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A true icon

Owned by Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hotel ICON employs hospitality students alongside professionals, who test cutting-edge concepts in prototype rooms designed by Terence Conran. General manager and adjunct associate professor Richard Hatter tells Jen Harbottle how the hotel is setting trends

Jennifer Harbottle
Hotel ICON
hotel is setting trends
Leisure facilities include a health club, the Angsana Spa and the outdoor heated rooftop pool with views of the harbour
The staff uniform 'collection' was designed by Barney Cheng and uses unconventional fabric swatches
The staff uniform 'collection' was designed by Barney Cheng and uses unconventional fabric swatches
The staff uniform 'collection' was designed by Barney Cheng and uses unconventional fabric swatches
Elaborate handcrafted iron gates flank the entrance to the Green café bar
The hotel was in profit after three months and any surplus goes back into PolyU
The project pulled in top designers such as Terence Conran & Partners who designed the Above & Beyond restaurant and lounge area

Either Richard Hatter is a good storyteller or he has one of the best jobs in the hotel industry. Imagine James Bond visiting Q at gadget central as he prepares to take on the world: This is the picture Hatter conjures up as he describes the cutting edge technology and futuristic nature of operations at Hong Kong’s Hotel ICON, of which he is the general manager.

Granted, Hatter doesn’t pretend to be invincible, nor do his hotel’s beds fly up against the wall at the flick of his gold watch, but he still makes the property sound like the prototype for the world’s most forward-thinking hotel.

And in some ways, it is. The hotel contains three 'prototype' rooms, where advanced design, technology and lifestyle concepts are tested, to determine what guests do and don’t want from their hotel experience. Currently, one of the rooms is set up with a Zeppelin Air iPod dock, Brinno digital peephole, Biozone airpurifier and a Cybertecture mirror – an interactive, intelligent mirror connected to the internet, which displays news and weather. On the drawing board for future testing are hypoallergenic furnishings, which means the hotel’s carpet and curtains will clean themselves.

So far, so good. Despite only opening in April 2011, Hotel ICON has already received accolades for its design, service and facilities, including the Condé Nast UK ‘Hot List 2012’. It’s made it onto the 2011 DestinAsian Luxe List for Asia-Pacific Top Hotels, its Above & Beyond Chinese Restaurant has been granted three 'fork-and-spoons' from the Michelin Guide Hong Kong Macau 2012, and it’s one of Hong Kong's top five best ranked hotels on Trip Advisor. So, what makes it so good?

“Our guests just love our service,” Hatter explains. “Our staff manage to get the right balance between being helpful and not overdoing it.”

But what makes Hotel ICON even more inspiring is the fact this cutting edge hotel is not bank-rolled by a large hotel chain. For Hotel ICON is owned by The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) and has been set up primarily as a teaching and research hotel for the university’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management (SHTM).

In keeping with its James Bond-esque mystique, the hotel is housed in the same building as the laboratories and classrooms of SHTM and its primary function is to act as a test bed for its hospitality management students. The hotel is run by 362 full time staff, 60 of which are students from the university’s undergraduate programme, and all profits made by the hotel are ploughed back into the school, to fund further education. For Hatter, who works 80 per cent of his time as the hotel’s general manager and 20 per cent as an adjunct professor teaching at the university, he sees the hotel and course as a way of shaping a new breed of future hotel luminaries.

“We teach the latest trends, we inspire with the newest ideas and we deliver them in an honest and focused, forward-thinking, ‘real’ way,” he explains. “You won’t find what we teach our students in any textbook, or in the kind of company manual you get in other hotels. Our aim is to develop leaders who are bold, inventive, and who lead rather than follow.”

How it began
In 1976, PolyU began offering a vocational course in hotel management. At the time, Cornell University in the US and Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland were the best known schools for hotel management. Yet in Asia and in particular, China and Macau, there was a boom in the hotel market and a gap in the number of qualified people to work in them. According to Hatter, even today, there are over 30,000 key management positions unfilled in hotels in China.

PolyU spotted a gap in the market for an top Asia-based hotel management school. In 1979 the government-owned university decided to establish its School of Hotel & Tourism Management (SHTM) with the intention of making it one of the best hotel management schools in the world.

The school’s reputation quickly began to grow. Today, PolyU is ranked number two in the world for research in hotel management and attracts almost 2,000 students from all over the world.

The Hotel
In 2005, PolyU decided to convert its student dorms next door to its main campus into a teaching research hotel. In doing this, it had three main aims; to offer managerial training for its students, to offer “real world” experiences to its students and to become a centre of excellence for the global hotel industry. PolyU provided the US$167m (HK$1.3bn) needed to build the hotel, the School of Hotel and Tourism Management and the University House Complex. In support, the government offered a low land premium.

