The Plaza has become a member of the Preferred Hotel Group. / Courtesy of the Plaza
By Kim Rahn
The Plaza, one of Seoul's representative local brand hotels, has joined an international alliance of independent hotels, and the membership will help the hotel gain more recognition in the global market by providing guaranteed service, said the hotel's general manager.
The hotel today joins Preferred Hotel Group (PHG), a luxury independent hotel association of 800 hotels and resorts in 70 countries. The association was designed to effectively meet the competition from franchise hotel groups and chains.
After the hotel reopened following a full-scale renovation, about a year ago General Manager Yuji Hirahara took the reins of the hotel and planned to get PHG membership.
"Since I came here, the hotel was nice, all new, and the service standard was also very high. But one thing was missing: international exposure outside of Korea", said the Japanese native.
He said although the Plaza had upscale facilities and a high level of service, people around the world barely knew about the hotel, except for Japanese tourists who take up more than 65 percent of the guest list.
"From foreigners' brochures and travel guide books to package tours, none of them explain about the Plaza simply because we don't speak up. We didn't go overseas for PR activities and sales calls. We didn't do anything. So we were missing the opportunity",Hirahara said.
The general manager pointed out the hotel previously didn't need to promote itself overseas actively, because it dominated in the Japanese tourists' market, but now the situation is different.
"For the last decade Seoul has become a more international city. We are inviting a lot of international conferences. Seoul has been exposed in the international market and we have lots of convention people and business people coming to stay with us. Ten years ago I don't think we had people from the Middle East, Africa or Europe", the 54-year-old said.
"But obviously now Seoul becomes more international. So this hotel, after renovation, is not just different in image. The guests are changing. So we really have to change. For hardware, we already changed, so for the service standard and marketing activity, we really have to be more international. To be a PHG member, it's right on the track".
Hirahara said there are two more associations for independent hotels, but the PHG is the strongest in sales, marketing and PR among them.
"For us, PHG is a very strong tool to be a more globalized hotel because we can't open an office in London, Hong Kong or Singapore, but PHG is doing everything for us".
He said many Korean branches of international companies are within walking distance, but their foreign staff don't stay at the Plaza but at hotels farther away because their Asian headquarters booking the rooms for their staff don't know about this hotel.
"We seldom visited Hong Kong or Singapore (where international companies' Asian headquarters are usually set up) for sales calls. We stayed out. We were not in the game.
"But PHG Asia's headquarters is in Hong Kong. So our staff will go for sales calls but at the same time we can ask PHG to help us. This is really a direct benefit for us", he said.
Hirahara said because the Plaza is not internationally known, people in America or Europe may not be interested in the hotel however hard its staff tries to promote it.
"But now we can say we are a PHG member, and at least they'll listen to us because they know the standards of PHG, which not everybody can join. Now we can join the game".
The Plaza's being a PHG member benefits not only the hotel but also guests - they can join "I Prefer", a membership program for 800 PHG hotels around the world. Besides VIP benefits at those hotels, they can accumulate mileage points for 16 affiliated airlines.
For diversified service
PHG categorizes its members into seven groups, according to their facility and service level. The Plaza was registered in the Preferred Hotels & Resorts level, the highest one, for the first time as a Korean independent hotel.
"PHG is famous particularly among businesspeople and Westerners. The hotel group checked this hotel's location, facilities and service standard and found this is a recommendable hotel", said the Hotelier with a career spanning 22 years.
But he pointed out the hotel needs to develop its services further, not because the service quality is low but because it is accomodating more diverse guests.
"Our next goal is how much we can diversify our service standard. If you get any bellboy in the lobby, most of them are fluent in Japanese because more than 65 percent of the guests are Japanese. They really know how to take care of Japanese tourists, how to talk and how to entertain them", Hirahara said.
"Now we have more diversified guests, those from the Middle East, Africa, Europe or the U.S. Their expectations and requirements from a hotel are different from Japanese tourists'. Also those people coming here, particularly Europeans, are businessmen. Ittotally different and now we are trying to adjust or expand our service level".
The general manager mentioned bankers as an example: Bankers need everything quick, including check-in, shower or suit pressing, not a friendly chat with a bellboy. "We have to think about what guests really need".
Hirahara, who worked for hotels in Hong Kong, Malaysia and the Philippines, said when he came to this Korean hotel, he was surprised with the hierarchy at the hotel, saying junior staff couldn't make a decision without approval from above.
So he is adopting "direct communication" and "empowerment" for the organization, because he thinks the hierarchal culture is not good in the hotel industry where all staff, regardless of rank, needs to deal with guests. He said, for example, when a guest wants a late checkout, junior ranking staff had to look for their supervisors to get approval without any authority to decide on their own.
"From a guest's point of view, it's not flexible. So lower ranking staff have to be more empowered to take care of all these urgent requests. Those are challenges I found - trying to be more personalized or catered".
To celebrate joining PHG, the Plaza offers Summer Packages at a discounted price of 240,000 won until June 10. The package includes one-night stay in a deluxe room and a mini nail polish collection from OPI, as well as the choice of breakfast buffet for two or a beer and a side dish.
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