AMONG TURKEY’S FIRST 5-STAR HOTELS

Turkey 2020 | TOURISM | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Uğur Talayhan, Regional Vice President Turkey & General Manager of Swissôtel, on the unique property that is Swissôtel The Bosphorus, brand growth in Asia, and the leisure-business balance.

Could you give us a brief history of your operations here on Swissôtel The Bosphorus?

Swissôtel was one of Turkey's first five-star luxury hotels. Our location, formerly the garden of the Dolmabahce Palace, made us even more unique. The initial ownership of the hotel was Japanese, and since then we have undergone many changes, including both good times and bad. The Swissôtel name, however, has remained the same throughout, and this consistency has made us a Turkish institution. Everywhere I go, 70-80% of people currently working at the leading institutions within the hospitality industry have built their careers, in part, at Swissôtel. We have been essential in training the very best talent in Turkey's hospitality industry, and we are still a market leader across every segment we operate in.

What percentage of your customers are Turkish?

When we consider the full year, we have a preponderance of Turkish guests; however, if we only consider seasonal occupancy, we see more Middle Eastern guests during peak times. There are other times of year when we see more visitors from CIS countries, such as Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and so on. Most of the time, the leisure seasons are dominated by Middle Eastern guests.

Are there any regions or countries that you have focused on for growth?

At the moment, Swissôtel is concentrating a great deal on Asia. Russia is a key focal point, as is South America. All hotels in Istanbul want to expand the diversity of their client base. Relying on one demographic bears too much risk. We see many hotels over-relying on a single segment or demographic, and we are intent on avoiding this mistake. I am personally focused on Asia, and specifically, I am keen to bring China to Istanbul. Additionally, AccorHotels – our management company – has a great presence in America, which gives that market a certain appeal. Russian business travel is also an interesting area for us. My present goal with respect to the Russian market is to maintain the momentum that we have already built. Our broader strategy is to diversify as much as possible. In Antalya, in the south of Turkey, the industry has seen what can happen when too much attention is invested in a single market, Russia, and then that source of visitors dries up. The advantage of Istanbul is that the city appeals to numerous people from around the world. Saudis are still the number one visitor group from the Middle East, but we are seeing growth from Qatar and Kuwait, and Iran is increasingly entering the picture.

What percentages of your business are leisure travel and business travel?

Leisure comprises nearly 80% of our business. Business travel, on the other hand, is presently trending downward, but we are looking forward to promoting growth in that area again, particularly among US and European visitors. The luxury cruise sector has also been avoiding Istanbul as a destination over the past two years, but there have been strong signals that travelers will return. This is a process that we are interested in assisting.

What is your strategy for capturing the business segment during its return to Istanbul?

We pride ourselves on being able to offer the very best experience that business travelers can receive. The value they get from us is unparalleled. As a destination, Istanbul itself is amazing, enriched by thousands of years of history. Our main challenge lies more at the political level, which is, of course, beyond our control. I recently attended a panel with German travel agencies, and they are interested in bringing customers back to Istanbul. They have already returned to Antalya, which last summer had one of its best seasons on record. In recent seasons, German travelers have sampled alternative destinations like Spain, Portugal and Greece, and have consistently found that the value they received in Turkey was far superior to other offerings. This is encouraging for us, and we welcome their return to the Turkish market.

What efforts or investments has Swissôtel made to expand on the guest experience side of hospitality?

Swissôtel Istanbul has an entire, multinational team focused on expanding guest experience. The company utilizes a strong set of tools that allows it to track and fulfill a guest's personal preferences. The goal is to create an excellent experience for visitors of all national backgrounds and build an emotional connection with them. One example is the butler services that we provide our guests, quite unusual for our brand. We want our guests to have a personalized experience that starts at the very beginning of their stay and lasts right through to their departure. This is why Swissôtel Istanbul has the highest guest satisfaction rating in our company. Swissôtel Istanbul also has the highest employee satisfaction level out of all of our global locations. Our colleagues really love what they do, and this in turn affects the guest experience in a positive way, serving to create an experience that guests will not forget.

How are you applying technology to your operations?

Without technology, it would be hard for us to operate. Everything exists in a digital format, and this is something in which we are deeply immersed. Guests can check in and out by phone. Using advanced technology, we are also able to track guest preferences at a level that would otherwise be impossible. Our colleagues have the ability to see the preferences of the guest directly from their own apps as well, creating even greater efficiencies. Technology is essential now for leading hotels. It makes connecting with guests and maintaining that connection much, much easier.

How do you expect the new Istanbul airport to impact tourist numbers in Turkey?

The new airport in Istanbul will have a positive impact on the country's tourism sector. Last year, I was part of a delegation that travelled from Istanbul to Beijing to speak to the government there about increasing the number of flights between China and Turkey. It was a successful effort. Now, Southern China Airlines flies to Turkey three times a week, with plans to increase that number to seven. We are planning to return to China in April to speak to other airlines and can anticipate an even larger increase in the number of Istanbul-bound flights. If we want to bring more travelers to Istanbul, this new airport is essential.

How have recent investments in infrastructure impacted regional and in-country tourist traffic to Istanbul?

Infrastructure investments have considerably helped to revive tourism in Istanbul. Middle Eastern investors have come with their colleagues to invest in projects, and these have improved the traffic conditions both in and out of the city. By attracting more investors, we are able to create extensive economic benefits for the entire city. This kind of growth helps stabilize the local economy, and the country as a whole.

What are your biggest goals and plans for 2019?

Our number-one goal is to focus on guest experience. If we can maximize that we will then be able to increase our ADR. Guests reflect on their experience and pay accordingly. Our guests have no problem with paying, but they are very selective about what it is that they are paying for. Additionally, we want to expand the reputation of the hotel in Asia and South America. We are working very hard on this and believe that we are on the right track. We want to be able to offer experiences that justify raising rates, rather than, as some of our competitors do, raise rates just for the sake of it.