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Rachael Palumbo: Nobu VP

Nobu hotel.

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13th April 2021

The Nobu brand is a name that is known worldwide. Known for its Japanese cuisine, it’s famous owners and its recent expansion into hotels around the world, the Nobu brand is synonymous with a luxury lifestyle.

The Sybarite speaks to Rachael Palumbo, the VP of Marketing and Sales for the Nobu brand. We chat to her about what exactly ‘lifestyle luxury’ is, the highly anticipated Nobu opening in Marrakech and how Nobu’s ethos ‘Kokoro’ runs through all the Nobu restaurants and hotels. 

Tell our members a bit about yourself and how you got into the hospitality industry.

I am actually originally from England! I moved to The States quite young in my life and have grown up here. And really, I guess, grew into this career of hospitality directly from college. This is really all I've known or done, since about two weeks after graduating! So it's a career I've been in for almost 30 years. I started in Boston, where I worked for 11 years, working mostly in the city properties and just really learning my way through food and beverage, the catering world, all types of different areas of the hotel. So really getting my footing there. And since then, I continue to work in the city areas, but also the resorts. I did quite a bit of time in the Caribbean, working in many different resorts, luxury and more mainstream properties - the Sheratons, the Westons of the world, W Hotels, One and Only - so many different types of brands and experiences. I live in Florida and it is where our corporate office for Nobu is at this time. I've lived in South Florida since about 2002, and worked in the local Florida market but have moved into more of a corporate area, for the sales and marketing on the hotel side. So I travel quite a bit.

How did you start your career at Nobu?

The Nobu brand has always been very popular. This started with the first restaurant opening in New York in 1994. I was very familiar with the restaurant - it is very iconic and popular, with obviously very famous founders. So it had always intrigued me from that side. And when I was approached about four and a half years ago to join the Nobu brand, but to really launch the hotel side of Nobu, it was incredibly exciting. I felt like I would be part of something from the beginning, so to speak. Although we had two hotels at the time, it was really where it was about to take off. So it really did attract me in that way. Plus, the corporate structure was quite small. So I know that a lot gets done in a small structure and allows for more creativity.

Like you said, the Nobu brand might primarily bring to mind restaurants, not necessarily hotels. How has the brand developed to this in the last five years?

That is totally right. You know, it's funny because people, of course, are very familiar with the restaurant, but you do find yourself having to really explain what the hotel experience is, and how it is really so strongly linked to that dining experience. It is a continued journey from the restaurant into the sleeping rooms.

That is really interesting. Could you tell us a bit more about that symbiotic relationship between the restaurants and hotels. 

Of course! With the restaurants, we always look at them as the heart of our operation. We use a Japanese word - Kokoro - which means ‘from the heart’. And this is a word that Nobu San (Nobu Matsuhisa, the chef and founder behind the Nobu brand) himself has always used to describe his passion for what he does. And that really is where we see the passion for our hotel experience comes from the dining. So for our guests, their journey is centred around that dining experience. Of course, we deliver Noby food to the guest rooms, 24 hours a day, our banquet areas have Nobu food. 

But it's not just the food, it's also the way that a server would interact with you in the Nobu restaurant environment is very similar to how a hotel staff member would interact with you and your guest experience. They're very knowledgeable, they anticipate and they're very well trained on the product. They understand the concept where we're a very Japanese rooted brand, with a very minimalistic and modern approach as our aesthetic. So, really, that's how we like to talk about the hotel experience. This creates this wonderful informal luxury experience. As a small example, we don't put tablecloths on our tables in the restaurants and that's what we feel the hotels’ environments should offer too - a very approachable luxury, a lifestyle.

Do you think that relaxed form of luxury is something that has emerged in recent years?

The definition of luxury has always been something people conjure up as being very proper and very formal - the white table cloths, the butler service, that type of experience. And this is not the case at Nobu. 

Prior to my experience at Nobu, I worked with another brand - One and Only Hotels - who really taught me what true luxury is. What I found with that brand, and what has really helped me where I am now in instilling the same type of experience into what we're doing here, is that luxury could be anything to anyone. 

A luxury to someone at a CEO level or any C suite level, would be time, would be moments, would be anything that allows them to spend more time with the people they love. So to create an environment that allows that to happen, might mean not constantly interacting with the guests but anticipating what your guest is really looking for and really understanding what they want. Because at the end of the day it is about the guest. It is not about what we think is luxury, and what we think that they want. It's really getting ahead of that and listening and understanding and really trying to deliver an experience. That may be burgers and fries on the beach! Which wouldn’t scream obvious luxury, but it might be the most luxurious experience they can have, at that moment. It is all really about understanding needs.

Do you find that globally, the luxury industry is veering away from luxury in the traditional sense and leaning more towards what you described as ‘lifestyle luxury’?

Definitely. I think back, you know, just 30 years ago, when I first started out, and I will have to credit Four Seasons coming into the market. I was in Boston and I was working at the Ritz Carlton, one of the original Ritz Carlton's, and it was very formal and very stiff in many ways - women couldn’t wear pants! So a very different type of experience. And the Four Seasons opens up with this very kind of casual, elegant experience. And that is what has just continued to flourish as guests want to be in a space that makes them comfortable and happy. And like I said, that is a luxury for many people. 

So yes, absolutely. I think this Lifestyle Luxury has really has really been switched on and many brands are doing it and doing it well and I like to think we are one of them. I'd love to see it evolve more. I have also worked for ‘true lifestyle’ brands, which is more like the W, that cocktail party environment that you walk through to get to your guest room. Now that's not for everyone, you know, and it does kind of put people into boxes. Whereas, an experience with lifestyle luxury is something that is given as an option for you, but it's not forced on you. Luxury lifestyle is more of a choice.

