A Test Bed for Hospitality Innovation

Hotel ICON & Editorial Team06 Oct 2021


If ever a hotel could lay claim to such a brave name - not to mention bold strapline - it would be one designed by Terence Conran, Rocco Yim, William Lim, Vivienne Tam, Barney Cheng and Patrick Blanc.  It would also house one of the world's only integrated teaching facilities, with over 2,000 students, and it would be an unrivalled showcase for Hong Kong's culture.  From the unequivocal brand statement – Unlike any other – to the sleek identity system and engaging guest items, Richard Hatter’s creative vision is very much in evidence at Hotel ICON.  Starting from the ground upwards, Richard spent 24 months helping to strategise, design and build the ICON brand.  Since its opening Hotel ICON has enjoyed considerable critical acclaim and business success.


A test bed for hospitality innovation

Hotel ICON has real personality and that goes from the design, the infrastructure, the services and most importantly, the staff.  Myself and the team describe authenticity as "Providing an experience consistent with values of trust, honesty and empathy, creating inimitable and personalized service interactions”, and so if the future of hospitality truly does depend on authenticity, then Hotel ICON is a beacon for that future and it is the staff engagement that makes it so extraordinary and a leader in service with many OTA and user generated app platforms.


Coming from a Corporate branded company for 18 years I understood that in crafting the service culture and brand narrative ICON couldn’t be generic and the entire service design of what we call ‘experience design’ should customised to ICON’s brand narrative and mission so that every guest experience demonstrates the very personalised approach.


How do you start with Guest Experience Design?

  1. Developing an actionable and implementable plan at an operational level in terms of Human Capital development
  2. Break down specific touch points and processes within the hotel team members such as arrivals and check in, restaurant experience and general guest hospitality and connecting it with the three areas of operational, aesthetic and emotional excellence.
  3. Develop systematic approach to service innovation that exploits an end-to-end service design methodology to complement the specific specialist areas in the operational excellence of core service touch points.


Following discussions with the division heads, it was clear to me that a handful of service personnel were getting recognition from guests via online customer feedback, service was inconsistent and that the rest of the team were being carried along by star employees.  After delving into this it was obvious that the reason was due to the lack of social skills and self-awareness in how to communicate.  Many of the team were student interns or young employees under the age of 28.


It was concluded that many young Hong Kong staff and students weren’t equipped with the social behavioural skills to interact confidently and that training and examples with role play was necessary.


The initial objective was train around operational, aesthetic and emotional instead of pure SOP’s and build in ‘sharing of stories’ after which all staff would receive a certificate of achievement and an ongoing points system for continuous excellence in guest interactions where employees could get points for We Love To care actions, nominated by guests and colleagues.


At this point I decided that a custom-designed program we called We Love To Care would be more appropriate because it would better meet managers’ needs.


A custom-designed program would also allow the hotel organization to relate the training back to their new performance management system and provide flexibility in the program’s delivery.


What we teach here at Hotel ICON as a teaching and research facility is to break down service into three areas.  Technical skill excellence, aesthetic excellence and emotional excellence.  We can’t assume that the entry level youth in Hong Kong simply know how to interact and behave with a guest or how to create a memorable experience, how to really connect with a guest who may have originated from any one of fifteen to twenty countries and cultures.


Every new employee or intern has a mentor or coach who helps them on the job, how to maintain consistency of standards and how to ensure that guests are both welcomed and anticipated in a natural and local way.  At the same time they are schooled first hand on how and what to do when something goes pear shaped, managing chaotic situations and fluid situations that are constantly changing. How to politely deal with aggressive or guests threatening to leave one star TripAdvisor reviews, no shows, late check outs.  Probably most importantly using Cendyn CRM to study guest profiles and how to use that data to formulate creative ways to pamper and create unique experiences for guests who might be passionate about say food or cars or photography and all the time taking great care of loyal repeat guests as well as and how to demonstrate Asian hospitality and sincerity in a humble manner without being cocky. Yes, all this is taught in a classroom and with role play. It’s an award winning programme that I devised after leaving the corporate world of standardization and instead focusing on ‘high standards’.


The We Love To Care training programme earned crucial acclaim by the Hong Kong Management Association in 2018 as it was something that was measurable and could be transferred into any hotel not just ICON.  After two years of running the training we went from #5 rating on TripAdvisor to #3 where we are now and have a score on 97% on ReviewPro punching our weight against the world famous legacy brands that were born in and are indigenous to Hong Kong.


All this took 12 months to piece together and we collaborated with the ‘service design’ school of the Royal College of Art in London plus Keith Yates who designed the Cathay Pacific Business and First Class service back in the 1980’s and which is still unchanged to this day.  Here at ICON as we don’t have a corporate office, much of the creativity and innovation is largely driven by myself as the leader of the team and with small groups of elite students from the school of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (our owner) this is because we are a small independent stand-alone hotel, we think like a startup and have no head office.  Creativity is rewarded and those individuals who display eagerness to experiment, share their stories of creating memorable experiences to the rest of the team. These stories are ranked, judged monthly and are rewarded with money and those star players are earmarked for fast track promotions.  The results are staggering and the team love sharing their stories and getting recognized by management.



So, in a sense here because were a teaching and research hotel my team and I have elevated service into an art form.  Individuals are recruited from specific personality types and those that are hired, will climb the ranks and are then farmed out into our partner hotels when they are ready.



One might argue that as Hotel ICON is a hospitality laboratory of sorts that we have a different set of KPI’s but no, we must also be commercially astute and are constantly monitoring and benchmarking against the best in class in our comp set.


I think what differentiates our set up here and our school with the great hospitality schools like at Cornell and in Lausanne, is that we are a 262-room upscale hotel with three restaurants and a spa plus extensive conference facilities, that is literally attached to the physical school and training the next generation of hospitality leaders.  Owned by Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hotel ICON operates as a research and training facility for the School and Hotel of Tourism Management (SHTM) in Hong Kong.


When in the operation, roughly thirty students at any one time are a group of six ‘elite’ students dressed in the proper departmental uniform. These students represent the top 10 percent of the class. They work alongside full-time supervisors and shadow managers from every division. These elite students are fast tracked to become the future general managers of luxury hotels around the world. What’s different is that these elites are learning alongside their student colleagues specifically at a strategic tactical level, getting outside textbook theory and into real-time experiences with customers.


In our industry some things can only be learned on the job, and then the fact that they then go back into the classroom and do a post mortem around what worked and what didn’t.  What’s unique is that the guests whether in F&B or Rooms have no idea; they discover ICON is about education as they stay in the experience. They discover the hotel is no different than any other upscale top-notch hotel in the world. Caring doormen, paperless seamless check-in, phones answered on the first ring, and crisp clean as new pin housekeeping.


As the hotel’s GM and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the school I talk to many students, faculty and guests and I can assure you that guests are pleasantly supportive, especially in view of the fact that all profits go back to education so they sense that the hotel is hotel with a purpose, they view the hotel as progressive in terms of R&D and trying out new things.


Hotel ICON’s goal was always to strive to be seen as a model and with our present eight years since we opened, the industry might want to have a look at our school and Hotel ICON a bit more closely.