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With a 40-year career under his belt, Philippe Leboeuf is a figure of the hotel industry who has retained all his freshness and outspokenness.


With a 40-year career under his belt, Philippe Leboeuf is a figure of the hotel industry who has retained all his freshness and outspokenness.

Category: Europe - United Kingdom - - Interviews
Interview made by Sonia Taourghi on 2024-04-26

Philippe Leboeuf, General Manager of the Raffles at the OWO in front of the spy entrance

Philippe Leboeuf, General Manager of the Raffles at the OWO in front of the spy entrance
Photo credit © Sonia Taourghi / Journal des Palaces

"Good afternoon, Miss Taourghi". I hadn't even entered the hotel when I was already dazzled by the doorman's personalised welcome. He got it right. It was really me.

A welcome, a smile, and an ease that can be found throughout the Raffles OWO team, and that I was also to find in Philippe Leboeuf, General Manager of the hotel, and incognito James Bond of the premises. For 40 years, Philippe Leboeuf has led a career on all fronts of the hotel industry. Between operations, corporate and management, he knows all the ins and outs of the business and has never been afraid to roll up his sleeves. General Manager in New York, then in Paris for the Crillon, Concorde and Louvre, he then spent more than seven years at the headquarters of Leading Hotels of the World. After a short spell at Rosewood, he went on to manage the legendary Claridge's, before spending 11 years at Mandarin Oriental in operations and management.

For almost three years now, he has been at the helm of the Raffles OWO. The seven-storey establishment is made up of the Old War Office building. The extensive renovation has added more than 48,000 square metres of floor space, a private residence area and six basement floors housing two spas, a garage and a gigantic conference and reception room. It was these residences that allowed the team to 'warm up' by testing the equipment and electronic systems, ensuring that the infrastructure would run smoothly before the opening of the hotel section. Seven and a half years of renovation, a high-profile opening and stiff competition made Philippe Leboeuf's mission a challenge worthy of his metre 95. More than just opening the doors of a unique place, Philippe Leboeuf opens his heart to the Journal des Palaces, as a hotelier faithful to the values of hard work and a humanity that he shares with his teams and customers.

Working closely with his teams

Right from the start of his career, Philippe Leboeuf has had an atypical career path. "I don't think I'd be as relevant as I am today if I hadn't worked in the corporate world. It's a different language: operational people are all about action, not three-year plans. As it's something I understand better, I'm less aggressive".

The other aspect of his career that defined him was his time at Lord Rocco Forte in New York, where he found himself taking on several roles, learning and integrating the key hotel professions. "When Forte opened a position, they accepted candidates who didn't necessarily have the typical profile for the job. That's how I ended up as general manager. It was the godsend of my career, and today I still do room inspections, particularly with my new service recruits. It's important to understand the businesses and the staff". From technical manager to sales manager, he maintains a humble attitude that has earned him the respect of his teams. "Despite my height, maybe I wasn't such a snob!"

When I ask him about the hotel's most memorable moments since it opened, he answers without hesitation. "Onboarding the staff was a really beautiful moment for me. I try to stay young despite my experience. Even though there was the official ceremony with Princess Anne, I wanted all the staff to be able to cut the ribbon. There were over 300 of us cutting a ribbon printed with our values, and each member of staff cut a value, including the owners. We had to find 400 pairs of scissors!

Of course, the grown-up still marvels at the extraordinary moments that make up his daily routine, such as the launch of a Formula 1 car thanks to the two lifts that move the cars. It was a spectacular moment for the hotelier, despite the inevitable oil leak on the new carpet...

A strong history to respect and celebrate

With all the recent openings of luxury establishments in London, the competition is fierce, and almost ten months after its opening, the establishment is doing well. "We've had good footfall, won a number of awards and made the cover of Tatler. All these accolades can be attributed to the beauty of this atypical venue, steeped in memories. "We're a little different because of our history, and we're surrounded by Westminster, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and St James Park. But we're aware that our location is less sought-after than Mayfair or Knightsbridge, and that's also one of the reasons why we've deployed the gastronomic offer around nine food outlets". It's a heritage that the teams are doing their utmost to celebrate, and one that Philippe Leboeuf sees himself as the personal guarantor and ambassador of.