Speaking of how things evolve over the years, how do you think the Nobu hotel brand has evolved from its initial conception to where it is now?

So we originally started as an implant in the Caesars Palace Hotel in Las Vegas. So we were a hotel within a hotel, essentially. And the same thing with Manila in the Philippines, which was the second hotel that we opened. So that was really where we started. And then we opened a similar type of setup in Miami Beach. 

Since then, what we've done is we have opened standalone properties in cities and resorts and really taken that experience across the hotels. We started with 2 hotels, and after being here four and a half years, we're now at 20 announced and open hotels, with 13 open hotels. So we are rapidly growing this company. Development has just really taken off. And we get a lot of interest from investors as they absolutely love the concept. Everyone wants a Nobu restaurant right? But then they have to have a hotel. 


How do you keep that bespoke and very personal feeling if you grow so exponentially in such a short time? 

This is definitely the challenge, right? You don't want a cookie cutter model. Our hotels tend to be under 150 rooms and I think that's where you get into a manageable place. We embrace the locales. We are all about the destination. It's very important that we hire our teams, mostly from location, as their experience with the destination is invaluable and we really inject that into the customer journey. The most important thing is we won't go into a destination if our restaurant won’t do well. We thrive on local business. So for our Nobu restaurants, we absolutely require a local following. So when we know that there's a market, such as Warsaw, obviously London has a huge demand and we now have three restaurants there. So when we get a market like that, we feel that that's how our hotels will succeed. It's always restaurant first in our minds and in our development. 

Since you've started at Nobu, what have been some of the most exciting things you've experienced?

Of course, you'd have to say, Sake Ceremonies, our big launches are just amazing. Being able to interact with such amazing, revered founders, as you know, Nobu himself, but also Robert De Niro and Meir Teper.

We have to ask, what is it like working with Robert de Niro? What is he like?!

He is very, very lovely. He is probably a combination of all the characters he has ever played. You see all the different sides, right? And, honestly, he's such a visionary. A lot of people would assume that he really stands back in this business, but with Nobu, he's very involved. This is his passion project. He has a day job and this is totally a passion for him. So that's been exciting. 

Although maybe not as exciting, but another thing that is so wonderful about the Nobu brand is that my team, the people I work with, we are very much like a family. I have a tremendous relationship with my CEO and my COO, I mean, we were three people at one point in this company so we're very close. And it is like that with the entire company. And I think Nobu himself has raised the company that way, too. He treats everyone like a family member in his restaurants. If you can imagine 5000 employees, or whatever we are at at this time, to have that type of rapport with them is really incredible. He travels constantly and he's so involved in the business. That is how I think I think he constantly makes sure this brand is so consistent with what we're delivering. He really walks the walk you know?

How has this last year with the pandemic been for the Nobu brand?

We have had our challenges, as many brands have and we can't avoid that. It has been difficult on the restaurant side especially. But with the hotels, we were at the point where we were getting excited over double digit occupancy, which is unbelievable for where we used to be at pre-pandemic. When you hit 10% and you’re like yay! That has been a massive change for us. 

Adjustments have been made, obviously, safety first, which is very important. And this has been a real test of how we can have our hotels deliver a personal experience without touching or coming close, or within six feet of someone, right? We have just really had to take safety to the highest level, putting it as a priority, most importantly, for the guests. And trying to also understand the mental side of a guest. 

People want that experience, but at the same time, you want to be very careful and sensitive to their needs. But there's no roadmap for our occurrences like this. I think in trying to find a positive in all the darkness, I have been so impressed by the restaurant side. Nobu never did takeaway or delivery, if you can believe it. So we were thrust into that market, and all the restaurants have done very well with it, as many other companies have too. It has been really interesting to see the types of innovations and creativity that the hotels and restaurant teams have really come through with. 

Of all our spaces, Cabo has done amazing, it is a big outdoor space and people are more comfortable going to that environment so they've done really well. The city has suffered, the corporate traveller has almost disappeared, which has been very devastating. So we've tapped into leisure, we've tapped into, for example, Palo Alto, who would think of going to Silicon Valley on their vacation.? But we've created a cycling package through the Santa Cruz Mountains. And we've made it really interesting to go to the wineries but come back to that kind of high tech environment. So we've tried to make it as creative as we can. And it's been very positive.

Are you finally seeing a turn now that vaccination schemes are being rolled out worldwide?

Yeah, I would say wholeheartedly. We've seen a huge surge, I think in the UK market specifically - we saw 250% surge the weekend or within a couple days after Boris’slatest announcement! But you also need to remember for example, the US has been different. Where I am specifically, we haven't really been under any lockdown. It's been quite open. I'm not saying that's the way things should have been. And there's the pros and cons of both scenarios. So it's been a little different as people are moving around the US more freely, in many places. So we've seen some of these numbers coming back. With the vaccine roll out, people are feeling more confident, which also puts us all on alert as it does encourage people to drop their protocols too quickly.

But on a positive note, the actual development pipeline has been very encouraging. During this time, there's been a lot of interest, people are obviously leveraging the situation in many ways. There has been a lot of ownership changes in hotels, the brand is being repositioned. So we've actually been very fortunate to have quite a bit of interest in our brand and announcements coming out. We just announced Hamburg, the other week. But we have many announcements in the pipeline. So it's exciting to see that part. 

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