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Locally Aware
July 2, 2010   
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Christian Henkemeier, general manager of InterContinental Hotel Warsaw, talks to Jolanta Wolska.

How has the hotel industry changed in the last 10 years?
The major change is one which guests would not necessarily notice. About 18 years ago I worked for InterContinental in London and we owned four hotels in London and many around the world. Since then, most hotel chains, ours included, sold property and converted the business model into managing. That is, from being property owners to being property managers, releasing funds out of property into expansion, brand development and so on.

It does not make any difference to the customer who owns the building.

Also, some 20 years ago big hotel chains dominated major destinations. But people have changed with changing trends and technological changes and private boutique and resort hotels started to spring up. Before, customers wanted big hotel chains to replicate their products in different markets and destinations (for example, we had the same carpet in every hotel whether it was in Germany, China or anywhere else). Today, the customer still wants the security, quality and values of the big chain, including service and comfort, but now it needs to be combined with an attachment to the culture of the country and destination they are in.

Guests want to feel locally aware and have unique experiences, but under the umbrella and “safeguard” of the brand. Today, customers want personalized service and experiences rather than merely a standardized hotel stay.

How important is the conference and convention business to you?
It is a very strong and significant segment for us; in-house conferences constitute about 30 percent of our business.

How competitive is the hotel market these days?
We of course have healthy competition here in Warsaw, but we also compete with other destinations. While we have had conference organizers from all over the world who said that the experience here was the best ever based on value for money and experience for them, Warsaw still is not competitive in terms of overall MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Exhibitions), congress and conference infrastructure compared to other capitals.

Where do your MICE guests come from?
About 70 percent of our MICE guests are Polish, because the majority are Warsaw/Poland-based local and international companies, associations and so on, organizing events for their people.

But there is still not enough demand coming directly from abroad. Within the Warsaw Destination Alliance, we often receive positive feedback from international organizers once eventually they do come to Warsaw. Their impression is very positive, they say “this was a great event, this is a great city, we would have never dreamed that it could be so exciting.”

But Warsaw needs to be marketed more “proudly,” and the promotion of Warsaw has to be done in a well-planned and structured way.

Varsovians don’t necessarily see their city that way—but they may believe both my foreign guests and myself, as a foreigner who loves the city.

What are the three most important things for your hotel guests?
First, as Conrad Hilton said, location, location, location is most important for a hotel. That is the case also in Warsaw and for our guests. Of course, there is quite a tight cluster of competitor hotels within walking distance.

Second, on top of “international standard,” the unique features of the hotel compared to others are important. I am sure many guests appreciate swimming on the 43rd floor rather than elsewhere. Our hotel rooms start on the 20th floor, so all our guests have a magnificent view of the Palace of Science and Culture and all of Warsaw. There is an array of unique features that provide our guests with special experiences.

Third, since of course many hotels are doing a good job, one just has to make some difference in terms of product and service.

For example, breakfast is an important “experience” to the traveler in every hotel. We try to add “uniqueness” on top of a prime product and service—to a great breakfast we add a harpist playing live at breakfast time in a restaurant full of daylight with a great view of the city.

Is it hard to get good staff?
Generally today it is much easier to find staff members than in 2008, as the market has relaxed and staff turnover has reduced. Previously people were moving around more, but the message of financial crisis has led people to be more cautious and not risk moving to another job.

Also, a few colleagues came back from the British Isles, there were staff reductions in some areas of our industry, a few restaurants didn’t make it through the crisis.

The overall Warsaw food and beverage business, including bars and restaurants, has suffered substantially in 2008 and 2009, so, there are more experienced staff around.
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