Interview With Alexandra Hepworth, Former DOSM of Hyatt Regency Phnom Penh & Caravelle Saigon

It is always a pleasure to work with hotel marketing people who want to question the status quo and push for something new. This is what brings the hospitality industry forward, and this dynamism turns average hotels into popular brands.

Our work with Alexandra Hepworth was a very successful story. I was assisting her and her team as a digital marketing consultant between 2017 and 2019, while she was Director of Sales & Marketing at Caravelle Hotel Saigon, a landmark 5-star hotel in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

DD: We first met in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam back in 2017. Those were turbulent times of rapid development, with dozens of new 5-star hotels and resorts opening every month. How did you manage to shift strategies and generate increased demand for a 50-year-old hotel?

AH: You are right! 2017 saw extremely high demand for travel to Vietnam in both the leisure and corporate segments of the market. It was an interesting time, as there were new entrants to the market from large brands, as well as some strong local chains developing their presence in the city. Caravelle Saigon has always been an iconic property, with loyal guests and a great reputation, but at this time of rapid expansion in the city, was also lagging behind in terms of product as the property was waiting to take on an extensive renovation of its guest rooms and meeting spaces to upgrade the 20-year-old rooms, which although very well maintained, were tired compared to other properties competing in the same space. 

With this in mind, the strategy become one of building volume, leveraging the strong relationships the property had in both the corporate and leisure segments for individual travelers and groups, whilst investing further in online distribution to increase penetration across channels where we could reach potential new customers quickly and efficiently. With this focus, we saw positive increases in occupancy and record occupancy percentages in the 2 months of 2017 along with higher occupancies during the low season months. This momentum continued into 2018 until the property commenced its renovation in June 2018. 

DD: Most expat managers and directors find difficulties when being introduced to a new leadership role. Did you experience any cultural challenges or resistance in your team?

AH: I was in Vietnam and Cambodia for 10 years in total and over that time, managed a diverse range of people from different nationalities, backgrounds, length of service, and experience. Whilst coaching and mentoring a team is a very rewarding part of the role, it can also be challenging to find your place within the culture, not only of the organization but the country too. The differences to working in Europe are large, and it is beneficial to try to understand some of the main cultural differences before diving in headfirst! One thing I did notice instantly, is that hierarchy is very important and can, at times be difficult to navigate to keep the team running smoothly. 

Over the years, more people were being educated overseas and coming back to work in their home country with an open mind, good education, and a drive to succeed. This is a fantastic addition to the workforce that already has a strong desire to work and a hardworking attitude but does create issues when recruiting new team members into an existing structure where they may not be accepted. Adapting to a new culture can be intimidating and the need to prove yourself is high. I think, as a foreigner, teams can sometimes be resistant to fully accept you as there is a knowledge that you will likely move on after a few years, as is usual with ex-pats, and as such to gain trust, that you can and will do your job to the best of your ability, in turn supporting the team to be their best is not always easy; but once you do, it is a fabulous position to be in!

DD: During your time at Caravelle Hotel Saigon, the brand popularity of the hotel increased a lot. Was this intentional, or a natural result of all activities you were leading?

AH: I think it was a mix of both. As I mentioned previously, we invested more heavily in online distribution than we had previously, and also increased focus on media relationships especially post-renovation to re-introduce the property with its new look. This not only involved seeing this from inside the property but also a refresh of the brand identity, website, copy, imagery, and an improved user experience – developed based on customer behaviors on the site and where we saw we could make improvements. This, combined with strong support from media partners both on and offline helped to create a new following for the brand and an intent to book. Online rankings increased organically, generated by the increased digital stories and content about the property, along with elevated press pick up about the renovation around the region. Comparing year on year ‘interest over time’ statistics we saw that people had shown more interest in Caravelle Saigon than its competitors. 

DD: Between 2017 and 2019 we have been working intensely on developing the online and direct website sales of Caravelle Hotel Saigon. If today you had to choose between a direct-booking strategy or an omnichannel brand growth strategy, which one would you go for?

AH: It’s a good question! Direct bookings will nearly always be the preferred channel for hotels for several reasons, but one of the largest is being able to control the guest experience from the point of booking all the way through to check out and beyond. Connecting with the guest at all points through their purchase journey from awareness to consideration to booking and later to hopefully becoming an ambassador for the brand is a multi-faceted approach that is controlled and directed by the brand. This takes time, resources, and expertise but is ultimately the most rewarding for the hotel and the guest.

I think that the larger brands have the capacity to take an aggressive approach to a direct-booking strategy to gain market share and customer loyalty, however, for an independent property, I believe that an omnichannel strategy and approach is more beneficial given constraints on potential reach and also budget. For an independent brand, it is very important to clearly define who your customer is and who your potential customer is so that you can devise a very defined and targeted approach to moving these customers down the purchase funnel and converting bookings. Knowing where your customers spend their time online, what they read, what their interests are, and importantly – how your product can solve a problem they have – is the backbone of devising the strategy and understanding where to invest marketing dollars to get the most return. It is not necessary to cover all publishers, all social media platforms, or all advertisersnor is it necessary to be everywhere your competitors are, but rather be present in the places your customers are with a clear brand voice, identity and purpose. 

DD: In your recent pre-opening role at Hyatt Regency Phnom Penh, Cambodia, how did you assemble the marketing team? What skills and qualities do you consider to be a must-have for a modern hotel marketing team today?

AH: This is an interesting question! Cambodia was a new market for me when I moved to open the property, and as such I knew that local market relationships would be key within the marketing team, however, as digital marketing is increasingly important in online distribution, I knew that I also needed a team that had proven experience in this area. I reviewed the Marketing team structure, as hotels can be quite traditional in their approach with the Sales & Marketing department, relying heavily on manpower in the sales teams and lacking on the Marketing side. Digital Marketing roles can also fall under the main Marketing function and playing a more ‘secondary’ role within the department. I have had the experience of this in the past, and as such wanted to change that approach to ensure Digital was given the focus it deserves, especially when online distribution is becoming more and more critical to success every day, and especially when launching a new hotel into the market. 

With this in mind, I created 2 roles with equal focus – Marketing Communications Manager, and Digital Marketing Manager and recruited locally for the Marketing Communication Manager role, drawing on strong local media relationships and recruited from within Hyatt for the Digital Marketing Manager, taking someone with a proven track record from a successful Hyatt property in Bali. This was a chance for the team member to move to a new country and bring their expertise and knowledge of not only the Hyatt eco-system but also digital marketing and distribution with them. 

For a modern hotel marketing team, I think that flexibility, creativity and the ability to analyze data are critical to success. Whilst some traditional marketing elements will remain as they always have, the online space is constantly moving, evolving, and changing at a rapid pace. Staying on top of trends and new developments in current platforms is very important, as well as investing time to see which new platforms can benefit your product and service. It is also important to have patience! Although the online world is very quick, researching, developing, implementing, improving, and analyzing campaigns takes time and resources to make strategic decisions and more importantly, trial different options to see which resonates best with your current and target audience. It is critical to remember that digital marketing is much more than posting on social media, and a well thought out strategy with clear goals and objectives is paramount to cutting through the noise and having a clear vision and purpose for your product, brand, and campaign.