Minute on the clock: Stefan Leser of the Langham Hospitality Group on rethinking city tourism post-Covid

05 March 2021 by

The chief executive of Langham Hospitality Group talks to Katherine Price about rethinking city tourism post-Covid, the importance of a minister for hospitality and what lessons can be learned from China.

What impact do you think Covid-19 will have on hospitality and tourism in the UK?

The pandemic has been extremely challenging on a global scale, not just the UK. However, it is also a catalyst for transformative change and an opportunity for reinvention. Hotels that were running at full occupancy now have to rely on domestic tourism.

Until vaccines are successfully rolled out, we need to be on our toes and ready to adapt our strategies. Now is the time for the hospitality and tourism industry to act, adapt and position ourselves to continue to engage and build, instil trust with our customers and partners and come back when people can travel. Trust is important and consumers will remember the brands that paid attention and ‘took care' of them.

Have you made any changes or launched any initiatives at the Langham London?

We have introduced a programme called ‘Resort in the City', which turns the staff florists and sommeliers into teachers, who offer workshops on ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arrangement), as well as Champagne or negroni tastings. There are also family-friendly programmes, such as ‘behind the scenes' days or kids' cooking classes, which engage all ages within a controlled, Covid-safe environment.

On the day we celebrated our brand's 155th anniversary in June, the Langham London team gave out 155 surprise luxury afternoon tea gift boxes to everyday heroes in the city, including medical workers, bus and taxi drivers, couriers and street cleaners, who have been working tirelessly to keep the city moving. Inside were gift certificates inviting these heroes to come and stay and dine with us.

Do you think we need to reimagine city tourism, for instance in London?

When people come to stay at a city hotel, they're normally coming for the destination. What's the point of operating when you can't be a conduit to the city around your walls? So you flip the script by transforming the hotel into a wonderful place completely removed from the grim reality outside.

For example, the people coming to our hotel in London are not necessarily coming to experience London – they could do that in their homes. The hotel is a stage for them to be what they aspire to be and do – to be pampered and taken care of.

At Cordis in Hong Kong, oversized tables in the ballroom were replaced with hotel beds – set at least six feet apart – facing a giant projection screen for a semi-private, super-plush alternative to Netflix on your couch. At the Langham Shanghai Xintiandi, the hotel worked with an education partner during the summer to design educational and fun summer camps for children in Shanghai who could not travel for holidays during the pandemic.

What lessons can the rest of the world learn from the Chinese market, which is slowly recovering ahead of us?

China's vigilance against the spread of the pandemic, which included rigorous testing and full compliance of the safety protocols by the public, are definitely lessons we can all learn from.

While all the travel in China is still domestic, it is frequent. In fact, over Golden Week in October last year, 45% of the country went on a trip. Staycations, which never existed before, became the only vacation. We see the hospitality industry getting really creative in developing experiences – not just run-of-the-mill packages. Hotels have curated a wide range of options to suit all needs – from romantic getaways and gourmet weekends to kiddy ‘spacations'.

The group has a strong growth pipeline worldwide. Do you have any plans to expand in the UK, or to bring residences here, having launched your first in Munich?

The group continues to be bullish and will push forward with the same momentum this year, looking at increasing our footprint in Europe, including in Italy, Germany and France. We are keen to add more properties, hotels or unique ultra-luxury residences in the UK, if the opportunity arises.

You're backing the minister for hospitality campaign – why do you feel this is so critical?

I think it is necessary to give greater visibility to the industry's enormous economic impact. Hospitality employs approximately 3.2 million people, produces £130b of economic activity and is the third-largest private sector employer, representing 10% of UK employment.

The industry needs a seat at the table to ensure it is represented and protected. If this is successful, it could result in safety nets for the people working in the hospitality industry (all small and big stakeholders in the industry – cafés, restaurants, pubs, not just the hotels). We need life pumping through the cities to make people want to visit.

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