Jeffrey Van Vorsselen is the new General Manager of The Langham, Shenzhen. He brings more than 30 years of experience in the hospitality industry to this position including pre-opening, operations, sales and marketing and general management. Jeffrey is an excellence-seeking and insightful hotelier who will lead the management team at The Langham, Shenzhen, to achieve even greater heights.
ShenzhenParty: Welcome to Shenzhen Jeffrey, it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to interview you today. I understand that you have over 30 years experience in the hotel industry; what made you decide to pursue a career in this industry?
Jeffrey: Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to meet you and thanks for spending some time and arranging to do this interview. I guess my story is probably not altogether unlike a lot of people that joined the hotel industry. I finished school when I was 17 and I was deciding whether I wanted to go to university or not and I kind of fell into the industry a little bit by accident. I joined a hotel in the town in which I’d been brought up and I went from being in a school environment to all of a sudden being thrown into very much an adult situation. I was by far the youngest person working in the hotel with adults so I did a lot of growing up very, very quickly. But I found at a very early stage that I had a great passion for hospitality, and that’s something that gave me personally a lot of reward and something that over a period of time I found that maybe I had some ability and a little bit of flair, that mostly it was something I could see myself doing as a career.
ShenzhenParty: You have worked all around the world; do you have any particular favourite countries?
Jeffrey: I’m originally from New Zealand, so I guess it’s still home. I don’t have any houses or anything left there but I do have two children. They’re both adults now; one is finishing off university, that’s the baby, and my son has just recently finished university and graduated and is working in an accounting company in Auckland. So periodically I get back there.
One of the places that I’ve enjoyed the most, something you’d be very familiar with is Hong Kong. I was there from 2003 as Hong Kong was just starting to come out of SARS. I was there for a year in pre-opening Langham Place, Mongkok, which has become part of the Langham Place landmark, and then I was involved in opening the hotel and running it for 4 years. I have great memories, I used to joke at the time that I was the only gweilo that used to live in Mongkok back in those days. It wasn’t synonymous with luxury hotels, it wasn’t synonymous with a lot of Western people actually venturing there other than to some of the markets. Then when we opened that hotel we really changed the whole face of Mongkok and it’s now become Kowloon central, it’s the place that you that have to go, it’s got great markets, but actually you can still see some of old Hong Kong, there’s a juxtaposition between old and new.
One of my greatest memories is we had a garden at the back of the old hotel and you could go out into this garden and we had seating out there, it was off the main restaurant. On one side you had the old houses of Mongkok, these old apartments with thousands of aerials, and it was just kind of crazy, and on the other side you had the Langham place shopping centre which was this ultra-modern shopping centre.
ShenzhenParty: As you were saying you’ve worked in Mongkok, Langham Palce, which is now known as Cordis, Hong Kong, what would you say the biggest difference is between working in Shenzhen and working in HK?
Jeffrey: We’re in different kinds of places from a career point of view. Going into a brand new area of HK, I remember when I first got to HK and we started talking to the market, to the industry, to future customers and saying we’re building this new hotel in Hong Kong, people would look you in the eye and say you’re crazy. So that’s one of the big differences. Fast forwarding to Shenzhen we’ve got this beautiful hotel that’s been established in Futian which is the CBD district of Shenzhen. So I went from this very old historic area where there’d never been any luxury hotels, there’d never even really been a 5 star hotel.
ShenzhenParty: So basically you pioneered that area?
Jeffrey: We did, whereas this particular role it’s a hotel that’s already open, it’s existing, it’s successful so I’ve kind of come in to take the hotel and continue to move it in the direction which we’ve already done there. Mongkok is bustling, one of the most densely populated square miles in the world, so coming to Shenzhen you have a great sense of space. You can sit in here and you can see out to the bay , there’s a great sense of space here. You walk out on the streets here and you just don’t have the same sense of hustle and bustle; it’s a little bit more sophisticated. So they’re just different places. Hong Kong is a major gateway city, the mix of business is probably a lot more international than it is here, Hong Kong is in the middle of the world so people either transit through there and stop or they actually go there as a destination. In Shenzhen what we see here is that the majority of the business in this hotel is business, so we’re seeing predominantly our business is domestic but there’s about 8% or 9% of our business that’s actually international but predominantly business either IT business, corporate meetings, incentives, conferences and the like.
