For more than six months, Andre Erasmus has overseen the day-to-day operations of Kunming's latest and tallest international luxury hotel, Sofitel Kunming. The 397-room luxury facility is making a name for itself in the Spring City. The hotel lobby was recently nominated for an international design award, and the staff has staged events ranging from opulent to quirky to charitable.
With 20 years of experience in the hotel industry, Erasmus admits launching a brand new to any city is a challenge, but he is enjoying his time in Kunming. We recently sat down with him to discuss why Sofitel came to Yunnan, how the hotel ended up partnering with one of the province's largest companies, and how the hotel he manages is looking to impact the community it now calls home.
GoKunming: How has the process of getting such a large endeavor off the ground been?
Andre Erasmus: I came in three months before the official opening to see the project through. It's been challenging to say the least. Any hotel project is the same. There are always many unforeseen circumstances no matter how well you plans. This is my ninth hotel that I've opened, and you'd think you would get pretty good at it, but you always get brought down to earth pretty quickly [laughs]. Every situation is different, every market is different and expectations always vary.
GoKunming: When you first arrived in Kunming, where you run a bit more ragged then you might have expected?
Erasmus: There were a few surprises. Some of them good, some of them not so good. But it's normal with any project. There is always uncertainty. You never know how the market is going to react to certain features and certain things we're trying out. But with hindsight, everyone involved has done a really good job, especially over the past three or four months. I think we're still not there yet, but we will position ourselves as the number one hotel in Kunming.
GoKunming: Have there been any challenges along the way that have been exceptionally difficult to overcome?
Erasmus: I wouldn't say anything out of the ordinary. Like any hotel project, especially a new brand — Sofitel is well-established in China, but this is the first time we've opened in the Yunnan market — positioning ourselves within the market to the people of Kunming, it's been a new thing.
The owners of Sofitel have been a little bit brave here in terms of the design. The entire concept is very much new. It doesn't look like a standard hotel, and that poses both an opportunity and a challenge. For more conservative people, maybe they don't like it, but for the younger generation, the more well-traveled, they love it. It's new, fresh, something different.
GoKunming: Is the hotel attracting locals and business travelers alike?
Erasmus: Absolutely. Our business mix at the moment is roughly 30-40 percent leisure travelers. It is still high travel season in Yunnan. So people are using the hotel as a base. They stay for a few days, maybe see the Stone Forest, and then head off to Dali, Lijiang, Shangri-la or maybe Xishuangbanna. But our core business throughout the year is corporate business travelers. It takes a bit of time to establish a name in that market. Fortunately, with Sofitel, we have a very loyal group of guests who know the brand and our standards of service.
GoKunming: What was the thinking behind opening a Sofitel in Kunming?
Erasmus: It's an interesting question. When I was in Kunming five or six years ago, there were virtually no international hotels. Now there are five or six, and more are coming. As with second and third tier cities across China, many markets are saturated. Accor and its Sofitel brand have 18 hotels in China, and we're now looking at third-tier cities, so it was only natural to partner with Kunming Steel and open this hotel.
GoKunming: What was the motivation for partnering with Kunming Steel?
Erasmus: They had quite a few options of luxury hotel brands to choose from. This to them is an iconic building, the face of their company. They attached extreme value to this project, this facility. When they did the brand selection, I think they chose Sofitel specifically because of what we stand for – French elegance meets local flare – which is absolutely perfect for this hotel.
We have elements of French elegance, luxury and sophistication meeting 'colorful Yunnan'. This is what really attracted Kunming Steel. They didn't want to lose who they are, they didn't want to lose their roots. They're from Yunnan and are one of the oldest companies in the province. They are very proud to be Yunnanese. Our brand worked the best for them based on our standards and resources. It is a good fit, a very nice partnership.
GoKunming: With the importance Sofitel places on French influences, have you found it necessary to adjust to the market here in Kunming and Yunnan?
Erasmus: No, not at all. We look for inspiration from both French and local cultures. You'll find that in all elements [of the hotel], be it the rooms, the spa or our restaurants. We draw heavily on both elements. For example, in our all day dining facility, we have a section dedicated to Kunming food. Our chefs there are local and we have a special station serving mixian. We're featuring an erkuai dish – made the way locals eat it at home – but we added a French touch by offering crumbled Camembert over the top. France meets Yunnan. It's the best thing you've ever eaten.
GoKunming: After 20 years in the business, is there any feature of this hotel you are surprised by, or particularly proud of?
Erasmus: Definitely it's our team. We've got a phenomenal staff. I must say, without exception, everyday they surprise and delight. I'm extremely proud to be a part of it. They're doing an amazing job.
GoKunming: You've used the rooftop helipad for a few events. Is that something you plan to showcase more often?
Erasmus: We don't necessarily want to hold it back, but we don't we don't want to dilute it by using it every week either. So we've planned a calendar of events well into 2017 of what we call 'Wow events'. We have plans for Halloween, which is going to be something never seen before in Kunming. What we'd like to do with these events is create a wow factor. And with that, to maintain interest, you can't do them every week.
GoKunming: The idea of bringing new things to Kunming, does this filter down to how the hotel interacts with the city?
Erasmus: This is close to my heart. We've partnered up with the Heart to Heart Community Care and what we've done is two events so far. The first was an auction in our ballroom. Our chefs prepared a really nice spread, and we ended up doubling our expected fundraising goal. It generated a lot of money, but also a lot of awareness of what Heart to Heart does. Secondly, what we've done is a mooncake activity. We invited kids from Heart to Heart to draw their own mooncake boxes. It was lovely to have all of these kids around the hotel. So all of these individual boxes will be sold to the public and the proceeds will go back to Heart to Heart. We're very proud of this. Another thing we're doing is, with the money raised at auction, we've renovated their kitchen and we'll send our chef their, with food. He'll cook for them there and make a very fun day. We expect to do more of these events as we go along.
GoKunming: How do you see for the future of Sofitel in Yunnan, and for the luxury hotel market in general in Yunnan?
Erasmus: The future of the Accor company [parent company of Sofitel] spans ultra-luxury hotels down to budget accommodations. There are talks of adding a substantial amount more under the Accor umbrella. Whether or not these will be Sofitel remains to be seen. I for one think in the next few years you will see a few more Sofitels in Yunnan, based on the success of this hotel.
GoKunming: Do you have any interesting anecdotes from your first six months here?
Erasmus: There are so many. The nicest moment we've had was the wine dinner on the roof. It was so unique. And our opening event was a huge success. As for actual anecdotes, none that I'd like published [laughs]!
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