Feisal Jaffer, the global head of Hilton's luxury soft brand LXR Hotels & Resorts, was in the process of relocating from Asia to the company's headquarters when the world went into lockdown last March. Luxury editor Jeri Clausing talked with Jaffer about making life changes and building a new brand during a pandemic.
Q: When we first met, at ILTM in December 2019, you had recently moved from your role as senior vice president for acquisitions and development at Capella Hotel Group to Hilton. It must have been a challenging year.
A: In March, I moved from Singapore to Washington after 10 years in Asia. It was culture shock. It was also the whole pandemic shock. It was quite an adjustment. I moved into my temporary apartment that day they locked down the whole city. I give myself comfort that, at least during the first couple of months, it wasn't just me sitting home alone.
Q: How did your move from the real estate side to developing a soft brand come about?
A: I met Martin Rinck, [executive vice president and chief brand officer for Hilton], about a year and half ago in Singapore. And what he described was the opportunity to lead the global development of a new luxury brand, curating unique independent hotels in amazing destinations.
What was exciting for me was that we were working on these incredible projects, incredible hotels. It's hard to build a brand without the commercial engines of distribution, infrastructure and technology. My personal story kind of mirrored what I am now representing for independent hotel owners. ... It's like look, you get to keep your individuality, you get to keep your personality, your way of doing things, but you get our support and our infrastructure, our technology, our people.
One thing about being alone, being locked up in my apartment for six months, what resonated with me was you can be independent, but you don't have to be alone. And that message now resonates with owners quite a lot.
Q: How many hotels were in the LXR system when you signed on?
A: When I started speaking with Martin there was one hotel in the system, Habtoor Palace in Dubai. After I joined there were a couple of deals that have been signed that were already in the pipeline, the Biltmore, Mayfair in London, a very important hotel and destination, and the Zemi Beach House in Anguilla.
Q: Have you been able to grow the LXR portfolio further despite the pandemic?
A: Yes. Since then we've signed the Roku Kyoto in Japan; the Susona Bodrum in Turkey; Mango House in the Seychelles; and the Crockfords in Las Vegas. And we're very excited about starting the year with a really cute little property in California, the Oceana Santa Monica. It will be our first hotel in the U.S. So it's a big event for us.
Q: During the Great Recession, we saw more independents join soft brands for the support. Does the pandemic also present growth opportunities?
A: It does. At the lower level of the chain scales you probably see more of that. When you get to luxury -- especially the luxury hotels that are sort of trophy assets and intergenerational assets that get passed down in families -- those families have gone through a lot. If they've owned the hotel for 100 years, 150 years, they've gone through world wars ... they've gone through all manner of crises. So I think there is an element of they've got a lot more staying power and belief that the market will come back. But I do think the unique aspects of this crisis do lend us to more opportunities, in general.
Q: If I recall correctly, you are shooting for a higher level of luxury and more unique properties than some of the other soft luxury brands.
A: Correct. It's not necessarily iconic architecture. It's a mix of things. It may be that in a particular location it is just the unique site, and the architecture maybe blends into the surroundings more, rather than being iconic.
Q: Any hints about new signings on the horizon?
A: Discussions are ranging from the southern part of Australia up to Bali to the Maldives to a couple of locations in the Middle East to the south of France. And then, moving over to the U.S., New York, Hawaii and South Florida.
Some are more advanced than others. Some will drop out and some will come to fruition. Over the next year you will see some of those destinations appear. I can't say which ones because I don't even know.