Jeannette Ho is transforming Raffles into the best small but perfectly formed new hotel brand in the world
Hotel openings usually flatter to deceive, but just occasionally one comes along that really does change things. Last year, Raffles served up a masterclass in how to take a property with a storied history that had become a slave to its past and elegantly reinvent it.
From the 60ft-high white theatre-like lobby, lit by a glass roof and vast chandelier, through the Tiffin Room, decorated with battered steel lunch boxes, to the warmth of the suites with their softwhite walls, dark wood floors and traditional Peranakan tiles, the grande dame of Singapore enjoyed a grand makeover without ever becoming imposing or stiff.
The Asian brand is about to try to pull off the same trick again. First in Udaipur, where, once the Covid-19 pandemic has eased and it is safe to do so, it will convert a palace on a deserted lake into a 101-room hotel. Then in London, where the Old War Office on Whitehall, in which Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George and Lord Kitchener served their country, will become a 125-room hotel by mid-2022.
The woman behind such ambitious projects is Jeannette Ho, head of Raffles global brand strategy, who is stealthily creating the world’s best new small hotel group. We meet before the outbreak of the pandemic as she walks through the lobby of Raffles mothership in the Lion City, checking that every last detail, including the religion changing strength of the martinis in the Writers Bar, is ‘just so’.
‘Over the next three years we’ll be looking to double our operating portfolio to 25-30 properties,’ she tells me. As well as hotels in Singapore and London, ‘Boston is the other new one that we’re very excited about,’ she says.
‘It’s a new building in the Back Bay. The two owners are groups of families who have operated for 25-30 years in Boston. For them, it’s about creating something iconic in their home town.’
Also on the way is a property in Bali, ‘which is going to be our flagship for a new programme called Emotional Wellbeing by Raffles’. She explains: ‘Gone are the days where you just fly and flop on holiday. You don’t feel good about yourself if you do that. You’ve over-drunk, over-eaten all the wrong types of food and you’ve put on 5kg.
‘A lot of travellers these days pay attention to the gym just as much as the spa. They want food to be of great quality but not to overdo it. “Nutrition for pleasure”, we call it. The same goes for everything from the design of your suite and the gardens to the music and the lighting. These are all pillars of service that promote relaxation. We want to take it to the next level.’
Technology is a luxury, too, but only if you get it right. All Raffles’ properties have leading-edge tech that is so intuitive even grown-ups can use it. ‘We’ve had a lot of comments saying our in-room iPad controller is one of the few that doesn’t need instructions,’ laughs Ho. In the Raffles suites I’ve visited in Singapore, Dubai and the Maldives, there’s a button on the iPad to summon the butler.
And you don’t need a PhD to work out how to turn off the lights before bed after one of Ho’s favourite martinis. For Ho, the key to success is elegant simplicity because it promotes ‘emotional well-being’ whether you are staying in a city hotel in Paris, Istanbul or Phnom Penh or a Raffles resort in the Seychelles, the Maldives or Siem Reap.
Take service. ‘Our style is engaging but not over-familiar. It’s all about the individual relationship you build with each guest, so they feel perfectly understood,’ she says. Service is the key battleground for Raffles, ‘because our guests’ homes are grander than any suite, even the presidential suite, that they can book at any property. There’s nothing physical that can beat what they already have at home.’ The brand’s history certainly helps with service.
‘We were one of the earliest hotels in Asia to have butlers.’ In the Maldives there are even marine butlers to help guests to explore the house coral reef. What’s her service motto? ‘Your wish is our command – as long as it’s not illegal!’ Part of Raffles’ secret is working with the right investors and developers.
In Singapore, Ho worked with the Emir of Qatar, who bought the dilapidated Raffles building in 2011 for £226 million. Three years ago it was closed and the Emir and his team began working with the Paris-based Accor Group, parent company of the Raffles brand, redesigning and refurbishing the property. Divide the estimated £150 million budget by the number of rooms and it works out at almost £1.5 million per room.
That’s a lot of petrodollars. At the Old War Office, Raffles is working with the Hinduja Group, led by Sri and Gopi Hinduja, two brothers who run Britain’s most successful family trading business and who, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, are the richest men in Britain, worth a combined £22 billion.
‘It’s not about how wealthy the owners are but really whether they have a vision. They want to transform this historical institution into something meaningful for Britain,’ Ho says. Some rivals, notably Ritz-Carlton, now offer a super-luxe Airbnb-style service. Guests can rent a brand-approved apartment or villa with services provided by hotel-approved staff. Besides Raffes, Accor also owns One Fine Stay, the UK-based upmarket home share service, which is helping Raffles to dip a toe in the water of the sharing economy.
‘There is an opportunity for One Fine Stay guests to leverage the services of a Raffles that’s nearby, that helps them to get ahead of Airbnb,’ Ho explains. So, if I’m staying at a One Fine Stay in Singapore, I request a cook from the Raffles nearby?
‘I don’t see why not, if the chef is available. If you said you wanted housekeeping, for example, why not the housekeeper from the property? And then you at least know that it’s of the hotel’s standards.’
But that’s for the future. Right now, there’s this year’s and next year’s splashy openings to complete once the pandemic has, finally, eased – and then new sites to find in Shanghai, Beijing, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Delhi, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Sydney, Rome, Milan, Geneva and Hawaii. This woman will go far.
This piece was first published in issue 74 of Spear’s. Click here to by a copy and subscribe