Operating lifestyle hotel brands: Lessons from Philippe Zrihen at Ennismore

For Philippe Zrihen, head of Ennismore, Americas, a good lifestyle boutique hotel brand makes you feel cool and like you’re in the middle of something. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 84 or you’re 24, you just feel a certain vibe.”

Operating brands like these requires staying in tune with what guests are looking for, he shared on a recent episode of the No Vacancy Show with Glenn Haussman. 

F&B: core to the brand experience

F&B was always part of the hospitality experience, and that’s only increased, according to Zrihen. But now it’s less about celebrity chefs and more about the overall experience you feel when you step into the spot. 

“Obviously, I want great food, but I’m also thinking, what’s the entertainment? What am I seeing around me? How is the music? How is the lighting? People want a certain type of atmosphere.”

Zrihen always found it strange when hotels were publicizing their so-called celebrity chef and had to describe why the chef was a celebrity.

But beyond the dubious nature of some celebrity chefs, there’s a bigger trend at play. “I don’t think you need the reliance on a brand name in order to be successful because people are getting more and more adventurous. They’re asking themselves where they can discover the next great meal and worry less about having a cookie-cutter experience from one chef over and over again.”

For Ennismore’s brands, integrated F&B offerings are core to the overall experience. “We’re not big fans of outsourcing that experience to a third party because we think it’s an integral part of the overall vibe of the hotel.”

It starts with working with high-end chefs who can deliver a quality meal, and make it approachable and varied. “Nobody wants to stay at a hotel for 5-6 days and find it only has one unique meal that they can only have once during their stay. I need enough options so I can experiment and try new things and be a little adventuresome.”

Finally, the F&B offerings need to appeal to more than just guests. “As a hotel guest, you don’t want to be surrounded only by people who are staying in the hotel. You want to feel like you are part of a hub that is central to the city you’re in. Marketing, social media, and having the proper activations all help attract a broader clientele.”

Integrating F&B into the overall experience

The 21c Museum Hotel brand does a great job of combining F&B with other experiential elements. Guests enjoy grabbing a pre-dinner drink and walking around the museum before sitting down for dinner. 

“That fully integrated experience is exactly what we strive for. Your experience is being curated on so many different levels.”

Prioritizing fitness and wellness

“20 years ago, you would go to a hotel, plan on dinner and being out until the wee hours of the morning, coming back, going to the beach, and doing it all over again,” Zrihen observed. But now, guests are prioritizing fitness and wellness as part of their stay more than ever before. They still want to go out and have a good time, but they’re balancing that with living a healthy lifestyle.

“People are asking ‘Where can I find a gym? Where can I get a personal training session? Where can I find a smoothie?’”

Attracting the right people

Experience design is important, but at the end of the day, operating successful brands comes down to the people providing hospitality. 

“The magic is in having the right staff,” Zrihen shared. “We’re only as good as who we can recruit, and we recruit by having an operating philosophy that says we’re all here trying to provide a fun, non-stuffy lifestyle in our hotels.”

Staff are the first point of contact with guests, and their job is to ensure they are attentive to providing the experience guests are looking for.

Cultivating the right culture

For Zrihen, success begins by attracting the right people but it’s critical to build on that by developing a culture where those people thrive.

That starts with empowering people to speak their minds. “I say to people, no matter what role you have in the company – share what you’re seeing and observing. Share your different views. Let’s talk about it.”

That sort of engagement not only betters the work culture but also betters Ennismore hotels because everyone on the team – at all levels – is thinking every day about how to improve the experience.

This philosophy affects how Zrihen and his team recruits because they are looking for people who are going to be able to speak their mind. “The culture perpetuates itself if you do this and actively encourage participation.”

Lessons from partnering with Accor

As an operator, the Ennismore team had owners come to them saying they love their hotels and their vibe, but some were worried a boutique brand won’t be able to bring in the type of business a big brand would.

Zrihen’s previous experience with SBE was helpful here, as he saw the company’s acquisition of Morgans Hotel Group in 2016. That included brands like Mondrian and Delano, which were iconic and sold themselves to some extent. But as time went on, the importance of distribution, procurement, loyalty programs, and other benefits people expect from larger hotel companies became more important. So in 2018, Zrihen and his team began having conversations with larger brands that were looking to get into the lifestyle space.

The goal was to combine the uniqueness and DNA of the Ennismore lifestyle brands with the global distribution of a larger brand. But the challenge is that many operators from big brands have struggled historically to successfully run boutique/lifestyle brands because many aspects of what makes boutique lodging special aren’t in a corporate operations process manual.

The Ennismore team eventually formed a partnership with Accor Hotels, and something their CEO Sébastien Bazin said at the time stood out to Zrihen: “We are going to involuntarily try to commoditize your brands. Do not let us do that.” Accor has stayed true to its promise, allowing Ennismore to continue building its brands and only engage when they need help. “That philosophy has proved to be successful because it avoided the potential pitfalls of a deal like we did.”

Bazin’s approach to the partnership was also a masterclass in leadership. “What you remember 25 years into your career aren’t the long speeches or someone telling you how to run your day-to-day responsibilities – it’s just the little tidbits of guidance and then getting out of the way,” Zrihen concluded.

Listen to the full conversation on No Vacancy News

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