From Talk to Action

31st August 2005 (Last Updated August 31st, 2005 18:30)

Diana Bentley talks to Ricci Obertelli, global development director of the Dorchester Group. He tells her about his rise from humble beginnings as a languages student to working at one of the world’s top hotels.

From Talk to Action

Amid the buzz and quiet hustle of The Dorchester’s opulent foyer, Ricci Obertelli looks perfectly at home.

Tall and urbane, he keeps a practised and appreciative eye on the surrounding activity, which includes the refurbishment of the foyer as well as the everyday operations of a busy London hotel.

Once the general manager of The Dorchester, Obertelli is now the global development director for the Dorchester Group, with corporate strategy his speciality.

Assessing the group properties in terms of asset management also comes under his jurisdiction, an area he sees as an important factor for the group’s continued success.

“The refurbishment of the foyer is an example of the philosophy of the group,” Obertelli explains. “We’re in the business for the long term, so we’re continually investing in the product to keep our promise to have hotels that are in wonderful locations, that look beautiful and have great service.”

STRONG MOTIVATION

Friendly, open and full of animated Italian charm, Obertelli is still clearly engaged and excited by the world of hotels, and his qualifications for the role he now occupies are impressive.

Raised in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, he was drawn to languages as a student. “I had the opportunity to travel and found languages fascinating,” he says. “That got me interested in the hotel business in Italy and from that I decided I wanted to work overseas.”

After studying hotel management and catering in Italy, he undertook the management course with the Savoy Group in London, serving his time in all departments, from the kitchens to administration and reception.

“It really reinforced my desire to work in the hotel industry,” he recalls. “It gave me the motivation to try to reach the highest level in the business.

“When I first started working, I greatly admired the professionalism of the people who worked in the industry and I saw the care they took over building up their career. I realised that to progress, I had to develop my experience, build my CV and be ready for new challenges.”

Developing his CV is what he did with gusto over the next 20 years, working in establishments such as Claridge’s, the Savoy and the Ritz. He was also part of the team that opened the hugely successful Four Seasons hotel in London.

In 1988, Obertelli was appointed general manager of The Dorchester, winning many accolades during his term. In 1997 came the move to the Dorchester Group, and in 2004, his new appointment as the group’s global development director.

Obertelli is now responsible for masterminding the group’s worldwide expansion – either by acquisition or through management arrangements.

CHANGING CHALLENGES

Glamorous though it may sound, the business of luxury hotels can be taxing. But like many in the hospitality industry, Obertelli has found London to be a great crucible of experience.

“Obertelli is now responsible for masterminding the group’s worldwide expansion.”

With its range of historic deluxe hotels and their classy international clientele, it has always been a successful city for hoteliers, according to Obertelli.

But, he cautions: “It’s very competitive, and to survive you must excel. It’s a very professional city – people will pay for something, and they want the best, so expectations here are higher. There’s no room for mistakes.”

The time zone is also important, he points out. With flights arriving throughout the day and night from all over the world, London experiences a continual and intense flow of business that tests the resources and management of its hotels.

And, despite its somewhat stately atmosphere, London moves quickly, so changes must be made to adjust to developments in the marketplace.

“You must move fast to be ahead of the competition,” he insists. “Having considered your options, it’s critical to make the right decisions at the right time.”

Making those decisions in an industry that has experienced considerable change is apparently more complex than it used to be. The role of general manager, in particular, has changed, says Obertelli.

“You’re moving from the entertainment and social side to the business side where you must work much more as part of a team. There’s a more structured approach to business, you must have a plan and constantly be looking at the bigger picture.”

As well as business trends, the expectations of guests have both changed and increased, and new client profiles are emerging.

“Families have become a more important issue, as has lifestyle,” says Obertelli. “We get more clients who come from different parts of the world, so they have different needs, such as particular diets. The priority of their preferences has also changed. Fifteen years ago, a popular request was for a dual socket; now, providing an array of communications is critical.”

Technology will be the biggest issue the industry will have to grapple with over the next five years, he believes, and this will have a great bearing on the relationship with guests.

“Delivery of service isn’t an issue for us,” he says. “We can create the right experience for the client in any of our hotels once the client gets to us. The big challenge now is getting people through the door and to do that we must make the most of the technology avail-able.

“In attracting guests, the hotel must send out the right message, and be prepared to fulfil the promises given to the clients. Our message in terms of sales is rarely overstated. Other groups put out a similar message, but may not be able to deliver what they promise – it’s a tough situation.”

The technical ways of finding and keeping in contact with the client, including the internet, are foremost.

“To create and maintain our relationships with the client we now have to reach out to them through technology,” says Obertelli. “We need to offer the client the opportunity to come directly to us. It’s the only way we can present the hotel, its standards and values.”

“The expectations of guests have increased, and new client profiles are emerging.”

