The Sofitel Chicago Water Tower may be the best hotel in the Windy City you never heard of.
Nearly 50 years ago the first Sofitel hotel opened in Strasbourg France, and in the ensuing half century, the company went global. Amassing over 200 hotels worldwide, from Asia to the States, South America to Australia, more than Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton combined, Sofitel became a big hotel group, chain, or company, yet it never managed to become a brand, at least not in the U.S. where few travelers knew it and fewer knew much about it.
That’s about to change.
First a tiny bit of history: Sofitel was acquired by Accor, another French hotel group, in the late Nineties. Accor is very large, and owns or manages somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,500 hotels under more than a dozen brand names (Mercure, Ibis, Novotel, etc.) from budget to luxury in over 90 countries around the globe. At first, under Accor, the Sofitel brand got even cloudier, a catch all for hotels, many in France, operating under a common name but often lacking any common characteristics. I have been traveling very frequently and writing on travel around the globe for over 15 years, and have stayed in hundreds of hotels from independents to chains, large and small, and amazingly I had never stayed at a Sofitel until recently. Yet I noticed that they were all over the place, especially in markets lacking other name brand hotels, but also in some surprisingly popular destinations like New York, Chicago and London. If you asked me to describe Sofitel a year ago, about the best I could do would have been “a French chain with a lot of hotels in cities big and small.”
So what has changed?
In 2007 Accor brought in longtime hotel industry veteran COO Robert-Gaymer Jones to revitalize and reposition the brand, and he was subsequently promoted to CEO last year. I had occasion to chat with him last fall at the Virtuoso travel conference in Las Vegas (Virtuoso is the leading global consortium of high-end expert travel agencies for luxury-seeking customers, and I wrote about the group in my series on Why You Need a Travel Agent, Parts One and Two).
Jones quickly de-flagged nearly half of the Sofitel properties, cherry picking the best of the bunch and dropping the tally to just 120 hotels and resorts, while setting out to improve these even more. “Four years ago, Accor, our parent, had a bunch of hotels they called Sofitel but it was not really a brand. They had a lot of great hotels, but also a lot of not so great ones. They brought me in to build a luxury brand and we went from 206 to 120 and put in new standards.”
Sofitel puts a lot of importance on both fashionable design and its culinary offerings, both on display at the Le Loft restaurant in its Vienna hotel. Photo by P Ruault
To implement improved standards competitive with other top tier brands, he assembled a new management team hiring veterans from the world’s best run hotel companies, “Four Seasons, Peninsula, Shangri La, as we are repositioning the brand, developing and implementing the standards. Our strategy and tagline are ‘Be Magnifique.” For differentiation, Jones is returning to the company’s roots and emphasizing its “Frenchness.” “We are the only global luxury chain that is French, so we are really focusing on food and beverage, bringing in chefs and sommeliers with Michelin-starred backgrounds, using French designers, but not any French designers, only the top ones.”
Like Hyatt, Starwood, Marriott and Hilton, Sofitel has also stratified itself into three tiers with two new brands, the highest being Sofitel Legends, their flagship palace properties, such as the Metropolitan Hanoi, Grand Amsterdam and the recently opened Old Cataract in Aswan, Egypt. SO is their hip or boutique brand, with an urban and fashion flavor marketed at an affluent younger clientele, with properties in destinations like Mauritius and Bangkok. The new Bangkok SO property is built in a series of 4-story blocks, each designed differently and themed (wood, glass, metal, etc.) and upon booking, guests are encouraged to reserve a room in the block that suits their taste and personality.
So what does all this mean to the luxury traveler?
The changes have had an immediate impact, and as Jones told trade publication Travel Weekly in an interview, new customers, especially women, are flocking to the rejuvenated hotels. “We’ve seen the mix of clients change dramatically. We have become an extremely female-friendly hotel. The female traveler appreciates the focus on design and the details like flowers… There are no big bars and lobbies. You don’t see a bunch of convention guys walking past you.”