ShenzhenParty: What would you consider to be your greatest personal asset, as I understand you have experience in nearly all fields of the hotel industry?
Jeffrey: I think experience of working in the different departments of a hotel for a GM is critical. It’s not that you become an expert in everyone’s job, it’s just that you can walk in the shoes of the people, you can understand the challenges, you can understand what they have to go to in order to achieve things. I think part of being a leader is to have vision, it’s about being able to lead people, but it’s also to be able to have empathy with what they have to go through. At the same time it allows me to see that there are ways that things can be done and I can be a little bit creative in overcoming some of the barriers that perhaps people put in front of us as to why things can’t be done, so there’s two sides to it. I guess my approach is I’m very inclusive, I like to have my team around me, I like to have them involved in the business, I want to hear what they think, I want them to contribute and I want them to play a part in our success. It’s not a one man show.
ShenzhenParty: It’s all teamwork.
Jeffrey: It really is. In a hotel because our business is often very fluid, whenever you’re dealing with people as an industry, it’s not like juicing this fruit where once you get the mould right you just keep on producing, and you just focus on zero defects, it’s much more fluid than this. There’s a lot of processes involved in our work, very much people-related processes, so that to me is something that I understand. I understand that we need to motivate, we need to direct and we actually need to give people a common goal, so to me I like to give people their vision. I like to let them know how they’re successful, I like to make them involved and I like to thank them when they do a great job and celebrate success. That’s very important.
ShenzhenParty: The key point is you lead by example.
Jeffrey: You have to. In the end you can’t run a hotel from your office. Now there’s time that you have to spend in your office because you’re running a business, but actually hospitality to me matters on the floor. People need to see you, they need to know that you are there, they need guidance and you need to be out there walking because again it changes, things change. Not all people conform to what we might think they should do so you need to be there, you need to be able to react, you need to be able to come up with a plan when things change and it needs to happen very, very quickly. It’s the industry. But that’s what – for people like us – we actually like. The idea of sitting at my desk for ten hours, if that’s what I had to do every day I wouldn’t be sitting here with you, I can assure you.
ShenzhenParty: What are your objectives for the Langham Shenzhen and how do you plan to achieve those objectives?
Jeffrey: First and foremost Sven Isberg who was the former General Manager. Sven opened this hotel, he then ran it for about four years; actually he set the hotel up. He really has done a great job, the hotel enjoys a good reputation and I want to thank him and recognise the great job that he did, he’s brought a great team together. So my role is to come in now and to look at ways that we can continue to develop this product.
ShenzhenParty: Fine tune it.
Jeffrey: Absolutely. The basic product is there. We have good traction on the market. It’s about taking what we have here and continuing to improve it, so there’s kind of a soft and hard side to that. From a hard point of view to look at areas we need to freshen up a little bit, look at areas where we might be able to take an existing space and perhaps better utilise it and we’re actually working on a project at the moment where we’re actually planning to create a new al fresco food and beverage outlet. That’s something I’d be happy to talk to you about a little bit later once that’s all fallen into place, because I think it could be very exciting for this property. We’re very fortunate that our owners, who actually are our neighbours, have allowed us to build this beautiful hotel as a true luxury hotel. Part of my brief also is to continue to lift the standards and to really ensure that this is the most luxurious hotel in the city; that’s absolutely one of my goals. To grow the business is an important part of that because in the end it is a business so through the quality, the marketing and the sales effort here, the team continue to make this a good return on investment for our owners, to allow them to get a good return on the investment that they’ve made.
From a people point of view it’s to continue to develop this team here, to really start to see that we get some movement upward within the existing team. We have a lot of people in this hotel that have been part of the opening team and we’re already starting to see progression through that, as opportunities arise we’re able to move them. I think that’s very, very important and a very important part of our culture. We also use this property from a Langham point of view to showcase to future guests but also to future owners and future developers really what a Langham hotel is all about. So we have a role to play.
