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Breaking Travel News interview: Jean-François Ferret, CEO, Small Luxury Hotels of the World

Breaking Travel News interview: Jean-François Ferret, CEO, Small Luxury Hotels of the World

When Filip Boyen moved on from this role as chief executive of Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH) last summer, he left the organisation in fine fettle.

Over three successful years he weeded out dozens of properties that fell just short of the required standard, while also boosting the in-house quality assurance program.

Handing over to Jean-François Ferret, who stepped into the role in September after six years leading Relais & Châteaux, SLH is now turning its attention to capitalising on those gains to boosts its global reputation.

Speaking to Breaking Travel News in London, Ferret explains: “Coming here I have two main targets, the first being to take the company to the next level in terms of branding, growing that awareness and visibility.

“The second is taking the digital transformation of Small Luxury Hotels forward, which is also huge for us – now is the right time for that.”

Fluent in French, English, German, while also having studied Russian and Japanese, Ferret is an ideal candidate to develop a truly global identity for the company.

A graduate of ESSEC, one of the leading business schools in France, he is passionate about hospitality, new technologies and multicultural management.

He continues: “The majority of our members are here in Europe, where 60 per cent of the SLH hotels are based, while 20 per cent are in Asia and 20 per cent are in the Americas.

“The way we are run as a company, however, is really global.

“We are here in the London office, and there are 18 nationalities here: we are running a multicultural operation, which is exciting for us.

“There is a cross-fertilisation of cultures, some different ideas, which allows us to take a different approach depending on the needs of each market.”

There are currently 530 properties in the SLH portfolio, with ambitions to boost the figure to approximately 600 by 2022.

However, the process will not be rushed.

Ferret explains: “We see two stages ahead for the development of Small Luxury Hotels, the first is to focus on the Americas.

“Currently the Americas represents 50 per cent of our source markets, perhaps a little more if we add in Canada, but account for just a fifth of our properties.

“Therefore, we see there is a gap to fill between the source market and the destination market.

“American travellers love to head to Europe, a lot, but they also want to experience locally the best of the Americas – so we will focus until the end of 2020 on developing our offering there.

“This means North America, South America and the Caribbean – there are so many great experiences - country houses, ranches, hot springs - and it is an exciting moment to discover properties that meet exactly the needs of our clients.

“Asia will be the second stage of this growth, but from 2020-21, as we move into the second stage of our five-year plan.”

He adds: “This is an increase which is not that large, so roughly 20 hotels per year, but it is not the quantity that is important, it is the location and the quality of these properties.

“The team here have done a good job in terms of quality, over the past three years we saw around 30 properties leave the brand for falling under the quality standards that we set.

“As a result, the quality of the portfolio is much higher, and we foresee far fewer properties leaving in future.”

Small Luxury Hotels has been recognised as the World’s Leading Boutique Hotel Brand by voters at the World Travel Awards for the past five years, demonstrating that commitment to quality.

It is hard to become a member of the prestigious organisation, and even harder to remain one over the long term.

As Ferret explains: “We are one of the brands that makes sure to inspect every property, every year – it is very strict.

“If a hotel fails the inspection, they have three months to take measures to correct the issues, and if they fail a second inspection after that period, they are out of the brand.

“In terms of criteria, we have 700 variables that we check during our inspections.

“It is a very detailed process, with mystery inspectors, who are very good at examining details – hospitality at this level is all about details.

“They focus on the building, the service and the spirit; the soul of the experience.

“What is important, in parallel with these quantitative criteria, is the feeling that our inspectors have in terms of the personalisation of the relationship, of feeling well.

“Our inspectors must have a perception close to being at home.”

Of course, Small Luxury Hotels of the World operates in a crowded marketplace, with rivals Leading Hotels of the World and Preferred Hotels & Resorts operating variations on the same model, while soft brands from major hotel companies have seen a spurt of growth in recent years.

Tribute Portfolio, Luxury Collection and Autograph Collection from Marriott International, Curio from Hilton and Trademark Hotel Collection from Wyndham are just some of the rapidly growing competitors from the global giants.

But none offer quite what Small Luxury Hotels is able to provide, argues Ferret.

“A soft brand is merely part of a more global, corporate brand,” he explains.

“Our hotels are independently owned, part of a family, usually, and the passion, the engagement is completely different.

“For our hotels, this can be generation after generation of commitment to hospitality, which you cannot find in a soft brand from Marriott or Hilton.

“We are about engagement, commitment, hospitality and family – and that is what makes a difference.”

With a growing focus on online deals in the hospitality sector, Small Luxury Hotels of the World is also somewhat old-fashioned in making the majority of its sales through travel agents.

Indeed, the are the bedrock of the company, continues Ferret.

“Our business is based on growing relationships with agents – they are able to translate the added value we bring to the market.

“They know us well, and through their connections with their customers, are able to explain what we do – they are valued intermediaries between us and clients,” he explains.

“We bring quality, new experiences and new hotels – some of these relationships have been in existence for 30 years.

“Nearly 70 per cent of our bookings are made through travel agents – and we are looking to take this a step further.

“We are currently building a new scheme for agents, where we will invite around 400 of them to access special advantages.

“The ultimate goal for us is to bring those agents, those who know us well, to bring them into our family.

“I will be able to tell you more in a few weeks – but it will be launched next month!”

A recent partnership with Hyatt has also been a roaring success, Ferret reveals, matching two perfectly suited companies.

“The programme with Hyatt has been a huge success – there are now around 210 properties signed up,” he adds.

“Our two brands have so many synergies – both are family owned, with Hyatt at the smaller end of big players.

“But we are complimentary, which is why it works – they are business, we are leisure, while they draw their source markets from the Americas and ours come from Europe.

“Since the beginning of the relationship in October last year, the trend has only been upwards.

“The partnership works through loyalty; we offer World of Hyatt members the opportunity to book leisure breaks and to use their points with us.”

Just seven months into his tenue, there is a long way to go for Ferret, but in these early days he is brimming with ideas, ambition and, most importantly, passion for luxury hospitality – the future appears bright for Small Luxury Hotels.

More Information

Find out more about Small Luxury Hotels of the World on the official website.

Chris O’Toole