Exclusive interview with Donald Bowman – General Manager – Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas
The Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas has no casino, and its 23rd floor bar has probably the best view of any on the strip, while the hotel is always around the top in terms of rankings on Tripadvisor. When the hotel opened a few years back, it was the most “techie” property of the group. UK-born Donald Bowman is General Manager. We first asked him how he got into the business.
I started in the industry when I was 14 in a tea shop in Edinburgh. My step-mum had a tea shop there on the Royal Mile, and I started there, with the countless tourists that would come in the summer. I loved being part of their holiday experience and sharing my passion and knowledge of Edinburgh, as well as getting to know the locals in winter. These simple things made me want to get into hospitality. Becoming part of people’s experience and anticipating what they need. I have been with Mandarin Oriental for 18 years now. I was part of the opening team of this hotel between 2008 and 2011, having in the earlier days been IT manager in Bermuda, working closely with Monika Nerger, the regional IT director. When I came here for the hotel opening, she and I worked very closely together and Monika spent months here, because we put a lot more technology into this hotel than we had traditionally in our hotels. It was ahead of its time at the time.
What’s important now in a luxury hotel?
A lot of what we have done traditionally as hoteliers is decide what luxury is for our guests and give it to them, but I think very much now, luxury is about our guests having a choice. So, we might as traditional hoteliers, decide that we have to have this wonderful ten-minute arrival process when we cocoon you and get to know you and escort you to your room and tell you all about the 15 different things you can do in the hotel. Whereas today, many guests would much rather check in on their phone, get a key remotely and go directly to their room and speak to nobody. And that is as much a luxury as the other version. It depends who you are, why you are here, and what your preferences are. And I truly believe we have to start offering those choices, because people come here for all manner of reasons and have all manner of motivations. And some are techies and some are not. And you need to offer choices in a lot of different ways to what we do. So much of what we do is still about traditional caring, warm, hospitality.
What are the key selling points of this hotel?
It’s very clear to me what they are because of the city we are in. Here we are in the entertainment capital of the world, where most of the resorts are casino resorts. We are a non-gaming, non-smoking, pure luxury hotel. Our address is 3752 Las Vegas Boulevard, and you walk in here and it doesn’t feel like it. It’s a sanctuary in the middle of this remarkable city. And from the moment we conceptualised the hotel, architecturally it was designed to accomplish this, and then me coming in as the hotel manager 18 months before we opened, I lay awake every night, saying “How do we create an environment that gives a sense of calm amid the madness?”
Is that why you put the reception area on the 23rd floor?
Partly, yes. Partly it is because every Mandarin Oriental has to have a sense of place. No two Mandarin Orientals are alike. The 23rd floor Sky Lobby where you check in gives you a view giving you a true sense of place. But the design and the décor also reflect that. Perhaps it’s a little more edgy or sexy, reflecting the fact we are in Las Vegas. Creating this atmosphere I was describing I started thinking about how to do that. It starts in our courtyard, with the architectural design that has it shielded from the strip. We grew gently swaying bamboo in the centre, and what we’re listening to right now (eds – in the Sky Lobby) is not music, it’s sounds. I spent six months trying to get our music company to understand what I was hearing in my head. It was not spa music. It’s chimes, a ripple on piano, a gong. It’s played through a hundred speakers in the courtyard, in the lower lobby, the elevators, and here, and it positively effects how you feel. A gentle custom scent of bamboo garden reflects the sounds. It’s not peach or vanilla masking the smoke. There is a bench in the elevator so you can rest on that arduous journey to the 23rd floor, and truly by the time you ascend to arrive at the front desk here, you feel different, you’re not even registering why or that it has happened to you, but it’s happened and you don’t know why.
The very first day we opened, the third guest that checked in used those words: “I feel different and I don’t know why.” I had goose bumps, because we had planned all these things and I had no idea if they’d work, but it does… It does to this day. That’s truly what sets us apart. There are other luxury properties in this city, but the key competitor is in a casino building. We are stand alone, separate, and have this different atmosphere right in the heart of Las Vegas, and that’s what sets us apart.
What lessons have been learned since that time?
That things need to be simpler. I remember when we opened we established a quality circle meeting at the hotel which we still do today, where we review every single piece of guest feedback that we have received in the week, with a large group of managers from every department, and I ask one question, which is “If there was a problem, what are we going to do differently to prevent that ever happening again?” It’s not “How did we appease the guest?’, or ‘Did we fix it in that room at that time?” It’s what we are doing to prevent that happening to any guest in any room in any circumstance again. It sometimes takes a long time to get the answer to that, but that’s this continual improvement and investment in the quality experience. I remember we were getting a lot of that feedback initially from our guests saying they couldn’t open the drapes or turn on the TV. There was in fact a remote control with an “on” button, and the drape button said open or close, but still, it wasn’t traditional, so, we created a short guide on how to use the technology in the room. It always takes a little time to weigh up how the guest is experiencing the hotel, and that’s when you can fine-tune it. And that was a very clear message. First of all, we thought that at least we could explain it, but then the guest still had to work to read and understand how to use the technology, so it is a matter of just simplifying. On the other hand, a lot of what we did was fantastic. The first time you use your key and enter your guestroom, the guestroom sequence starts. The drapes had been closed, the lights off and the TV off, to save energy. Then when you check in and use the key for the first time, the lights come on, the TV turns on, and the drapes open to reveal this incredible view. That’s where technology really helps us with the guest experience.
We had RFID sensors on our room service trolleys, so that when they are pushed outside the room, there is an RFID reader behind the doorbell, and room service get a message that there is a trolley in the hallway. So you rarely see trolleys in the hallway. These are things that always make magic.
What gives you the greatest satisfaction in this place?
I suppose a hotelier would say the level of guest satisfaction we have here. But to me, I would say it’s the level of colleague satisfaction we have here. The group of colleagues we have here is second to none that I have ever worked with. And that started from say one – how we hired, who we hired, how we cared for them, how we continue to do that. And our colleagues here work together brilliantly. They care for each other like family, which I know sounds a little corny, and I am sure a lot of hotels say that, but I say that genuinely because I watch how they work together. They will do things for each other – it doesn’t matter what department. Riding the service elevator here is the greatest indicator of that. Everyone in that service elevator talks to everyone else. They have a pleasant word for each other. Three colleagues will walk out of that elevator and let the linen trolley come in so that the linen can get to our guest floors, and wait for another elevator. I still to this day interview every final candidate that’s going to join the hotel. And it’s not to know that they can carry a tray or that they have the technical expertise for the job. It’s for me to get a sense whether they will fit with the colleagues that exist here. Because this desire to do things for one another is I think what drives our service excellence. And if I focus on making sure our colleagues care for each other and are cared for, the guest experience continues to elevate. We have proven it time and time again here through ratings or guest evaluations and all of that good stuff. Truly, I have worked in this business all my life and I have now distilled it down, and I think that’s one of the key drivers to the success of a luxury property. And that’s what I get the most satisfaction from – getting to know my colleagues by name, spending time in an interview so I know who they are when I see them around the hotel. That’s what drives me every day.