Popular travel community website Tripadvisor has just released the results of its annual hotel visitor survey, and for us at the Duxton the results make heartening reading!

When asked what makes a hotel great, the most important factor (chosen by 30% of respondents) was location. Our guests often comment that they stay with us because we have the best location in Saigon, and it’s also good for our banqueting business. There are other international standard 4* hotels in Saigon, but none of them are in district 1!

24% of respondents cited hotel staff/great service as the most important factor in a great hotel. This is an area we take very seriously. We know we may not be able to compete with our 5* neighbours in terms of number of rooms, extensive facilities or brand awareness, but we CAN and DO match them for service, as our guest feedback will confirm.

The Duxton also scores well in terms of rate, with 54% of respondents saying they prefer to pay between $100 and $200 per night for their hotel stays. Our internet rate of $150 sits right in the middle of this band.

All in all, the survey bears out what we at the Duxton see as our strengths – the best location in the city, fantastic service, and competitive, realistic pricing. Thanks Tripadvisor!

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Today’s Saigon Times reports of hard times for the city’s luxury hotel market, with occupancy as much as 10% down on the same period in 2007 (to tell the truth it’s closer to 15%!). Citing factors such as global recession, increasing air ticket prices and the 2007 hotel rate hikes, the city’s upscale hoteliers are wringing their hands and pining for the boom years.

With one exception. One hotel is still achieving high occupancy, hitting 95-100% in midweek and holding a steady 80% over the summer low season period, without cutting its rates or offering promotions in order to do so, and thus holding the highest occupancy in Saigon and probably in Vietnam as a whole. That hotel is, of course, the Duxton!

How are we doing it? Well, we have a few yield management tricks up our sleeve which I’m not prepared to divulge in public, and our consistent marketing and busy networking schedule have helped, but another reason is the very factors cited in the opening paragraph. In a time of recession & rising prices, travellers, be they business or leisure, look for ways to cut their travel costs, and those who usually stay in 5* hotels often choose to stay in a 4* instead. As the only international standard 4* hotel in the centre of Saigon, we are in a great position to benefit. And when those guests try us and see that our service and location are as good as, if not better than, many of the city’s 5* properties, they become regular customers.

This highlights probably the biggest reason for the decrease in visitors, particularly tourists, to Saigon and Hanoi – the lack of 3* & 4* hotels. Both cities have plenty of 5* properties – too many in low season, as the Saigon Times report bears out. What they lack are mid-range hotels to cater for tour groups, affluent tourists who prefer to save their money for shopping & eating rather than blowing it on a room they will only use for sleeping & showering, and business travellers who have been told to cut their travel budgets!

Looking at hotel development plans for the next few years it doesn’t look as if the situation is going to improve, with most planned openings being in the 5* bracket. Why is this? Well, one obvious answer is simply that, all things being equal, 5* hotels make more money. But another answer is that, in Asia, the concepts of prestige and ‘face’ are more important than in the west, and Asian hotel owners value the prestige of owning a 5* property. And so the trend for 5* hotels continues, leaving a big gap in the market for good 3/4* hotels.

We’re not complaining – we like being unique, as it’s good for business, and our customers enjoy getting a 5* location and 5* service at a 4* price, and our occupancy figures reflect this. But in the long run, if Saigon and Hanoi are to cement their status as popular business, tourism and MICE destinations, hotel developers need to swallow their pride and be a little more pragmatic – far better to be the owner of a full 4* hotel than a half-empty 5*!

Last Friday (22 August) we held a party for around 150 representatives of our top corporate & banqueting accounts here at the hotel, as a way of saying thank you for their support so far this year. The party included food, drink, live music from several bands & singers, a speech from yours truly, various games and a prize draw, and judging from what many guests said to me, a good time was had by all!

