Jennifer Fox interview: Fairmont’s Fox

Why seizing opportunities and being prepared to take a risk is essential for success
By Louise Oakley
Sat 18 Feb 2012 09:34 PM

The new president of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Jennifer Fox, tells Louise Oakley why seizing opportunities and being prepared to take a risk is essential for success.

I think it’s fair to surmise that the year 2012 started well for Australian national Jennifer Fox; she brought in the New Year celebrating her new role as president of Toronto-based Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, and the December completion of a doctorate in Business Studies from the International School of Management in Paris.

I meet Fox in Fairmont Dubai’s 34th floor presidential suite in January during her tour of the company’s four regional head offices, of which the UAE emirate is one. Since her appointment in November — succeeding Chris Cahill,  who yields the role of president to focus on his duties as chief operating officer of parent company Fairmont Raffles Hotels International — Fox has made it her mission to meet as many of the regional vice presidents, general managers and owners as possible.

Rather than being daunted, Fox revels in the global nature of her new role — following international experience as global brand manager for Sheraton during 13 years’ with Starwood and later, as senior vice president of brand management for industry giant InterContinental — and it was this that seemed to clinch her move from InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) in Europe to Fairmont’s HQ in Canada.

“I love global roles because I’ve lived and worked in Australia, Asia, Europe and the US and so a global role really fits my background and experience and to take a company that is very successful and lead it into the future, that’s what excited me about it,” says Fox, a second-generation hotelier who entered the industry 25 years ago. “I didn’t leave IHG because I was unhappy, I really had a great 10 years, and before that I was with Starwood for 13 years, so I don’t move around companies lightly or frequently,” she continues.

“In so many ways, my experience there helped position me to be able to do this role, but this was just such an exciting opportunity and I love where Fairmont is going in the future. The brand today is very heavily focused in North America but there’s a lot of growth internationally and in fact our growth internationally is what’s going to be the biggest opportunity for us moving forward, so that’s a great chance for me to utilise my skills and background, having worked in these other regions, to be able to deliver some value,” believes Fox.

Exciting expansion

As you might expect, Fox says her number one priority is to “really learn and understand the company deeply”, but secondly, her focus will be looking at Fairmont’s development and growth strategy — which involves some significant new openings in 2012 alone.

Fairmont The Palm will be the highlight for the Middle East when it opens in Dubai in September but there are also openings in Kiev, Ukraine; Baku, Azerbaijan; Jaipur, India; and Manila in the Philippines due this year.

“Then next year we have about six or seven new developments, so we’re very much taking an approach to look at developed markets as well as emerging markets,” expands Fox. “We already have a good footprint in North America so North America will have some growth for us but it won’t be to the extent we’ve got internationally. We’d like [to be in] Miami and we’d like a little bit more [presence] in California along the coast. We’ve got a lot of opportunity in Europe; we’d love to be in Rome, Milan and Paris and we’ve got a great new project in Moscow, which is the redevelopment of the Pekin Hotel.”

The Moscow Pekin hotel project will join Fairmont’s iconic hotel restorations, including The Savoy in London, The Peace Hotel in Shanghai and The Plaza Hotel New York.

“We’re very good at respecting the history, culture and heritage of these hotels and then modernising them so they resonate with today’s consumer; it’s not a renovation at all, it’s absolutely restoring these hotels to their former glory,” says Fox.

These historic hotels have the benefit of bringing Fairmont’s service standards “alive” for new customers, who “will then look to Fairmont when they travel around the globe”, she continues.

What Fox hopes will ring true for guests is each Fairmont hotel’s relation to its surroundings, coupled with the company’s service culture.

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“I think the brand is truly positioned on bringing part of the local environment into the hotel so we very much position ourselves as having authenticity about what we do, respecting whatever culture we’re in — when you go into a Fairmont, our goal is always to [make you] feel like you’re in the destination.

“When I joined the organisation — and I’ve always wondered how they did it — the service training programmes really impressed me,” Fox continues. “The Fairmont Selection Interview that all of our colleagues globally have to go through before we actually consider them for employment is step number one. And then, once we’ve hired our team, [we focus very much] on our cultural training as part of their orientation, because that’s a very big part of who we are and then you know, it’s making sure that we’re constantly developing our people,  providing opportunities for them, and that’s how we focus on developing great service. There’s a real Fairmont culture in the hotels and that’s palpable when you’re in a hotel — you can just feel it,” she observes. So how will Fox monitor and manage this culture and consistency of product?

“We do a tremendous amount of work around really understanding our guest service levels through guest service indices, we work with J.D.  Power, they run our guest-satisfaction survey so we get our reports on a monthly basis so I can monitor the brand and then we can monitor the individual hotels,” explains Fox.

“We also do a mystery shopper-type programme where we have an independent third party go out to the hotels and write a report, so coupled with those two things together we get a very good picture of where the brand sits.”

Successful partnerships with owners will play a major role in achieving future goals, adds Fox.

“We work closely with ownership on asset management of the hotels on product quality…because that’s key — making sure the hotels continually stay relevant to the customer, that we continue to innovate and we continue to deliver the right kind of quality in terms of our product offering — that’s a big part of how we maintain our quality standards,” explains Fox.

She takes great pride in establishing strong relationships with owners and visits to Fairmont’s core regional offices in Dubai, Shanghai, San Francisco as well as head quarters Toronto have been centred on meeting these critical partners.

