Transmit your vision. Sharing your vision brings people closer. Denise Dupré is a master at this — sharing her vision for the company so that everyone is on the same page and of the same mindset. It enables us to deliver service with passion. When this gets extended to our customers, it serves as glue that keeps us connected and allows them to believe fully in our intentions to do right by them and even do right by the environment.
As part of our series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience,I had the pleasure of interviewing Claire Hillau.
Claire Hillau, a 20-year hospitality veteran and regional director of sales and marketing at Le Barthelemy Hotel & Spa and Le Barth Villa Rental in Saint-Barthélemy. Prior to her current position, Claire’s played various roles at Pacifica Hotels in California, Relais & Châteaux Hotel Le Toiny in Saint-Barthélemy, and Hotel Taiwana, a luxury boutique hotel in the French West Indies. She attended Paul Augier University of Nice in France where she earned an Economic and Social and Bachelor’s degree in Hotel Management.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I moved to Los Angeles as soon as I received my degree in hospitality management from Paul Augier, University in Nice, France. I was completely inexperienced but had a dream to work in the United States — and landing in LA felt like a great success. Thankfully, the man at The Pacifica Hotels Company who interviewed me and gave me my first break as a guest experience clerk.
After two years in LA, I moved back to France, but didn’t stay long. I quickly landed a new job at the Relais & Châteaux Hotel Le Toiny in Saint-Barthélemy as a reservations & reception assistant manager. Now, 20 years later, I am still working in hospitality on St. Barth.
Business development has always been my passion. I’ve always wanted to travel and have been compelled to promote the hotels I work for. While it wasn’t what they hired me for out of college, I kept seeking ways to build new business for the hotel in Los Angeles — I loved the challenge, and it eventually landed me a promotion to executive sales manager. I have been creating special offers, developing new projects, and making sales trips to meet travel agencies, industry partners, and the media ever since — only now I work with the finest hotel on the island, Le Barthélemy Hotel and Spa.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I have always been ambitious in my career, and for the hotels I worked for, and I’ve never felt limited by my job description. Seeing opportunity comes naturally to me — I am driven by it. The hotel I worked for was in a beautiful neighborhood of Marina del Rey, attracting actors from other states, but I believed we could generate more local business if we created more awareness and invited it. So, while business development was not one of my assignments, I quietly assumed the challenge of building new local business for the hotel.
My great idea was to bake homemade cookies at the hotel and deliver them to local businesses. I went door to door, introducing myself and the hotel, inviting them to consider us if they ever needed a place to stay. The plan was going seamlessly until I walked into a Golds Gym, bustling with physically fit men and women, with a batch of fresh baked cookies. They looked at me like I was crazy — but ironically, while they didn’t want my cookies, we received plenty of new business from the gym.
It taught me to treat everyone with respect and care and never judge a book by its cover. We never know who we may be speaking to — the person with the tousled hair may be the next most important person I meet. So, I treat people with the highest respect and deliver to the highest standards — and it feels right to me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
For the 20 years I’ve spent in hospitality, I’ve been lucky to work with very inspiring leaders. At the start of my career, I worked with a general manager in LA, Ahmad Abdolvahabi, who had a huge impact on my confidence. He put so much trust in me, allowing me to do sales calls and account payables with him. By believing in me, he allowed me to see all that I could accomplish.
David Henderson, whom since founded and run a luxury hotel in Scotland and the general manager I worked with in Relais & Châteaux Le Toiny St. Barth, pushed me out of my comfort zone to take a senior sales and marketing role. It was a significant pivot-point in my career, and I will always be grateful for his encouragement that took me to the next step in my career.
Finally, Denise Dupré, the Founder and Managing Partner of Champagne Hospitality, the company behind Le Barthélemy and Le Barth Villa Rental, has been an outstanding mentor for me — meeting her was a stroke of good luck for my life and my career. I’ve known Denise for eight years and every day I have been inspired and empowered by her. She is a stellar example of a leader who funnels decisions through deeply-held and respectable values and errs on doing the right thing by her teams, guests, partners, properties — and their locations in St. Barth and in France — and she stands on the right side of big issues, like sustainability, female leadership, and access to education. She has taught me how to be a strategic female hospitality leader and continues to push me to think big and empowers me to take bigger risks to achieve bigger rewards. What impresses me day after day working with Denise and seeing her manage and inspire people, is how she genuinely embodies the values she defends and how she strives to be exemplary. An example is how she has woven sustainability into the fabric of our business and takes action on sustainability beyond the walls of our hotel. It’s impressive.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
Think about the brands that move you to love them — what they likely have in common is they offer quality products and/or services and provide exemplary customer service. And while many companies can pay lip service to providing great customer experiences, those that really do it and are truly committed to delighting their customers — have the power to build a loyal following of customers that are built on trust and the knowing that beyond any doubt they will consistently receive excellent products and services and their expectations will be satisfied. Customers don’t forget that kind of experience and it’s important for its impact on the business, but also for the positive impact it can have on the entire community, in the case of our hotel in St. Barth. We treat people with care and respect — and that has a ripple effect. When we provide top service to people, and they see the way we treat our environment, for example, they in turn pass great treatment to others and to the environment themselves. They learn more about where to pay their respects and that satisfaction reverberates beyond the walls of our business.