ShenzhenParty: It’s a showcase hotel.
Jeffrey: Absolutely. An example of this is that we’re just about to open another beautiful Langham hotel not too far away from here, in Haikou on Hainan Island, that’s due to open towards the end of next month. I was looking at some imagery of that property this morning and it truly looks stunning. We’ve played a role in a lot of these kinds of projects, we can actually bring potential owners here and say this is what a Langham is, if this really is what you want then understand it here. It helps them understand what a luxury hotel needs to look like, what the standards, what the services, what the facilities are so we can get very much on the same page.
ShenzhenParty: Training & teamwork must play a very important part in achieving those objectives; as such, what level of importance do you place on these?
Jeffrey: In our industry everyone talks about training. I think as an industry we do generally a good job in training and in this hotel I believe that we take it to another level. We do a lot of training. The majority of our training is internal, but we like to bring external people in. We think that fresh ideas and a fresh approach helps us and keeps us at the forefront. We have a lot of Langham projects which we put through, we have a lot of service related training, just along things about how you stand and how you behave, which we refer to as ‘service with poise’. A lot of it revolves around things that as a society we’re actually moving away from, but as a hospitality company that has its foundations back in 1865, we actually love the ceremony and history of hospitality and we really practice that. It’s an important part of our heritage.
ShenzhenParty: One thing actually impressed me when I arrived at the hotel today. The gentleman that was greeting people at the door walked up to me and said, ‘Sir is there anything I can do for you?’ He spoke to me in quite good English, was very polite, was very friendly and that’s something you don’t see very often at other hotels.
Jeffrey: Thank you, thank you for your feedback. One of the things that I’m very passionate about from a training point of view is I believe that every organisation needs to be aligned, that it doesn’t matter what your role in the hotel is, everyone needs to understand what we’re all working towards. And sometimes that’s very difficult: when you’re the General Manager and you’re dealing with all these stakeholders and so you have a goal, but in the end if you’re a room attendant or a kitchen steward or a chef sometimes it’s very difficult to really understand some of those quite lofty goals that perhaps aren’t part of your day to day life. We as Langham have what we call our VMV code which is our vision, our mission and our values. These deal with our vision as a company, our mission which talks about who the Langham Hotel is and then we have a series of values which really help set the way as to how we deal with each other and how we deal with our customers. It gives real life ways that our colleagues can engage with our guests, get to understand them better at a personal level, so understand your dreams and desires and then execute a very memorable experience to you.
I always believe that the foundation for hospitality is doing the small things, getting them right consistently; that’s got to be the foundation for greatness. Because if you’re doing all these ‘wow’ things but all of the basic things aren’t being executed for the customer, there’s some very fundamental things that they want. We focus here on getting the basics right but then what we try and do is get to know you as a person, try and understand what your dreams and desires are and why you’re here. What I’m talking about is this. If somebody walks into a hotel they have a distinct reason for it. Now they may be on business travel so all they may want is to check in to their room as quickly as possible, they want to get up there, they want to get online so they can talk to their customers or to the office. Their expectations are that they want a great night’s sleep, a great shower, maybe get their shirt pressed before they go to work in the morning and they want to get a great meal the night before. That may be their dream and desire. Now the interesting thing is that that particular guest may come back two weeks later with his wife. He walks in, same guest, different dream and desire. He’s now here with his wife; they want to maybe have a nice relaxing weekend. All the things that were important to him before are different now so we need to understand that.
One of the challenges I see as an industry is that a lot of the time service delivery has been modified, broken down to its simplest form and then we just put everyone through the same thing. Actually at Langham that’s not what we try and do. We have some ways that we try and understand what you’re here for so if you were to walk into the hotel and we have an opportunity to engage with you then we try and find out why you’re here, what brings you to the hotel. People tell you interesting things.
