Sommet Network: Utopian Hotel Collection
Meet CEO Ronald Homsy and the Glion Alumni working with him
‘Sommet Network’ is a new series of interviews introducing you to Glion and Les Roches graduates. Meet the high-end hospitality professionals who embody our schools’ values – and are implementing them to tremendous effect, across the hospitality sector.
Glion and Les Roches don't only produce high-flying senior executives. The schools are an incubator for entrepreneurs, too. Meet some of them now - the team behind the newly-launched Utopian Hotel Collection, a disruptive luxury hotel collection that had only been live for three weeks when Sommet Education visited Utopian's offices in London's Belgravia. They're almost all Glion graduates who've succeeded independently, either as professionals or business leaders. Now, they're coming together to launch a forward-thinking consortia and service provider for luxury and boutique independent hotels.
Co-founder and CEO Ronald Homsy (class of 1997, International Hospitality and Tourism Management) is a serial entrepreneur with 26 different ventures under his belt. Ronald’s partner in the venture is founder and executive chairman Paul Cordier (class of 1997, International Hospitality and Tourism Management). Paul is a serial investor and entrepreneur with extensive experience in the hospitality sector, including work with Starwood Hotels and Resorts, plus The Dominican hotel in Brussels. While he began incubating his ideas for what would become Utopian Hotel Collection began some years back, he started fine tuning his concept towards the end 2014, alongside friends and fellow Glion graduates Ronald and Enrique Ibanez (also co-founder and shareholder of Utopian, plus also a Glion graduate in 1997). Together the three decided to incorporate CHI Capital Ltd, and Paul and Ronald started work on Utopian Hotel Collection.
Further core team members include development manager Albert Nahas (class of 2016, Luxury Brand Management), Kenzie Imam (class of 2016, Luxury Brand Management), Filippo Patron (class of 2017, Luxury Brand Management), Lauren Clark-Hattingh (class of 2017, Business Administration), and head of marketing Sam Rattue who, according to Ronald, “is not Glionais, but has acquired the mindset!” We spoke to Ronald and his team about entrepreneurialism, life at Glion, and the evolution of luxury travel.
Tell us about your business background, and how Utopian came about.
Ronald Homsy, Utopian Hotels Collection: “I’ve owned bars, restaurants, beach clubs, nightclubs and a catering company in Europe and the Middle East. The first was a restaurant-bar in Beirut, that opened in 1999. It was at the very start of my career, and I had little idea about the back office. It eventually closed after two years, with a million dollar loss, which I did not have. That was my first business experience! The second venture, Crystal, a nightclub, recouped its two million dollar investment in three months. And eventually I had one of the largest F&B and entertainment companies in the Middle East. But by 2013 I wanted to get back in the hotel business. Paul, Enrique and I brainstormed at a meeting room in the Dominican Hotel in Brussels for two days. We were all on the same wavelength; we realised that there was a gap on the luxury independent hotel side and the luxury youthful mindset traveler.”
How did the project evolve from there, and how did you bring what you learned at Glion into its development?
Ronald: “Not only are the three founders and most of the team members from Glion, but one of the investors are, Ziad Chemaitelli (class of 1997, International Hospitality and Tourism Management). And I have kept my friends from Glion, too.
The first few months was market research, a feasibility study, and discovering what technology to build and integrate to. At school, you gain knowledge that comes from your courses but the practicality of things is way different. The Glion alumni community though is there to help you out, and can give you a lot of input. Last March  I was elected as a board member of the Glion Alumni Association. When things got serious with Utopian, and we had to put a team together, I tapped into the graduates before going somewhere else.”
What do you remember from your time at Glion?
Ronald:“Being able to live in a community that’s multi-lingual, multi-national and possesses different mindsets is priceless. You learn to communicate and strike a rapport with all kinds of nationalities. Before you enter your training, you do ‘extras’ where the school sends you to work as a waiter, or in the kitchen, for a local event. I worked at a wedding in the Chateau de Chillon near Glion itself… cleaning dishes. There I was, aged 19, thinking: ‘My parents sent me to the most wonderful hotel school in the world. What am I doing here?’ But sometimes it’s the small, seemingly insignificant experiences that teach you the most. You need to know how your employees are living their own moments, and seeing where they go wrong or right. Otherwise you can’t be a good manager.”
Kenzie: “In the first internship you have to do the basics. It’s either rooms division, or food and beverage – so working as a cleaner or a waitress. The second placement is more managerial, so you’ll go to the ‘back end’ working in marketing, finance, or human resources etc.”
Albert:“The placements secure jobs for a lot of graduates. You perform well and they keep the CV for when you graduate. People can study peacefully without having the fear of not having a job. My first training came during peak season in a luxury hotel in Gstaad where I had stayed as a guest before. I was destroyed every day. Sixteen-hour shifts, night shifts, New year’s eve parties till seven or eight AM, dealing with various challenging scenarios.”
Working life at Utopian Hotels sounds different to that – tell us about it.
Ronald: “Utopian is a collection of independent and unique luxury hotels. We don’t just offer bookings, but products and services as well, to our hotel members. We’re already convinced that the hotels we work with are running a very efficient operation, so we don’t get involved with that. What we do offer is distribution, technology, marketing, sales, and revenue management, just to name a few.
Ronald continued: Yes, there are other luxury hotel consortia. But what’s different about Utopian is we present luxury hotels with a youthful mindset. That’s a mindset which unites the hotels themselves, ourselves as people and they way we behave, plus the marketing and how we communicate with our millennial target market. We have five principles that our hotel members should adhere to: ‘the story of everything, seamless technology, playful character, unexpected adventure and people-to-people service.’ We’ve visited all of our hotel members ourselves, as guests, eaten in their restaurants and used their spas and facilities.”
Sam: “Added benefits for guests who book with us are intrinsic. Not only upgrades and check-in or check-out options – I mean unique experiences, such as culinary classes from the head chef. Filippo, as the guest relations manager at Utopian, is available for them personally. Our guests aren’t talking to a call centre, they’re engaging a luxury concierge.Initiatives we’re working on right now include partnering around mindfulness, as our audience is interested in that, and offering a ‘book concierge’ service so a selection of reading matter curated especially for the guest and the location is waiting on arrival. The other area we work with is social awareness and sustainability. Not just saying it, but living and breathing it. We’re putting a charter together right now.”
Albert:“One of our properties, Sao Lourenco do Barrocal in Monsaraz, Portugal, opened in a dilapidated rural area. Now they are producing olive oil, they have a winery, and the dynamic of the five local villages has changed completely because of it. A new property we’re going to have in Paris is growing fruit and vegetables on the roof. They even have a chicken coop where they collect eggs. Nobody is allowed up there except the kitchen staff and the VIPs, and Utopian guests can enjoy a romantic dinner there overlooking Paris. They could have turned the area into a penthouse and sold it for thousands of euros every night. Instead, they did this."
Words of wisdom from Ronald: What would you like to pass on about your entrepreneurial experience?