Korean hospitality is heavily reliant on face-to-face interaction and backing away from human connection was not an option for the Korean-based hospitality brand when it first opened Lotte Hotel Seattle in September 2020.
“We realized that people were craving for more human interaction during this time and that we can still provide that in creative ways without them feeling uncomfortable,” Lotte Hotel Seattle General Manager Victor Caguindagan says. “We discovered that the slightest form of making our guests feel special and at home creates the biggest impact.”
The 189-key hotel is the third U.S. property of Lotte Hotels & Resorts and the first Lotte brand hotel in North America. To be one of the first leaders to introduce the brand to the U.S. is a great honor, Caguindagan said. “This is the time that employees need more than a leader, they also need a cheerleader. Servant leadership has never been more alive than during this time.”
Caguindagan recently spoke to HOTELS about opening during a pandemic, how he managed his team and, based on his experiences, what consumer trends he sees ahead.
HOTELS: Lotte Hotel Seattle opened last year amid the pandemic. How has the hotel’s performance been so far?
Victor Caguindagan: On the business front, we have seen our occupancy steadily improving and have seen increased production from varying segments as some travel restrictions decline. The hotel has gained a long list of recognitions since opening over a year ago. We were awarded Top Ten Best New Hotels in the U.S. by the readers of USA Today. We became the number one hotel on Tripadvisor seven months after we opened. We were also the first hotel in Seattle and Washington State to be certified by Forbes and Sharecare on our health and security practices against COVID-19. Earlier this year, we were chosen as the most romantic hotel in Seattle and have also been certified as a Great Place to Work. Most recently, we landed on Top 10 Best Hotels in the Pacific Northwest by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler.
H: What has been your biggest takeaway from opening a hotel during a pandemic?
VC: We are fortunate enough to be backed by our ownership team, who has seen much success in opening hotels around the globe as the largest hotel group in Korea. We also had the unique opportunity to consider what the hotel industry might look like moving forward, and we were able to implement more space and exclusivity into our operations – such as exercise equipment that guests can opt to bring to their rooms and extra space between all services in our spa – to give guests what they will be looking for in the new normal. We were also able to realize that people were craving for more human interaction during this time and that we can still provide that to them in creative ways without them feeling uncomfortable. We discovered that the slightest form of making our guests feel special and at home creates the biggest impact.
H: How are occupancy levels?
VC: Our occupancy is steadily improving and we have seen production from segments that were not available to us when we opened due to the travel restrictions. Retail and leisure segments are our strongest market. Although group, corporate and international travel are still slow, we are happy to see that there have been some encouraging movements from these segments. We have seen (and welcomed) some business and group travel returning to the market and we are happy to see productions from meeting planners and travel agents coming to fruition as confidence in travel returns.
H: What methods did you introduce to ensure your team was motivated at such a difficult time?
VC: We have motivated our team members by including them in steps of the process to launch the Lotte Hotel Seattle in the market and giving them recognition when we have received guest-driven awards and accolades. We constantly celebrate the wins and we regularly share with them the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of our actions. Their ideas and their abilities to create an impact and make a difference on the stay of every guest that they meet are highly encouraged.
H: You hired staff in the middle of the pandemic. What was the biggest challenge?
VC: Most of our hiring during the pandemic was done using a virtual interview process. There are some downsides that come along with a fully virtual approach – first and foremost, there is an added opportunity for technical issues or losing a stable internet connection, which sometimes results in rescheduling the interview. It can also be difficult to gauge candidates’ demeanor and personality through a video call. For example, it may not be as easy to identify professionalism through personal grooming as it would be in person. Additionally, you lose certain aspects of body language which are bold indicators of interest and enthusiasm during an in-person interview. Our solution to this has been to incorporate a list of questions and topics that discuss our trainings, standards and Lotte brand core values so the candidates have a clear understanding of what our culture entails and are fully aligned and engaged with our expectations.
H: Any innovative measures taken by you to drive revenue at a time like this?
VC: As part of our reservations launch, we are offering a selection of creative packages and promotions that have inclusions that we felt are important and impactful to our guests. We started with the Celebrate Lotte package that included a complimentary room upgrade, cocktail, breakfast and spa credit, as well as flexibility in check-in and check-out times and a welcome amenity. We also have a Spa Getaway package with special spa rates and credits, the best available rate and a complimentary glass of Prosecco post-treatment.
On the food and beverage part, we are ensuring that every guest who dines at Charlotte Restaurant & Lounge not only enjoys our delectable food but also gains a total experience. Our menu is seasonal and locally sourced. We also introduce special chef tasting menus from time to time. We have also introduced live jazz music entertainment every Friday and Saturday.
H: How has the pandemic affected your management style?
VC: One of the most significant changes has been the shift to an increasingly remote and technology-driven lifestyle with limited human interaction. This change has forced me to realize to use technology more in coordinating and conducting business operations and processes whenever applicable to lessen the exposure of family members to the pandemic. It has made me more sensitive as well to the family member’s personal battles and capabilities to cope and to offer more personalized support whenever necessary. This has allowed me to learn not only to actively communicate, but also to be emphatic to the team, which has established a better connection and affiliation with them. This is the time that employees need more than a leader, they also need a cheerleader. Servant leadership has never been more alive than during this time.
H: What keeps you motivated?
VC: To see the hotel continuously improving on our service standards, market share and profitability is my foremost goal. However, being able to be a mentor and nurture the career journey of our team members and watch them empower themselves in anticipating our guests’ needs and creating ‘wow’ and memorable moments for them and each other are what keep me motivated. Additionally, Lotte brand’s commitment to grow in the Americas and the world is a definite source of motivation. To be one of the first leaders to introduce the brand to the U.S. is such a great honor.
H: Any industry trends that you like and dislike?
VC: I dislike the short-term pick up in these current market conditions. I also dislike the current mix of segments in the market – too reliant on retail at this moment. I like that we have been able to hold on the rate compared to previous years. I also like the creativity that is needed in today’s market.
H: What broader consumer trends are you paying attention to and applying to Lotte Hotel Seattle?
VC: Watching the opening of international travel closely – monitoring pick-up demand from Asian and European countries. Expecting pent-up demand from our friends north of the border with Canadian specific packages on brand.com and special offers targeted for Canadian travels on the OTA channels. Cleanliness and security measures will continue to be a top concern for travelers – we are Sharecare verified with Forbes.
H: What’s next for you and Lotte Hotel Seattle?
VC: I am very excited about the expansion of our brand in the Americas and other parts of the world. We would like to position Lotte Hotel Seattle as the premier luxury hotel choice in the city and the Pacific Northwest as a whole. Industry partners have been very supportive and assisted us in recommending our hotel, restaurant and meeting spaces to their clients, friends and family. We are looking forward to making The Sanctuary, our grand ballroom, the best destination to hold an event. The future is bright for Lotte Hotel Seattle and I am certain that the best is yet to come.