Interview with Thomas Kochs, Managing Director Corinthia London.
Insider Plus wanted to look away from the gloom and doom of these past months and deal with some good news which is sprouting around us.
COVID has been a taxing experience physically, mentally and economically. It seems, however, that life is slowly picking up. We wanted to discuss this issue with Mr Thomas Kochs, Managing Director of Corinthia Hotel London. So, we met him late afternoon between one meeting and another, but he looked as fresh as ever, immaculately dressed and with an open smile. Our first query was whether he was experiencing a comeback of life and activity in London. Was this also reflected in Corinthia Hotel London ?
“I have lived in London for twenty years and, obviously, I have witnessed this city react to several ordeals and experiences. There is something special about London; its resilience is mythical. London has always bounced back quickly.
‘This city is a whirlpool of experiences; the business which comes our way is phenomenal and the opportunities which present themselves are not found in every market. In the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we took a business decision to be always open and available for whatever was legally allowed. But we were also preparing ourselves for any future change in scene. It is like keeping your car revving, waiting to speed immediately the green start flag is waved.
‘There were times during lockdown when only essential business travel was approved. But the minute people were allowed to do something, we had it immediately available. Take for example outdoor dining: when this became admissible, we promptly organised a pop-up restaurant with Tom Kerridge, and in no time it was full.
When people were not allowed to travel abroad, our leisure domestic UK segment immediately performed better than ever before. After a period of pent-up demand, people wanted to return to life, to socialise, spend their money, pamper themselves well and have a good time. We could see it everywhere. Our food and beverages sector bounced back, so our restaurant and bar operations are performing same as in pre-pandemic time. And when North Atlantic travel was allowed again, we suddenly started feeling the rest picking up once more.
‘The entertainment business had passed through terrible times, as desperate as the hospitality sector. Filming had stopped; so after the restrictions they were churning one film after the other and bringing us fabulous people to our hotel.
‘But I must emphasise that the art of bouncing back essentially requires good timing. If you bounce back too fast or too slow, you may land badly. Too slow and you lose your seat; too fast and you miss your landing place. So, you have to synchronise with what is going on. It’s like getting on board a moving bus. Without effective synchronisation you are bound to mess it up.’
This led us to ask if being prepared on all fronts was an essential part of the game. Mr Kochs’ response was immediate.
‘Undoubtedly. My rule is to never neglect the continuous attention to what one cannot perform at a particular time, but be ready for the opportune time to plunge when it becomes possible. That is what I meant by keeping the car revving.’
We wondered if guests were still very wary, and, if so, how does Corinthia London reassure them and make them relax? Mr Kochs conceded that he does not think we can return to full normality. But then again, what is full normality? Perhaps our pre-COVID times were not fully normal, but it was our accustomed way of life.
‘We have followed a very strict COVID protocol. We have tested staff regularly and adhered to all the government guidelines. We were quite strict but we did this without extra fuss or show. We did it behind the scenes. I did not want guests to look at our hotel as a hospital. We have always operated in conformity with government advice; so, when government wanted us to wear masks, we did so, and when the government said we don’t really need to wear them, we discussed the matter amongst ourselves and decided to make it voluntary amongst the staff. But, and this is a very important point, when a guest uses a face mask, we mirror what our guest is doing. Whoever serves him puts on the mask too. When a guest uses a mask it indicates some apprehension on his/ her part, so we respect that and follow suit. ‘
From what you are seeing, is it too early to state that a full comeback is round the corner, or are there signs that it is not so?
‘This is not an easy question. I must be honest; I do not really know. We must be cautious.; there is still some unpredictability and uncertainty in the air. I believe that a full come-back is possible. I do not feel that another lockdown is on the doorstep. I fear that reining the public back would be very challenging. What about the economic consequences of all this? What about electricity and gas shortages, and factory closures? What about supply and labour market shortages? How would inflation develop? How long would this generous spending last? Corinthia London operates in the luxury section. We feel what the mood of the nation is asking for right now. We make people relaxed and happy and they can pamper themselves and buy expensive wines. That is what they want right now. And we can, and do offer it.’
What new approach towards clients or activities are you taking or envisaging in view of the recent past?
I feel we need to be way more sensitive towards those topics. We need to remain more in touch with what generations feel, how different generations tick. We need to adapt and amend our products even quicker than we have done before. We need to apprehend and appreciate these nuances in terms of our marketing and strategy for the next six months, with a follow-up strategy.
