Transporting Singapore hospitality to London

Pan Pacific London marks the brand’s foray into Europe. Its tagline is ‘Authentically Singaporean, distinctively British’. General manager Anne Golden, who is also Pan Pacific Hotels Group’s vice president operations for UK & North America, spills what it is like to interpret and transport Singapore hospitality to world city London

You landed for yourself – some might say – the unenviable task of translating Singapore hospitality in London. How did that feel?
Scary. Until my final interview, I’ve never travelled to Singapore. Upon success in clinching the role, two other colleagues and I were sent to Singapore for a month (in May 2019) for our on-boarding.

You can’t know a country and a culture in a month, I won’t pretend to, but it was enough to make me realise what an enormous task it was to try and translate a style of service which, if you’re from South-east Asia, you take for granted. People talk a lot about it being service from the heart. The way I translate that is an innate kindness, a humility that you don’t often see in Europe, and a real passion and pride. And lastly, the attention to details, such as making us takeaway coffees when we are departing.

So, I was really quite scared, because I felt that it was just a completely different culture to London. I decided to try and hire for those four qualities as much as I possibly could, because what you don’t want to do is just go hire people who have worked or lived in Singapore.

The beauty of London is that it is the most cosmopolitan city on the planet and that makes it easier to implant something from the other side of the world.

How so?
London isn’t British, so if you’re ever trying to implant something from the other side of the world, it helps massively if you’re not in a diametrically-opposed environment, such as if we were opening in Manchester, or where I’m from, Yorkshire, a lovely culture, but completely different.

How do you hire for kindness and humility? Is there some kind of test, or is it all intuition?
I think you can just tell. Quite often when we asked people when was the last time you saw a true act of kindness, the really humble ones would always talk about a kind act they saw somebody else did. Whereas the people who might not be quite so humble would talk about how kind they were.

There are different scenarios, for example, you saw a colleague in distress and crying, what would you do? Or you saw a guest who’s normally chirpy looking so down, how would you approach that? You can sort of get a feel of the person (from how they respond), but it’s not foolproof. I wish it was.

Can you train for kindness and humility?
You probably need to do that at a very young age. It’s difficult if that hasn’t been your life experience.

At the beginning, I had chosen an all-female leadership team at the hotel. All the journalists wanted to make something of it, such as, ‘Oh, is this about empowering women?’ And I said, look, it’s honestly very simple. Females skew more towards kindness and humility more than males do. So, they are the best people for the job; they are the best fit for the brand. It’s not about me wanting an all-female or an all-male team.

You have to be stronger as a person to be kind. And people react to kindness. Sometimes we do something wrong, but usually the guests say the service recovery is so lovely. That’s because the staff genuinely feel disappointed with themselves that they’ve let someone down.

I often say to agents that when their clients come here, there will be times when we won’t get it right. But what I want to reassure you is that we care about those people and if we trip up, we will make it right for you. It’s not about perfection.

This is the first Pan Pacific hotel in Europe. Is that additional pressure and how far do you feel you’ve gone to establish the brand here in London since the hotel opened in 2021?
I would say not very far. London is the toughest market for hotels in the world. It has more five-star and luxury hotels than any other city on the planet. It is famously jaded when it comes to new concepts – you’re more likely going to get a (consumer) reaction of ‘well, why should we care‘ rather than ‘oh wow’.

We have a five-year plan. We knew this was going to be tough. So, we decided that we would need to pick up some kind of ‘badges of honour’, if you like, less of an ego booster but because this would push awareness of the brand and the hotel out there.

We knew we needed to get some traction in the US market, because it’s the single biggest market into London. We actually became the fastest hotel in the world to ever achieve a Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Award, and we’ve retained it. That gave us a talking point in the US market, which is now our biggest source.

We’ve won many since opening, including Catey’s Hotel of the Year, Group 2023, and AA Hospitality’s Hotel of the Year, London 2022/23.

Does brand Singapore itself draw business to Pan Pacific London? Our airline is the best in the world.
People love the thought of Singapore. I’ve never heard anyone say they don’t love Singapore. But here, people tend to think of Qatar Airways as the best in the world! It’s all about perspectives and it actually has taught me not to make assumptions that just because people love Singapore, they would want to come and stay with us.

What would you like to see at the end of your five-year plan?
This is a beautiful hotel but there will always be a more beautiful hotel, like The Peninsula, London; they spent a billion pounds on it. But that doesn’t matter to me, because we can still be the best hotel in London based on kindness and service.

We aspire to be better at personalised service. We’ve had a good start but we’re nowhere near as good as we need to be. We’ve piqued people’s interest; we must get to the point where people do not literally want to stay anywhere else.

What’s your average occupancy and room rate so far?
We’ve had a busier August than we anticipated – huge amount of US business, and domestic business as well. We’re averaging 70 per cent occupancy. It’s a little lower than we hoped but our room rates are already almost double what they were when we opened. If you fast forward to September and October, you can see the rooms selling now upwards of 500 pounds (US$628.60), and 800-plus pounds for the suites.

But more than rates, it’s important to look at repeat guest ratio. You can sell low or high and it will attract different tribes. But if you offer an incredible experience, a memorable experience, people are going to be willing to pay whatever it is that you require them to pay. It costs so much money to acquire new guests. To have guests keep coming back, and us collecting some more of their preferences and customise their next visit further, what you’re doing is you’re actually making them feel safe, cared for and happy.

We have guests who have already passed their 50th stay here.

Your second biggest market is domestic. What accounts for this warm response?
The UK market is fairly well-travelled as a nation and love Asia as a whole. If we boil it down to the South-east Asian region alone, it’s multiple countries and cultures offering different experiences. They are great admirers of Asian culture and your food is the number one, be it Indian or Vietnamese. And they react to the warmth and kindness in the region.

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