Swimming for new shores

Reto Klauser, vice president and general manager, Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, tells Karen Yue that the world's first Shangri-La hotel has set new standards

Reto K Klauser
Reto K Klauser

What were your biggest business challenges when you had to shut the Tower Wing down for renovations last November, and how did you resolve them?
With careful planning and communication, you can reduce a lot of the inconveniences that come with such a project. I am very pleased with how we were able to get through the seven-month Tower Wing closure.

But to answer your question, the most difficult issue we had was something small but it turned out to be very important. It was understanding that no matter how many direction signs you put up to help guests find their way around the hotel (Tower Wing’s closure meant the centre of the lobby was shut and detours to certain facilities were needed), it would never be enough. We had so many guests who said to us that there was not a single sign around to point them in the right way, but there were so many in fact! (Laughs)

People see but they don’t look. So that was an immense lesson for us. Where do we position our people? Where do guests come from and where will they need help?

I also realised that the sense of welcome is very important…and that the grandeur of the lobby is very important to an event organiser, as that influences the sense of arrival for event guests.

(The closure of the Tower Wing and the hotel’s usual main entrance) was difficult for some (clients) as they perceived a missing component in the entire event package they were buying from Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore. That missing part being the lack of the grand sense of arrival. But that too we were able to overcome by rolling out more red carpets, and having flower girls and our people welcome event guests at the right entrance. We also moved all the lights from the original entrance to the ballroom entrance and the entrance to the Garden Wing, to play up those areas for a warmer welcome.

In your opinion, what are the biggest differences between the old and the new Tower Wing?
Hey, that’s a long list! I think the one very big difference is that we have strengthened (our positioning as Singapore’s only real city resort, garden resort and urban oasis) by bringing the garden into the lobby. It is a big departure from what we were. Before, the garden was outside and the inside was very opulent. Now, the inside is a very elegant and stylish garden setting.

We have let go a little bit of formality, and the hotel is warmer, more approachable and friendlier.

Yet, there are many elements that show this is still a Shangri-La. For example, in most Shangri-La you’d see big paintings of mountains. Our feature wall (at The Lobby Lounge) is an interpretation of that mountain painting.

There are also hints back to the roots of the original product. You see the green painting (at the check-in area)? When we first opened, it was a green marble wall.

The chandelier is another interesting topic. We’ve removed that and some guests have told me it is unusual to see a Shangri-La without a chandelier. But you know, that’s ok. I think we’ve done the right thing. You have to leave one shore to reach the next. Some bold decisions have to be made about the hotel’s design. We have been here for 46 years and are excited about the next 46 years, and we must remain relevant.

Were these bold design decisions for a more modern look necessitated by the different needs and interests of the next generation of guests?
I oppose thoughts of having to appeal to the new generation. We are not going for the new generation of travellers. In 1971 when we opened, our targets were in their 40s, 50s and 60s. We want to continue to attract this audience. We did not renovate to get younger, but we sure don’t want to get older!

That age bracket we are keen on remains the same, but these travellers have a different lifestyle and a different perception of what a hotel should be. We are changing to remain relevant to this group.

What are your favourite aspects of the revamped Tower Wing?
I’ve avoided engrossing myself in the design elements of the project, preferring instead to spend more time and attention on the quality of coffee a guest will get – that is, the deliverables, the service, the experience.

So, I’m most excited about our ShopHouse. The moment we opened, business started. It serves such a good selection (of quick bites in the form of sandwiches, salads, hot pastries, cakes and coffee). In our society today, grabbing food on the go has become so much part of our daily life. To be able to provide this convenience to our guests is more exciting for me than, you know, how beautiful the sofa is or how exquisite our new architecture is.

Catering to our guests’ needs and seeing people respond positively to what we can do, is just inspiring and rewarding.

We have started to serve a nice welcome drink – which isn’t revolutionary but is something new we are doing here – and we’ve hired a Singaporean senior citizen who knows a lot and is very engaging, and will allow arriving guests to feel a strong sense of Singapore, of location should they have a moment to chat with him.

We are packed with new things, new features, but at the very core of what we do and excel in, still lies our service.

Are there any new features in the revamped Tower Wing that will excite business event planners?
We are very excited about our function rooms on level four. I think they are very powerful. They continue the feel of the lobby and the guestrooms, which means they are Asian inspired and have a homely, residential ambience. They make you immediately comfortable.

What is bringing us new advantages is the technology we have invested a lot in. We have made an effort to truly understand what sort of technology people need and want at their event, and what level of technology they will expect from a Shangri-La hotel.

And so, all our function rooms are equipped with a short throw projector and a very high quality screen surface, and the projector can be connected to numerous laptops to allow meeting delegates to toggle between machines to show what’s on their screens to support discussions. To us, these support real needs.

We have very consciously decided not to give meeting organisers control of light and air-conditioner. This option is offered by several venues but we figured that clients who choose a Shangri-La hotel will expect our people to take care of these things for them. We are hiding those controls.

We have also created some special surfaces (in public spaces on level four) on which clients can project images on.

We now provide ultra high-speed Internet access which is so very important.

We have also added a healthy food choice to all coffee breaks. More and more people seek healthy dining options in their daily life, and we wanted to provide that during their meetings and events.

Would event organisers expect to pay a little more for a meeting package at your hotel now with all these enhanced features?
(Laughs) I definitely hope they do! But really, at the initial stage we are not planning for massive price increases. We want organisers to experience our spaces and we are confident that they will like them a lot and return.

Have you had any regular clients who counted down to the Tower Wing’s reopening on May 16 and had their events planned on that big day?
Oh yes! One of our strongest supporters took an enormous risk – I call that a vote of confidence – to book a critical event on May 16. It was a high profile event with attendees from all over the world. They wanted to be the first at the revamped Tower Wing. And three months before the event, they called to ask if some of their guests could arrive a day ahead on the 15th. We made that happen, as well as delivered an excellent event for them.

How well are your function rooms doing?
They are full for the next few months. But I think for the very big businesses, they want to see our product first before committing. So our focus at the moment for this segment, is to get as many people into the hotel to see for themselves. We have daily, endless site inspections for the local market, and are working with our regional sales offices and the Singapore Tourism Board on fam trips.

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