Travel has become more accessible to more people around the world. According to figures from the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, over 1.18 billion people travelled internationally in 2015. That is 50 million more than the previous year and the sixth consecutive year of above-average growth in tourist arrivals. While this is certainly good news for the hospitality industry, it also brings with it a host of challenges — including intensifying competition and rising traveller demands.
Mr Alfred Ong, Managing Director of Europe for Ascott, the world’s largest international serviced residence owner-operator, has been in the hospitality industry for over 20 years and has seen the rise and fall of many notable brands.
“Success isn’t a linear equation; there are many factors at play. Among them, however, I think constant growth and refreshing your offerings is critical. Every brand faces the risk of becoming obsolete, so every day we need to ask ourselves: ‘Is what we’re doing today helping us stay relevant tomorrow?’ It’s a difficult question but it needs to be answered,” said Mr Ong.
His insights come from a lifelong career in the hospitality industry. Mr Ong started in a destination management company, promoting Singapore as an attractive city for inbound incentive groups. He was also involved in Singapore’s first theme park, Haw Par Villa, before joining a hotel group.
His Ascott journey began in 1999, first as General Manager for Indonesia and Vietnam, then as Managing Director for markets that included Australasia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. He went on to become Senior Vice President, Operations for the Asia Pacific region and, in 2009, was appointed Managing Director of Southeast Asia & Australasia. In 2013, Mr Ong was entrusted with the role of Managing Director for Strategic Development, concurrently overseeing Ascott’s Vietnam and India operations.
Looking back, Mr Ong said: “Each appointment came with a new and exciting learning curve but it was also a valuable experience. Every country has a unique culture and assimilating into the local culture is an important first step to understanding the people and practices.”
This multi-cultural experience also proved useful when he relocated to Paris in January 2014 as Ascott’s Managing Director for Europe, a key market for Ascott’s global expansion.
“Professionally, it was an exciting move. Our Europe portfolio spans six countries — Belgium, France, Georgia, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom — with France being our largest market with the biggest portfolio outside Asia. While it is a heavy responsibility to manage the company’s S$1.5 billion assets and grow our hospitality business in Europe, it has also been a highly rewarding experience,” he said.
“The rules of engagement in the East and West are very different. The latter has a stronger culture of open communication. An open management style of listening, rationalising and, where possible, marrying different viewpoints into a single solution are key aspects to successful engagement.”
Growing its Reach
As a steward of Ascott’s business in Europe, Mr Ong and his team are working towards the company’s goal of doubling its portfolio to 10,000 units by 2020. This will contribute to Ascott’s global growth target of 80,000 units within the same timeframe.
Speaking on Ascott’s recent acquisition of the 108-unit Citadines Islington London through its serviced residence global fund with Qatar Investment Authority, Mr Ong said: “Growing our reach is mission critical. We’re doing so both organically and through strategic mergers and acquisitions. With the sharing economy and other disruptive business models in the market today, we need to be where our guests want to be and deliver the experience that they desire.”
“To us, the sharing economy is more of an opportunity and less of a threat. We were once a disruptive force too. In the 1990s, the serviced residence concept caused an upheaval in the hotel industry. Today, serviced residences are an integral part of the hospitality landscape. The same could happen with the sharing economy, so we should learn to embrace it. We need to be innovative in thinking of new ways to create distinct services while focusing on our core competencies.”
As an example, Mr Ong points to Ascott’s tie-up with Tujia, China’s largest online apartment-sharing platform that has been dubbed the local equivalent of Airbnb. In addition to listing Ascott’s properties on Tujia.com, the joint venture has secured contracts to manage six serviced residences with over 1,000 units under the new Tujia Somerset brand to cater to the booming middle class travellers in China, and it aims to have 2,000 units under this brand by end 2016.
While this is happening halfway across the globe, Mr Ong sees relevance to Ascott’s Europe business: “Europe is projected to welcome 15 million Chinese tourists in the near future. We need to be prepared by laying the right foundation. Building strong brand awareness in the Chinese market will be beneficial to our European business.”
Refining the Guest Experience
Expansion isn’t the only priority on Mr Ong’s agenda. Understanding and delivering on the needs and preferences of each traveller segment will help Ascott differentiate itself as the world’s serviced residence of choice.
“We recently launched The Crest Collection, a prized selection of some of Ascott’s most prestigious and unique luxury serviced residences. Three of the four properties in The Crest Collection are located in Paris. La Clef Louvre Paris, La Clef Champs-E´lyse´es Paris and La Clef Tour Eiffel Paris are properties that cater specifically to a growing segment of discerning travellers. These are guests who treasure privacy and at our La Clef properties; they enjoy a luxurious experience but in an understated, unassuming manner,” shared Mr Ong.
“To delight different guests in different ways, we need to continually disrupt our own business. We don’t need to follow norms or chase after trends. We should play to our strengths and use technology in innovative ways to stay ahead of the competition.”
Innovation was precisely the driving force behind Ascott’s Travel Capsule initiative at St Pancras station in London last year. Using virtual reality technology, the capsule took visitors on a virtual journey to London, Paris and Berlin, allowing them to experience the comfort of a full-sized Citadines studio apartment through a giant screen and a headset.
In line with parent company CapitaLand’s goal to enrich communities where it operates, Ascott is an active corporate citizen in Europe. Since 2007, it has put its rooms to good use through a corporate social responsibility initiative with Mécénat Chirurgie Cardiaque. Every year, the French charity, which helps children with heart defects around the world, invites 12 doctors from Africa and Asia to Paris for paediatric cardiology training. In support, Citadines provides complimentary accommodation for their month-long stay and hosts a fundraiser, Lumières Citadines du Coeur (which means Citadines Heart Lights) to raise funds for cardiac operations.
Revitalisation for What Lies Ahead
A career in the hospitality industry can be hectic, admits Mr Ong, but a basic credo helps him stay focused: “Never lose your service mindset.”
“Every day, I remind myself and my team that regardless of rank or position, we are all in the hospitality industry. Service must always come first. None of us are above helping a guest with their luggage or holding the door open,” he said.
To revitalise himself, Mr Ong begins every morning with a moment with God and, on weekends, takes leisurely strolls along the River Seine with his wife. “Paris is such a charming city. We particularly like walking on Sunday mornings when the streets are quieter. It’s a great way to clear the mind, refresh the soul and reenergise myself for the week ahead.”