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Interview with Philip Dewar GM of Shangri-La Hotel, Shenzhen

Brent: I'm here with and we're doing a podcast interview with Philip Dewar, is the general manager of Shangri-La Hotel, Shenzhen, who has just arrived recently in Shenzhen. Can you tell our listeners about your background? Where do you come from? How did you get here? What is the thing that struck you most when you arrived in Shenzhen?

Philip: Well, I'll try and keep it short about how I got here. It's a 40-year story so I'll try and condense it a little bit. I was born in the UK, I'm from Scotland originally and I consider it quite lucky that my parents moved abroad when I was quite young.

So I grew up in Asia and went back to UK to study. Studied Hotel Management and then came back to Asia and started my career in hotels. So I've worked in most countries in Asia. I've worked for a couple of hotel groups. I've been with Shangri-La for the last six years.

Philip: And this is my third property with Shangri-La. We tend to get moved around every two or three years. So I've been here now for three months, and I'm enjoying it. I've been in Shenzhen before but the last time I was here was about six or seven years ago and there was still a lot of construction then, a lot of things going on, a lot of dust, a lot of mayhem.

Brent: Chaos?

Philip: Yeah, exactly. So what struck me is how nice Shenzhen is as a city now. Compared to the way I remembered it. And I'm here with a family and there's plenty to do and there's plenty of greenery and a lot of interesting things going on, so thoroughly enjoying it.

Brent: Great. So, can you tell us why there are two Shangri-la hotels  in Shenzhen? What are the differences?

Philip: Well, there're two Shangri-Las in a number of cities. And where there's opportunity, there's cause to do the development. And I think there're probably more similarities than differences. The areas are obviously different.

Luohu's still next to the border, next to the train station. A lot of commercial shopping, traders coming back and forward, so we have kind of a unique position in the city in terms of location.  Futian Shangri-La is of course in the new developing CBD.

So there's a cross-over in the markets that we cater to and there're also differences in the markets that we cater to and I think the city's big enough and growing quickly enough; there's plenty of space for us both.

Brent: Great. And why should locals live in Shenzhen come to the Shangri-La Luohu. What does it have to offer as far as F & B outlets are concerned?

Philip: We've got a number of F & B outlets as you were probably aware and I think we cater to the different moods that locals may be in, you know, going from the kind of top down. Right now we're sitting in 360, which is fairly sophisticated dining and lounge outlet.

And you have a good view over the city. It's a good place to do some entertainment, to come and chill out, come and relax, enjoy the evening. We've also got Shang Palace, which does very, very well with the locals. In fact almost all of the guests in the restaurant are locals in our Shang Palace.

We've got a great team in there and I believe our dim sum quite renowned in the city. That's a good place for locals and also a lot of people from Hong Kong come over at the weekends and go for dinner in Shang Palace.

And also, very heavily populated by locals, the Lobby Lounge, which is a real buzzing place in Shenzhen. A lot of people come over the border, meet in our Lobby Lounge with local business people.

So there's always a lot of activities going on in there, a lot of bustle, a lot of comings and goings. And also particularly at lunch time and the weekends, our coffee garden where there's a big international buffet with something for everyone and we try and keep that very, very good value for money.

Plenty of reasons. I would hope that local people would want to come here and last but not least, we also have Champs, our sports bar, which I think is actually, from what I understand, a bit of an institution in Shenzhen. It was kind of one of the first sports bars.

Brent: Yeah, that's true.

Philip: And in fact, we're currently reenergizing it a little bit and kind of going back through it, so just signed up for additional sports channels and we're looking at some entertainment to come in.

And doing some bits and pieces which we'll let you know about over the coming months.

Brent: Okay, that's good to hear. So how many people does it take to run this hotel? Where does the majority of the workforce come from?

Philip: Takes quite a lot of people. It's about 700 and there are also casual and part time colleagues who come in for functions and things so on.  Any one night, it could go up to 800 or 900 people.

And, as everybody knows, Shenzhen is a very transient city so we don't have many people from Shenzhen itself working here. But a fair amount of people from Guangdong Province, Hebei Province, Hunan Province, and a smattering from other places.  so it's a very multi-cultural in terms of the different Chinese cultures.

Brent: You've just been here a few months. Is that enough time to make any changes? If so, what have you made?

Philip: Well, hoteliers are always renowned for making changes but I actually believe, particularly with a hotel such as this that's coming on for 20 years old, it's a successful hotel, so it can't have been doing a lot of things wrong.

And I believe it's kind of evolution rather than revolution.

Brent: Yes, maybe some optimizations and stuff like that.

Philip: Correct. I think we're blessed. We have a very good team. We've got a very solid team and a lot of people have been here for quite a long time. So I look at my job more as developing the team and getting the most out of them and focusing on. I believe great hotels are the people inside.

And you will always have a newer hotel and a more glitzy hotel and that's just the way things are. But if you look around the world, great hotels are not necessarily the newest ones and what make them great are the people. So rather than making big changes, as I said, I feel I'm out to develop and coach and mentor all of the people that I'm lucky enough to work with.

Brent: Okay. Since I'm computer science background, I'm just curious about how technology has affected the operations of the hotel business recently, specifically your hotel.

