Bob van den Oord: Wholehearted Hospitality

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From his humble beginning as a weekend caterer to his current position of Managing Director and Vice President – Brands for one of the world’s most respected luxury hotels, Bob van den Oord has always kept his sincere modesty and profound yearning to enrich people’s lives with positivity. Even as he took some time to sit down with Asia Dreams, we were constantly in awe of Bob’s seemingly endless innovative ideas and inviting personality.

Q: You’ve been with The Langham Group for around 15 years. How is it working with one of the most prestigious hotel groups in the world, and what sets the group apart from its competitors?

A: I think the words that come to mind are that it has been fun, very hard work, but at the same time very rewarding. Being with the group for so long at a high executive position, I’ve been able to help shape the future of Langham Hospitality Group. When I first started, we had five people working at the corporate office managing five hotels, now we have a good 23 hotels, over 100 people at the corporate office, and the plans are to bring it to a good 100 hotels in five years, so particularly the jobs that I’ve held have helped shaped the future of the group. In terms of setting ourselves apart, compared to some of the big names among our competitors like Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental, or the Four Seasons, who have been around for forever, we’re still fairly new, but I think this gives us some great benefits and it’s what makes us very strong as the end consumer out there is looking for something new and a different offering.

If we look at some of our core pillars, one of them is captivation of the senses—when you walk into our lobby you get welcomed by a service stylist in a beautiful pink Chanel outfit and the ginger flower scent and the pink roses in the lobby. This is what distinguishes us from the other luxury companies. The next pillar is innovation—whilst our group in London has been around since 1865, we are actually coming up with some great new ideas. For example, we’ve just launched the new concept of the “private kitchen” instead of calling it “room service”, which is basically an offering for our guests that whatever you want, we have it for you. Whether it’s an Irish Guinness pie or a great nasi goreng, the kitchen will be able to do that. There’s also genuine service in which we really stand out from our competitors—this is where the service stylist comes in, we have service with poise, as we call it.

Finally I’d say all our hotels have marvellous design. Our new hotel in Chicago was voted as one of the best hotels in the US and the 6th best hotel in the world, so while we’re young and new, I actually think it’s a great benefit because people are looking for something new now, and what we’re offering is quite different and it really touches into what people are looking for these days.

Q: The Langham Hong Kong has such a rich history. How have the recent renovations rejuvenated the property without losing that heritage?

A: When we met with G.A. design from London, we briefed them that we didn’t want to lose any of that romance. We wanted to make sure that the new style had something new and modern to it, while still being classic. I believe they’ve managed to do that. Everything you see here represents some luxury touches—the beautiful fabrics, the great stones out of Italy, the wonderful chandelier—we really wanted to keep these because this is what we’re all about.

Furthermore, the renovation wasn’t just about spending money or making sure that we had the best design and the best hardware. We also actually looked at the softer touches. For example, we’ve introduced Guest Experience Managers on every floor to really take care of all your needs, from theatre tickets, reservations in the best restaurants in town, to tailors who can personalise shirts, suits or dresses you need.

Also, we have our own way in the Palm Court here to come up with something new and to differentiate us from our competitors. Obviously afternoon tea is a popular concept, but everybody is doing that and while a great design environment is one thing, we wanted to do more and be different. We sent our staff to the Wedgwood tea academy, where they were trained on everything about tea—where does it come from, how to make it, how to brew, how to serve it, how to complement with some great pastries. We recruited a pastry chef from Austria as well, as we really wanted to raise the bar. I believe to complement the refurbishment, we have to make sure the service is the very best we have ever had, with the best skills to serve.

Q: Did the recent string of political unrest and protests in Hong Kong have any effect on your business? If so, what adjustments were necessary to counter any negative effects?

A: What we’ve really had to do is work with the Hong Kong Tourist Bureau and the Hong Kong Hotel Association to really get a positive story out there because these protests are very peaceful.

Q: What drove you to pursue a career in hospitality?

