“This is the best hotel on the planet”: When Accor group Chairman and Chief Executive Sébastien Bazin delivered his speech at the official reopening ceremony of Raffles Singapore, that was how he described this place – to a hearty round of applause from the VIPs present for the intimate lunchtime event.
Top Accor group executives, along with the interior design team from Champalimaud design in New York, leading executives from Katara Hospitality, and a handful of local and international hospitality industry VIPs were present for the opening ceremony at 11am on 18 October, 2019.
First opened in 1887, and declared a National Monument a century later by the Singapore Government in 1987, Raffles Singapore has through the years, gained both local and international recognition as an oasis for the well-travelled. It is a national treasure among Singaporeans who deeply value its historical significance and unique heritage. The last restoration was conducted from 1989 to 1991 where the hotel closed for two and a half years.
After a traditional lion dance and ribbon-cutting ceremony, the hotel’s new General Manager, Christian Westbeld addressed the gathering, stating, “Raffles hotel is built on 132 years of heritage, iconic architecture, charm, story-telling, community leadership, and a reputation for continuously reinventing ourselves. No other hotel in this part of the world is so closely connected to its destination and community as Raffles.”
Speaking of the massive restoration project launched by Katara Hospitality, Westbeld said, “At the heart of this plan was a vision to preserve what Raffles Hotel stands for; at the same time to elevate comfort levels of guests and create unparalleled levels of service and luxury.”
Andrew Humphries, Chief Operating Officer for Katara Hospitality, stated, “It’s been an amazing journey together, and we are so proud to return Raffles Singapore, this unique property, to its rightful place as a true icon of Singapore. We only have to look around ourselves to see what a singular vision and collective effort has brought. It’s truly an inspiring result. As a hotelier, I have always seen Raffles as one of the most important, if not the most famous hotel in the world. And for me to be standing here today, amongst you, and amongst the team that have built this hotel, it is a true privilege and a humbling experience.”
Accor Chairman and CEO Sébastien Bazin addressed the attendees, but in particular the hotel staff present, stating, “Accor only exists because there are 300,000 people working every day to welcome guests. Here it is very easy. Accor, as large as we are, as powerful as we can be, we are only a caretaker. This property has been in the hands of Katara hospitality. They have spent millions in protecting and enhancing this story, this property, at its best. The relationship between Katara Hospitality and Accor has been long lasting: a very trusting and exceptional relationship.”
Mr Bazin went on, “All of you here, next to me, we do the exact same job, in a different position. I am no better and no worse than any of you. The one thing you have to do… you are my smile, and the smile of Singapore. It is through your hands that every day you are going to give that little bit of emotional, memorable experience, through soft hands, soft skin… smiling. That’s what people remember.”
The Accor group CEO received a huge round of applause when he stated, “This is the best hotel on the planet. When you come into this property, the first thing that happens to you is a sense of humility. You are in the hands of something much larger than any of us individually. You pay respect to 132 years. There is only one wish. To make sure that people in 100 years will have the same amount of emotion, the same experience… and you being with me polishing that diamond. Don’t ever cut it. Leave it as it is.”
When we asked Mr Bazin, after his speech, what qualities he thought gave the Raffles his title of “best in the world”, he said, “Longevity, purity, grandiose… it is something very rare. It is exceptional beauty that is very elegant; there is nothing flashy. It doesn’t impress people. You just believe you are entering something in which you have to be very careful. It is a diamond.”
As head of the Accor group, Mr Bazin said he was proud to be part of history in this place: “I never would have missed it. I can give you a little anecdote. My wife is back here with me. The last time she was in Singapore was 24 years ago, and we slept here, but she never returned. And now here I am at Accor, welcoming everybody… and I had no idea 24 years ago that I would be in front of you today. Anyone who puts one foot here will remember that they have been here. I don’t have any other properties in the world where you have that same feeling.”
The meticulous restoration led by acclaimed interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud was also supported by Aedas, a leading global architecture and design firm. Together, the designers created a refreshed social haven that delivers a compelling mix of culture, beauty and gentility. Ms Champalimaud and the two partners who were dedicated to this project Ed Bakos and Jon Kastl, were present at the opening.
“I have a feeling of amazing relief today, because it has been so well received, and we haven’t done anything but enhance an incredible icon, and we are very, very grateful that we have had such great partners and such great clients… visionaries who had us join them in this wonderful team. I really am over the moon I am so excited,” said Ms Champalimaud.
When Sebastien Bazin described Raffles as the “best hotel in the world”, Ms Champalimaud said, “It gave me shivers, to be honest. Of course, one thinks that, but just hearing it said was confirmation that we were all on the right track.”
The greatest challenge? “For Jon and Ed, who spent many hours working here, I think it has to do with the actual structure. It is both beautiful and demanding. We had to be very careful with the traditions – but finding finishes that are practical and enduring, affecting change without it being obvious. The challenge was in not losing what Raffles was. It was a joy to have been on that journey.”
Leslie Danker, Raffles resident historian was also on hand at the opening ceremony, and was thanked by the Hotel GM, as well as receiving a warm applause from all staff members present.
Danker is the longest serving staff member at the hotel, having spent 47 years with Raffles Singapore. Christian Westbeld quoted Mr Danker, who had once said, “There will always be a Raffles.”
Also known as the walking encyclopaedia on the hotel, Leslie continually researches the property’s role in Singapore’s history, and conducts history tours for residents. With all his knowledge of Raffles Hotel, he has even penned a book titled “Memoirs of a Raffles Original”.
The daytime official opening was followed by a festive evening, where Singaporeans celebrated the opening of their iconic landmark property. More than 2,000 people turned up for the lavish “block party” – the “Raffles Reopening Festival”.