Grand Dame's grand year
Iconic Hong Kong hotel gets HK$450m upgrade on its 85th birthday
This May, The Peninsula Hong Kong will unveil enhanced guestrooms – renovated to the tune of HK$450 million – to kick off its 85th anniversary celebrations. This marks the latest milestone for the Asian hospitality landmark that was called “the finest hotel east of Suez” when it opened on December 11, 1928.
“We didn’t actually change any internal infrastructure. The purpose of the renovation wasn’t to make new rooms, but to bring quality to an even higher level. We invested a lot of money into installing next-generation technology and blending it with luxury in very subtle ways,” says Rainy Chan, area vice-president – Hong Kong and Thailand of The Peninsula Hotels, and general manager of The Peninsula Hong Kong.
“Because of our recent renovations, we are younger today at 85 than most hotels in Hong Kong. I know that when we turn 100 years old, there will be a further transformation and we will be young once again.”
Chan attributes The Peninsula’s longevity and success to the unwavering support of its owner, Sir Michael David Kadoorie.
“We have our chairman’s and his family’s commitment to really look at us as a long-term investment,” Chan says. “He invests heavily in the hotel and the staff. “We have gone through ups and downs, but with his support, we never feel worried or insecure. That’s the reason why so many people have worked here for so long, including me.”
Chan has been with the group since 1994 and has served in senior management positions in Hong Kong, Chicago, New York and Bangkok.
“More than 50 per cent of my staff have served here for between five and 19 years. The other 10 per cent have been here from between 19 to 55 years. These are numbers that we’re very proud of and it’s all because we feel very much a part of a family.”
Despite its long history, many things have remained unchanged since The Peninsula opened 85 years ago.
“We are still owned by the same family, which is a very significant point these days when hotels are treated as just any other business. It’s an amazing unchanged factor that we’re proud of,” Chan says.
“Our core values have not changed. We are people-driven and people-focused, and have a long-term view and a commitment to excellence and luxury. Our approach to our people and the philosophy of our service culture also haven’t changed. These are the traditions that make this company successful. Otherwise, we will not be calling ourselves The Peninsula.”
Looking back at significant milestones in the hotel’s 85-year history, Chan says she considers the opening of the Gaddi’s restaurant in 1953 as one of the most important. “We were the first to bring French dining to Hong Kong,” she says.
Another milestone was the acquisition of Rolls-Royce vehicles in the 1970s. The hotel is the only one in Hong Kong to have a fleet of 14 Rolls-Royce Extended Wheelbase Phantom limousines in its underground car park. One of those cars – a restored 1934 Rolls-Royce Phantom II – is just six years younger than the hotel itself.
Major changes were introduced in 1994, when the hotel added a 30-storey tower to house 130 more guest rooms. At the same time, the hotel also introduced a heliport, a spa, and the Philippe Starck-designed Felix rooftop restaurant with its world-famous men’s washroom.
“That was a very visionary move because we realised that the hotel needed to expand into more of a lifestyle business rather than just a hotel,” Chan says. “Instead of destroying the original building, we decided to add a tower, which was more challenging because then we had to mix the old with the new. Bringing in new high-quality facilities enabled us to offer very comprehensive services to our guests.”
The reasons behind the hotel’s ability to continue to draw guests from around the world, however, go deeper than the facilities it has to offer.
“People come to us looking to experience the famous Peninsula service. That, of course, is a tribute to our people. The fact that more than 50 per cent of our staff have served here for between five and 19 years is a key factor in why guests enjoy our service. In the service industry, experience is everything,” Chan says.
Some of the hotel’s customers come from families that have been staying at the hotel for generations. “I always have guests saying, ‘My grandfather used to stay here and he only paid $2 for a room.’ Some guests have known our staff members since they were little kids,” Chan says.
“This hotel is about caring, observing and being there when you’re needed. We don’t train our staff what to do for our guests. We inspire them. When your people are inspired, they’ll do the right thing.”
To illustrate, Chan recounts the story of a regular guest who was wearing a slipper on one foot and a shoe on the other while having lunch in the hotel lobby. A curious staff member asked him what was wrong. He told her that, due to gout, his foot was painful and swollen, and he was resigned to having to wear mismatched footwear on his flight to New York the following day.
The staff member left the guest to finish his lunch and, acting completely on her own, went to his room to measure his shoes. She then ran to nearby Granville Road to buy a pair of Birkenstocks, which she left in the guest’s room with a note saying: “Please wear this as our gift. I picked black because it goes with everything you wear.”
“That is something that is not in the training book,” Chan says. “Our staff member felt that she just had to do it. It only cost the hotel HK$500, but the guest had been visiting here for a long time and this incident cemented his relationship with this hotel.”
The hotel takes pride not only in the way it trains its people, but also with its programmes that are related to family life. For example, a non-governmental organisation was brought in last year to teach staff with teenage children how to communicate with them sensitively.
In terms of staff development, even pageboys have a chance to rise through the ranks. “After a pageboy has worked for us for 18 months, assuming he has performed well, he will be given the chance to work in every single department of the hotel for three months,” Chan says. “After that, if he decides that he likes working in the kitchen, for example, then we’ll develop a training programme for him to become a cook. We have successful cases of pageboys who’ve become waiters, front desk agents and supervisors.”
In a way, Chan says, running The Peninsula has been easy given her love for the hotel. “I come to work every day very happy. This is my life and many of my staff feel the same way.”
She acknowledges that striking a balance is the hardest part of her work. “Our job is all about taking care of others, and when you are giving the whole day, it can be very exhausting. You forget about yourself. I love my work so much that I sometimes forget to stop. It’s very consuming personally,” she says.
“It is vital to get the support of the people around you. You must also have a good support system at home.”