Sofitel So Bangkok is part of the company’s Sofitel So boutique brand. // © 2013 Sofitel Hotels
Earlier this year, Sofitel launched a wine program that highlights the rich variety of French vintage wines. French wine experts Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve hand-picked a selection of mainly French wines, including such prestigious appellations as Bordeaux, Margaux, Bourgogne, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Alsace, which all will be specially tailored to the 23 Sofitel hotels taking part in the new program. Eventually the program will expand to include exclusive pairing dinners designed to highlight each chef’s culinary inspirations with the selected wines.
Elles by Gilles Bensimon, an exclusive collection of 25 photos honoring famous women from the arts and entertainment industry, will appear at four of Sofitel’s American properties this year. The exhibit captures some of the esteemed French fashion photographer’s best work. The show launched at Sofitel New York last month, and will travel across the U.S. to Sofitel Washington D.C. Lafayette Square, Sofitel Chicago Water Tower and Sofitel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills later this year.
When Robert Gaymer-Jones was appointed chief operating officer of Sofitel Hotels in 2007, he was faced with a formidable challenge — to spearhead an aggressive international plan that would reposition Sofitel as one of the world’s leading luxury hotel brands.
“At the time, people didn’t really know what Sofitel was,” said Gaymer-Jones.
Even Sofitel seemed to have an unclear sense of self.
Acquired by Accor Hotels in the 1990s, Sofitel had grown its portfolio to 204 properties by 2007, with few of the properties sharing any commonalities.
To make matters even more confusing, many consumers associated Accor with economy accommodations and didn’t know how to fit Sofitel into the larger picture.
Although Accor features some 3,500 properties and 450,000 rooms worldwide and includes brands such as Pullman, Grand Mercure and Novotel, in 2007 the company was largely known as the parent of the two-star chain Ibis Hotels and the U.S. economy chain, Motel 6, which it later sold in 2012.
Committed to developing a true luxury culture, Accor spun off Sofitel into an independent subsidiary unit and tapped Gaymer-Jones, formerly an executive with Marriott Hotels, to help reimagine the brand as a competitor in the upscale accommodations market.
His first step was to build a team of professionals familiar with luxury brands. Shortly thereafter, Sofitel launched its new visual identity and logo, which was designed to represent Sofitel as a connector of worlds, countries and people, and to affirm the brand’s vision that human relations are at the heart of all luxury.
Gaymer-Jones’ next step would prove to be a little more challenging. He needed to take a hard look at all 204 properties in the Sofitel family to determine which hotels no longer reflected the company’s brand promise. As a guide, Gaymer-Jones evaluated each property using criteria that included location, innovation, design, luxury service standards, food and beverage offerings, the ability to develop a world-class spa, access to the right clientele and a competitive revenue per available room (revPAR). The final benchmark tapped back into Sofitel’s commitment to human relations.
“Were the owners passionate about investing into Sofitel’s new luxury standards?” Gaymer-Jones asked.
The process resulted in 60 properties being rebranded and added elsewhere in Accor’s portfolio, with another 52 properties being dropped completely.
“In four years, we went from 204 properties to 89,” said Gaymer-Jones. “We reduced our portfolio by more than 50 percent.”
Art de Vivre
As Sofitel worked with the properties who would remain a part of the family, the team also developed a brand that would cohesively link all Sofitel properties.
“We wanted each property to retain its own identity,” said Gaymer-Jones. “We didn’t want every lobby to look identical.”
Rather than concentrating on a standard look, Sofitel chose to focus on lifestyle.
“We wanted to celebrate our French heritage and to be the symbol of French elegance in luxury hospitality around the world,” he said.
And so “Art de Vivre” was born.
While the term, which means “lifestyle” but also translates to “the art of living,” makes a nod to the brand’s French roots, it also provides enough flexibility to allow each property to infuse local culture into its operations.
“Our brand is about blending,” said Gaymer-Jones. “We want our hotels to blend French hospitality with the best elements of the local community.”
Within the framework of Art de Vivre, each Sofitel property focuses on three key pillars: design, gastronomy and culture.
Sofitel’s commitment to individual design has allowed the brand to develop partnerships with such luminary designers, architects and artists as Kenzo Takada, Christian Lacroix and Karl Lagerfeld, who have each had a hand in renovating an existing property or building a new one from the ground up. Sofitel, which essentially gave each designer free reign to reimagine the property, is looking to develop a brand that is a leader in contemporary culture.
Gastronomy, too, plays a significant role at each Sofitel property. Once again, Sofitel emphasizes blending, as each chef combines French culinary heritage with local flavors. Guests at every Sofitel can delight in a few brand-wide culinary initiatives such as bread rituals, patisserie rituals and cheese rituals.
Sofitel’s third pillar embraces cultural events. Sofitel supports numerous on-site programs such as fashion shows, art exhibits and concerts. The brand’s Les Escales Litteraires (Literary Escapes), for example, invited leading French writers to stay at any Sofitel property and produce a literary short work as a result of their stay.
