Philippe Leboeuf jokes he has an ‘MBWA’: management by walking around.
Warm and faultlessly charming, the veteran hotelier projects an amalgam of the traditional and new – every part the attentive genial host of bygone times, while reflecting on ChatGPT and how it will impact the way we work.
Beginning his career in ‘front of house’ roles, he has worked his way up the ranks to hold a succession of top leadership roles. Along the way, there have been numerous learning curves, an ash cloud and some unexpected 3am arrivals: twins, which a 21-year-old Leboeuf “more or less delivered” himself.
His latest position sees him overseeing the opening of Raffles London at The OWO, a project Leboeuf justifiably describes as a “monumental sort of enterprise”. The 120-room hotel and 85 branded residences are located in the Old War Office, which was sold by the government in 2016 on a 250-year lease, for more than £350 million.
The building – which is already open to residents, with the hotel set to open this summer – “is a bit of an iceberg”, Leboeuf says. “We've actually dug as much as you see [above the ground] from [under] the street.”
Seven floors of subterranean luxury feature two spas, an enormous ballroom and a warren of offices.
Leboeuf characterises his leadership style as very hands-on. “I am a delegator but I like to control a little bit. Early in my career, I used to control a lot – I don't anymore. I leave people to have the freedom to express [themselves]. We don't want to have robots just acting on some sort of script.”
He believes that nowadays what guests really want is a genuine service, as well as to have fun, connect and, to some extent, learn. “All the top luxury hotels used to be inspected according to 1,600 different standards. But that’s a little bit passé.”
“It's difficult to put ‘fun, connect and learn’ into an aseptic standards booklet,” he adds.
The worker crisis
In more recent times, Covid-19 has had a sweeping impact on the hospitality sector and upturned traditions and practices in the hotel business. Leboeuf says that the pandemic, which he describes as a “terrible” time fraught with difficult decisions, has had a huge and lasting impact on people in the industry.
Another legacy has been ongoing labour shortages, after workers were pushed to find different jobs and never returned to the sector.
Leboeuf admits that this was a concern with the Raffles London project. “We were really scared, but we've been lucky so far...Accor and Raffles as brands have attracted a lot of people, so I’m very happy…But the concern is still something that's in the back of my mind.”
The influences underpinning Leboeuf’s leadership have also evolved. In his first general manager post he was very front of house, sales and marketing-focused. After returning to study, completing a master’s degree at HEC Paris, he gained a greater understanding of finance and strategy.
The importance of people management
Nowadays, he says, he is very HR-oriented, having come to the realisation that no matter his expertise in other areas, nothing will happen without the right people.
In practice, this means Leboeuf sees everyone that’s guest-facing on interview. From his staff, he says: “I want smiles; I want hierarchy, but very little of it; I want to be able to talk to anyone.”
It is a cliché, but an accurate one, to say that all the dramas of human existence play out in hotels – from births, to deaths, and everything in-between. And along the way Leboeuf has witnessed his share of “beautiful human stories”.
He tells me about the endeavours of a concierge to help guests after a volcanic ash cloud led to the closure of much of European airspace to commercial traffic in April 2010.
“He was so good; his entire thing was to help his clients,” Leboeuf says. “He worked for about four days, 16 hours each. I kept saying ‘you should go home, you should go home’. Then he had a major medical problem, and I thought to myself, ‘I should have forced him to go’. So you know there's also that, the beautiful human stories, because he wanted to help all these people.”
His leadership lesson for others is to take a leaf out of Madonna’s book and constantly reinvent yourself.
“If you look at her career she is very inspirational because she has reinvented herself,” says Leboeuf, who has served the singer a few times. “She's extremely smart and artistically wise [in this sense]...So that [reinvention] would be my takeaway: I think it's very important.”