Known until just a couple of months ago for his role at the helm of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Filip Boyen has taken on a fresh challenge as CEO of the Forbes Travel Guide. We met with him at ILTM in Cannes and asked him to tell us a little more about this new role.
I finished with SLH at the end of September and I started on 22 October with Forbes Travel Guide, so I am six weeks into the job. I’m very excited… the head office is in Atlanta, and I am based in London. I do one week a month with the team in Atlanta and I tag-on a couple of destinations to visit hotels where we are, and it’s fantastic. It was a great start because it’s not very often as a CEO that you walk into a company and have such a strong, dedicated, passionate team. I’m very impressed with the quality of the people and I am excited, because there’s a lot to do… a lot of expansion in Europe. We need to build brand awareness. Most of our business is done in the Americas. In Europe, we need to definitely get the brand out there and make sure the consumer knows who we are, that the travel trade knows who we are, the hotels start to understand very well who we are, so it’s all about brand awareness and website visits that are very important to us. We want the hotels to see that the consumer recognises the value that Forbes brings to them.
So, it’s quite a change from your job at SLH…
Indeed, it is very different from my previous position, because obviously one of the things I have always been passionate about in hospitality is quality: quality of service. And after three years with SLH as CEO I had this opportunity to join Forbes Travel Guide which of course is all about quality. We verify luxury, and to me, that means we champion, we support and we reward those with a passion for extraordinary service. We rate hotels, we train hotels and we do quality inspections. We support hotels in becoming better at what they do. Our training is complementary to what hotels already do in their own learning and development department. Our standards are tough. We have 900 standards between hotel, spa, and restaurant altogether, so it’s very hard. If you achieve 90% in your official rating, then you will be a five-star Forbes hotel. In the world, there are only 199 Forbes five star hotels out of a total of around 1700 hotels in our listing. Our visits are 100% mystery visits, which are very different from other rating agencies. They are totally incognito. We pay the full bill at the hotel, we pay for our travel, we pay for the food and beverages. We check in and check out without the hotel ever knowing we were there. Other companies announce themselves at the end of the inspections, but we don’t. At the end of the day, we do a presentation where we declare in every new destination which are the five star hotels, which are the four-star hotels and which ones are recommended. The business model is that we form a close relationship with the hotels. They pay a yearly amount, and included in that is one yearly inspection and a run through of the inspection with the team, and then of course hotels can purchase training from us. Our training is not only in hospitality, it is also taking place in hospitals, in care homes, in retail, in cruise ships, everywhere… because service is universal and everybody needs great service. But like I said, what is important is that our training compliments what hotel already does for its staff.
Tell us more about your expansion plans.
Now, we are in 60 countries, and by the end of next year, we will be in 100. We are adding on a lot of people, because we need to inspect all those hotels. If we say we go to a new destination, that means at least 20 new hotels that we need to inspect, with two night / three day stays. It is going to be a heavy piece of work to get that done in 40 countries … that’s nearly 80% more than where we are for the moment. It is going to happen. We have the list ready; our inspectors are ready to go. They were employed at the end of last year, because it takes a lot of time and we take things seriously. Our inspectors and trainers go through six months of intense training before they get their first assignment… that is how tough it is. We have a reputation of integrity and that is the most important thing. This is a rating you cannot buy. It doesn’t matter who you are; it doesn’t matter how much money you have; it is not for sale. The only way you’re going to get this is with a score of 90%. If we go to a new destination and a hotel we’ve never rated scores 90%, we will re-inspect them again to make sure that that 90% was not an accident.
What are the key aspects that you are inspecting when you look at the hotels?
Everything… but 75% of all standards are service-based, so it’s all about delivering the experience, it is all about the soul of the hotel, it’s all about how the hotel makes the guest feel: it’s emotional. There are elements of luxury, guest comfort, convenience, food and beverage quality, staff appearance… and then we cross reference these by every operational area. This allows us to have a rigorous overview and a really fair understanding of that two-night / three-day stay of what the service and culture and DNA is of that hotel. The accent is definitely on service: anticipatory service, genuine service, all these things. It does not matter if your coffee takes two minutes or three minutes to serve, we are all about how the coffee is served. And is there really an attempt to create a relationship with the client?
Some hotels take three or four years to build up to the five stars… it is hard. Some hotels get it from the first time, but it’s hard. It’s something that you sense when you walk through the door of the hotel.
What is your definition of luxury?
I would say it is the first impression. I want to feel that the staff in the hotel really want me to be there. If it starts that way, 99% sure you are going to have a luxury experience, because when they show interest and passion about you arriving that’s what it is all about.
What is your mid-term goal?
The mid-term goal is to be the absolute most important platform/website where the travel trade and the consumer can go to determine which are the undisputed luxury hotels in various places around the world. That is my ultimate goal. Thereby creating a lot of brand awareness and understanding of what Forbes really means and driving value to hotels, because recognition and awareness means value to the hotels. That’s what it’s all about.
(Photo – top of page – Filip Boyen – CEO – Forbes Travel Guide, with Chris Fradin, VP Partner Services Europe – at ILTM Cannes)