Keeping the edge without losing fundamentals

Maqo is new, Marco Polo is legacy luxury while Niccolo is contemporary – Wharf Hotels’ president Thomas Salg shares his ‘25 by 2025’ expansion strategy across these three brands

You’re days away to opening the first Maqo hotel in Changsha, China (November 1), congratulations! Tell us why you’ve launched this third brand.
We always ask ourselves: What has changed in the industry? What are customers telling us? What do we think needs to be done? Where can we make a mark?

Covid-19 was such a traumatic period in our industry. We went from the highs to the lowest lows – and not just for a moment but three years. For Hong Kong, it was even longer (because of the student protests 2019-2020). So, we took the opportunity to ask those questions again, and from that came Maqo.

What were the key points from the review?
Before, we talked of ‘leisure travellers’ and ‘business travellers’, but the reality is work and pleasure run parallel continuously throughout the day. We all have been there ourselves – I find myself going from meeting to meeting when visiting our hotels, then sitting at the bar at five o’clock with the general manager for a talk that is both business and casual. If I still have some time before dinner, I’ll do some emails, or put my laptop aside and watch something interesting.

So with Maqo, we don’t create hotel facilities but spaces. There’s a space everywhere for every need, be it a private space where you can work or, in the same area, relax alone or dine with friends. You don’t have to go to the restaurant, the bar, the business centre to do one thing. You can do whatever you want, wherever you are, in the moment at the hotel.

When I started in this business, we would categorise travellers as ‘purpose-driven’. They want to make a deal. They want to know exactly how far the hotel is from the airport, and from the hotel to their appointment locations. Today, they want to know what’s around the hotel – they get excited about the destination as much as about the business. They want to smell, taste, see something different.

So Maqo’s ethos is ‘More is not better, only better is better’. For instance, we won’t have a bar full of liquors. Rather, we bring it down to, say, six gins but travellers will find something that is unique, local, attractive and trendy in the selection that will help influence their choice. We have lots of what we call ‘edits’ (where editors craft art and culture programmes, F&B offerings, music playlists and wellness concepts).

The fundamental needs of a traveller – cleanliness, safety, a good night’s sleep – never change, but guests don’t want to be in cookie-cutter hotels anymore. So, companies that have built themselves on standardisation will need to rethink.

Is it time to rethink a legacy brand such as Marco Polo Hotels?
Yes, the revitalisation of Marco Polo is absolutely the next thing for us. These are great hotels, with traditional European design and traditional five-star structure.

We want the brand to express the art of hospitality. We don’t want people to forget what good service is, and we will put a stronger emphasis on F&B at these hotels so people won’t forget what good, tasty food is like.

It doesn’t mean we have to have tails and tuxedos when we do service, however, there is an art of talking to a customer; there is the art of going through a menu and explaining what a dish is to guests. Today, if I ask my staff ‘How’s the food?’, they say ‘good’; but good is not the taste! They struggle to describe the taste. Besides, good hurts. I don’t want to be good, I want to be really good or I want to be different. People now understand what quality is and appreciate it.

Our industry went through periods of fast development, quick promotion of people and high turnover. There’s definitely a case for training the next generation so we don’t lose the passion for hospitality and the art of service.

We have made the first steps towards the revitalisation of Marco Polo. We’ve renovated the Prince Hotel in Hong Kong (which is under Marco Polo Hotels) and are getting positive feedback for it. We’re also renovating Marco Polo Wuhan. The first half will be done by the end of the year and we will continue doing the second half after the Chinese New Year.

How do the three brands stack up?
Marco Polo and Niccolo are both in the luxury tier (the latter a collection of contemporary hotels). Maqo is a premium lifestyle brand.

We get a lot of traction for Niccolo hotels. We are proud of them as they do extremely well against competitors. We have a solid business model there. With Niccolo hotels, we took a lot of lessons about display, attentiveness, individuality from our experience in luxury retail. You walk into the lobby and a staff is ready to welcome you, recognise you, personalise your experience, just like if you go to Gucci, Versace or Armani in Hong Kong.

Some owners really love the Niccolo brand and say it’s great even for resorts where stays are traditionally four to seven nights. With longer stays, people can start to relax and enjoy the Niccolo experience while doing work on the side.

You have a ‘25 by 2025’ goal to expand Wharf Hotels, from 17 owned or managed properties in Hong Kong, China and the Philippines now. Isn’t it challenging for smaller hotel groups to enter markets such as Singapore or Tokyo? What is your strategy?
(Size) doesn’t matter, or whether it’s Marco Polo or Niccolo, because the first question every investor asks me is: how good are you in operating hotels?

Our balanced scorecard show that in all markets where we operate Niccolo hotels, we are number one or two, and we’re competing against all the other big players you can imagine in these markets. Overall, we are proud that we beat our competitors in each brand with a difference of six per cent, or even more in some cases, which is really a good margin.

Being a small company allows us to react fast and work with each owner, as seen during the pandemic. We changed the operating models and cost structures quickly, and we went deep, although, it hurt as well of course.

Before we sign a project, I meet with the owner – when we develop the project, right through when we open and operate that hotel – so from the beginning to the end, he will work with the same people. It’s not like somebody signs the contract and you never see him again, or like the pre-opening team opens the hotel and you never see them anymore; resulting in the general manager, who has no idea what was promised, saying he needs more money to make things work. There are owners who want a partnership where we suffer together, and celebrate together.

As a result of Covid, some hotel companies made their management agreements absolutely watertight so that if anything happens, they are safe. We don’t hide behind 300 pages of a management agreement. No, we talk about the issues on hand with the owners. We say what we can or cannot do. We have a great track record as a reliable partner, with the right products and the right attitude. Plus, we have a solid (parent) company on our back. I’m convinced we will grow.

You were vice president operations of Wharf Hotels for four years and was named president in May 2022 when then-CEO Jennifer Cronin resigned. How has it been and how are you different from Cronin in leadership style?
Jennifer was great. She had the vision of where she wanted to bring the company. I was always from the operations side, so when there is a promise made by the president, my brain is like: how do we make it happen?

With Covid, any vision or plan went out of the window as every month the forecast was low. We were restructuring, cutting expenses and actually, that was the easy part. The hard part was putting the puzzle back together with a leaner workforce – it was a cost-balancing act.

My focus is much more on my customers and on our workforce, in particular how we build the workforce and train our people. Don’t forget that when we lose a staff, we also lose the knowledge and years of experience he/she has accumulated.

However, it’s good to have new people, as they have new perspectives and new ideas. That said, I’m a bit conservative and like to keep the fundamentals where they belong. For me, attentive service and tasty food will still beat whatever statistics. Let’s bring the fundamentals back to life and let the customer be the judge of whether we’re really good or not.

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