Q&A with Abigail Tan-Giroud, St Giles Hotels

Flying a helicopter, playing the electric guitar, boxing at 6 a.m., riding a motorcycle, eating a delicious meal—these are all things Abigail Tan-Giroud likes to do when she’s not busy with her duties as head of U.K., Europe and North America for St Giles Hotels. Having been exposed to hospitality at a young age—her grandfather and his brother ran one of Malaysia’s real estate dynasties and her father is now the managing director of IGB Corporation, the parent company for St Giles—Tan-Giroud shared her thoughts with Hotel Business on the plans for the brand’s future.

Why does hospitality appeal to you? Hotels have been a love of mine from a very young age. The people, the life, the vibrancy, the smells, the whole idea that they function almost like their own little worlds. I like how it molds different industries together—creativity to finance to engineering to human resources. I love the feeling of walking into a hotel and being almost transported to a different place, and I love how in this industry, things go from concept to reality as the hotel continues to evolve.

From your perspective, how has hospitality changed over the years? From my perspective, changes have been led by the increasing availability of information to the traveler, travel restrictions and the ease of travel, and changes in booking patterns, which are also associated with discerning travelers. Information related to travel is now much more available and widely educative, which has enabled guests to be much more educated about everything related to their travel options. This has led to an increase in competition, as hotels need to expand their sales effort to the online pitch and gain that sought-after spot in online reputation. Travelers are more discerning now and have such a variety of options, and so hoteliers have had to find a unique selling point and remain competitive, while always striving to deliver their service promises. The changes in travel restrictions in the past years have also meant that traveling to certain places is not as easy or deemed “safe” as it used to be, so destinations have also had to more fiercely tackle their audience.

The industry today is extremely focused on the millennial guest. As a millennial yourself, do you think that gives St Giles an edge? I don’t know if it’s an edge, but I see myself as being in between generations, which enables me to understand what millennials will look for, and also what the older generations will find important. The difference between experience and service, amenities and comfort, technology and simplicity.

I think the industry is now flooded with so many options selling how we can improve our guest experience, it has become a little overwhelming. Unless your brand is directly built to target millennials, focusing primarily on changing your hotel toward their needs can be a dangerous one, as it alienates a larger portion of travelers with a disposable income who have a different view of experience in travel. The rise of social media and gaining online presence has been a key driver for outreach, and we also use this as a tool to communicate with our wider audience.

Describe your growth objectives. We currently have about 1,000 rooms in the pipeline over  the next three years. The objectives now are to expand the portfolio through acquisition, development or management opportunities, as we are well poised to do all three. Management is particularly exciting for us because coming from an ownership background, what is important to the owner is a priority for us, and will form the basis of successful relationships, as well as then contribute to the success of the brand and its portfolio.

You’re taking St Giles into the Caribbean. Why is this a good market for the brand? The Caribbean, Cuba in particular, acts as a great gateway for us to be able to have presence in a new market and try to positively impact the industry there as it is going through its own phase of evolution and growth. The property in Havana that we will be working on speaks perfectly to our tagline of ‘Be central,’ as it fulfills the criteria of being strategically located in the center of a city, has a good mix of the business and leisure traveler, and enables the brand to further embrace a new culture. The project will be a complete renovation of a 140-room hotel located on the waterfront and old Havana. Using local architects, engineers, resources and products where possible, the goal will be to restore the hotel to its former glory, infusing the Cuban spirit and design heritage with the modern comforts of a premium boutique hotel. It will be a destination where the locals and tourists can stay and play with a curated selection of bars and restaurants and rooftop play-space.

St Giles unveiled its virtual reality (VR) campaign last year. How does this fit into your overall philosophy? At St Giles, we love to be creative and to try to innovate and have a little fun with our ideas. So VR fits perfectly into it, as it allows us to engage and interact with our guests, let them have a different experience of London, and lets our staff also be involved in the process.

The campaign has been successful to us because we feel like we have taken the traditional advertising approach and turned it around to let the guest inform us instead of the other way around, and it succeeded in its goals of telling the guests’ stories and letting them engage with the hotels and the brand. The future plans for VR are to expand into augmented reality (AR) and room-space VR, where a guest will be able to use their phone to hover over a card we give them to see where the nearest restaurants are, for example, as well as use VR headsets to walk up to the dinosaur at the Natural History Museum, as another example.

How important do you think technology initiatives like this are to the future of the industry? Technology is always key to enhancing experience, and that would be our core use of it for the brand as we strive to stay connected and engaged with our guests. So, I think technology initiatives like this are important not just to this industry because they allow the user a glimpse into a world. I am excited about AR technology and how it can enrich and elevate the guest experience without being intrusive. HB

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