Adapting in an “ever-evolving industry”: Q&A with Billy Hughes, The Ascott Limited

ServicedApartmentNews catches up with Billy Hughes, UK area manager for The Ascott Limited, about the challenges and opportunities overseeing the group’s UK portfolio, technological innovation, and growth plans.

• Congratulations on winning a Serviced Apartment Award for Best Property 71+ units. What does it mean to you and the business to be recognised within the industry?

We are so proud to have been awarded Best Property 71+ units for Citadines Islington London, our newest addition to the UK Citadines Aparthotel portfolio, at the Serviced Apartment Awards. It is a huge accolade and it’s a reflection of the talent and commitment of the whole team at Citadines Islington London, and the wider team at Ascott, who worked so hard to launch this property

This award means a lot to us and the business as it marks another milestone in Ascott’s innovation journey and highlights our expertise in developing new properties. With the Citadines brand our aim is to design stylish and comfortable aparthotels for the next generation of traveller. Situated within a former Royal Mail Sorting Office, Citadines Islington pays homage to its original use as well as providing a modern, relaxed living experience and home-from-home environment for guests.

Despite the pandemic, we continue to open new aparthotels in key locations around the world. The team has shown fantastic dedication and I am incredibly proud of what has been achieved and I’m excited to see what the next few years hold.

• What has been some of the main challenges and opportunities overseeing Ascott’s UK portfolio throughout 2021?

It has been and continues to be a challenging time for the industry; the pandemic hit the hospitality industry particularly hard. One of the biggest challenges was to ensure we retained talent despite the commercial loss. By diversifying our channel mix and attracting new markets that historically we may not have considered, we were able to keep our London Citadines properties open throughout, keep revenue coming in and as many staff members as possible working full time. We also continued to provide a safe haven to many long stay and relocating guests, as well as key workers. Serviced residences proved to be more resilient than hotels as they have the ability to host long stays due to their self-contained format, spaciousness and home-from-home comforts allowing guests to feel safe and secure when away from home for extended periods of time for work or leisure.

Staffing levels continue to be a challenge. A combination of furloughing staff during lockdowns and a decrease in hospitality talent in the capital has led to recruitment challenges across the industry. However, I am very proud of our teams who have ensured that we are constantly adapting to meet the needs of our guests, government guidance and the ever-evolving industry. Everyone had to adjust to a new way of working very quickly and our teams ensured that our guests remained at the heart of everything we did.

We continue to adapt quickly to government guidelines and travel restrictions, which can of course change at very short notice. Despite this, we are in a period of strong recovery. There have been a few cancellations due to the Omicron variant, but Q1 of 2022 is still looking strong. With the focus on boosters, and an overall high uptake on the vaccination role out, we are keeping optimistic for Q1 of 2022.

• What are the main operational demands (and differences) of managing aparthotels compared to hotels?

I have managed many large and complex hotels and I don’t believe that there is a huge difference, however, operationally, the main difference is that aparthotels have less operational demands as they generally don’t have as many food and beverage outlets or meeting facilities as hotels.

Aparthotels tend to cater for a number of long stay guests who have different requirements compared to hotel guests. Although we serve breakfast at our properties, the apartments offer a fully equipped kitchen with hob, microwave oven, dishwasher, fridge, kettle, cooking utensils and crockery for guests to cook their meals during their stay.

As aparthotels cater for guests staying for a longer period of time, we offer a variety of extra services you wouldn’t find in hotels such as a self-service laundrette equipped with a washer and dryer, which is open 24 hours a day with ironing and dry-cleaning services also available on request.

There are similarities to hotels, as aparthotels also offer many facilities which need to be managed operationally the same as a hotel. These include the safety of a 24-hour reception; the convenience of regular housekeeping; complimentary access to the property’s Fitness Corner; a Resident’s Lounge where guests can rest and relax; and a Business Corner with computers connected to high-speed internet and a printer. At our aparthotels, our multiskilled teams ensure we continue to offer an amazing experience and high-quality customer service to all of our guests.

• How do you see technological innovation shaping the hospitality industry?

