KIM WALKER: Growing up with Morgans Hotel Group

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Kim Walker has grown up with Morgans Hotel Group, having worked her way up from front-desk agent to her current role, senior vice president of brand and marketing and creative director, over the last 22 years.

She was one of the first six employees appointed to the company’s corporate office by legendary hotelier Ian Schrager, who founded the boutique hotel group with the launch of Morgans New York in 1984.

Today, the group employs around 3500 employees globally and operates leading lifestyle hotel brands Delano, Mondrian, Hudson and its collection of Originals, which includes renowned London hotels Sanderson and St Martins Lane.
Schrager sold Morgans Hotel Group in 2005, leaving Walker, among several of the original management team members, to continue his legacy.

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Today, she is focused on developing the group’s digital strategy; its rapid expansion which involves the launch of two new hotels in London in 2014 and 2015; and keeping its unique brand values or ‘Morganisms’ alive, as well as introducing some new ones.

“What’s great about Morgans is that while we have grown up a bit, the core values have remained. Even though we are now a public company and much larger than we were, there is still a family feel. People are still passionate and dedicated to these 12 hotels,” Walker tells Boutique Hotelier.

“What the hotels started with — great designs, great places to socialise and giving our guests unique experiences — has just grown up over the past few years as we’ve grown so it’s been a nice evolution,” she adds.

That is not to say the company has been stuck in a time warp since Schrager left. Walker says the group is led more “democratically” these days. Decisions that may have once been left to the ‘father of the boutique hotel’ are now put to the group’s most loyal staff.

“About two years ago we picked the brains of those who had been here for the past 10-, 15-, 20 years so we could finally document all of the quirky things that we have done from the beginning in a little booklet of ‘Morganisms’.

“That way, if I get hit by a car or I’m not here tomorrow, all of these things that were in my brain — or there’s another gentleman David Freiberger [VP guest experience] who’s been here nearly 25 years and Jenny who’d been here 14 years but recently left — are written down. We wrote all the different things we could think of,” continues Walker.

“Then with all the new people that came in that had more of the corporate background, they said what they did and we all took a step back and said ‘does this make sense today? We’ve done it for the past 20 years; do we need to change it?’

“So we created this book of Morganisms, which is everything from we don’t allow balloons or clocks in the lobby, to signage that has to be done a certain way — no electric signage for example,” she explains.

Some Morganisms did not translate 20 years on, however: “There was one about wet-floor signs. Ian had a thing that we weren’t allowed to have any of these signs, but legally we have to now so we had to give that one up.

“And taxis being in front of the hotel — everyone thought that it’s very convenient for us to have one or two waiting outside because before they’d have to shoo them away. Another is that no pictures were allowed to be taken in our lobbies. Now we say ‘of course, we want you to take pictures.’ Times have changed,” adds Walker.


At a glance – Morgans Hotel Group portfolio

Existing
• Delano South Beach, US
• Mondrian Los Angeles, US
• Mondrian New York, US
• Mondrian South Beach, US
• Hudson New York, US
• Clift, San Francisco, US
• Morgans New York, US
• Shore Club South Beach, US
• Royalton New York, US
• Sanderson, London, UK
• St Martins Lane, London, UK

Pipeline
• Delano Las Vegas, US (Q3, 2014)
• Delano Cesme, Turkey (2017)
• Delano Moscow, Russia (2015)
• Mondrian London, UK (Q1, 2014)
• Mondrian Baha Mar, The Bahamas (Q4, 2014)
• Mondrian Doha, Qatar (Q4, 2014)
• Mondrian Istanbul, Turkey (2014)
• Hudson London, UK

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The digital age
Keeping up with the times has also led Morgans Hotel Group to focus on its digital strategy in 2013.

The group re-launched its website, morganshotelgroup.com, in September following a 10-month project with New York-based digital agency First Born, costing around US $2m (£1.2m).

Sporting a new, sleek design and improved functionality, the website enables users to book within four clicks — down from around seven to eight on the old site. Other features include curated Google Maps that provide interactive guides to top attractions and destinations around each hotel.

In addition to the Google Maps, one of Walker’s favourite features of the new site is it’s ‘memory’, modelled on the Amazon shopping cart.

“You now have the ability to go back and forth, so if you’re about to make a reservation and then you change your mind or want to look at something else, you can go back and look at it without losing all the information,” says Walker.

Also important for boutique hotels, with their widely-varying rooms, the new site enables visitors to check out room types and see floor plans before choosing one.

The new site also lends itself to mobile bookings via smartphones and tablets, with this being a key focus for Morgans Hotel Group going forward.

The group is currently receiving around 1.6-1.8% of all bookings via mobile platforms, and around 13.5-14.5% of bookings are coming direct through the website — which is said to be steadily increasing year on year.

“Our London hotels lead the pack in terms of direct and mobile bookings for the brand with direct making up around 17-21% of bookings and mobile bookings accounting for 1.5-2.2%. We’ve definitely seen a shift over the past year of about 0.5% increase in mobile bookings and expect that number to grow month over month,” says Walker.

