Luxury hospitality leadership – an interview with Darren Gearing

CPP-LUXURY.COM has interviewed Darren Gearing, an exceptional luxury hotelier with an impressive international career.

When did you enter the world of hospitality? What has been your evolution path?

I started my hospitality career in 1985 at a small private hotel in Hove (near Brighton in UK). Later on I worked for Marriott in US, UK and Hong Kong, before joining Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts 25 years ago.  I’m now responsible for Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts’ hotels in Europe, North America, India and the Middle East, a cluster role that consists of landmark properties in key cities such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Istanbul, London, Mumbai, New Delhi, Paris, Toronto and Vancouver.  Previously, I was based in Hong Kong, Beijing and Singapore. While I have always been involved with hotels, I have had several different management positions in operations and food and beverage.

What has been the biggest motivational factor in your career?

As any hotelier will tell you, guest and staff satisfaction is on top of the list. There is, of course, a driving competitive aspect and we do try to be ahead of our competitors in regards to new services, facilities and market leadership. Ultimately, however, it is all about making guests happy by exceeding their expectations and keeping staff highly motivated, which is hugely rewarding.

How has luxury hospitality changed since you joined the industry?

Since the digital revolution, we have been faced with an enormous amount of digital feedback through the advent of online booking, review sites such as Tripadvisor and social media. There was a day when hotels would invest time and money into gaining customer feedback through review cards, surveys and even follow up phone calls post stay. Today, if someone was say, unhappy with their meal, you will hear about it on Twitter or, maybe they will write about it on Tripadvisor. The feedback loop is almost instantaneous and, as hoteliers, we have had to find a way to use this feedback to our advantage and turn it into something meaningful and constructive.

Technology has tremendously enhanced our roles as operators. It is crucial that we all keep up with the abundance of new ideas and Shangri-La is investing significantly in the future of travel content by embracing such revolutionary ideas as virtual reality. The group has just rolled out Samsung Gear Virtual Reality headsets across all Global Sales Offices and produced immersive 360-degree videos for over a quarter of our 96 hotels and resorts.

What is your view on the evolution of the luxury consumer?

Customers are increasingly influenced by their own sophisticated tastes. All new projects need to have stand-out design element to raise them above the competition. While staying true to our Asian heritage, we strive to do this by adding contemporary touches such as docking stations, iPad check in systems, wash let toilets and many other luxury touch points that one would expect in a modern hotel. In addition to this, luxury consumers look for truly exclusive experiences and bespoke offerings for them only, this can as simple as getting a table at the hottest restaurant in town, right down to one to one visits at the most sort after stud farms or access to the best estates for those seeking out such lifestyles.

Which are the most challenging aspects of a developing a new luxury property nowadays?

One of the most challenging aspects would be to find that unique selling point. Thankfully, in our group we have some fantastic properties in spectacular locations around the world and they are all unique in their own right.

Is there any particular property you worked for which you would highlight as one of your biggest achievements?

There have been many highlights over the last 25 years and Shangri-La Hotel, At The Shard, London has certainly been one of them. It has been a great experience developing Western Europe’s highest hotel in London’s first city in the sky, it was a huge undertaking with unique challenges.

How important is a major international luxury hotel chain brand for the success of a new luxury project? What defines a successful luxury hospitality third party operator?

A successful operator creates brand loyalty through consistent quality of service and brand DNA, whilst allowing each property to develop its own personality and guests. Our Asian style of service is discreet and discerning; very natural and unobtrusive. Asian hospitality is renowned across the world as being the very best and we feel that we are bringing that to Europe. The Shangri-La experience begins the moment a guest books the room, to the moment they check-out.

Which are the secrets of building and maintaining a good relationship between the owner(s) and a hotel manager in the case of a managed property?

Commercial success and an effective management and owner collaboration go hand in hand. As Shangri-La is principally an owner operator, our shareholders are very experienced and adept in encouraging us to achieve our mutually beneficial goals thru excellent communication, and understanding of how a property evolves and ultimately matures. The recipe seems to work but we are constantly trying to improve.

In the context of such a competitive luxury market, what are the perils of rebranding a property?

London is one of the few cities in the world, where people embrace fully anything new and exciting. Having said that, rebranding a property, especially when dealing with long-standing traditions and establishments can be quite challenging as the management need to overcome past precedents and legacy issues. Again, communication and collaboration are the key when addressing such specifics.

What are your future career plans?

I intend to leave the corporate Hotel world at the end of July and pursue a few entrepreneurial ideas I’ve had for a few years. These are my own, and well as a few projects I am pursuing with immediate family members and long standing friends in and outside the hospitality world. These partnered with some further study will keep me busy for the next year or so, following which and based upon circumstances at the time I may re enter the corporate World of hospitality.

While I will miss the brand and the people, I feel that I am leaving at the right time for everyone concerned and am certain my successor will, with the benefit of a new approach improve on the good work already done.

Darren Gearing