"We have to carry out ten visits to the building every year, free of charge, as part of our operating licence. We have already reached this quota for this year, with a majority of curious Londoners aged between 40 and 85, 20% of whom have worked in the building and wanted to find out what we had done with it. Let's not forget that this used to be the Ministry of Defence, so it was an official building, very secure and not accessible to the public. So it's imperative to open it up to local people. In fact, even international customers are delighted to be able to rub shoulders with them. When I look at the proportion of English people who stay at the hotel, or the proportion of people who buy our residences, I say to myself that we have succeeded in a large part of the mission Sébastien Bazin and the Hinduja family set to accomplish". At the time of the opening, the CEO of Accor had indeed made a point to mention the bridge between different types of clients inviting "locals and travellers alike to experience this extraordinary hotel as well as the authenticity and graciousness of Raffles, one of our most prestigious brands in one of the world’s greatest cities".

These tours will therefore be part and parcel of the hotel's growing success, thanks to two dedicated historians, one for the historical tour and the other for the art tour. Eventually, the plan is to have four to five specialists leading these tours, and also to add other elements linked to the history of the OWO to offer even more premium moments to customers. "We'll be offering a royal carriage ride on the Mall and in Hyde Park, says Philippe Leboeuf. These are truly exclusive experiences that no other establishment or organisation can offer its guests. The same goes for the former spies' offices, which we have converted into bars - 007 and 008 - and which are only accessible to our guests." In the course of the conversation, there is talk of secret tunnels, which may not remain secret... To be continued. With so much experience in the hotel business, the veteran weighs his words and uses them with precision. "I love languages, and I find that the words luxury, experience and exclusivity are often overused. The whole concept of the hotel has been designed to respect the history of the building and its uniqueness. The only real addition was the art. Because it was originally a very masculine world, so it's a way of balancing the energy of the place".

What's more, Philippe Leboeuf is a committed hotel manager who is bubbling over with ideas to make his establishment shine. Among his many projects is a gastronomic tour to showcase the nine restaurants already open, before the addition of Langosteria by July, and the latest addition, Kioku by Endo, by Endo Kobayashi, due to open by the end of the year. Featuring French, Italian and English cuisine, as well as a sake bar with the largest collection of sake in Europe, the establishment aims to rival London's gourmet districts and follow up the 'Culinary Safaris' organised at the opening, particularly for journalists.

Keeping a personal balance

With so many projects in the pipeline, and a 24/7 daily routine, how does the manager maintain his enthusiasm for the industry and the energy needed to carry out his mission within the hotel, but also in the management of the 85 private residences? "The residential dimension is very important. In terms of management, it's different, because the atmosphere is different, it's more relaxed, and the staff take the liberty of calling the residents by their first names. Fortunately for me, I live in the residence and that's very practical given the size of the job. It allows me to be there at all times. It's true that it's an imposing task, but it's easier here because I'm on the 'Residence' side of the building, so I have a lot of privacy. We have ten entrances and exits to the building! Which is very practical for me, but also for our most private guests, such as celebrities or members of the diplomatic corps".

He also pays tribute to his teams, without whom nothing would be possible. "I always say that the hugs are for my teams. You can talk about humility all you want, but the work is really done by the whole team. In particular, I have a great assistant who I recruited from the Raffles Singapore. I'm a bit like a conductor". And like an orchestra conductor, he aims to maintain the harmony of his establishment with hard-working staff who each do their bit. As he puts it, "after having been a very front house Director, then a very Finance Director, I now hope to be a 'very' Human Resources Director".

His other essential assistant is his faithful companion of 15 years, Archie, Chief Dog Officer, who has become almost as much a figure of the establishment as his master. Philippe Leboeuf took the opportunity to remind me of a report on Claridge's that had changed angle to become 'Archie's life at Claridge's'. It seems clear that the canine has an undeniable charisma that always has an effect.

Between his bike rides and relaxation, Philippe Leboeuf is also a philanthropist. Discreet, but very committed, he is keen to discuss this mutual interest, and to share the mission of "À Chacun son Everest": an association that works for children affected by cancer and women affected by breast cancer, and of which he became president ten years ago. "When I meet up with them in Chamonix, it calms me down and puts things into perspective. I started out as a volunteer and now I can support them in a different way. It also makes me feel a lot better about some of the demands and requirements we face every day in our job".

