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I'm a luxury repairman


Louis Sailer, Senior Executive Vice President of The Imperial New Delhi — a starched white colonial art deco oasis redolent of history — chats with Smart Travel Asia Editor, Vijay Verghese, about his formula for satisfied guests.

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December 2023

SEE ALSO Franz Donhauser | Novi Samodro | Choo Leng Goh | Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes | Anchalika Kijkanakorn | Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale | Hans Jenni | Iwan Dietschi | Carina Chorengel | Peter Caprez | Richard Greaves

Interview with Louis Sailer, Senior Executive VP at The Imperial New Delhi

Louis Sailer has gussied up The Imperial New Delhi with a raft of hi-tech features including new charger sockets (for Apple's C USB), Smart TVs, and huge e-paper access. Here in conversation at The Atrium over tea and biscuits/ photos: Vijay Verghese

Slim, brisk-stepping Austria-born Louis Sailer, strides across the marbled floor for a firm handshake. He does not appear to have changed a bit since his days at The Fullerton Singapore where I first met him and, later, The Leela Palace New Delhi. His tall lanky frame tucked into an unbuttoned pale grey suite, Sailer is at once studiedly formal yet rumpled, alert yet at ease, breaking into a broad smile from time to time as he makes a point. Often he sits at the edge of the cane seat, hands dancing with boyish enthusiasm as he describes his role in refashioning the luxury hotel experience. With a long career in hotels spanning The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel and Raffles Singapore among others, author and consultant Sailer is someone used to dealing with novel situations. We sat down to talk on a cool Delhi December morning at the airy Atrium.

Smart Travel Asia: What brought you to Asia?

LOUIS SAILER: Asia was always my dream. I had an apprenticeship in Austria and wanted to come but my mum said 'No way' [laughs]. I had to finish my military service. In 1990 I found myself at The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel [California] — a template for luxury hotels everywhere. The Ritz-Carlton was an eye-opener.

Does the old Swiss hoteliering template still survive?

LS: The American mindset was different and it opened my mind. Things were different. Americans can do luxury as good as anyone. I realised the days of Swiss benchmarking were gone. Passion creates luxury. Broadly, today, the old guard style where people fussed over how to serve coffee and so on is long gone.

So… your arrival in Asia?

LS: At Raffles Singapore I was hired without ever meeting one of the senior hotel icons. After a month or so she called me over to her office. I was nervous. She took off her glasses and looked up from the pool of papers on her desk. "Are you good looking?" she asked, breaking the ice with a smile. "Any questions?" She then let me get on with work, entirely unsupervised.

Is the lobby cruising general manager dead?

LS: I walk about 10km a day, more than you can imagine. I have to be on the floor all the time. Name recognition these days is almost impossible. Those standards have changed. I focus on a service excellence masterclass that makes sense to a young kid. Not everyone grows up in the same household where much of the training already happens. For example, when you meet a family, who do you greet first? The kids? Mum? Dad? All this is learned at home for some. Others need to be taught.

Are young people still interested in hotels?

LS: We need to create an environment where the staff of today, the young people, will come and knock on the door. They are all hungry to learn and want to be taught.  And [speaking of India] I have a huge pool of choice while elsewhere no one wants to do shift work. India has 1.4bn people. At our hotel, I personally speak with all staff from dishwasher to manager. I have to be involved. It's not micromanagement… I need to be involved as it is the personality not the CV that counts. Of course, professional qualifications are a plus. One time a kid came up to me. He was from a poor family and seemed out of place. "Why do you want to work here?" I asked him. He said he could see my hotel (this was The Leela New Delhi) from the roof of his home and had told his father that one day he would work there. He got the job and went on to become an excellent butler. Here at The Imperial I have met all my 800 staff. I look them in the eye to understand them.

What does luxury mean to you?

LS: If my guests and employees are happy it is a luxury for me [smiles]. That's a sense of accomplishment. Luxury is different for all. Sometimes just reading a book in the corridor is a luxury with no emails chasing you. I am a luxury repairman [chuckles]. I take flagship properties and take them to the top. I create award winning teams. The Imperial belongs to India. It arrived even before New Delhi. Here the world slows down and every inch of the hotel tells a story. At one time 85 maharajahs and maharanis stood on our lawns posing for a group photograph around the time of the 1911 Royal Durbar. Gandhi sat in our 1911 restaurant veranda discussing India's future with Nehru [gestures with his hands as if to say, 'History is all around us.']

Many hotels lost staff during Covid. How did you fare?

LS: The owner kept all staff during Covid. Almost 30 percent of our staff today are old timers. There's a doorman who's been with us 47 years. I hired more young people and it's a perfect mix.

So that service DNA is intact. What's the ratio of women in your workforce?

LS: I had just a handful of women when I came on board but now I have a lot of female managers and I have to say some of them are sharper than the guys.

What do you see as the role of technology?

LS: You cannot replace people with AI and apps. I would say I'm a hybrid. I'm very non-tech but can also at times be more tech-literate than my I.T. person. The first thing I did was get new carpets and also Smart TVs with better device connectivity. We were among the first to introduce the new Apple USB C socket and chargers. If I travel with my daughter we already have about 10 gadgets and so we've accounted for volume, chosen good charging locations and used common sense. All our desks in-room have a little stand with a QR code that offers instant access to 7,000 publications from SCMP to Vogue in Chinese. Our guests love it. WiFi is free, newspapers and e-papers are free, and two hours after checkout guests still have access to their e-papers while waiting for their flights.

What of the proliferating brands today?

LS: It certainly has become complicated with so many brands. Who will streamline them. It's impossible. For a luxury product like this, I know my clientele.

How are guests changing?

LS: They're always changing. You have to deal with changing times and centuries. Profiling has to adapt to guests. And we have to be careful [frowns in concentration]. For example, Amex says they have profiles, but all they have is spending habits. Profiling people is more complicated than that. We don't see guests picking price over brand either. At this level, their demands and needs have not changed.

For now, corporate business is not as busy but leisure is back. Guests love our attention to detail. The inlay patterns in the marble floors have been sketched by the owner. And [gesturing at the rich tapestry of prints and historic scenes on every wall] our owner chose each piece and personally hung up every one of the pictures in every room of the hotel. This is the level of detail and involvement we offer. It is unique.

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