Because of the altruistic nature of the project, Hatter says PolyU managed to pull in some of Hong Kong’s top designers to work on the architecture, interior design, uniforms and branding at Hotel ICON. He describes Hotel ICON as “a stylish testament to Hong Kong’s creative energy and vibrant art scene.” The hotel showcases work from the city’s celebrated designers and visionaries including Rocco Yim, William Lim, Vivienne Tam and Freeman Lau.

The hotel has 262 rooms and its facilities include an Angsana spa, health club, and outdoor pool overlooking Hong Kong's harbour. Its Chinese fine dining restaurant Above & Beyond and the more informal Market restaurant were both designed by Conran & Partners, while the Green café bar was designed by William Lim.

Year-to-date occupancy is at 75 per cent. Currently, 24 per cent of guests come from Europe, 15 per cent from China, 13 per cent from the US and eight per cent from Australia. The remainder come from within other parts of Asia. Hatter insists they do not conceal the fact that Hotel ICON is a teaching and research hotel. “Hotel ICON is a hotel with a purpose," he says. "Far from detracting from their stay, guests wax lyrical about our outstanding service standards.”

Centre of excellence
But it’s not just the guests who are impressed by Hotel ICON. The hotel is so advanced in terms of technology and thought-leadership that Hatter regularly plays host to hoteliers who come to be inspired by what they see. From state-of-the-art Bose sound systems in guest bedrooms to the latest Wi-Fi and flat screen IPTV technology, the hotel is an experiment in futuristic guest experiences. Right now, for instance, Hotel ICON’s prototype paperless guest software system is so far ahead of its time that other hotel operators would struggle to get their hands on it. Even the staff uniforms have been designed using unconventional fabric swatches. Hatter says innovation is at the core of everything they do at the hotel. “We want to set a good example to our students about how they should approach their thinking. We create trends – not follow them.”

Because it plays such an important role in the future of the hotel industry, the SHTM collects data from guests that stay at Hotel ICON, which is then analysed by the students and published and reported via research papers given by the SHTM professors at industry seminars. The data is used to improve efficiency and the guest experience at the hotel.

Down to business
Like any business, Hotel ICON is expected to turn over a profit. The hotel was cash positive after the first month of operation and in profit after three. Any surplus goes straight back into education and research at the PolyU. Having said that, achieving financial success – although important – isn’t what drives Hatter.

What gets Hatter excited is nurturing future talent for the hospitality and tourism industry in the Asia Pacific region.

“I was looking for something more meaningful in my work,” he explains. “All the staff here, including me, have dual responsibility, to be a mentor to the students. It allows me to tap into my desires to address the different ways in which students learn.”

Main course
The SHTM offers students higher diploma, bachelor, masters and doctorate courses in hotel and tourism management. The SHTM has a Professor For a Day scheme, in which industry professionals are invited to speak to students. Hatter says this is a much more responsive way of learning.

“As soon as a hospitality text book is printed, it’s out of date,” he says. “If I want to make a point to my students, I can bring in my director of revenue or my F&B manager to tell them the way things really are.”

Students have to complete industry placements as part of their study. Although they can choose to work in any hotel in the world, Hatter says many opt to work at Hotel ICON. “Hotel ICON is an independent hotel unfettered by any brand,” Hatter explains. “We can be much more experimental here. There’s no corporate guy saying ‘you can’t do that’. We’re about nurturing responsive, confident, open-minded, inspiring people – future leaders.”

Every six weeks, interns at Hotel ICON work in a new department, from F&B to admin, to guest rooms. They also do a stint in the research department to learn about guest profiling.

For Hatter, the Hotel ICON model represents the future for hotel and tourism education. “We’re the tomorrow hotel," he says. "Our elite students are sure to become tomorrow’s future hospitality leaders, which is very exciting for the future of the hotel industry.”



Richard Hatter

As proof we all have to start somewhere, Hatter’s career in hospitality began in Southsea, where he combined a job as a bottle washer at the Pendragon Hotel with the position of waiter at Southsea’s Playboy Club and Casino. Born in the UK but raised in Singapore, Tanzania and Ghana, Hatter completed his undergraduate studies in hotel catering and institutional management at the University of Portsmouth.

Having decided on a career in hotel management, Hatter took on management positions with luxury hotel groups in the UK, Caribbean, Bahrain and Bangkok, including with Gulf Hotels and Dusit Thani Hotels and Resorts. As assistant manager at Treasure Isle Hotel in The British Virgin Islands, Hatter met Richard Branson by chance, when he was windsurfing past Branson’s Necker Island Resort.

