Picturing Peninsula Hotels

Who are the true celebrities in a posh hotel? At the Peninsula Hotels, it seems it's the staff, as evidenced by the hotel group's current global advertising campaign, which features images of staff members taken by renowned celebrity portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz.

The impetus behind the "Portraits of Peninsula" campaign was to go to the heart of the guest experience at Peninsula properties. "So much of what makes Peninsula's style of hospitality special is the personal connection our staff have with guests," says Peter C. Borer, the Peninsula Hotels' chief operating officer. Travelers seem to agree; all seven of the group's properties feature in the U.S. editions of Travel + Leisure's "The Greatest Hotels in the World 2005" and Conde Nast Traveler's "2005 Gold List -- World's Best Places to Stay" lists.

The "Portraits of Peninsula" campaign is a refreshing departure from the usual glossy property shot or that of models posing as guests on location. What you get instead are evocative black and white images of staff at work. These images include Martin Oxley, the Peninsula Hong Kong's fleet manager standing beside a 1934 Phantom II, the crown glory of the hotel's fleet of Rolls-Royces; Cheung Tin Sang, a pageboy at the Peninsula New York walking four dogs and carrying one; staff of the Peninsula Hong Kong, posing with their children who are decked out as pageboys.

In fact, the iconic Peninsula pageboy has come to personify the group's personal approach to service. The Peninsula Hong Kong was the first hotel in Asia to employ pageboys, and pageboys appear in the hotel's photo archive dating back to opening day in 1928. Today, pageboys are at the ready at all Peninsula hotels and their sole function is to respond to guests' needs.

Every hotel company today claims to be service-oriented. The Peninsula believes it is different because staff are dedicated to providing service to all guests with grace and genuine warmth. As a company, it is also constantly changing and evolving with the needs of guests.

As Paul Quinn, the Peninsula Hong Kong's Chief Concierge puts it, "We try to make the impossible possible. The golden rule is we try never to say no." During his career, Quinn has dealt with some unusual requests, from arranging a visit to Buckingham Palace to organizing a party in Regents Park with elephants (rain put a damper on the plans but Quinn arranged an alternative indoor treat). Quinn adds, "Sometimes it is more about understanding the guest as they may ask for something when it's not really what they want."

What's in it for the staff? One image in the "Portraits" campaign features three chambermaids who have been with the company for a combined total of 49 years. That's an average of more than 15 years of service each. The Peninsula Hotels believes staff stays because it truly looks after them in both good times and bad. As Zuleka Mok, the group's general manager of human resources puts it, "They are part of the Peninsula family. All of our staff members are treated with the same level of respect, dignity and consideration regardless of their position. We help them to build their career with us, instead of just providing jobs."

Clement Kwok, the Peninsula Hotels' chief executive officer has been quoted as saying, "service is an art," and that staff are "the true heart and soul" of the Peninsula Hotels. So what does the company look for in potential employees? In a nutshell, caring, genuine and passionate people. For the company, these attributes are more important than technical skills.

The Peninsula Hotels also prides itself on providing a unique luxury guest experience by blending the best of the Peninsula's offerings with local culture. For instance, the Peninsula Palace Beijing's Peninsula Academy Programme provides a package called "Tour and Lunch on the Great Wall." While visitors to Beijing have long climbed parts of China's historic Great Wall, the Peninsula Hotels claims that no other hotel in Beijing offers a catered lunch atop the wall. After a one and a half hour trip to the Great Wall in a chauffeured Mercedes-Benz, guests can take a guided tour followed by a private lunch on a secluded part of the wall.

By its own definition, the Peninsula Hotels operates at the luxury end of the industry. Offerings such as the HK$ 110,000 (US$ 14,100) "Pen-Ultimate Experience" at the group's flagship Hong Kong property, which includes two nights' stay in a suite, transfers by chauffeured Rolls-Royce, in-suite candlelight dining while serenaded by the hotel's jazz trio, and a 30-minute sightseeing tour by helicopter among other treats, are out of reach for most. Yet there is also the affordably priced Afternoon Tea, an institution popular with guests, tourists and local residents alike, which is available at all properties.

"As a small hotel group with only seven hotels, we are not in direct competition with any other hotel group, but prefer to let our hotels' quality speak for itself," said Arthur Kiong, the group's vice president of sales and marketing for Asia. The Peninsula Hong Kong's fleet of 14 Rolls-Royces and rooftop heli-pad, the Bangkok property's unsurpassed location by the Chao Phraya River, the cutting-edge Peninsula Spa at the Beverly Hills property, the hip Pen-Top Bar with sweeping views of Manhattan, all give credence to this claim.

The Peninsula Hotels' success aptly illustrates how happy employees are as important as a focused business strategy. With a new property due to open in the rejuvenated Marunouchi district in Tokyo in 2007 and ambitions to stamp its presence in Europe via London, it will be interesting to see how the group stays true to its successful two-pronged strategy.