She is optimistic that return on the £2m website investment will come quickly: “I expect it to happen in the next few months. Now our conversion rate seems almost too good to be true so I don’t want to say it and then be wrong, but we had wanted to hit a 2.5 conversion rate and we’re above that so return was going to be within the first year and we might make it even sooner,” she tells Boutique Hotelier.

The focus for 2014 is going to be bringing the digital experience into the hotel, according to Walker.

“How do we bring what the guest has experienced on the site to when they land, to when they check in, to when they enter their room, to when they’re walking around during the day? That’s kind of our focus for 2014.

“In three of our US properties we have iPads in the guestrooms. They’ve got all the room information on them, you can order room service, a car service to and from the hotel, your wake up calls, 10 or 12 different publications or newspapers pertinent to that city, music, concierge services and so on,” continues Walker.

“We’re hoping to have them in all [the hotels] or something that’s downloadable for your own iPad, tablet or whatever. Are we able to send guests a confirmation of what room they’re checking in so when they get here they’re just handed a key and it’s all been done for them?

“We’re looking at solutions that enable you to download the room key on your phone and use that to enter. There’s something nice about checking in, learning about the hotel, having someone escort you to your room, but now with a lot of hotels, you just want to get in and out or straight to your room — especially if you are a repeat guest, so those are all things that we’re looking at,” she reveals.


THE BRANDS IN WALKER’S WORDS

Originals — when Ian started, each hotel was an original. When we started expanding we needed to be more focused so we picked three brands that fitted our demographic, but we had such unique existing hotels we didn’t want to rebrand them. They deserved to be on their own and it gives us an opportunity. If we come across a hotel that doesn’t fit the three brands but it is unique and special it can fit into Originals.

Delano — is our luxury property; it is very sophisticated, chic and casual. It is our highest-end property in the portfolio. I’d say it is a very aspirational hotel.

Mondrian — I think this is one of our widest ranges of hotels; it would cater to the widest range of people. It is fun, active, the place to see and be seen. It’s where people want to go and be extroverts and really interact with other people.

Hudson — is young and more edgy, the rooms are smaller because we want people to go downstairs and socialise together — it’s more interactive that way.

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Growth strategy
A sound grasp of brand standards and 21st Century technology will stand Morgans Hotel Group in good stead as it embarks on rapid expansion.

“That’s another aspect that’s changed — our growth strategy. So now we do two or three properties at a time and still manage all of our others, where as with Ian we did one property every three years,” observes Walker.

The group has three Delano branded hotels in the pipeline in: Las Vegas, US, due to open in 2014; Cesme, Turkey, due to open in 2017 and Moscow, Russia, due to open in 2015.

Three Mondrian-branded properties are expected to open at various stages next year in The Bahamas, Doha and Istanbul.

Mondrian London will be the first Mondrian hotel in Europe, slated to open in spring 2014.

The conversion of the Sea Containers building on the South Bank of the Thames into a 359-key lifestyle hotel has been envisioned by renowned designer Tom Dixon. There will be a riverside brasserie with outdoor seating, a rooftop lounge and terrace. Mondrian London’s signature spa will comprise six treatment rooms, relaxation space and manicure and pedicure room. Six meeting rooms span 500 sq m.

Walker stays tight-lipped on specific details but describes the design as homely with nautical influences. Around 10 employees — department heads — are already onboard, including the chef, with the hotel recruiting for 200 more positions ahead of its grand launch next year.

Meanwhile, Hudson London — a brand that currently only exists in New York — is on track to open in early 2015.

The 234-room luxury boutique hotel will be situated in a 102-year-old Edwardian building in Great Scotland Yard, formerly inhabited by the Ministry of Defense. The property will feature an “innovative” restaurant on the ground floor, as well as a 40-seat library lounge and flexible boardroom space.

Looking to the New Year, Walker foresees further hotel signings. Asked whether she expects any of these to be in the UK, she says: “We’ll soon have four hotels in London, but you never know. We really focus on gateway cities so London is where we would be then it would be cities such as Paris, Madrid.

“Morgans is constantly looking for new hotels and a big push on our end is expansion. They would love to sign 10 new hotels a year as a goal,” she reveals, having concluded her final meeting on her hectic London agenda. Tomorrow she’ll return to managing the business of Morgans from her Miami base.


A day in the life – Kim Walker 

5:30am: I wake up and get my son Oliver who’s 15 onto his bus, which picks him up at 6am so that’s the biggest challenge, once I’ve got him on the bus it’s clear sailing for the rest of the day.
Then I go back upstairs and start waking my daughter Maisie, jump in the shower, she gets a snack or whatever, get in the car, drive her to school then get in the office.

8:15am: So I’m typically in the office by now, I sometimes squeeze in a few errands on the way — bank, dry cleaning, drugstore.
In the office I start my conference calls and meetings. Now that I’m living in Miami I have my meetings with my team via Skype. I’lll try to go out for lunch.

6pm: I leave the office around this time, try to squeeze in some type of exercise routine so it’s either flywheel, Pilates or another type of exercise — maybe a walk on the beach with the kids or something similar before getting home, doing dinner and homework.

10pm: Then I’m in bed and doing my emails or watching some silly programme and probably two or three nights a week I have dinner plans with work or friends, so it kind of balances out.

 

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