The next generation breaking through

Abigail Tan-Giroud is the Head of UK, Europe, and North America for the St Giles Hotels Group. The young leader has enhanced the internal culture at their London and New York properties and has set her sights on growing the brand and making sure they are considered a serious player.

You would be forgiven for thinking Abigail has led an easy route to the top. As the third generation of a famed Malaysian real estate dynasty, some may think she came in at the top. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Abigail had an interest from a very early age to know as much as possible about the hospitality industry and worked her way up from being a management trainee. Following University Abigail followed in her family’s footsteps and began as an apprentice. She experienced all aspects of a working hotel, and today Abigail is representing a new generation of leaders breaking through.

Being immersed in the hotel world from an early age provided Abigail with the understanding and deep knowledge of everything from engineering to the guest experience. IGB Corporation is the parent company of the hotel collection, a Malaysian business owned by the Tan family. With interest in real estate, construction and hospitality, it fuelled Abigail’s desire to understand all aspects of the business. Abigail explains, “Seeing my father at work really shaped my attitudes and core beliefs. My vision now is to build a brand to stand out in a busy market.”

There are ambitious plans in the pipeline but with more than 3,500 rooms in city centre locations across four continents, the platform for growth is already there. “At St Giles London Hotel in London’s West End we have been internally driven in recent times. In many ways we are hippies, we all have a love for the industry and a love for each other,” she laughs. “We have a flat hierarchy at the hotel and a new structure which makes communication and reporting much easier. Our team are given empowerment and authority so they can learn faster.”

Abigail is friendly and serious about the future of the group. She is using her leadership style to encourage and support the team of 150

staff at the London property. By checking their egos at the door and permitting them to make decisions, the move should support their development. “Our focus is heavily in the UK and my goal is to have 20 hotels by 2020.” It’s a bold vision and Abigail knows that with the strength of private funding and a portfolio of successful properties, together they will support the ultimate objectives. “We must always find the right property, at the right time and at the right price. Some may say it’s an aggressive approach but we see it more as activity pursuing.” She adds.

One could argue that the growth of the St Giles Hotels Group is not well known. The first London hotel opened in 1996, in 2015 the group opened two four star properties, The Wembley in Penang and The Tank Stream in Sydney. Plans for the future include a recently acquired Birmingham site, and another in Blackfriars in London.

St Giles made history recently by being the first U.K. hospitality brand to secure approval for its bid to take over the management of a property in Cuba. The deal, negotiated by Abigail, puts St Giles in partnership with Cuba’s Gran Caribe to renovate and redevelop the existing Hotel Deauville in Havana, which will become The Deauville

– A St Giles Signature hotel. “We’ve been quiet about ourselves, that is true, and now we are working on strengthening our relationships with our local communities and growing our portfolio.”

The young leader
“It is difficult to compare how my leadership approach differs from previous generations. We simply grew up in different times but do have the same goals. My management style is different and modelled in my own way. We are all always growing and learning and I ensure I take into account other viewpoints and listen. Is this where the difference lies? I want my whole team to know I have an open door policy and we behave as a family with a fair but firm attitude.”

Abigail has been tipped by Forbes magazine as one of its Asian Women to Watch and challenges in the past would have certainly influenced her as a leader. “A few years ago, the London property had a major flood where it basically rained in the lobby. A burst pipe on the roof was the cause and not long before, a similar incident happened at our New York hotel. I’m told its good luck!” Learning from these experiences has given Abigail the advantage of being able to work through situations with the team that require strong voices.

As the European hotel industry braces itself for the impact of Brexit, Abigail is confident their new marketing approach will build the brand publicly, whatever happens. “Our service style defines St Giles. We have three, four, and five star properties and we want our guests to feel like they’re staying in a hotel with a higher star-value. We want to make all our hotels feel like a four or five star but with a three star price.” Linked to this approach has been the launch of the global ‘St Giles 360 Virtual Reality’ (VR) campaign. “This began last year to showcase our centrality. We asked guests to capture their authentic experiences when they stayed in London, New York, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Manila, and Sydney. We wanted to connect both hotel guests and other travellers with enriching local experiences steps away from St Giles’ global properties.”

It is an exciting campaign for millennial travellers and likely to have taken quite a chunk of the $500,000 marketing budget. Abigail is confident they are reaping the rewards, the campaign expanded the brand’s reach to new audiences from a geographic, demographic and psychographic perspective. “Would a hotelier from a previous generation have attempted a similar project? I’m not sure but I do know that for us it builds relationships and creates interaction.
We want to be innovative and listen to our guests. By getting them to tell and show us what they discover in the cities, we provide a listening device which we can also use to promote the collection of hotels.” At the same time St Giles has teamed up with William Morris and created unique branded sunglasses for guests to enjoy and also shipped in branded VR experience holders for mobile phones – so any guest can enjoy the content via the hotel’s app.

Abigail is immensely proud of their initiative ‘Hotels with Heart’

– a charity which was created to deepen the soul and meaning of the hotels. “We want to make a positive impact for underprivileged children because they are our future.” Abigail explains. “We are helping provide stability and want to give back locally by teaching them all about hospitality.” It’s a cause clearly close to Abigail’s heart and the St Giles team is no stranger to trying to support each other. With Tough Mudder runs open for all staff to attend and Abigail planning to climb up the side of the London hotel for charity, the group is always looking to give back to both the staff and community.

Abigail is a natural leader with ambitious aims and one can sense that she has had to fight a few battles to reach her position. Her calm approach does differ from those of a previous generation, but the ultimate goal does not change. The St Giles Hotels Group are putting their name into the conversations of successful hotel groups and with potentially 20 hotels by 2020, they are a name many must keep a close eye on.