Luxury Hotel Management And Leadership 101: SLS Hotel Beverly Hills

GMPhoto Credit: Photo Courtesy of SLS Hotel, Beverly Hills

No level of technology integration will replace the experience of seeing a cook in an open kitchen preparing a dish with precision and passion, or the magic touch of a skilled masseuse,” explained Christophe Thomas, General Manager of SLS Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Beverly Hills. In an interview about inspiration, passion and leadership, Thomas reflects on nearly 30 years in the hospitality industry and details what sparked his career interest, key leadership and management lessons he’s learned over the years, the future of technology integration into the guest experience and much more. 

lux3171ex-173265-SLS Hotel Facade with Sunset-Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Mark Silverstein Photography for SLS Hotel, Beverly Hills

What was the moment or experience that lit the fire for you to pursue a career in the hospitality industry?

There was no specific moment per se, but it was more of a passion that developed from a young age that led me to where I am today. I grew up in France, where we are very passionate about welcoming and hosting guests, passionate about good food, and have a strong desire to take care of others. I watched my parents host relatives and friends and it inspired in me the desire to create similar warm experiences for others.

I also grew up with a curiosity for other cultures and far-away places. I remember as a teenager, planning trips for me and my friends to South America, putting together itineraries and making travel arrangements that we would all enjoy. At first, I thought I would pursue a career as a tour operator but being raised in Lyon, known as the world capital of gastronomy, it became natural to promote the French savoir faire, so I turned to hospitality school instead. Having said that, there’s nothing more rewarding than travel—taking yourself out of your comfort zone and being immersed in something so different from what you’re used to. Not only is it inspiring, but it also breeds humility as you start to understand that there are so, so many beautiful places all around the world.

Now, as part of The Luxury Collection, a brand dedicated to being the destination authority, I am living out my childhood dream to create experiences and customize guests’ encounters within the destination. I would say, almost like a tour operator for our guests, but on a much more personalized and intimate level.

lux3171po-174528-pool cabanas-Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Mark Silverstein Photography for SLS Hotel, Beverly Hills

What was your first job in the business, and what did you take away from that experience?

My first job was as front desk agent at Le Meridien Etoile in Paris. At that time, it was the largest hotel in Paris with hundreds of guests checking in each day from all over the world, with different travel plans and expectations as well as different backgrounds that shaped their perception of the perfect hotel experience.

We had guests from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, other European countries, the Americas, all over. This was my first lesson in understanding that guest expectations will vary quite a bit, but it’s our job as hospitality professionals to understand these differences and deliver an outstanding level of service—whatever that may mean to each specific guest. It also taught me the importance of picking up on unspoken clues that may help inform the level of service that each guest is expecting, to embrace cultural differences and deliver on the promise of excellence. And it taught me unity. At the end of the day the hotel should be a home away from home, a place where all are made to feel welcome.

lux3171re-234857-Blanca Dining Room-Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Skott Snider Photography for SLS Hotel, Beverly Hills

Reflecting on your nearly 30 years in this industry, what are some of the most important leadership and management lessons you’ve learned along the way about running a world-class hotel?

  1. Be open to new ideas and turn to your team for counsel. In the hospitality industry we are generally very fortunate to be surrounded by a very diverse team with very different views.
  1. Inspect what you expect. I have had the privilege of working with colleagues from many different backgrounds. And among the many things I’ve learned from them is to remember that our backgrounds shape our interpretations. As a leader, you must be diligent in ensuring that those around you understand the expectations you are setting and you must be the first to check that these expectations are being met. It’s the details that deliver on the expectations, and often times it’s the details that get lost in translation or are open to misinterpretation.
  1. Be humble and let your team shine.
  1. Never compromise. In order to create a luxury experience, you should never compromise or lower expectations. Push yourself as a leader to provide excellence at all times and you will become an inspiration to your team to do the same.

presidentialsuiteguestroomPhoto Credit: Photo Courtesy of Mark Silverstein Photography for SLS Hotel, Beverly Hills

What are the biggest challenges to being a General Manager of a five-star property, and how do you overcome them?

In recent years, the biggest challenge is that everything moves at a faster pace. Twenty years ago, people were not in as much of a rush and there was not this underlying pressure to do more, see more, and taste more during your trip. Today, a five-star property must provide not only provide consistent quality and uncompromising standards of service, but they must also meet guest’s expectations when it comes to timeliness. The hotel industry is built on people and relationships and these things take time to develop, master and perfect. So you’re always trying to find that perfect balance between luxury, quality and managing time expectations. In addition, more than ever, guests like to be surprised and delighted. As people travel more and more, new boundaries and levels of creativity are required to curate memorable experiences.

presidentialkitchenPhoto Credit: Photo Courtesy of Mark Silverstein Photography for SLS Hotel, Beverly Hills

As more and more technology is integrated into hotel rooms and operations more broadly – to ease the ordering of room service, booking spa appointments, or interacting with the concierge – where is all this heading in terms of a digital-first guest experience?

Technology is a wonderful assistant for improving response time and it’s also a fantastic option for guests who may not want to interact with anyone face to face at that given moment.  For us, we view these tech updates as another layer of personalization, a way to provide our guests with their preferred method of communication for that specific instance.  But I’m still confident that no level of tech integration will replace the experience of seeing a cook in an open kitchen preparing a dish with precision and passion, or the magic touch of a skilled masseuse.  Of course digital-first can enhance, but in no instance replace, the personal interaction and level of service needed for an exceptional guest experience. 

presidentialsuite1Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Mark Silverstein Photography for SLS Hotel, Beverly Hills

When you think about the role and influence social media has had on the industry these past several years, coupled with the advent of online reviews and instant feedback more generally, how has that impacted your role as a GM?

I believe it pushes us as professionals to make sure we are staying relevant and communicating with the guest in a timely manner. Before, it would take weeks before a guest letter – whether it be positive or negative – would reach us. Today, you can connect with guests in real time, see what they’re “liking” during their stay with us, what activities they’re participating in, or what we can do to improve on a guest experience. You can also use social media to get a pulse on the trends and preferences that drive guest satisfaction. It’s a goldmine of information that is there for you to tap into without having to solicit the guest. And it’s up to us as GM’s to decide what to do with this wealth of information, how we can use it to the benefit of current and future guests as well as our associates, for example by implementing new programming or acknowledging associates who help create the special moments and memories that guests chose to share on social media.

Learn more about how the world’s best luxury hoteliers lead and manage some of the most legendary hotels and resorts in A Wealth of Insight, critically-acclaimed as one of the best hotel management books by Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, University of Nevada’s Las Vegas Harrah College of Hospitality, and Les Roches Global Hospitality Education Switzerland, among other leading hospitality institutions.