (although hotels were recently renovated)… . As for soundproofing, none of the two properties had their windows insulated or changed during these renovation/refreshment. If the Mandarin Oriental Landmark in Honk Kong is considering changing its signature scent, the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental San Francisco smells of food – the lobby leads onto the only restaurant of the hotel.

If the Mandarin Oriental in Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Las Vegas have motion sensors, touch controls (for the TV, curtains, lights, DND), state of the art LED TV screens (most of them, the latest Bang & Olufsen) with an integrated digital entertainment and bathroom TVs, the Mandarin Oriental hotel in San Francisco has an old version of a flat TV (at least 5 year old) – again, probably the hotel decided to keep this item too.

The stunning SPA facilities of Hong Kong, Paris, Las Vegas and New York contrast with the very modest setting of the SPA at the Mandarin Oriental Jakarta – not to mention, the treatment rooms are not sound proof, so, during my treatment, I could hear the water tap from another room as well noise from the hallways.

Here is my list of unpleasant surprises at the two properties:

- during my two nights at the Mandarin Oriental Jakarta, none of the staff would recognize me by name and would, each time I would interact with them, ask for my room number – the same at the Mandarin Oriental San Francisco

- if the General Managers of Mandarin Oriental in Paris or Munich would welcome me personally on arrival and make every effort to say good bye on departure, I was not welcomed by anyone from the management at neither Jakarta nor San Francisco

- when approaching the Duty Manager at Mandarin Oriental Jakarta about the lack of sound-proofing, he told me rather annoyed that whichever wing of the hotel I would move to, the noise is the same ?!?

- instead of offering to have the engineering check my air-conditiong or maybe even offer to see another room, the PR Manager of Mandarin Oriental San Francisco would argue with me on the phone, when I raised the issue, saying that she, herself stayed at the hotel and could not find any problems; when I asked why the air-conditioning switch is the old one and does not have an automatic setting option, she insisted the hotel made a choice, on purpose, to maintain the switch for its authenticity ?!?- what about functionality? or maybe this was the cheapest solution

- the Mandarin Oriental San Francisco has neither SPA nor gym… – guests are not notified in advance and the hotel does not offer discounted rates – instead, they are offered passes to the health club across the street

- the Mandarin Oriental San Francisco has been advertising for more than 2 months a special package to celebrate the refurbishment of the hotel – I found this very odd, since the refurbishment is not completed – in my room (a superior category), there was still old furniture – a damaged and all scratched coffee table (PR Manager insisted ”it’s better than no table at all”), a very tired looking velvet couch and an old standing lamp

- compared to most other hotels, the ”renovated” / ”refreshed” rooms at Mandarin Oriental hotels in Jakarta and San Francisco seem more basic. again lacking that luxurious feel of the other hotels – including the quality of finishes and materials

I can only conclude that expansion is a bigger priority for the Mandarin Oriental, than ensuring consistency of service and facilities, otherwise, I cannot explain the extent of compromise to still operate properties such as Jakarta and San Francisco, which are below the standard of the other properties.

From a business operations point of view, matters seem even more paradoxical, considering that the same situation applies for both properties although in the case of Jakarta, Mandarin Oriental own and run the hotel, while in the case of San Francisco,, Mandarin Oriental only manages the property. I puzzles me, why, when the opportunity of renovation arose, the chain would not make the effort to bring the older properties up to the standard of the new ones.

On the bright side, Mandarin Oriental could always launch a ”premium” brand to include all these properties that fall short of the overall standards of the chain. I have always found it fair how the Excelsior Hotel in Hong Kong is positioned – the hotel is owned and run by the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group but it is a four star hotel, never claiming to be in the same league as the other two properties in Hong Kong.

Oliver Petcu

Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Hyde Park London (rooms last renovated since 1996)