Beyond the three pillars, Sofitel is also committed to providing a restful and restorative experience for each guest. Each guestroom, for example, features the Sofitel-exclusive MyBed, which combines luxury linens with mattresses that help absorb movement, thanks to a high concentration of springs.
Ultimately, Sofitel is about service. Sofitel has designated each of its employees as a brand ambassador and charged them with helping to create a “handmade” experience for guests. The company has even created a tailored career development plan with the intention of attracting, retaining and advancing talented hospitality professionals.
While his early years at Sofitel were mostly about pruning inventory, Gaymer-Jones, who was promoted to CEO in 2011, is now focused on an aggressive growth trajectory.
Many of the existing properties, such as Sofitel London St. James and Sofitel Bora Bora, are in the process of, or have recently completed, extensive refurbishments. Furthermore, many new properties are cropping up, particularly in Asia and Europe, in cities such as Vienna; Mumbai; Aswan, Egypt; Mogador, Morocco; Guangzhou, China; and Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
In addition to developing new properties, the brand’s family is also growing.
Sofitel’s upscale hotels continue to remain the core component of the brand, however the company also has recently launched the Sofitel Legend brand, as well as Sofitel So.
Sofitel Legend is a collection of legendary luxury properties — a distinctive class among an already elite group. Highlighting iconic, historic properties throughout the world, each property is among the best in the destination, where guests will indulge in such luxury-class services as personal butlers and the best chefs, patissiers and sommeliers in the world.
The first to open, in 2009, was the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi in Vietnam, the famed property where Jane Fonda stayed (and made headline news) during the Vietnam War.
Other recently opened Legend properties include the Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam in the Netherlands; the Old Cataract in Aswan, Egypt; and the Sofitel Legend Cartagena Santa Clara in Colombia. Slated to open are Palais Jamai in Fes, Morocco; the Winter Palace in Luxor, Egypt; and the Hua Hin Resort, which was Thailand’s first-ever seaside resort hotel when it opened in 1922.
At the other end of the spectrum, the brand has also introduced a designer boutique line, Sofitel So. The So collection, made up of intimate properties of no more than 200 rooms, features a particularly concentrated attention on contemporary design and should appeal to Sofitel’s trend-conscious guests. The first So boutique properties recently opened in Mauritius and Bangkok, with another property coming soon in Singapore.
So what’s next for the brand?
Sofitel recently rolled out the second phase of its ad campaign, “Life is Magnifique.”
“The hotels are the stars of this campaign,” said Geoffroy Maugin, Sofitel’s international marketing director. “Now that the brand has successfully repositioned, we are providing clear evidence of a network of exceptional hotels.”
And as for Gaymer-Jones? More growth remains on his horizon.
“Right now, we have 30 or so new projects in the works,” said Gaymer-Jones. “But, by 2015, we expect to have about 150 properties within our collection.”
Life at Sofitel is magnifique, indeed.
Jean Nouvel | Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom
Jean Nouvel, architect to some of the most spectacular buildings in the world, including Japan’s Dentsu Tower and Abu Dhabi’s Louvre Museum, was tasked with building the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom from the ground up. Touted as a celebration of light, the property features a dramatic top floor where all walls have been replaced by glass partitions.
Andree Putman | Sofitel Paris Arc de Triomphe
Putman, who passed away earlier this year, is an internationally known interior designer lauded for her modernist designs and a client list that includes such luminaries as Guerlain, Louis Vuitton and Veuve Clicquot. Her company, Studio Putman, implemented a Parisian style for the Sofitel Paris Arc de Triomphe in soft, soothing colors which have been likened to a romantic pied-a-terre.
Kenzo Takada | So Mauritius
So as not to impose on Mauritius’ mostly unspoiled land, Takada, who worked with renowned Thai architect Lek Bunnag, focused on the terms purity, simplicity and nature. The designer calls his approach Design Zentitude, and he sees it as an encompassing motif for the property’s overall ambiance.
Sybille de Margerie | Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam
Sofitel commissioned French interior architect Sybille de Margerie to lead the dramatic redesign of The Grand Amsterdam, Europe’s first Legend property. De Margerie’s inspiration came from the vibrant colors used by famous Dutch muralist Karel Appel as well as brick elements borrowed from the Dutch Classicist style.
Didier Gomez | Sofitel Essaouira Mogador Golf & Spa
The decorative schemes for the Sofitel Essaouira reflect the wide-open spaces of Morocco, while Incorporating Moroccan patterns. Gomez paid tribute to the nearby “White Town,” by utilizing intense colors, exotic woods and Moorish patterns.
Christian Lacroix | So Bangkok
So Bangkok, which opened in 2012, stars the art and design of French couturier Christian Lacroix. The hotel’s design is based on Lacroix’s personal take on French elegance — theatrical flair, fantasy and folklore — combined with the traditional five elements of oriental philosophy: water, earth, wood, metal and fire. The hotel’s centerpiece is the Tree of Life, a bold lobby mobile that is an Asian-inspired reinterpretation of nature’s most ancient symbol.
Karl Lagerfeld | So Singapore
Sofitel Luxury Hotels commissioned fashion designer, photographer and film director Karl Lagerfeld to design the new Sofitel So Singapore, which will open to the public later this year.