 

Obviously laying on food, drink & entertainment for 150 people isn’t cheap, but as far as I’m concerned it’s money well spent. Some marketing expenditure – press advertising being a prime example – is difficult to measure. But the value of getting 150 top customers together, showing them a good time, and being able to chat to them personally, is immediately apparent. I attended a seminar on inflation on Monday (inflation in Vietnam is currently running at around 28%!), and one of the key messages from the speakers was that, during times of high inflation, businesses need to reinforce relevance and remind their customers just why their product or service is worth paying for. Getting 150 of our top accounts into the hotel and reminding them how good our food & service is, and how friendly our staff are, is a great way of doing this.

 

A quick thank you to the sponsors who kindly donated prizes for the evening – Sofitel Dalat Palace, Victoria Hotels & Resorts, Blue Ocean Resort, Apollo Education & Training, Kose Cosmetics, Plus Vietnam and Cantina Central. Your support is much appreciated!

 

  

 

Tim with happy guests

Tim with happy guests

 

 

 

 

Whenever I need to describe great hospitality service to my staff, I always give the same example. No, it’s a not a luxury 5* hotel, Michelin-starred restaurant or business class lounge, but a small, family-run beach bungalow resort on Phu Quoc island.

 

I stayed at Beach Club last November, in a simple but comfortable beach bungalow which cost me $25 per night. Not the kind of place you’d expect to find memorable service you’d think, but you’d be wrong. Right from the moment their representative met me at the airport, picked up my luggage and drove me to the resort, all through the 4 days I was there until the return airport drop-off, the resort staff excelled in every area. They learned my name within 5 minutes of my arrival and used it frequently, their smiles were genuine, their food service was faultless, and whatever I wanted them to arrange – beach massage, motorbike rental, fishing – they did so efficiently, happily and with a minimum of fuss, which is very rare in Vietnam!

 

What’s the secret? There isn’t one. The owner, an Englishman named Mike, hasn’t invested thousands of dollars in training or recruitment – he’s simply employed naturally friendly people, made his expectations clear, and given them a stable and enjoyable environment to work in. As a result, his staff turnover is virtually 0%, and his guests are delighted.

 

You can see the same principle in effect on Tripadvisor. Which hotel do you think is ranked number 1 in the site’s list of most popular Ho Chi Minh City hotels? No, it’s not the Hyatt or Sheraton, but a little known hotel in the backpacker district called Bich Duyen. This isn’t because it’s cheap and Tripadvisor is frequented by budget travellers – 8 of the top 10 HCMC hotels are pricey 5* properties. It’s simply because, like Beach Club, the Bich Duyen offers a high standard of personal service. The manager makes an effort to get to know all his guests personally and goes out of his way to exceed their expectations, and employs staff who are similarly hospitable.

 

Many hotels and other service companies often lose sight of what makes great service. They spend thousands on training courses and recruitment, yet forget that the most important factor is friendly, happy service staff. I’ve been to luxury hotels where staff have been trained to give an identical greeting to the customer. This may seem slick and professional, but it also makes you feel as if you’re surrounded by robots. At the Duxton, we merely require our staff to be friendly and polite – how they greet the customer doesn’t really matter, as long as it makes the customer feel good. And whilst in a 200-room hotel we can’t remember every guest’s name, we at least try to remember those who stay with us regularly.

 

The important thing is to hire the right people in the first place, and provide a pleasant working environment. We’re lucky in that the southern Vietnamese are naturally friendly and hospitable anyway, and we have to be careful not to overtrain them and lose their natural charm!

Duxton service

 

That’s the issue raised in this amusing news story, about a ‘real-life Basil Fawlty’ who was assaulted by one of his hotel guests. The hotel manager in question states Whoever said the customer is always right has clearly not worked in the hotel industry.”

 

Or any other service industry perhaps, where staff regularly have to deal with guests whose demands, complaints or general behaviour go beyond what is generally deemed as acceptable. If you’ve been trained to think that the customer is always right, what do you do when the customer is plainly and obviously 100% wrong?