I must say, what we have, works really well. The Spa is performing well, even better every month, restaurants are full, people stay on for the weekends. We have opened our Christmas bookings and we are already 50% sold out, so we are holding back so as not to sell out too soon. This is an example of not bouncing back too fast. So, at the moment it really looks like a positive recovery and a faster recovery than we, as a company team, anticipated six months ago. But we cannot rest on our laurels; as I have just said, we need to retain our sensitivity.
Another query which crossed our minds was whether COVID would affect the future scene for hoteliers. Are there changes which have come to stay? Mr Kochs concentrated for a few seconds, and then spoke.
‘Covid will not go away. Perhaps we will have to live with it for the rest of our lives. I fear that travel has become more complicated. This has its advantages and drawbacks. There is an advantage because domestic vacations have become more attractive and our UK domestic market is growing. But the flip side is that when travel becomes too complicated, international travel is bound to be negatively affected.
‘I think that official proof of vaccination and recovery is something which has come to stay. It is all so novel but I think this too is here to stay.
‘Nonetheless, this crisis has also helped us get a clearer and more critical view of what we are doing. It is normal that there was a lot of build-ups over the years and we kept on adding and adding. Our vision became somewhat blurred and suddenly we had to stop and needed to have a very good look around. Maybe, this is helping us to be more efficient. Maybe, having all these hygiene protocols has made our product even cleaner and better. We have had to revise and sometimes even go back to the drawing board. This self-examination process will remain. It makes us leaner and more efficient.
‘One should not allow the gloom to take over. As the saying goes: every cloud has its silver lining. But even there, we must be cautious. There is another well-known saying: Too many people miss the silver lining because they are expecting gold.’
We noted the healthy positivity of this line of thinking. Mr Kochs was quick to agree and added:
‘There is good news in everything. It depends on your perspective. Sometimes, you can react by saying, “This is unfair…this is not right…why?…who is doing this to me?” But that makes you only the victim of circumstances and you become stale and passive. On the other hand, you can say, “Fine, this is our current situation. What is best for us? How do we want to do it? How do we want to come out of this situation?” As Abraham Lincoln once said: What is the end-result or the product we want? We can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.
Mr Kochs sported his broad smile and chuckled: ‘I like the driving seat, not the passenger seat.’ In other words, he prefers to move things himself rather than be driven. He is a mover and a leader. And he has proven this time and time again.
As our last parting shot, we asked him whether he thought this pandemic would make us more conscious of our mistakes, misgivings and mismanagement, or whether we would forget all when life changes to what we were previously accustomed. He smiled gently and after a few seconds conceded that perhaps many things would be forgotten.
‘We do not like to prolong bad things but yearn to go back to what we consider normal. People want their lives back. No one likes to deal with issues and problems, especially in our luxury world.
‘But I really feel we should be focused to keep the good things which have grown around us. One classic example is the way we have become more sensitive about the needs of others. When has our society spoken with so much passion on the vulnerable? Many have led their lives doing what is good for them, but we also need to protect people, look after them.
We, at Corinthia London, made also great efforts to remain in touch with each other during lockdown. We ran a program ‘Corinthia Connect’, which offered every employee an opportunity to connect online with the company. So ‘Corinthia Connect’ was our headliner but every day we ran a different feature. Thus, one day we had ‘Corinthia Cooks’, where one of our chefs would cook a dish and all the staff could follow and learn online. Every day it was something different. Another day it was ‘Corinthia Stay Fit’, so our Spa team organised an online fitness presentation. Another day it was ‘Corinthia Entertains’, where many of us participated in a talent show. We never lost our feeling of togetherness and we consciously tried to keep the teams together in those nerve racking times.
‘This is something I do not want to forget. I want to preserve and further strengthen this team spirit which has developed in those dreary days. It is such a positive and enriching experience.
‘So, there are two answers to your question. Yes, people want to forget and go back to what they consider normal, but I think it is essential to remember, retain and even better the improvements that we have experienced.
‘The art of bouncing back is not an easy exercise. When you bounce back you need to be a better being, a fitter organisation, better synchronised with different generations, and seamlessly offer the best service in a timelier manner and fashion, and last but not least remain faithful to our Corinthia ideals.’