Clients will come back if you deliver exceptional services with love and passion. The philosophy of Le Barthélemy is to fully embrace human-centered and couture hospitality philosophy — which allows us to provide a remarkable personalized experience. We do this by paying attention to the details of our guests’ experience and by empowering every employee to do the same.
One of our guests accidentally toppled their perfume from the bathroom counter and the bottle shattered when it hit the ground. Before the guest returned to her room, our housekeeper went to the nearest boutique, empowered, and purchased a brand-new replacement. She left it with a lovely note for our guest in her room. Our housekeeper didn’t think twice about what to do, she was empowered to provide the best service she could imagine to our guest and our guest was delighted. We do whatever it takes to enhance and preserve these relationships which mean a lot to us and to our guests.
Can you talk a little, just for a moment, about what it’s like to be there, what the guest experience is?
Today luxury hotels are not about social status, wealth and exclusivity — there’s a much broader context that defines luxury which considers our guests’ sophisticated tastes about where they want to spend time and money, the experience of the hotel and destination, and its environmental responsibility, for example. It is becoming increasingly valued by guests to travel to luxurious places where osmosis with nature and awareness-building make sense. Our guest experience is designed to be personal, couture, and contribute to elevating the way someone thinks. We play a role in offering more responsible luxury.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but instead we focus on addressing the needs and interests of every guest personally. Most of them come from lovely homes of their own in New York, Los Angeles, or Paris with plenty of luxuries and services at their disposal. They come to Le Barthélemy, or to one of our villas, to receive the highest level of service and to disconnect and relax in luxury with their family and friends and have tailor-made experiences.
To take their experience beyond the level of what they get at home, we’ve turned our spa into a peaceful sanctuary and have designed a holistic well-being experience dedicated to helping guests reconnect with themselves through spa treatments, yoga classes and healthy meal options. We have introduced an innovative offering, a water-healing program that is unique on the island. It’s an example of the kind of experiences of what it’s like to be our guest and receive the kind of healing experiences that not only dazzle them but provide them with an unexpected novel approach to wellness. Finally, we work hard to utilize natural elements throughout the hotel and spa, to provide a healing experience, reduce energy consumption and preserve natural resources. For example, the water-healing experience that is offered by our spa is provided directly in our bay, into the ocean, and no other energy is used.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
Good service is a brand differentiator — and poor service can be truly detrimental for a company. Ignoring customers’ needs, for example puts companies at risk of losing current customers, but also potential customers through word of mouth and even frontline employees who have to manage negative interactions or are effected by the consequences of bad service.
I can’t believe any company sets out to deliver bad service, however, they may not adequately connect some of their practices and how they can equate to bad service. For example, hiring the wrong people hurts — and it’s not always about qualifications, relevant experience, and skills, but also about mindset and attitude and the desire to help people. When we interview a prospective employee, we look beyond their resume, assessing their character and how they will help us provide exceptional services to our clients. It’s something every business must consider.
In addition, employees who are not aligned with the company goals and expectations and equipped with the right tools and sense of empowerment to perform their jobs deliver subpar service. Strong values from leadership are essential — and ensuring everyone understands them and buys in is critical. Training and expressing goals and expectations to employees must be a regular practice. For example, employees at every level of our company know our Founder and Managing Partner Denise Dupré’s values and the level of service she expects us to extend to guests. We all share in that vision, celebrate it and live it. We have built an exceptional culture of rewarding service, collectively staying engaged, and stretching ourselves to do better each time we’re in contact with our guests.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
Good companies consistently strive to provide excellent services and experiences for their clients, regardless of their competition. They set their own high standards. Businesses must create their own standards and be motivated to continuously improve upon them, rather than only find motivation in beating someone else. That isn’t sustainable. The key is to set up a culture that sets up services as a top priority and makes it fun to deliver. Caring deeply about guests’ happiness and well-being as our greatest priority makes it easy to be introspective and consider additional ways we can improve our services.
Certainly, I am not suggesting that competition doesn’t matter — we hold onto industry leadership monikers with pride. It’s validating when we promote a new service or initiative on social media, and then see a competitor follow suit and offer the same thing. Healthy competition drives everyone to improve.
