Behind the scenes... at The Peninsula Beijing
Beijing is a city which is simultaneously unsentimentally hyper-modern, and steeped in its historic culture and crafts. Chris Leadbeater meets a man with first-hand experience of both – General Manager of The Peninsula Beijing, Vincent Pimont.
It is impossible to escape the fact that Vincent Pimont is French. It is there in the discreet elegance of his cufflinks, the sharpness of his suit, the considered way he speaks. And it is there in his accent – a soft Parisian brogue that could not hail from any other country. “No, I have never lost my accent,” he laughs. “I cannot fake it.”
It is not inconceivable, however, that a career in the tourism industry that has kept him travelling for over 25 years might have erased some of the Gallic purr from his voice. He was part of the launch team for Disneyland Paris in 1992, but in the quarter-century since, his work has taken him around the planet: from Disneyland Paris to Disney World in Florida, to New York, the paradise island of Bora Bora in French Polynesia… And, most significantly, to China, where he is currently in his second spell at its most hallowed hotel – The Peninsula Beijing.
He has a calm presence. But you could forgive him a little nervous tension. His return to the hotel in January 2017 – after three years in Paris, helping to set up the Peninsula property which opened in the French capital in 2014 – was as its General Manager. The top job. The place where the buck stops. This was his first leap into the hot seat, and it would have been a promotion loaded with pressure even without a significant side issue – that The Peninsula Beijing he came back to was midway through an enormous renovation.
“It was difficult,” he admits. “When a property is under renovation, it is hard to manage it. We could have decided to close the hotel entirely. We did not. But we were honest. We told our guests that we were under renovation. We did not want to cheat people. We shut more floors than we needed to, so that the work would not affect the rest of the building.”
The Peninsula Beijing opened in 1989 – a lifetime ago in a city which tears down and starts again with ruthless determination. And this was no ordinary remodel; over £83m was spent on large-scale sculptures and artwork alone, including acres of hand-carved marble and stone. The makeover was designed not only to modernise the hotel, but to convert a retreat of 525 units into a more spacious entity of 230 rooms and suites. Now finished, the process took three years.
“We made the situation simpler by turning it into a positive thing for our guests,” Pimont continues. “When you refurbish a hotel at this level, you employ the best craftspeople. So we created an experience where we would take guests to see these artists working in – for example – onyx or marble. At first, the contractors were uncomfortable. But then they began to feel proud. Some of them come from the countryside, not Beijing. And here they had people from all over the world, fascinated by their skills, and what they were doing.”
At the same time, he had to adapt to his new position. “The transition from Hotel Manager – effectively the second in command – to General Manager is challenging,” he muses. “As a hotel manager, you are the director of operations. You are on the floor, you meet all the guests, you know everything. When you are a GM, you are more removed from the day-to-day operations, but you are responsible for everything – safety, security, legal matters.”
Entrance to The Peninsula Beijing, China
This is not the first time he has had to adjust. He tells a story from his first period at The Peninsula Beijing, when, in the build-up to the 2008 Olympics, he gave the fitness centre manager an instruction to empty the swimming pool immediately for cleaning. The subsequent damage – when, due to the change in pressure, the tiles dropped off the side of the pool – was, he says, a lesson he had to learn. The fitness centre manager knew this would happen without proper precautions, but did not want to contradict an urgent request from his boss. “I had to change my style of management,” he adds. “In China, the boss is seen as always being right. Even if he is wrong. Afterwards, I told the fitness centre manager that he needed to challenge me. He looked at me like I had come from a different planet.”
He is quick, though, to correct the idea that people in China are deferential, or trapped in a former century. “China has become very digital. Now, it is all about this,” he explains, pointing to his phone. “It does everything.” He outlines a hyper-connected Beijing where cash is becoming obsolete, and the room key will follow. “In the next few years, we may have a system at The Peninsula where you will be able to open your door with your phone. The security is not there yet, but it will happen.” He grins. “I have had to adapt very fast.” A man unchanged? Only his accent.
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