Imperial Palace Seoul to go international
By Kim Rahn
The Imperial Palace Seoul is dedicated to becoming the first local hotel brand to go global, according to the hotel’s general manager.
CW Chang said the hotel is conducting groundwork to establish an international chain of the Imperial Palace, playing on its strong points to offer globally standardized service along with Korea’s local sentiment.
In Korea, especially in Seoul and the nearby metropolitan area, most five-star hotels are international brands. Some are operated by local Korean companies, such as Shilla and Lotte, but they are affiliates of conglomerates and the Imperial Palace is the only hotel that is run truly independently, according to Chang.
“The owner has a solid determination and vision to make a local brand hotel chain that stretches worldwide. We know it is not an easy task. Many international hotel brands have proposed we become one of their properties but the owner has refused,” Chang said.
Established in 1989, the hotel gained its five-star rating in 1999. It underwent a major renovation between 2002 and 2005 costing 100 billion won. A new building and a convention center were constructed, equipped with luxury five-star facilities that introduced a standard of service meeting global levels.
It then established a branch in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2007 and another in Cebu, the Philippines, in 2009. The next year it opened IP Boutique Hotel in Seoul’s tourist district of Itaewon.
“We know international hotel management companies have infrastructure and knowhow that we cannot surpass. However, through my experience in three different international hotel chains, I felt such firms have so many unnecessary processes and regulations,” said Chang, who has 19 years of experience in the hospitality industry.
“As a local brand, we are laying the cornerstone to become an international chain by maximizing the Imperial Palace’s strong points. We are establishing our own global standard,” the 50-year-old said.
Strengths, weaknesses of local brand
Chang said as an independent hotel, the management can make decisions quickly as approval from an overseas headquarters is not necessary.
It can also apply aggressive marketing and fresh ideas and concepts, he said. The Imperial Palace Seoul is the only five-star hotel offering free valet parking service to all women customers. This comes from the fact that most guests coming for lunch meetings at the hotel located in the affluent Gangnam area are wealthy housewives, and almost all of them drive there.
“We enjoy innovation and creativity. We can be active in marketing without control from a head office,” the general manager said.
He said the independence also allows the hotel to create a unique interior that can match the local sentiment, including a traditional Korean-style garden and the Club Imperial Lounge.
The lounge on the club floor has a room that reproduces a traditional Korean tiled roof house and a snack buffet corner replicating traditional kitchen facilities. The wooden floor was designed and built to give a traditional creaking sound.
“In Korea, the Imperial Palace is the only hotel that has very traditional Korean touches and provides global-level facilities and services at the same time. We are very Korean but we can satisfy guests from any country of the world,” he said.
Chang admitted that foreigners have a lower recognition of the local hotel than those of international firms. “We are making up for this weak point by joining the Preferred Hotel Group, an association of independent hotels. We are also making the utmost effort to provide unique facilities and services so that guests return when they visit the city again.”
He said the Imperial Palace’s recognition and evaluation is higher, especially after it was selected as one of the official hotels for the nation’s two biggest events in the last two years, the G20 Seoul Summit and the Nuclear Security Summit. “It means the state and the hotel industry recognized us as qualifying for national events,” Chang said.
Renovation that meets customer needs
The hotel recently built a corridor linking its all-day restaurant Cafe Amiga and Italian eatery Verona. Cafe Amiga’s lunch buffet has proven popular among women looking for healthy dishes at affordable prices.
“But Cafe Amiga didn’t have private dining rooms. So we tore down a wall and created a corridor to Verona, which has such rooms, to meet the demand for a private area. Verona also works as Cafe Amiga’s kitchen for pasta and pizza. For dinner, the cafe works as a cafe and Verona as an Italian restaurant as in the past, by closing the door to the passageway.”
Such a sense of quickly meeting customers’ needs partly comes from the fact that he is a Korean, said Chang, who is one of a handful of native Korean general managers at five-star hotels here.
“Foreign general managers of international hotels are very experienced. But they are not familiar with the local situation and sentiment and this sometimes results in a loss in leadership,” he said.
“A general manager should know how to sympathize with the local sentiment and respect the local culture and people. That’s my strong point as a Korean.”