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For Business, Corporate Travel & Meeting Buyers & Arrangers

The Interview: Ian Barrigan, Guoman Hotels & Thistle

The Grosvenor in London’s Victoria is the latest of Guoman/Thistle’s properties to finish a major refurbishment. Global sales director Barrigan talks about how it plans to attract more corporate travellers and the impact of the Olympics on business travel

Where are you in terms of your latest refurbishments across your hotel portfolio?

The Grosvenor, which is a Guoman hotel, has just completed its refurbishment which we believe has restored the property to its Victorian glory. We have spent tens of millions of pounds on the hotel over the last 18 months and we’re very proud of it. It’s a listed building so we have had to work closely with English Heritage which has guided us through the process. The investment programme is ongoing for the group – we have also just finished the refurbishment of the Thistle at Euston, while our Picadilly and Royal Trafalgar (which are both Thistles) are currently being refurbished and will be finished later this year. The rest of the properties are going through the pipeline and have to make their own business cases for refurbishment.

Explain how the two different brands – Guoman and Thistle – are marketed?

We have a total of 37 hotels in the UK and three in Asia – two in Malaysia and one in Shanghai. Five of these properties in the UK are Guomans and the rest are Thistles. Thistle is a long-established British brand so has great awareness but we have work to do with Guoman on the awareness side as the brand has only existed since 2006. Guoman hotels are great individual landmark properties, such as The Cumberland in London, but we want to join them up more clearly by using the tag “Guoman Collection”. We have just recruited a director of brands, Gillian Harris, which is a new position to help us to do this. We have so many hotels in great locations in the UK – particularly in major cities. We have 16 properties in the London area including Heathrow – that adds up to 5,000 hotel rooms per night and we have around 8,400 rooms in the UK.

How important are business travellers to your company?

Lots of our properties - by virtue of their locations - are very popular with business travellers. Across the group in the UK, business travellers represent 30-40% of the company’s revenues. There’s a  lot of investment to increase that number by offering corporate facilities such as the executive lounge at the Grosvenor where we also offer shower facilities for guests where they can come in and freshen up. While at Euston we offer a fast executive breakfast option and also break-out areas in the lobby with BT Open Zone wifi that corporate guests can use. Around 70% of our corporate business is through TMCs with the other 30% direct with companies. We have an online booking tool, called mybooker, which has been very popular with SMEs.

How will you deepen the relationship with travel buyers over the next year?

Corporate buyers have told us that having a rewards and recognition programme is important for them. We have never had a rewards system before but we will introduce one in March called Signature which will be for both brands. This will a card-based programme and guests can qualify to join after a one-night stay. There will be various stages of membership from classic to gold with a variety of benefits such as priority check-in, free wifi and free Sunday night stays – all things that we have been told are important for business travellers. We will be releasing full details of the rewards programme next month.

 How have your corporate sales been going over the last few months?

We had our most successful RFP programme between October and December with our corporate buyers and SME clients recontracting for the year ahead. This has given us an excellent platform for contracts in 2012 so we’re optimistic but only time will tell. We are also spending lots of time increasing our field sales presence internationally. We now have five sales people working in the US and we will look to expand in other markets. We think we can take advantage of the fact that we sit below the big hotel brands because we can be more flexible and faster. A lot of travellers are feeling fatigued by big brands. We can promote the quirky elements of our hotels and their history – such as the Jimi Hendrix Suite at the Cumberland or the new Courtesan'sBoudoir at the Grosvenor.

Are you looking to expand your hotel portfolio alongside the refurbishments?

We are certainly looking for opportunities to grow the estate. But in the UK, it’s difficult to find those opportunities because we already have a fabulous set of locations in the main business cities. We are owned by a Malaysian-based company so it may be that the biggest opportunity to expand will be in Asia.

What effect is the Olympic Games having on your business?

It’s been positive so far – we just passed the LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) deadline of January 25 and we’re really pleased with where we sit with great confirmed business. We have been working with our London partners since the UK won the bid because we know from what happened in host cities such as Sydney and Athens that there can be dips in business around the games because of perceptions about high costs and the difficulties of moving around. But we don’t think this is true and we are open for business for meetings and events – customers are booking meetings and events for this summer. The situation with hotel inventories should become much clearer in March and then buyers can be more confident about buying for the pre and post-Olympic periods because they should still be able to get value. We are waiting to see what transport providers, such as Eurostar and European airlines, are going to do with their schedules this summer - that will give more certainty to buyers. Eurostar is very important for what happens at the Thistle Euston, for example.

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