A: I used to be in the kitchen and I remember going to the owner saying. “I can do much more than just washing the dishes, so why don’t you let me cook?”, so I kind of rolled into becoming a chef and we started our own catering company, where we would cook for doctors and lawyers at their homes. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted more, so I studied economics in Belgium and got into hotel management. Travelling the world was always my dream as well. It all just fitted together.

Q: Having worked and lived in numerous countries over three continents, what have you learned from being exposed to different cultures and how do you adapt each time you relocate?

A: That’s a tough question. Working in Europe and the US and now Asia, they’re all very different. I’ve taken different things from many people and different positions. Just being able to meet all these different people and interact with them and handling the responsibility in different positions I’ve held, as well as trying to understand and learn from various cultures, has really taught me a lot. One of the things I’ve never forgotten is my upbringing and the way my parents brought me up and that you’ve got to be humble and grateful and to really adapt to the local culture as we’re really still visitors.

Q: What are some of the emerging hotel trends that you’re noticing?

A: I think I’m going to break it up a little bit. First of all, within the mid-scale market, or lifestyle segment, if you will, it’s all about the public area. People don’t want to be hanging around in their room, but they want to be a part of the crowd. Actually, Langham Hospitality Group will soon come up with a brand that really embraces this kind of crowd.

The second trend that I’m seeing is that people care more about their well-being. They want to have a great gym where they work out, but they also don’t want to waste money and they want to make sure that they spend responsibly and they want to be in a good space.

The third trend is in the luxury segment. People’s homes are becoming more and more luxurious. They have great bathrooms, kitchens, espresso machines, steamers, bigger plasma TV screens, and good Wi-Fi connections. All of that has become today’s norm. Obviously we want to invest on these amenities to satisfy what they are expecting in this area.

Q: Would you consider yourself a difficult hotel guest?

A: I’m always surrounded by great design, facilities, people, and when I travel by myself I want to make sure that I stay at a great place. Does that make me more demanding? No, because I actually understand where these hotels are coming from and I understand if some things happen to go wrong.

Q: How have you changed since you first started out in the luxury hospitality industry?

A: I don’t think I’ve changed at all. I’ve always been into details and get my inspirations from going out and meeting people and experiencing different hotels and fine restaurants and trying to come up with innovative and new ideas to create a great environment for both our staff and guests.

Q: What is Hong Kong’s best kept secret?

A: For me that really would be the great hikes out there; 75% of Hong Kong consists of amazing trails and views. You can walk or run through the mountains, eat a bowl of noodles, see the waterfalls and things like that; Hong Kong has so much more to offer than just the shopping malls and the nightlife. I think there’s actually an opportunity for Hong Kong to promote that side of the country.

Q: What are some of your favourite guilty pleasures?

A: I suppose my biggest sin is that I like the good things in life too much. I love Belgian beer, for instance. I love socializing with friends over a glass of wine or a gourmet meal and having people come over to my house and cooking and just being together.

Q: How do you strive to maintain a healthy balance between work, play and family?

A: Of course, it’s all about getting the balance right. If you party too hard, your work will suffer. If you work too hard, your personal life will suffer. You have to get that balance right. I often get it wrong myself, however, it’s really about making the most out of every situation and enjoying what I do at work and taking the most when I’m off work. I’m lucky that we have an incredible team here and great people, which allows me to switch off every now and then. Outside of work I love hiking on the weekends, watching a good movie every now and then, or going to the beach with some friends over a few bottles of beer.

Q: If you weren’t working in the hospitality industry, what would be your dream job?

A: President of the United States… but seriously I would love to be the mayor of a city. Why? Because I feel you can touch a lot of people and affect their lives with great education or cultural interaction to improve their day-to-day lives. I think it’s really rewarding to do that, and who knows, I might still do it. I gain great satisfaction from positively influencing people’s lives. That’s exactly why I’m in the hospitality industry.

Q: What does the future hold for you? What are your dreams and aspirations for the future?

A: I just want to be happy and live a good life and just giving something back. But okay, official answer, professionally, is that a hotelier’s job is never done. We’ve talked about some exciting plans in the future and obviously I want to see those through. I feel really good to play my part in repositioning this hotel as the best in Hong Kong.

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