While extending a pre-arranged conference in Europe into a full-fledged summer vacation, I embarked on the task of touring a country that has long been on my ‘to do’ list but for which business has never prompted me to visit. Spain was this place, a country for which, outside of their wines, I have very limited knowledge. I only had enough time for city though. The choices came down to Madrid or Barcelona and after a coin toss, the latter won.
After arriving and briefly walking around this magnificent town, it was clear that I was the real winner no matter which way I choose because Spain is just that remarkable. However, without any prior recommendations or word of mouth tips to guide my hotel selection, I had to rely solely on internet research. In the end, I chose the Mandarin Oriental Barcelona (MOB) for a variety of favors, key along them being its proximity to the historic center and its rave reviews on review websites.
Again, I chose wisely. MOB is a spectacle among spectacles. With that as an introduction, I was more than happy to sit down with the hotel’s general manager, Gerard Sintes, to answer some questions about what makes his property click.
Tell me a little about your own background as a hotelier.
Traditional route, I guess. I graduated from Lausanne Hotel School. Then I went straight to Asia where I lived for a total of 15 years, most of those devoted to working up the ladder with Shangri-la Hotels, being a GM with them in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. After that, I moved more over to the Indian Ocean and South Africa with One&Only Resorts and finally back to Europe in Barcelona to start my tenure with Mandarin Oriental.
Give me a little bit of an overview to the product – rooms, staff, geographic intensity, guest age etc. What are some of the key strengths?
Two key strengths to start with are its utterly fantastic location on Paseo de Gracia (the Champs-Elysees of Barcelona), its great design (a beautiful, contemporary look but still very comfortable). MOB is compact in its indoor public areas, thus easy to ‘manage’ from a guest point of view. This comes as a contrast to our two outdoor areas including a 400m2 private garden/Catalan patio and two swimming pools, one of which is on the roof of the hotel. We are a leisure hotel (90% of our business) with a array of nationalities coming from the US, Europe, Brazil and a sprinkling of Russia and the Middle East. To accommodate all these different cultures, it all comes down to our outstanding staff with a young vibrancy and providing great personal service!
I understand an expansion is in progress. Can you provide details?
The only detail at this stage is an additional 18 suites and four deluxe rooms which will bring the total inventory count to 120 keys. Opening should be around the beginning of April next year! More to come on this project, but I can’t give too much away just yet!
Overall, how is Barcelona faring, and how does the MOB work with the rest of the hotels in the area to promote the destination?
Barcelona is doing quite well in terms of tourism with roughly seven million tourists visiting here last year. The regional hotel association is very active and influential in working closely with the municipality to attract international fairs. Barcelona itself is such a beautiful and historically preserved city that it should be on everyone’s bucket list.
I noticed that TripAdvisor does not rate the MOB as one of the top properties, yet I am sure that it is considered by its peers as one of the top five in the city. How do you explain this discrepancy? Is it of concern for you?
We survey TripAdvisor on a daily basis and take every comment seriously. This ‘average’, however, does not represent our internal guest satisfaction survey results (thank you for having filled out ours by the way, Larry) which tell a completely different story. There are a few possible explanations for this difference in narrative, all of them typical for this situation.
In our discussions, you described a channel distribution that is very traditional with limited OTA participation. Do you see the OTA channels as increasing in importance? What is your concern regarding the OTA channel insofar as the luxury hotel operator?
Being a relatively small hotel, we do not foresee an increase in OTA business where volume is managed by our head office to ensure that we do not neglect our direct bookings to the hotel or the company website. These two channels are far more important in terms of volume and show that there is still a sizeable market in this luxury segment that is happy to book us directly. This is particularly evident for us in terms of suites reservations.
How does Mandarin Oriental position itself in the marketplace, and how have you applied the essence of this brand to your property?
We have the leading REVPAR in the city since day one and that says a lot about the strength of our brand. I invite you to consult the Mandarin Oriental website which we tell you in the right words is all about our Asian heritage which really helps differentiate us from the competition.
We discussed WiFi and the costs of implementing an expanded bandwidth program for guests. How do you plan to manage the costs relative to the demand for free WiFi?
The company is in the process of reviewing our global policy on internet access and charges, so I cannot comment on this right now. Suffice to say, we have recently extended our bandwidth capacity for our guests’ usage to 150mb.
What do you see for the future of your luxury hotel?
Very rosy if you are a Mandarin Oriental manager! The overall guest experience is what will always drive the luxury segment; surprise guests with a situation which interests them from cultural, comfort, learning and wellness points of views along with charisma and personality in all employees. Consider these for the baby boomers and for the next leading generation: lots of bandwidth, free email access and a great room service menu!
(Article published by Larry Mogelonsky in eHotelier on July 29, 2013)