For 17 years, Hatter worked for Shangri-La Hotels & Club Resorts; the last four as director of development, where he was responsible for driving the repositioning of Shangri-La hotels in many of China’s second-tier cities, as well as in Singapore, Fiji, The Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

According to Hatter, a key point in his career was in 2000 when he was invited by the owner of Shangri-La to manage one of the Kuak family’s private leisure clubs in Hong Kong, The Aberdeen Marina Club – one of the most prestigious private clubs in Hong Kong. Hatter introduced a family concept to the club, including a children’s play centre based on a concept from his home town in Portsmouth, called Adventure Zone. It was a resounding success; membership grew and it led to him being offered a role as a director at Shangri-La.

Let’s get personal RICHARD HATTER

What are the biggest lessons that you’ve taken from your corporate hotel career into your current role?
Believe in yourself and don’t get drawn into ‘corporate hype’. You need to have a strong sense of who you are and what you can offer, because you can’t expect others to have it for you.

Do you have any advice for those entering the hotel industry?
Every job you take will give invaluable experience in some way, so don’t worry that your first job is your only chance to set the path for your career and future. I’ve worked for both some horrendous and some amazing bosses, who became mentors. As a college graduate entering the industry the key is to be a confident, passionate communicator.

Which hotels inspire you?
I remember walking into the lobby of the Sukhothai in Bangkok. I was invited for the grand opening in 1993 and my jaw literally dropped. It was authentic, haute style and architectural cool – both sophisticated yet informal and Thai-inspired in every detail from the design to the food. It was cultural, spiritual and philosophical and had a sense of place. I think the whole notion of gigantic, corporate hotel chains trying to manufacture cool, boutique, sub-brands is bogus. If you have to say you’re a cool hotel then you’re not.

Who do you admire in business?
The early Philippe Starck/Ian Schrager tie up radically altered the hotel landscape. I have a tremendous respect for anyone who has the courage and confidence to create and deliver unique interiors and open independent hotels with style and energy, because I know how unbelievably difficult that is to do.

How would you sum up your approach to life?
My parents sent my brothers and I to boarding schools in Africa and the UK, so we would learn to mix instead of going to a school where we knew everyone. We travelled in Asia, Africa and the Middle East and learned about different cultures and different cuisine. As a result, my family 'looks different' because we 'think different'. I call it 'Discovery through real life' – start young, get out there and make mistakes whilst living.

What drives you?
My wife and children, Aisha 19, Ashton 16, Maya 6 and Matthew 4. There’s no secret other than to be in love with the woman you’re sharing your life with.

"My approach is 'discovery through real life' – start young, get out there and make mistakes whilst living"

There’s a reason why Hotel ICON looks so stylish; some of the world’s top designers have worked on it.
We take a look at who did what


Rocco Yim

Architecture by Rocco Yim
Rocco Yim is one of Hong Kong's most prominent design architects. His practice has been responsible for the design of many of the defining buildings in the region including the International Finance Centre, Hong Kong Station and Guangdong Museum. “What attracted me to this project was the promise that the design was to be chosen from an architectural competition. This was, and still is in Hong Kong, a rare arrangement, but it showed the client's commitment to good design from the start,” explains Yim.

“The finished building manages to project a strong visual identity which is not just an object to be looked at, but a three-dimensional spatial composition.”

There’s a reason why Hotel ICON looks so stylish; some of the world’s top designers have worked on it.
We take a look at who did what


William Lim

Interior design by William Lim
William Lim was responsible for the interior design of Hotel ICON. Throughout the hotel, his use of circular themes and motifs is a deliberate technique to create a sense of space and harmony.

Hong Kong-born designer Lim mixes modern trends with traditional architectural elements, to give the hotel a sense of place and to create cultural touchstones.

There’s a reason why Hotel ICON looks so stylish; some of the world’s top designers have worked on it.
We take a look at who did what


Dr Patrick Blanc

Vertical garden by Dr Patrick Blanc
The vertical garden at Hotel ICON was designed by Patrick Blanc, the French creator of the vertical greenery concept and a botanist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. It’s the largest one-piece vertical garden in Asia. Blanc says Hotel Icon’s air quality, “adds to the psychological and relaxing wellbeing of all the persons standing or sitting just in front of it.“


Vertical garden

There’s a reason why Hotel ICON looks so stylish; some of the world’s top designers have worked on it.
We take a look at who did what


Barney Cheng

Uniform design by Barney Cheng
The creator of Hotel ICON's uniforms, Barney Cheng is one of Hong Kong's most famous style gurus. Cheng says Hatter gave him free reign to come up with the design, requesting only that the uniforms be part of a ‘collection’ that the hotel staff could mix and match on their own – something he describes as a “fresh, more creative process.”

Originally published in Leisure Management 2012 issue 3
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