 

We’ve had a couple of incidents recently where the customer has very obviously been wrong. In the first, two very drunk guests returned to their room at 4am and decided they fancied a swim. Finding our pool locked up for the night, they knotted their bath towels together to form a rope, and climbed down the wall of the hotel, straight into the pool! They even managed to climb back up again after their swim, but not before they had awoken several angry guests whose rooms overlooked the pool. The result? A damages and cleaning bill. Sure, we could have waived it – the customer always being right – but that isn’t really the sort of behaviour we want to encourage at the Duxton!

 

In the second, one guest, who had also obviously been enjoying Saigon’s nightlife, got lost on the way from his bed to the toilet and ended up using the fire escape. Another cleaning bill, presented to a guest who was quite clearly not in the right!

 

Of course, these are extreme examples and, on the rare occasions when our guests have reason to complain, they do so politely and are politely received. But there are times when someone’s attitude or behaviour goes a little too far, and the hotelier has to defend his property and his staff from unreasonable complaints and demands.

 

In the ‘Basil Fawlty’ story, it sounds rather like the guest had a legitimate complaint – his room was noisy. However the way he approached the complaint – refusing to pay for his room and then attacking the hotel manager when challenged (albeit somewhat brusquely) – overstepped the mark by a considerable degree.

 

There’s a lesson for both of us, hoteliers and guests, here. A polite guest complaint will be much more effective than a rude or aggressive one, and a hotel that handles complaints politely and effectively will probably create a loyal customer. But if the guest is ‘wrong’, most hotels will cut their losses and wave that guest goodbye, while if a hotelier mishandles a legitimate complaint, the guest will never come back.

 

I once did some consultancy work at a South African tour operator, where all staff had the motto The customer is always right – even when they are wrong pinned above their desks. Do I agree? It depends how ‘wrong’ the customer is!

Guests often ask me why they never see any destination marketing for Vietnam. You know the kind of thing – the successful Amazing Thailand or Malaysia – Truly Asia campaigns, which, by combining memorable slogans with consistent messages and inviting images, have firmly established those countries’ ‘brands’ in the minds of travellers.

 

Currently, no such campaigns exist, or have ever existed, for Vietnam, the country relying on its tumultuous recent history and exotic allure to attract visitors. But with only around 5% of visitors coming back for repeat visits, clearly more needs to be done if Vietnam is to compete with its more aggressive (in marketing terms) neighbours.

 

The most recent slogan – The Hidden Charm – didn’t really cut it, implying as it did that Vietnam’s attractions aren’t obvious and have to be tracked down! But things seem to be improving. VNAT (Vietnam National Administration of Tourism) is currently working with Spanish tourism consultants to establish a marketing plan and a consistent brand message for the country, and if the work-in-progress report I saw recently is anything to go by, Vietnam should soon be making the kind of marketing effort and infrastructure investment needed to maintain and increase its tourism business.

 

The challenge for Vietnam’s marketing team is to establish a consistent brand message which encapsulates all the various attributes of such a large, diverse country – friendly people, nature, beaches, bustling cities, history, shopping, culture, food and so on. So how do you settle on a message that will resonate with travellers? Easy – listen to travellers themselves. Find out what visitors like about Vietnam, and just as importantly, find out what they DON’T like – tourism authorities here are very keen on organising Tourism Festivals and building ‘Tourist Villages’, little realising that most travellers want to see the real country and will go out of their way to avoid such artifice.

 

We applied the same process when putting together our current brand message. We looked at guest feedback (in-room questionnaires, Tripadvisor etc), had a couple of guest focus group sessions, and informally chatted to in-house guests and restaurant customers, and learned that the two main reasons people come back to the Duxton are its central location, and its friendly service. This enabled us to come up with the Heart of Saigon concept, which encompasses central location and caring service. A bit more consultation with visitors and resident expats, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to do the same for Vietnam!

 

 

Further to my previous piece casting doubt on the doom & gloom coming out of the tourist industry in Vietnam and beyond, this article from Jones Lang LaSalle gives further reasons for optimism!