Somebody walks in and they say I’m here to buy a gift voucher for my wedding anniversary, this theory that gift vouchers were invented by men because we could never think about anything to buy our wives and it’s always last minute so for wedding anniversaries or something get a gift voucher. I remember one day I was in the Langham, Auckland, which I managed for 5 years, this guy came in and he looked a little lost, so I said ‘Good afternoon, can I help you?’ He said, ‘Yes, I’m looking for your spa, you have a spa don’t you?’ I told him we have a beautiful spa and asked him why he was here. He said, ‘I’m here to buy a gift card for my wife it’s our tenth wedding anniversary.’ I told him to come with me, and I’d take him up to the spa because it was quite a walk from there and we had to go upstairs. So I started chatting to him and started to find out a little bit more about him. As we were talking away I said to him, ‘Gift vouchers are great but tenth anniversary is really special. I think that special occasions are about memories. Just go with me here a little bit. You can buy her the gift voucher and she’ll love you for it. Then you’re going to go to work and she’s going to go one day to the spa and have this great memory, but somehow there’s something missing and that’s you. So why don’t you get a voucher for a couple and the two of you come back and have a treatment together. I do that with my wife and it’s just this really neat time that we have, an hour and a half having a massage or a facial, giggling a little bit maybe a glass of something, and then it’s a memory that you both have.’
Now if I hadn’t stopped and asked him what he was doing there, just given him some directions and off he went, he would have had another okay experience but that was nothing. He did it and he actually wrote to me after they had come back and had the treatment together. The treatment was great, but actually it wasn’t to him, it was that he had a great memory and so did his wife, that they continue to talk about. And that to me is what hospitality is about.
ShenzhenParty: And that’s why you spend most of your time outside of the office?
Jeffrey: Yes, they kind of laugh about me and my secretary gets really cranky with me but in the end isn’t that our job? Really that’s our job. Because if we do that right then the customers will come. It’s a little bit of a leap of faith, I believe that it’s a leap of faith. Everyone focuses on driving the business, but if we really make sure that everyone has a great experience and that our colleagues are engaged and they’re doing their job and they know how doing that will contribute to all the other stuff. Let’s focus on getting the service right, getting the level of engagement. If we’ve got that then that other stuff will follow. It’s very simplified obviously, but really I believe that fundamentally, and that’s why in my career I’ve seen some success because that’s what I like to bring.
ShenzhenParty: I once read a quote from Henry Ford where he emphasised, ‘Service service service’ and that’s what made the Ford motor company the success it is today.
Jeffrey: Absolutely. Really if you see the legacy he’s left and what he’s done to that industry, the car industry wouldn’t be where it is now if it hadn’t been for that man. What an amazing visionary he was.
ShenzhenParty: Thank you very much for your time today. We wish you great success for your new appointment and are looking forward to seeing you in the future.
About The Langham, Shenzhen
In one of China’s most vibrant and fastest-growing cities, The Langham, Shenzhen is a haven of refined sophistication. Continuing the Langham legacy of delivering refined service and luxurious comfort, The Langham, Shenzhen comprises 352 elegant rooms and suites, from the elegant Deluxe Room to the grand Royal Suite. An enchanting landmark in Shenzhen’s premium Futian district, guests are centrally located within the city’s commercial and retail hub. The Langham, Shenzhen invites guests to indulge in a wonderland of dining options. Savour Chinese delicacies at T’ang Court or delight in the international fare at Silk. Enjoy The Langham’s signature Tiffin Afternoon Tea in the Palm Court lounge, relax by the poolside bar Gazebo, stir the senses at Duke’s or submit to the temptations in Treasures & Scent. Reflecting classic European style in a contemporary, dynamic city, The Langham, Shenzhen embraces the timeless qualities that have always been part of the Langham heritage.
Chinese and Pinyin Name: 深圳东海朗廷酒店
Place Address (English/Pinyin): The Langham, 7888 Shennan Boulevard, Futian District, Shenzhen
Website: The Langham, Shenzhen’s Website
Place Phone: +86 (755) 8828 9888