View from the Top: Simon Barlow


How did you land this job?
I was with Hilton International as vice-president of Asia and later as president of the Americas. When Hilton Hotels Corp bought Hilton International in 2006, I made a personal decision not to stay in the US and returned to Australia. I worked for an investment bank and initially ran a listed REIT, then did some advisory work on a wholesale property trust.

I then decided I wanted to come back to Asia. I knew Kwek Leng Beng (chairman of Millennium & Copthorne Hotels) and he asked me to (join him). While I was getting started with that (SVP of Asia in Singapore), I was approached by Carlson Rezidor. I was excited by the opportunity when Hubert Joly (group president and CEO) explained the vision of the company. I joined on December 6, 2010 because (I wanted) to be part of an exciting growth story.

How would you describe Carlson Rezidor?
I often use the analogy of the English Premier League when I talk about Carlson Rezidor in relative to its competitors. In Asia-Pacific, I see us as a leading team in the Championship, aspiring to promotion to the Premier League. We’re a quarter or a fifth of the size of Accor, InterContinental Hotels Group, Starwood, etc. I would call us ‘the aspirant’.

When I joined, we had 49 hotels in Asia-Pacific, which was a good base. I often say that it’s more exciting to build than maintain something. That has been borne out in my first 12 months – we had 75 hotels last year and will add another 16 this year (the company  will have 165 hotels in operation by 2015, more than half in India).

Where will you focus your energy?
Our development in Asia comprises three core areas. We want to be represented in key cities in Asia where we don’t have hotels (including Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Manila, Bali, Hong Kong and Taipei).

We also want to put Radisson Blu (the five-star brand) on the map and establish its identity in the region. The launch was last year; this year we’re putting more effort into helping people understand the brand; next year will be about building loyalty.

The third part is ramping up our midscale portfolio by growing Country Inns & Suites in India and rolling out Park Inn by Radisson across Asia. Country Inns & Suites is largely an international hotel product tailored to the Indian mid-market, and we have no plans to roll it out anywhere else.

Tell us about Park Inn by Radisson.
It’s a three-star brand that is fresh, fun, colourful, lively and funky. We’ve just announced on April 2 that we would launch its next iteration in India (the company has inked a deal with Bestech Hospitalities to develop 49 Park Inn by Radisson hotels in north and central India). It does really well in Europe, and we see it as a real opportunity to fit a niche in Asia-Pacific.

It presents a value-for-money, branded mid-market hotel experience for domestic travellers in India, China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. From both the investment (cost of build and fitout) and consumer (price positioning) perspectives, Park Inn by Radisson sits between Holiday Inn Express and Holiday Inn, and between Ibis and Novotel.

What about your other brands?
Just as Holiday Inn did a refresh, we’re currently doing a refresh of Radisson (the four-star sister of Radisson Blu; Radisson is a bifurcated brand). That’s due to be released first in the US before going global in the second quarter of this year. In the second half of this year, we will reintroduce Radisson into Asia-Pacific. Park Plaza is a growing brand in the four-star market in Asia-Pacific. Hotel Missoni is a boutique luxury fashion brand that we have not introduced into the region.

Which market segments do you see potential in?
We see great opportunities in the three-, four- and five-star markets. The buzz in the hotel development community over the last five years has been about emerging middle-class wealth in Asia. As India and China invest huge sums of money into infrastructure and domestic travel grows, there is a greater need for branded midscale properties.

Traditionally, in the last 10 years, growth of branded hotels in Asia has largely been in the upper upscale segment. We’re opening more upper upscale hotels today, but the future growth is in the mid-market.

How will you grow in Asia?
One of our strategic priorities is investment. Traditionally we’ve not invested in real estate. But in this recent deal in India, we’ve invested our own money for the first time. We hope to make similar announcements over the next couple of years.

Last year, I successfully agreed with our board in the US that we would use the Carlson Rezidor balance sheet to support strategic investment opportunities in the region. (This could mean) investment in joint ventures that deliver multiple hotels, investment in single strategic hotels and investment by way of leases or income underwrites.

Why the decision?
There is a link between speed of growth and our ability to invest. Today not many of our competitors are investing in Asia-Pacific because they don’t need to. They are bigger than us. We are investing in order to grow and catch up. We need to show commitment to the development and owning community in Asia-Pacific, and one way to do that is to co-invest.

What do you think is your competitive advantage?
We’re probably hungrier than some of our bigger competitors. My past experience with Accor and Hilton also puts (us) in a very good position to come in as a more nimble hotel management company with a shorter chain of command. We’re not a public-listed company, so we don’t have to go through the same internal processes that some of our bigger competitors have. We can offer something different and unique to an owner, together with the ability to invest.

Lastly, your seat has seen several changes over the last couple of years. How are you doing?

There were three others before me. Paul Kirwin was the first, then Martin Rinck and Jean-Marc Busato. All three came from within the Carlson Rezidor family. I’m the first president of Asia-Pacific who has come from outside.

I’m enjoying it. I think we made some huge strides in 2011, and I’m very excited about our growth in the next three to four years. I’m here for the long term. I’m not somebody who moves around often. I was with Accor for eight-and-a-half years and about the same time with Hilton. I want to leave my legacy here.

This article was first published in TTG Asia, April 20 issue, on page 6. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.

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