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Breaking Travel News interview: Filip Boyen, chief executive, Forbes Travel Guide

Breaking Travel News interview: Filip Boyen, chief executive, Forbes Travel Guide

Filip Boyen is a busy man.

Since taking up leadership of Forbes Travel Guide in October last year he has visited over 300 hotels around the world, getting to grips with his new role.

Each property on his tour would be considered among the best in the business, giving him perhaps the best vantage point to explore the ever-changing face of luxury travel.

During a brief stop in London he is keen to showcase what the company does well, and how he thinks it can grow without losing its reputation for excellence.

Speaking to Breaking Travel News editor Chris O’Toole, he explains: “Forbes Travel Guide is the only independent, global travel ratings system for luxury hotels, restaurants and spas.

“When we say independent, we mean we are tough, very tough; our inspectors check into a hotel for two nights, three days, and go through a checklist of up to 900 standards.

“Now, the final score that determines a property’s star rating is based 75 per cent on its service achievement – and that is what makes it so difficult.

“At Forbes we are all about how you make the client feel in your hotel, which is obviously what the modern luxury traveller is now looking for.

“The remaining 25 per cent of a hotel’s rating is based on hardware, product, because we assume that all luxury hotels in the world now have fantastic facilities, beautiful public areas, great rooms and comfortable beds.

“But the service is where the top properties are made.”

These ratings are the foundation of Forbes Travel Guide’s reputation – the bedrock of its success.

There are only 210 five-star rated hotels in the world, with a further 535 four-star and 362 recommended properties, making it among the most exclusive accolades available.

“The hotels earn the rating; it is not for sale,” adds Boyen, “this is the most exclusive club in hospitality, which is why it is so respected.”

This year London unseated Macau as the city with the most five-star hotels, thanks to four new additions - Bulgari Hotel & Residences; the Langham; Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park; and Shangri-La Hotel, at the Shard.

London finished with 13 top-ranking hotels, while Macau could count 12.

But, while the ratings are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Forbes Travel Guide, there is also a great deal more below the waterline, away from the public eye.

“There are two very clear divisions within the company, one is the ratings organisation, which is basically the DNA of the company.

“The other is the support services division, as well call it,” explains Boyen.

“When we started rating hotels, properties were telling us they respected our standards, that they were relevant to the demands of the new luxury traveller, and that they wanted help meeting those standards.

“They wanted help with training, and this is how the support services division was born.

“My colleague, Jeff Wielgopolan, who is now senior vice president, learning and development, for us, created the division himself and it has turned out to be incredibly successful.

“Today, we have 20 full-time trainers around the world.”

He adds: “General managers tell me their major problem is to find, recruit and to train staff.

“Staff turnover at hotels is going up, here in the UK, the USA and in Asia, and the younger generation want to work on their own terms – which is not always compatible with the needs of a luxury hotel.”

Alongside ratings and training, Forbes Travel Guide also offers quality assessments, visiting hotels as often as every month to offer instant feedback on service standards.

Finally, the company can offer help with standards development.

“A lot of companies build a beautiful hotel, and they have their own service philosophy, which they want to integrate with the Forbes Travel Guide standards,” explains Boyen.

So, with such demand for a Forbes Travel Guide star rating, how does the company decide which properties to include, or even evaluate?

Boyen explains: “Some properties come to us to be evaluated, but the final decision on inclusion rests with us.

“It’s a very considered process with collective input from our ratings division, headed by Amanda Frasier, our executive vice president, standards and ratings, our executive team and I as to which destinations and hotels we rate each year.

“We make a final decision on which hotels we are going to rate and inform those hotels we will be visiting them in the next year.

“This year we are rating 210 new hotels in 17 destinations.”

He adds: “We want to be honest with people, if a mediocre hotel comes to us and asks to be star rated, and we know for a fact there is no chance for them, we tell them we do not want to waste their time and money.

“The properties we do star rate, we want them to have a chance, or it is embarrassing for everybody.”

Selling inspection services and offering the training needed to reach those higher standards does, though, present a potential conflict of interest.

However, Boyen is quick to quash any hint of impropriety.

“It does mean we have to be strict with the firewall,” he explains, “between the ratings and the support services teams.

“I am asked, how does it work, do we rate hotels as four-star, and then sell service to move it up to a five-star?

“This is absolutely not how we work; we are not the mafia!

“We feel very good in our skin.

“The support services staff have never met the inspectors - even at the staff party, we have to host two events, I will not be compromised.”

Originally launched in 1958 by Mobil Oil, the company was acquired by the current owners, Five Star Ratings Corporation, a decade ago.

The licencing agreement with Forbes Media, to use the name ‘Forbes’, was signed at this time, and this American heritage has left the company more established on that side of the Atlantic.

“In Europe, we are relatively new, we arrived four or five years ago,” continues Boyen.

“So far, we have rated around 320 hotels, and we are expanding into certain areas, including the Amalfi Coast, Lake Garda and Lake Como in Italy.

“We are also working on Mauritius and the Maldives; obviously we look for concentrations of luxury hotels.

“What we want to work on is the awareness here in Europe among the travel trade and among the hotels themselves.”

Unlike in his previous role, as chief executive of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, it is this awareness that is key, not sales.

Forbes Travel Guide does not offer a bookings service, merely referrals.

“The relationships are not exclusive, our members are also part of Leading Hotels of the World, Small Luxury Hotels of the World and others,” adds Boyen.

“We do not sell – we have a website with excellent content on each property, with a referral button.

“As a consumer, you come to our site, click, and go straight through the website of the hotel – we do not take a commission, we do not take a penny from it.

“There is no doubt that any hotel on that website is truly a luxury property – we want our site to be a resource for consumers and, increasingly, the travel trade.

“Our four-star rated hotels are Olympic Games gold medallists, while the five-star ones are the Michael Phelps of this world, the elite.”

Looking ahead, Boyen sees a great deal of potential for Forbes Travel Guide, but perhaps outside of the hotel sector.

“Our business model is not an easy one – our inspectors go to the best hotels in the world, which start at $600-700 a night, along with all the food and beverage, spas and extras,” he explains.

“This comes right out of our pocket – to guarantee our integrity – but it costs a fortune, as you can imagine.

“So, we must expand.

“We could have 1,000 five-star hotels, but where would that lead us, the business would not last much longer!”

Thus growth is expected to come from other sectors, including on the high seas.

Concluding, Boyen says: “For example, we have begun training in the cruise industry – a really successful sector, with tremendous potential for further growth.

“Now, cruise ships want to be compared with the best hotels.

“On a ship there is no turnover, with six-month contracts and nowhere to go, your staff can offer some incredible service – the only way out is overboard.

“We are also looking into retail, golf clubs, private members clubs, care homes and other verticals.

“We are also training private jet companies.

“But at the moment we are only offering ratings to hotels, restaurants and spas.

“Rating a cruise, for ten days, that costs $10,000 – that is not so easy!

More Information

Forbes Travel Guide is the only global rating system for luxury hotels, restaurants and spas.

For a full award winners list, daily travel stories and more information about Forbes Travel Guide, visit the official website.