Christmas at Corinthia: In Conversation with Thomas Kochs (MD)
But the cyclical nature of the festive season, with its clichéd themes and hackneyed branding, doesn’t necessarily make it easy to create innovative, inspirational campaigns that inspire consumers to spend and stay...
So how can luxury hospitality brands create novelty and excitement around a season built on tradition and consistency? And how can they best supersede guest expectations while satisfying the need for familiarity?
Thomas Kochs, Managing Director at Corinthia London, is a hospitality veteran who has spent a lifetime working in luxury hotels. After 15 years with The Maybourne Group – as Food and Beverage Director at The Berkeley, followed by a stint at The Connaught and then as General Manager at Claridge's – he’s now in his fifth year as MD at Corinthia London. He shares the lowdown on how the best hotels in the business bring the festive season to life and what brands can learn from his experience.
The meaning of luxury has evolved over the years. Today, it’s shifted towards experiences, which is perfect for us hoteliers because we are ‘experience facilitators’. Our aim at Corinthia is always to make people feel better – a sentiment amplified at Christmas. If you walk through our doors, by the time you leave, you should feel that little bit happier.
We have to reinvent ourselves all the time. A desire for newness is omnipresent; when you’re creating experiences you can never allow anything to get boring. There's a lot of conceptual and strategic work in the guest experience. When you see it all come together, it’s a beautiful feeling.
Christmas is a little bit like going back to a place that you love and that you can rediscover again and again. It's a celebration of tradition – and we love tradition – but after a rough couple of years, we can all sense a new appreciation of what we used to take for granted, like seeing our loved ones or family. It’s almost as if the true spirit of Christmas has been realised for the first time.
Corinthia’s Christmas theme this year is ‘There Must be an Angel’. The inspiration comes from the gratitude we feel for things returning to some sort of normal again – as if we have been blessed by an angel. The concept has been unpacked right down to every last detail. Paper artists were commissioned to create a world of Nordic village scenes – think forest arrangements, stars tumbling from the ceiling and glittering angel wings – all beautifully lit to glow from within. The theme continues into the bar: every time a client orders a round of drinks, one glass comes crowned with a gorgeous little set of paper angel wings. The hero element is a bespoke set of metal angel wings, commissioned from a metal artist, and set in the front entrance of the hotel. The idea is that you can stand in front of them to have your picture taken – perfect for social media – and then make a wish.
We tend to envisage Christmas as an emotion and develop our theme from there. A good place to start is to plug in to the mood of the country or society any given year and use this feeling as inspiration. Last year, for example, we went with: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Many people were celebrating alone so it was just that – a ‘little Christmas’.
Our campaigns are very much a team effort. We operate in a very open forum where there is no wrong answer. Everyone needs to feel free to express themselves when we brainstorm and we explore the ideas together. You can sense which ideas are special immediately – the reaction from the room says it all.
Tapping into how our guests feel and then translating these sentiments into an activation is something we do all year round. During lockdown, for example, we sent out biscuits to friends of the hotel that had “I miss you” piped onto them in icing. It was a small gesture to show our guests how much we value them. When you get it right, the result is often something very beautiful.
Bringing an idea to life at Corinthia is a cross-departmental effort that involves everyone from the floristry team at McQueens to the communications department and service team. The first step is for the owner of the idea to communicate their vision properly so that the brief can be perfectly executed across the board. We create a host of visual and conceptual elements that need to work together, including a festive film, as well as foster engagement, social currency and Instagram ‘moments’. Most importantly, you have to get people excited. Client-facing roles have to be able to translate the atmosphere to guests so we always gather the entire staff together in order to explain the thinking behind an idea.
Everybody moves a little closer together at Christmas, our staff included. Christmas probably attracts the right kind of staff because it's the people who are willing to give up their family time for their extended family at the hotel. Equally, for foreigners who don’t have family in the UK, it can be a real joy to work over Christmas. We always make sure it’s a special day for the team. We get together in the restaurant before service and everybody has a glass of Champagne. We also swap Christmas rotas with New Year's Eve. It’s sort of an unspoken rule in hotels – either you do one or the other.
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Christmas Day is a really happy occasion at Corinthia, brought to life with atmospheric and sensory elements such as candle light and live piano music. It’s a journey full of unexpected moments and little surprises for the children. We place stockings on the doors and have gifts delivered to each room. Of course, Father Christmas makes an appearance too. We try to bring a lot of the elements that people love about being at home into the hotel, so that it feels very personal. We want our guests to feel as if they are cocooned in their own little world, celebrating their own Christmas – only this time in the company of many like minded people.
Creating Christmas magic is so much more than just décor. You have to be in tune with what's going on around you and you need to do things for other people and not for yourself. Always have your guests at the centre of your mind and heart and make sure you put authentic emotion in everything you do. If you don't really care how other people feel or what they think then you can't put a great Christmas together.
We've outlined five key considerations to stay true to your brand, satisfying the need for familiarity whilst superseding guest expectations with a little Christmas magic.
Creating a magical Christmas guest experience is all about intention. The festive season is about generosity and gratitude – this year more than ever – so make sure your efforts are genuine and place the guest centre-stage.
Let the mood of the year dictate your Christmas theme. This ensures a timely and tone-appropriate celebration that will resonate with your guests.
Details matter. Cocoon guests in a festive world (pre-and post Christmas Day) that will delight and inspire, both on and offline. This means instagrammable backdrops, consistent branding and virtual marketing – a holiday video, for example – to increase awareness, drive sales and amplify engagement.
To ensure your vision is executed beautifully, be sure to involve the whole team, especially those in client-facing roles. Christmas is about people – so get yours excited. Making provisions for staff and team celebration is a must: lead by example.
While pre-holiday marketing build up is key to enticing clients, do not underestimate the importance of Christmas Day itself. This is your final flourish, a chance to bring together every element of your theme and remind guests why a Christmas spent with you is the only way to celebrate the season.
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