We strive to be the bar-setter and are constantly implementing new technology and thinking outside of the box to improve our clients’ experiences. We would do this with or without competition, I believe.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
There are many ways we provide our guests “wow” experience at Le Barthélemy. Sustainability is something that we and our guests care deeply about — and the consistent effort is important in taking care of our St. Barth home. So, recently, we started giving guests a bigger opportunity to participate in our sustainability efforts.
The hotel is employing zero waste cooking efforts, emphasizing our commitment to take actions to preserve our environment. So, when the chef prepares fish, for example, he will reuse all the pieces for many different purposes. When he peels the vegetables, he will create juices with the peels. We decided to take this a step further and hold zero-waste cooking classes for our guests led by our chefs in the hotel’s restaurant, Amis St. Barths.
As a result, the benefits of our program get extended to guests’ cooking when they return home, and we can influence this sustainable, conscious behavior all over the world.
Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
Many of the Wow experiences have long-term ripple effects — the zero waste cooking classes, but also many others.
Recently, we contributed the St Barthélemy beach for a UNICEF philanthropy event. While the event was certainly focused on supporting UNICEF and their effort to save and meaningfully improve the lives of the most vulnerable children globally. Guests experienced the elegance and care they always do when at St. Barthélemy. It was a wow experience with the best of everything and UNICEF was the beneficiary.
But our guests were also moved by their exposure to St Barth’s coral reef and the responsibility we have to the health of reefs everywhere. So on the coattails of the gala, we also gave a big donation to St. Barth’s Coral Reef Restoration Association and build awareness of the reefs among our guests. A portion of guests’ donations has yet been put into work to renew the nursery table where coral is grown six to nine months. They like to know they are putting their vacation money to good use, and we believe they will carry forward the message of need and continue supporting both UNICEF and the reefs on their own and pay it forward.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
- See the opportunity in every challenge
Don’t be afraid to approach a challenge — like an unhappy client. Every challenge offers an opportunity to turn the situation around. It can be nerve-wracking, but there’s so much to learn in the discomfort of the challenge. In the case of a guest, we hand them a glass of champagne and tell them we’re here for them — and listen. We take every opportunity to demonstrate we care and immediately take action that build the trust and loyalty.
- Shoot for the moon. The more we can test our limits and capabilities, the more we can learn. Improve. The culture in our company is to regularly test our boundaries and get out of our comfort zone — that’s where great things can happen. We have a saying, “Shoot for the moon, you’ll end up in the stars.”
- Do what is in your customers’ best interest. When your customers feel important and valued because you have their best interests at heart, they want to do business with you repeatedly. Good intentions go a long way.
- Transmit your vision. Sharing your vision brings people closer. Denise Dupré is a master at this — sharing her vision for the company so that everyone is on the same page and of the same mindset. It enables us to deliver service with passion. When this gets extended to our customers, it serves as glue that keeps us connected and allows them to believe fully in our intentions to do right by them and even do right by the environment.
- Empower the Team — Empowerment is also part of our culture. In the hospitality philosophy, we do whatever it takes. It really means success is dependent on each of us and we are able to do what is needed to achieve the end results that we believe are possible. If one of our guests needs something, we always know we are empowered to deliver it.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
By creating an exceptional environment and completely customized experiences for our guests, with exquisite attention to every detail, we have an impact on our guests, and they associate their stays with us as extraordinary. Moments, instants, interactions, most are intangible and elusive, but they have an impact on how guests feel and what they remember and share with others.
Our strategy is oriented towards providing a positive impact on guests’ feelings and emotions, their sense of wellbeing through our experience, environment and service, but it can also be more something more concrete, like being part of replanting a coral reef or going to visit the fisherman with our chef. Every detail matters in creating a wow experience. The connection with our guests doesn’t end once they check out. After they leave Le Barthélemy, we may send them an email and flowers or a coffee table book to remind them they have a home away from home at our luxury hotel.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe in a greener world. Our planet is beautiful, and we need to preserve the life that inhabits it. At Le Barthélemy, I started a green team, and we’re using our influence to preserve the coral reefs in the bay. It delights me to be making a difference for the environment. Not only do we aim to raise awareness of our teams and guests, but we also take action and keep enhancing our sustainability program.
One of the luxuries of our jobs is that we are able to take guests on a boat to see the coral reefs. The reefs are beautiful, and now, more than ever, we need to preserve their beauty. Luckily, we are in the position to push boundaries and we just launched a new Adopt a Coral movement. This is unique on St Barth. Guests can now adopt coral with a donation, give it a name, and replant it directly in our bay under the guidance of the Coral Restoration association on the island.
We are responsible for sharing what we know so that together we can all do something about it.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Readers can find me on LinkedIn linkedin.com/in/claire-hillau-1b931642
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Claire Hillau Of Le Barthelemy Hotel & Spa On 5 Ways To Create a Wow! Customer Experience was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.