A tale of two KL hotels(1)


One is making its foray into Malaysia for the first time while the other plans to position its Kuala Lumpur property as the flagship in the region. Both are opening within a month of each other and both are promising a "full opening" - no softie soft launches for them.
And by the way, Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur and Hilton Kuala Lumpur, are just beside each other. Corinne Wan (Hilton KL) and Natalie Chen (Le Meridien KL) spoke to both general managers - separately of course.

Kees Hartzuiker, general manager of the soon-to-open Hilton, is a man of passion and confidence. Passionate about the new hotel, he will steer to a full opening come September 22, and confident that there would be no delays and with all 510 rooms, F&B outlets and other facilities operational.

These are departures from the norm in Malaysia where planned operational dates for hotels are not kept due to unforeseen circumstances, and staggered opening of rooms and facilities is common.

Hartzuiker said that he personally believes in full opening and has full opened two hotels under the Hilton flag during his tenure in the UAE - the Hilton Dubai Jumeirah Beach Resort and Hilton Dubai Creek.

"With a full opening we can create curiosity on the day we open and show the hotel in all its glory."

Hartzuiker is also confident of achieving 70 percent occupancy by the end of the year as forward bookings are encouraging. This positive projection "is also in line with the rest of the city."

Hotels in KL, from budget to five-star properties, are enjoying an unprecedented run of good business, with most enjoying 70-90 percent occupancy, and this healthy trend looks set to continue.

"We also believe we have good segmentation, with conferences and meetings forming our base business, followed by corporate business through the brand and loyalty programmes," said Hartzuiker.

There is also a shift to focus on the leisure market as the Hilton group, traditionally geared towards the corporate market, is now heavy into resorts. The Hilton Kuala Lumpur is following this shift by working with travel agencies and tour operators to tap the leisure market.

The hotel's target business mix is 60 percent corporate and 40 percent leisure. Inter-Asia will make up 70 percent of its market, 10 percent of which will come from Japan, with the balance from the "rest of the world", as Hartzuiker put it.

He is also banking on the hotel's strategic location in KL Sentral - comprising the city's transportation hub and a mixed development project of corporate office suites, condominiums, and retail complex - to bring in the numbers.

As KL's five-star hotel rates are well below properties of the same category in other destinations, will Hilton KL enter at a higher rate to break this "under-priced" circle?

"There is room for rates to increase in five-star hotels. However when supply and demand dynamics are such that customers have the choice to base their bookings on price, then there is a limitation to rates. We will enter at the highest rate possible, competing with the highest rate of existing five-star hotels."

He said alone he can't do much but hopes others can group together to motivate rates upwards.

Hartzuiker is positive that rates could go up especially as there will be no new hotels opening for the next two years, apart from the Le Meridian Kuala Lumpur,

He does not view the Le Meridian KL, situated just next to the Hilton and due for an October opening, as competition. "We complement one another. Together we offer 940 rooms in one location, which will be ideal for large conferences. We share common access, such as the foyer, and can open it up to accommodate huge global conferences."

His philosophy in running the hotel - "drive and passion". He believes this will trickle down to his team and from there, to guests.

"We know we have the best product. But we have to bring the people element across that will define success."

To ensure the best service, the hotel will have a staff of 700 to give the personal touch to all its guests.

"We did not look so much at skills and experience during the recruiting exercise. Instead we look at personality and attitude and they do not need to have experience working in a hotel," said Hartzuiker.

To instil a sense of belonging, all staff are referred to as team members. The management also ensures that the members are well taken of and pay special attention to the back of the house features.

"For example we give our female members the choice of either wearing skirts or trousers for work. We have chill out

zones in the staff centre fitted with massage chairs." and foot massager for them to rejuvenate during their break. There is also a library."

The hotel also keeps the organising chart as flat as possible to invoke a sense of equality and belonging.

"We believe in the simple cliché - happy team members, happy customers, " said Hartzuiker.

Le Meridien will launch its first property in Malaysia when Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur opens this October.

The hotel's general manager Brian S. Pirie said this will be a "full launch" and "its all systems go".

"We have no intention of coming into the Kuala Lumpur market softly, we plan to come in fully armed and dangerous.

"There's a stigma of soft opening and we have been given the luxury of avoiding
it. And when you have given the opportunity of not to 'soft open' the best thing is to take it."

"We want to come into Kuala Lumpur guns blazing and want to be a long time here."
Pirie promised that his property would be different from what's on the market and customers would know the difference.

"We took a long time in getting to Kuala Lumpur and our objectives are long term and to get the right clientele and the clientele that fits our situation in Kuala Lumpur.
Le Meridien is looking at the KL property to lead its expansion into Malaysia - especially Langkawi and Kota Kinabalu.

He added that these two destinations were chosen because of Malaysia's ongoing efforts to develop them.

"In Malaysia, the two destinations have room for international hotel operators and a brand such as ours, look at Kota Kinabalu, today as a destination it is growing and air access is growing as well."

Pirie said, "An essential part of our chain is that both the owners and operations benefit from the network of hotels that we have available and we feel that Kota Kinabalu and Langkawi would benefit significantly from both Kuala Lumpur and existing resort hotels in South-east Asia."

What can guests expect with Le Meridien's first foray into Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia?

"When people walk into the hotel, you are going to know you are in Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia and that's going to reflect straightaway in the overall atmosphere."
Pirie describes it as "capturing the essence of Malaysia's rich cultural tapestry and weaves into it elements of Moorish detail infused with French elegance".

"I would say if you took my eight direct competitors you could lift up their hotels bring it to Singapore and Bangkok and it wouldn't change a thing. I don't think you can do that with our hotel as it has local character that is very difficult to export.

"And the idea is not to export it and to bring the local culture into a global product."
The new Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur is being marketed as a "state-of-the-art" hotel.
Said Pirie, "In terms of safety and security and the technical aspects, Le Meridien is far more developed than other hotels built in the 1990s, this is a hotel built in the 21st century and it reflects the current times we live in."

More than RM 1 million has been spent on wireless connectivity, with all 422 rooms, meeting rooms and public areas providing seamless Internet access.

Another plus feature of the hotel is its central locality, it is only 28 minutes away from the International Airport by KLIA Ekspres.

Pirie said, "Within an hour of touchdown at KLIA, the international business traveller can be at the hotel, check in, unpacked and already at work in the guestroom. No other hotel in Kuala Lumpur can offer that kind of accessibility."

He points out that he is aiming for "balance" in guest profile.

"We don't want to have any mass market, we want to have a small part of
every segment coming to Malaysia." Besides the corporate market, this would include leisure guests, stop over traffic and cabin crew.

Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur is also hailed to transform the city's event industry with its extensive conference facilities. The Sultan's Ballroom can hold up to 750 guests as well as nine other conference and function rooms for up to 200 delegates.

The attention to the events market is further demonstrated with a dedicated events kitchen to ensure freshly cooked gourmet fare for up to a thousand people, an unusual feature in Kuala Lumpur hotels. Conference delegates and groups will have a smooth check-in as they enjoy a private arrival lounge.

Pirie then ends the interview by hinting that there are even more surprises in store from the new Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur.

He warmly quips, "The beauty of the pudding is in the tasting."

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