Within the hotel, the challenge for managers is to combine aspects of their own technology with what is publicly available in terms of websites and internet links.

“We have to supply what younger guests want. They must be able to access what they have at home or in the office,” he observes. “So we have to invest heavily in technology to keep ahead of our competition.”

The Dorchester is well ahead in this field, already supplying guests with e-butlers and Blackberries.

Whatever the group attitudes may be, Obertelli points out that general managers must still have room for individual manoeuvre: “We believe that our general managers must have a certain amount of autonomy to manage the hotel. They all face different issues at different times.”

KEEPING IN CHARACTER

Technology and its importance notwithstanding, all the group hotels occupy enviable locations and have rich histories of their own.

Maintaining the fabric of the buildings is paramount in keeping the hotel’s character. The last refurbishment of the foyer at The Dorchester was undertaken in 1990. In 2004, the bedrooms were upgraded, and now it is the turn of the public areas and the food and beverage areas.

When any changes are made, they are carefully choreographed to maintain the local historical background and the property’s heritage, he adds.

“Everything is enhanced. We may introduce some modernity, but it’s done in a subtle way. A lot of care and attention is taken. It’s like restoring a painting – we work around the basis of what’s there already.

“At the moment, we’re restoring, not changing the foyer. Local architects are usually used to ensure that a property retains a local feel, but in this case we’re using American Thierry Despont, who has worked on other projects for us and who interprets our briefs to perfection.”

The Dorchester team is currently working to increase the use of the foyer. “We’re continually analysing our business to be in tune with what our clients want,” Obertelli insists.

“A lot of our targets are driven by our clients’ tastes – for example, the design of the bedrooms, and the food and beverage outlets.”

While the group conducts client surveys, it is keen to further the dialogue with clients. “We have databases on our clients in all our hotels that are now linked – and this is a powerful tool,” he adds.

“Whatever the challenges, the hotels are all very reactive and this has highlighted the need for greater and more complicated training. In particular, recruitment needs care. Our staff must have certain characteristics – they have to be able to fully interpret the brief of our values and deliver them as a team.”

Attracting the right people into the business is key. “We have to continue to ensure that enough is done to show that this sector has real opportunities in line with other careers,” he says.

GROUP ISSUES

The Dorchester Group was established in 1997 with The Dorchester and the Beverly Hills Hotel. It then added Le Meurice and the Plaza Athénée in Paris, which have been refurbished.

“Our intention is to stay small and focused on our values, and to grow gradually.”

The last acquisition was the Hotel Principe di Savoia in Milan, which was acquired from Starwood Hotels and Resorts in 2003.

The Group is looking to expand through acquisition and management contracts, and Obertelli is sanguine about the prospects for growth.

“We believe there’s a place in the market for an operator like us. All our hotels are good businesses and our brand stems from them. We’ve identified certain cities in Europe and North America where we think we should be and where we could make an impact.”

Other luxury hotel companies share the same strategy, so there is competition for good properties, but the group is not interested in acquisition at any cost. “We have a sound business model and won’t buy at a premium,” he stresses.

The Dorchester Group also maintains an open mind regarding expansion. “We could be interested in buying or upgrading a hotel or a new site with a newbuild and, maybe later, in resorts too,” says Obertelli.

“We have applications by some owners to manage their hotels, which is flattering, but we have to ensure that we’ll have the same values, commitment and passion to serve to have a workable partnership.”

He knows what he is looking for: “Location is important and the product is critical. This includes the size and number of rooms, the balance of rooms against suites, and facilities such as spas. Each city has a certain number of rooms that are needed for a deluxe hotel – the ideal for London is 220 rooms.”

Something different from its range of traditional deluxe hotels might be considered – for example, a modern ‘designer’ hotel – if it represents the Dorchester Group’s values. “If a modern hotel is in the best location in a city and is a modern landmark we would look at it,” says Obertelli. “The group can’t stand still – it needs to move forward. We have to adapt continually to newer clients and move with the times.”

However, Obertelli does not foresee a sprawling international empire. “You have to work hard to maintain the values over a large group,” he says. “Our intention is to stay small and focused on our values, and to grow gradually.”

So how different is it to manage a group like this, compared with running an individual hotel? “They are totally different jobs and require different skills,” says Obertelli.

“A general manager is the figurehead of the hotel and you have to build the relationship with the client. You have to give them your time and sometimes that’s difficult when trying to run a busy hotel. You have to decide what your priorities are.”

Obertelli has made a huge jump from being at the forefront of the life of a hotel to being the Dorchester Group’s international strategist. But the preoccupations of the general manager live on in his new role, and the excitements and rewards of the business never fail to thrill, he says.

“A client of The Dorchester recently said to me: "Service here comes from the heart" – I thought that was very nice.”