Standing out through inclusive recruitment

As he says on several occasions, Philippe Leboeuf is very proud of his teams. In fact, he has adopted a very personal strategy. Between recruitment days at the Guards Museum - the tone was set - and a communications campaign based on social networks and business and design schools, the aim was to move away from the usual channels. "We recruited not on the basis of 'Palace' codes, but on attitude rather than aptitude. For me, it's all about the smile and the look. I can teach you how to interview a journalist, but without the right attitude, I'll be following a script and it won't be a good exchange".

Following the COVID, the hotel opened its ranks to all candidates on the market who needed to find or rediscover a direction. This diversity is celebrated, and the whole team couldn't be happier about it. Today," adds the manager, "we can see the return of this success in the satisfaction of our customers and staff. So we need to keep things moving, and hope that more hotels will also follow this path of diversity in their recruitment. This is also part of our social commitment, both in terms of recruitment and management. For example, we even have a bit of work from home. We don't have a procedure, because that would be difficult to manage, but we're much cooler with it".

Generally speaking, he is delighted with the changes that have taken place in the industry, with much more diverse profiles, both in terms of employees and customers. To this has been added adaptability and a more flexible, malleable approach to serving and satisfying customers. Don't talk to him about limousines. A symbol of the luxury of the past.

Leaving a mark for future generations

Philippe Leboeuf wants to share his social commitment with his team without forcing the issue. Between personal initiatives and corporate direction, it is important for the hotel to help local communities, with staff who are very involved and therefore naturally participate in the actions proposed. For his part, he wants to personally support future generations of hoteliers by sharing his knowledge through the Raffles College Of Hospitality. It's a project that shines a bright light in his eyes.

"I've struggled a lot, so I want to give a toolbox to people who aspire to grow. Take the example of a commis de salle who becomes chef de partie and then assistant manager. How does he learn to draw up timetables? I learned on the job, but it's difficult. The same goes for a budget. It's laborious and you don't know how to go about it. You have to explain how you draw up a budget, what it refers to, and how to be agile? With COVID, for example, you have a lot of companies that have kept their salaries at 100% and are now making money because they've been able to keep their teams. I'm very instinctive, but there are concrete things to learn.

This project follows on from the 'Art of the Buttler' course launched by Raffles, which has changed a lot over time. "The College Of Hospitality's idea would be to open up a similar opportunity to more professions. For the moment, it's an in-house university, but perhaps in time we could open it up to the general public. Because our profession is tough, but it's one of the most beautiful professions in the world".

Philippe Leboeuf's initial idea was to structure the training around three or four key professions, but he is waiting for the results of an internal survey before proposing programmes that best meet expectations. Always keen on listening to his teams, he will adapt accordingly. Assisted by two specialist staff, including Holly-Anna Blackley, the hotel's Talent and Culture Director, he is also open to management modules. Although he admits that "Glion and Lausanne already do it very well"!

The ultimate aim of this training programme is to give everyone the chance to learn and expand their knowledge. The man who has been given a chance by the industry wants to give it back and rebalance the inequalities that he believes are still too numerous in the industry. "There comes a time when you have to recognise work and merit above and beyond the hours you put in, which can depend on personal or cultural circumstances. It's like when you expand into another country and you don't have any local directors. I also try to push this rebalancing with management. I'm a bit of a provocateur and a rebel."

James Bond, we told you.

The entire Raffles team celebrated the opening of the property

The entire Raffles team celebrated the opening of the property
Photo credit © Raffles London at The OWO

A model of the impressive building is exposed in one of the lounges in the Residences area
Photo credit © Sonia Taourghi / Journal des Palaces

Archie, Vice-Président of Dogs in front of Lapérouse at the Raffles at OWO
Photo credit © Sonia Taourghi / Journal des Palaces

More about...
Raffles London at The OWO
57 Whitehall
SW1A 2BX London
Groupe : Raffles Hotels & Resorts
Number of rooms and suites: 120

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About the author

A lover of human interactions, Sonia started her journalism career in various media outlets before moving to London and shifting to the digital industry. Listening to her calling, she's picking up her pen to share the passion and ambitions of luxury hospitality.

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