“One of my highest priorities is to deliver value to our owning companies and that is something that is very near and dear to my heart because I take a real sense of responsibility in terms of delivering premium revenues to our owners and the right type of profit, so it’s very much one of my own core values in how I believe this should be done,” asserts Fox.

“So I’m certainly focused on the business side and how we make our hotels the most profitable for our owners. And to me that’s down to a few things; one of them is building a strong brand; in difficult times people tend to gravitate toward staying with a brand because they trust a brand more than they would just an independent hotel, so brand is critically important. It’s about strengthening the brand and ensuring that our brand delivers on behalf of the owner because that’s the number one thing that they’re going to want from us.”

The second factor, Fox continues, relies on her teams’ performance at hotel level. “Then it’s our management capability; how well our general managers manage their hotels on our behalf, how we drive the right kind of revenues into their hotels — profitable revenues — and that’s through our sales and marketing efforts in our corporate office and through the individual hotel sales and marketing efforts and it’s also about bench marking, looking at our profit margins, ensuring that we’re delivering the right kind of profit margins in the hotels — that’s how I think about driving profitability at the hotel level,” she explains.

Customer is king

Consumer insight is critical to driving the innovations Fox says will impact the quality of the product and she is confident that Fairmont will continually challenge itself on how to adapt to evolving trends, particularly when it comes to technology.

“Everyone’s travelling today with an iPad so you’ve got to make sure that you offer wireless and we offer wireless in all of our hotels and we offer it free to our Fairmont President’s Club members, but we absolutely know if you don’t have wi-fi in a guest room that’s one of the big frustration levels for a customer today. It’s just a matter of constantly being one step ahead of what the customer is telling us they want so we can deliver against that and that’s really important to us.”

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The same applies to the emerging trend for self check-in, says Fox, which she says Fairmont is exploring at present.

“We challenge ourselves on a regular basis about whether or not people want to do self check in. As long as the check in is swift and straight to the room then I think that is part of the personalised service that we offer, so we’re certainly looking at these things as we move along. We’ve got a great IT team very focused on future trends and in fact when I get back to Toronto I’ve got a session with our head of IT about the need to just have that conversation about future trends. You’ve got to be constantly innovating,” asserts Fox.

A trend she is passionate about is the move towards healthier lifestyles, with the focus being on how Fairmont can take care of busy travellers once they check in.

“One of the programmes that excited me when I actually arrived at Fairmont was Fairmont Fit Programme,” recalls Fox. “One of the things guests were telling us was that people like to travel with as little luggage as they can these days. So we’ve now got a partnership whereby if you’re a Fairmont President’s Club member, you can actually fill in all the details in terms of your size and we’ll have the work-out shoes, work-out clothes, right down to socks in the room for you. I’ve been travelling these last few days and I’ve stayed in five Fairmonts and every time I’ve arrived, this Fairmont Fit’s been in my room so I haven’t had to travel with my work-out shoes or my work-out gear. We’ve also taken that lifestyle approach in terms of our spas and our fitness to make sure we’ve giving the guests the opportunity to stay healthy and fit on the road.

“People are very concerned about well-being today — business travellers particularly because you know the last thing you want when you’ve been travelling and when you get to a hotel is any frustrations at all, you get enough of that with the airlines and all the hassles of travel. When you get to a hotel our role, our job is to make it as hassle free as we can and really create this environment where we deliver this very personalised service, very engaged service, that we’re anticipating the things you need, so that when you get to the hotel you feel like you’ve arrived somewhere that really understands you.”

As a business traveller, this is something Fox can “absolutely” relate to from a guest perspective — and she also has some “pet peeves” of her own.

“As a woman business traveller, hairdryers, bathroom amenities [are my pet peeves] because I don’t want to travel with shampoo and conditioner, those things are really important to me and I bet you’re the same as a woman traveller. Where’s the hair dryer and what kind of hairdryer is it — if it’s one you’ve got to put your finger on it drives me insane!,” exclaims Fox, and I completely agree.

“And also too, for me the bedding’s got to be great,” she continues. “The sleep experience is really important as is the shower experience,” says Fox, explaining that Fairmont is currently rolling out a new amenities range Le Labo Rose 31 with a “scent that works for both men and women”.

“We’re trying to think about every single thing in the room and what value that has to the guest.”

World of opportunity

Fox’s feminine side may come into play as a hotel guest, but when it comes to business, she claims to have “always taken being a woman out of the equation”. Nevertheless, you can count female CEOs of hotel companies globally on one hand and heading up a luxury brand in such a male-dominated industry makes Fox’s journey to the top all the more admirable. She attributes her success to her passion for taking on new challenges and opportunities.

“The reason I’ve been able to achieve some of the things I’ve achieved and some of the promotions I’ve had over my career is probably because I’ve been willing to relocate and if you’re not willing to take opportunities when they’re presented to you and perhaps relocate and move around the world, it is much harder to get an opportunity to do a role like this,” Fox reflects.

“That is probably one of the pieces of advice I would give to young women in the industry who are looking to perhaps build their career with a hotel company — don’t be afraid to take risks, don’t be afraid to take opportunities and uproot your life and your family because if you want to get ahead in the hotel business you’ve got to gain that global experience to do many of the more senior roles in the industry.”

Valuable advice from a woman in the know, who clearly relishes her global remit and prized portfolio of 62 Fairmont hotels and resorts — not to mention the ambitious growth projector she is now driving.

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