The need for new technology in hospitality has accelerated because of the pandemic. In response, Ascott has invested in technology to offer a more digital experience for guests, with customer, staff safety and sustainability front of mind. This includes going cashless and paperless as much as possible with QR codes to reduce paper waste. We’ve also introduced PressReader across our Citadines ApartHotels in the UK and European properties to offer all guests complimentary newspapers and magazines available to read on a laptop, tablet, or phone.

Customer expectations and requirements are continually shifting, and our guests are looking for ways to book flexible stays with ease. As part of Ascott’s ongoing digital transformation to support our fast-expanding business and to improve our guest experience, last year we launched our Discover ASR mobile app to make booking easier and more flexible, and to improve the overall experience for our guests. Through our mobile app, guests can search for deals, manage their membership, redeem ASR points, perform mobile check-in and check-out, and make contactless payments. This year we also launched a new website which unifies our separate brand websites on one single global online travel booking platform.

We are continually looking for ways to incorporate new technology inside our apartments. We are currently testing noise balancing technology in our London Citadines properties to mask any noise distractions and ensure guests have a truly relaxing stay.

The CapitaLand 2030 Sustainability Master Plan seeks to leave a positive global footprint and improve the quality of life in the territories we operate in. The plan aims to build a resilient and resource efficient portfolio, enable thriving and future-adaptive communities, and accelerate sustainability innovation and collaboration. As part of this programme, we at Citadines and Ascott are looking to invest in room energy management to ensure full lighting, heating, and cooling controls, as well as ventilation control capabilities which can greatly reduce energy consumption in our London Citadines properties. With returning guests, we can also personalise the room to ensure it is at their preferred temperate on arrival. We will also be installing a smart shower system which will allow us to reduce water waste without disrupting the guest experience.

• What does your growth strategy look like for 2022?

The last two years have been complex, however the aparthotel industry has continued to show resilience. Serviced apartments have been the perfect solution for those looking for accommodation with extra space, flexibility, and kitchen facilities. We are in a very strong position to continue to grow the Ascott brand.

In August we opened Citadines Eurometropole Strasbourg in France, located just outside of the centre of Strasbourg. This property allows guests to enjoy all the comforts of a private apartment with the services of a four-star hotel as it is home to a fine-dining restaurant and Sothys Spa.

Ascott has recently signed two new properties in Morocco as part of its Middle East, Africa, and Turkey (MEAT) portfolio. This includes Citadines Racine Casablanca and Citadines Connect Belvedere Casablanca which will add 183 rooms to Ascott’s existing MEAT portfolio, in line with the group’s ambitious expansion plans in the region. Both residences are scheduled to open in 2023.

Ascott has also signed an agreement to manage Citadines Danube City Vienna, Ascott’s first serviced residence in Austria. The 223-unit property is scheduled to open towards the end of 2022 and will be in the 22nd district, a fast-growing area of the capital.

Ascott constantly innovates to position us for the future, designing products that provide unique experiences to customers. We recently announced that we will be opening our first, and flagship, lyf property in Europe, lyf Gambetta Paris, set to open in 2024. Our lyf brand is a hybrid solution that combines the best of serviced residences, hotels and coliving apartments. lyf is a lodging concept designed for the new generation of travellers, digital nomads, technopreneurs, creatives and self-starters. The apartments, social spaces, and experiential programmes at lyf properties are designed for guests to forge connections and to nurture a strong sense of community.

Ascott’s portfolio includes five lyf properties that have opened in Singapore, Bangkok, Fukuoka and Hangzhou, as well as 12 lyf properties that are slated to open in Bangkok, Beijing, Cebu, Danang, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Melbourne, Paris, Shanghai, Singapore and Xi’an by 2025.

In the UK and Europe, we are continuing to look for opportunities to expand our presence through management contracts, franchises, strategic alliances and investment. We will also begin renovating a number of properties, including Citadines Holborn Covent Garden London, Citadines Les Halles and la Défense in Paris, and Citadines Kufurstendamm Berlin, by the end of 2022.

This story was originally posted on ServicedApartmentNews.com

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