Philip: Well, I think like everywhere it streamlines and does make things more efficient. I think the areas that would come to mind are definitely within a hotel group such as Shangri-La. We can now communicate intra-hotel much better, which ultimately affects improves the guest experience, because we're much better at understanding the expectations, understanding what our guests want.

Brent: More knowledge sharing, best practices, things like that.

Philip: Correct, correct…and then of course in terms of within the hotel, a lot of efficiencies with procurement, with human resources systems. A lot less paper.

The hotel's a huge place so in a traditional office you can move paper around quite easily. In a hotel, things get lost; things take a long time to move around the building. So it definitely helps us there and I think one of the most important things is as we have so many people, getting a clear message out to everybody is sometimes quite difficult in a hotel. With technology like blogs and things, it means you have a direct line to all of the colleagues that are working with you to get message out to let them know what's going on to keep them updated.

Philip: And I think that helps a lot.

Brent: Facilitate internal communication?

Philip: Absolutely.

Brent: We also run the Shenzhen Wine and Cheese Club, and since we're in 360 right now, I was just wondering if you had any specific dish and wine pairing you could recommend.

Philip: Well, 360 is a lot about steak. We're quite renowned for the steak.

I'd have to recommend that. I would specifically probably recommend the prime rib.

We make our own Yorkshire pudding. And the prime rib is very good, especially this time of the year. Nice warming meal. And I've always found a good glass of Barolo, the king of wines. Or Italians say the king of wines and the wine for kings. It's a very big, deep, full, strong wine and it goes very nicely with the prime rib.

Brent: That's good advice. Have you spotted any trends in the hotel industry since you've arrived and, if so, what are they?

Philip: Well, again, quite limited time. I think the most striking thing and it's not unusual to Shenzhen, I think everywhere in China, is the development.

And the new hotels opening. But I think what I see is that the new openings are the multinationals and the big experienced brands.

It’s not only good for the city, it's also good for the guests because I think it raises the bar and I think it's very healthy competition.

So I believe what's probably started and what we will see is the sophistication of the offering is increasing the sophistication of the market and the expectations of the market will increase correspondingly. That really means it's part of the Shenzhen's coming of age, and where that sophistication's coming in to the hospitality market. Good to see.

Brent: How do you keep this hotel, which has been in business for a long time, fresh and exciting?

Philip: Well, again, fresh and exciting is something you need to be careful, because change is not always seen as good.

So I think we're lucky. Shangri-La is fairly well renowned for reinvesting in the product.

We have renovations all the time and we usually go renovating the rooms. Within a couple years, we’ve renovated all of the second floor, our Coffee Garden and Shang Palace. Over the next year, we're going to be renovating all of our function rooms and we'll be renovating the health club. I think it doesn't always suffer from getting tired that a lot of the old hotels do. Even in the short time I've been here, talking to guests that are coming in, I hear very frequently that it's in good shape for such an old hotel, because we work hard on that. And not only the renovations but the maintenance of it. Then from the software side, I think we're constantly challenged to come up with new ideas and I'm a big believer in listening to our guests. We spend a lot of time talking with our guests, listening to our guests, understanding what guests want and so we try not to get sucked into what we like is good. But rather what our guests are asking for, we provide.

Brent: Great. What leadership techniques and skills do you most often use as a GM?

Philip: I would say I'm fairly basic. I walk a lot.

I try to understand what's going on all the way through the hotel and that's listening to the colleagues, listening to my guests, and the old adage of leading by example. Quite often, my colleagues hear, or they've heard me over the last three months, I don't like talking so much as action.

So I listen and I act and then I measure and then I listen and act again.

Brent: Okay. So paying attention to what everybody's saying is one of the keys.

Philip: That's right.

Brent: Being close to the local border, you must get a lot of people here. Who typically stays with you? Where are they from?

Philip: About 60% of our guests that stay in the hotel are from China and that's including Hong Kong and Taiwan and a lot of people from Beijing, a lot of people from Shanghai. And they're mostly on business.

There's a lot of people coming down to visit the factories, come across from Hong Kong to trade and so on and so forth and the other 40% is from all over the world and what is quite interesting is it seems like things are changing a bit. Traditionally, we've been very corporate in this hotel.

A corporate market. But what I see is Shenzhen as a destination for leisure is actually coming.

Brent: It's coming up, yes.

Philip: And I'm seeing even now with Hong Kong. Hong Kong is very developed and there's almost an under supply of rooms and the rates are very high.

So whereas people used to go to Hong Kong and stay and come over to Shenzhen, they're now coming to Shenzhen to stay and going over to Hong Kong.

And they're playing golf here and they're shopping here and so, I think the overseas visitors and domestics with leisure is likely to grow over the coming years.

Brent: That's a good outlook. Those are all the questions I really have. Do you have any final words or any upcoming promotions to mention?

Philip: Well, we've always got promotions on. We've got at the moment Value Vouchers in our Coffee Garden which is very much at the local market we were talking about to create some value for them. We've got the usual hairy crab things and and what not, but one of the areas that we're really focusing on at the moment is Champs.

I think over the next two, three months, as I said, we'll be in touch with you on that and let you know what we're doing. But that's going to get back to its roots and become a real fun sports bar. See you there.

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