'Metallic' themed room at the new So Sofitel Bangkok 'Metallic' themed room at the new So Sofitel Bangkok

In November 2007, Robert Gaymer-Jones became chief operating officer of Sofitel Luxury Hotels, tasked with establishing the chain as a separate business unit to parent company Accor, repositioning it as a leader in the luxury segment and launching two new sister brands – Legend and So.

The size of the task at hand was massive, but ironically the first job was to ruthlessly downsize the company by clearing out the hotels that did not fit in with its new image.

“When I came in we had 206 hotels within the Sofitel network from the good and the beautiful to the not-so-beautiful, so we brought that number down,” recalls Gaymer-Jones.

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Using a ‘luxury index’, each hotel was reviewed and more than half were ditched by the hotel firm, leaving 100 of the best Sofitel hotels worldwide operating.

“We looked at location, facilities, clients, the ability to attract investment from the owner and whether the hotel fitted in with the Sofitel profile, is it in a market we want to be in? We went from hotel to hotel, owner to owner. Some fitted into the index of a luxury hotel but the owners weren’t ready to invest,” he explains.

The idea was to create an “exclusive club of hotels around the world” as Gaymer-Jones calls it. Alongside the closures came new deals — properties the firm saw as must-haves for its developing high-end portfolio.

But with the simultaneous closures, openings and extensive refurbishments there were unique financial challenges.

“The finances coming in went up, down, up, down, but we’re fortunate to have a board that supports the direction we’re going and understands it’s going to take a few years to get where we want to be,” he says.

“Sofitel is a fully-owned subsidiary of Accor but I run this company completely separately. Accor is great because it supports me financially, they’re like my bankers.

“At the same time it gives purchasing support, the leverage of a brand that size to create efficiencies for owners and it has an amazing distribution system,” he adds.

However, the situation got even tougher when the global economic downturn reared its head in 2008, right in the middle of the brand repositioning: “But we made decisions during the crisis that we wouldn’t cut back, even though we knew that financially it was very difficult for owners to accept some of the brand repositioning standards, but we told them this will pay off in the long run.

“Because we didn’t cut back on quality, reduce staff or service levels — we’ve come through it stronger than we were before,” asserts Gaymer-Jones.

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