Arnaud Champenois spoke to Hot Topics about how the growing use of technology and social to create bespoke experiences is allowing the luxury hotel and travel group to engage guests and build revenues.
The uptake of digital at Belmond over the past few years has coincided with a refinement of the company’s own brand. Until 2014, the firm was called Orient-Express Hotels, but was renamed Belmond (which loosely translates as ‘beautiful world’) for greater brand cohesion and to better reflect the scope of its offering.
That offering is sizeable: Belmond has a portfolio of 46 hotels in 24 countries, in exotic locations such as Venice, Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. It also runs river cruises, safari camps and luxury trains.
Belmond’s core customer base is mostly American and British, wealthy and on average 45 years old. Accordingly, there is a degree of the traditional about them.
“These people, they still like very much like a personal human connection, so our general managers are very involved themselves, calling them, taking care of them,” Champenois says.
Accordingly, Belmond’s CRM (customer relationship management) is as much offline as it is online, leading for instance to the creation of events and experiences for guests when they are staying at on of its hotels.
“Money can buy a moment where we create this kind of bonding with the brand and between the general manager and guests,” Champenois says.
“This is quite unique because these guests are not on social media, so the real social moment is going to create this kind of bonding and memorable moment for them, and loyalty to the brand.”
That said, while some guests may be uninterested in social media, technology is nevertheless extremely important for the company.
“Over the past few years we have completely changed our digital ecosystem to make it much more customer-friendly,” Champenois says.
“So of course we are very, very focused on social media strategy and how we engage with the entire digital touch points with the guests.”
Social plays a key role in Belmond’s marketing communications, and Champenois singles out Instagram as one of the most effective platforms.
“I would say that Instagram is the Lonely Planet of today because people are really looking for recommendations, tips and tricks to connect with local communities,” he says. “Instagram strategy is extremely important for us.”
Clearly, when a strategy is deemed important from a commercial standpoint then it must ultimately have a positive impact on the bottom line, Champenois concurs.
“I think over the past years [sic] we have had to adapt the entire company to this new digital ecosystem and to really make sure that people understand that social media and digital media are driving revenues,” Champenois says.
This has led to a shift in the way the group operates, particularly for those on the ground at its hotels, with general managers “looking at what’s happening online, especially when guests are on site”, engaging with them and creating a “personal connection”.
“When you do that well, you drive revenue and you drive loyalty,” he says. “So this is what has changed. And how digital social media became a big player and tool in the travel industry.”
Digital’s rising status at Belmond has led to a number of digital innovations.
“For instance in July, [we launched] My Belmond on our new website,” Champenois says.
The service will kink customers with the brand, “to connect [them] with the content they want to receive from us”.
“They will be able to check and select their operational preferences, such as the size of the bed they want, their minibar preferences, their food allergies, these kind of things.
“But also the content they want to receive from us — do they want to receive informations from us about wine-and-dining, or wellness and sports, or arts and culture?”
Champenois admits that this tailoring of guest experiences according to their personal tastes was once a challenge for Belmond and its competitors.
“But now actually I think it’s a strength of the market, because we can really establish a stronger personal connection with these guests, because we can really pick the content they want from us.
Belmond has also strengthened its relationships with customers via Belmond Moments, an initiative that sees guests receive six moments between their arrival at a hotel to the farewell, “with a very strong focus on the ‘good morning’”.
Champenois elaborates: while rival hotel and travel companies are focused on offering guests nighttime experiences (“fighting for the night”), be that entertainment or culinary experiences, Belmond is instead distinguishing itself by targeting the start of the day.
“We wanted to own the mornings with incredible morning experiences,” he says. “From an amazing breakfast and also before the breakfast when you can have a really nice walk.”
“We have incredible national parks in our portfolio where we have properties where you can get closer to nature, like for instance, Iguazú in Brazil, or in Machu Picchu in Peru.”
Meanwhile, this summer the company launched a range of experiences in its hotels in southern Europe, including a breakfast served by butler at Belmond Reid’s Palace in Madeira and a cookery class in the Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice.
“We try to always create these incredible moments for the customer journey,” Champenois says.
Keeping the faith
Of course keeping customers on that journey, keeping them faithful is an ongoing challenge for any business, especially one in a market populated with rivals offering remarkably similar products and services.
But Champenois believes that Belmond is able to differentiate itself from rival hotel groups.
“The DNA of Belmond is really about this timeless, quirky, genuine, understated tone of voice, which is very unique in the market,” he says.
“What we always try to do is to have this emotional and very human relationship with our guest.”