The Upper House – The Next Generation of Hotels



Rich, beautiful or famous they already are. So how do you offer more or less prominent frequent flyers a hotel experience they will never forget? Marcel Thoma of The Upper House in Hong Kong and his team have found a striking secret formula: With a service that appears to read the minds of their prestigious clientele.

Before hotel rankings were a catch phrase, affluent Hong Kong travelers, stayed at the Peninsula, a noble structure on the shores of the Kowloon peninsula at Victoria harbor. Those staying on Hong Kong Island itself resided in the Mandarin Oriental, while Chinese visitors preferred the Shangri-La. All three traditional grand hotels are time-honored Hong Kong institutions in their own right. But then, in the fall of 2009, a boutique hotel with the aura of an Amanresort opened its doors in the middle of the Central district on Hong Kong Island. The launch itself, on the eve of October 1, the Chinese national holiday, was a phenomenal success. Through panorama windows on the 49th floor, guests could look down on the spectacular fireworks cascading over the harbor. Hong Kong’s high society reacted with great enthusiasm, and soon the quietly luxurious establishment, fittingly named The Upper House, had outstripped all its competitors. On TripAdvisor, the hotel now ranks first, with its 117 studios and suites – all decorated in soothing Japanese Zen style and measuring 70 m2 and upwards – providing the most spacious accommodations the city has to offer.

But the hotel doesn’t feature a swimming pool or a spa – just a sleek gym. And the hotel entrance on the ground floor is a little underwhelming. Although an elegant scent of ginger and verbena is discernable, the lobby is located just off the parking lot. There, two friendly young men greet newcomers and offer their assistance. Once the guests’ desire has been established – a visit to the restaurant or a hotel guest who wants to check in? – they are conducted by escalator to a lift that takes them straight up to the 49th floor, where both the Café Gray Deluxe restaurant and the Sky Lounge are located. The Sky Lounge is a salon-like space and offers a breathtaking view over the cosmopolitan city and its harbor. Bookshelves with an eclectic selection of coffee-table books and a fireplace furnish a soothing atmosphere.

I think our service is so good, because we don't have a reception - Check- in, concierge and support come out of one hand.

“On the whole, our clientele consists of frequent flyers, designers, actors, singers, politicians, and entrepreneurs. They don’t really care about reception areas and majestic hotel lobbies,” says Marcel Thoma, the general manager from Switzerland who makes a point of greeting guests personally whenever he can. His office is conveniently located just next to the point of arrival. “Our guests prefer to be greeted discreetly and to get a feeling for the character of the establishment.“ Ultra lean and impeccably dressed, Thoma crosses the impressive space with long strides. Outside it’s a typically foggy winter’s day in Hong Kong, but subtle lighting lends the Sky Lounge a warm, serene atmosphere.

Instead of the traditional troika of reception, concierge, and guest experience service, the Upper House promises a personalized welcome, assigning each guest to one of their 240 employees. This person is then responsible for the entire duration of the guest’s stay – from the paperless check-in to check-out. Checking in takes place in the guest’s room; sightseeing programs or even last-minute concert tickets are offered, if desired. Small wonder, then, that TripAdvisor’s evaluations often mention hotel employees by name. “I believe it is important that the staff is trained to understand a guest’s psychology,” says the director, who has a natural flair for making his clients feel welcome and comfortable. “I truly like our guests, and most of them come again.”

A relaxed perfectionist who feels what his guests need

When Thoma took up work here seven years ago, he started as Head of Guest Experience. Even then he was spending an average of 14 hours a day in the hotel, something that drew the attention of his predecessor Dean Winter. “He taught me a great deal,” Thoma tells us. Only three years later, he himself became the boss: A relaxed perfectionist who knows what real luxury entails. Early in the morning, Thoma breakfasts in the Café Gray Deluxe restaurant while chatting with the guests – or not chatting if somebody – Sting, for example – just wants some peace and quiet. Victoria Beckham, on the other hand, appreciated Thoma’s extensive knowledge about local designers. And the modern art that is generously distributed throughout the house and, of course, in the rooms by the hotel’s specially appointed curator.

By gleaning useful hints from body language and appearance, Thoma prides himself in knowing within the first two minutes what a new arrival expects from him. If the guest has just traveled 16 hours from America and has a meeting scheduled the next morning, “I will certainly not bother him with a sight-seeing itinerary. All this person wants is a relaxing massage – or a decent drink at the bar.” A different matter altogether are the romantic honeymooners to whom he recommends trekking excursions in Hong Kong’s fantastic mountains where they can enjoy the spectacular view of the South China sea. “Stereotypes often root in fact,” is his dry analysis after almost 20 years in the business.

Thoma was introduced to the hotel industry during an internship when he was in high school in St. Gallen. He was assigned to a hotel manager who ran a recently opened conference hotel and had worked in New York for a long time; her cosmopolitan zest for life made a lasting impression on him. After graduating, Thoma wanted to go out and see the world for himself, so he went to work at the Rembrandt Hotel in Bangkok for a year. “It was hot, it was chaotic, but I loved it.” His boss back then, also a Swiss national, recommended that Thoma apply to the prestigious hotel management school in Lausanne if he wanted to gain a foothold in the hotel business.

When Thoma graduated in 2003, he already had an offer from the Kempinski in Beijing in his pocket. Unfortunately, just then the SARS epidemic broke out and his plans fell apart. His father was starting to get nervous about his son’s future, and he himself was growing tired of waiting for replies to his applications. And so Thoma decided to go to New York for a few days. As luck would have it, once he got there, he managed to land a job at the exquisite The Carlyle – A Rosewood Hotel on the Upper East Side.

We are The Next Generation of Hotels

He remained in New York for seven years, until he got a call from the island in the South China Sea. Swire Pacific is the name of the conglomerate that owns not only Cathay Pacific airlines but also a large number of buildings in wealthy Hong Kong. The group had just launched a new luxury boutique hotel in Beijing, called The Opposite House, and was planning a further luxury boutique hotel, this time in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s first boutique resort was to be established in the company’s former serviced apartments; the design was entrusted to Hong Kong’s then only 33-year-old architectural wunderkind Andre Fu. Thoma didn’t need to be asked twice, claiming that, “Until now, the city has only brought me luck.” Has he had any thoughts about where he might want to go next? “All I know is that I definitely want to stay in Asia. But a hotel like ours will be extremely hard to top.”

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