No, this is not some stage director speaking, but a man who believes that the proper management of a hotel involves a scenario, careful thought, team spirit and a fair amount of craziness. Panos Paleologos, founder of HotelBrain, explains the notion.
- What is HotelBrain?
It is a hotel management company, at the moment active in Greece. Though there are a number of management agreements under discussion abroad too, primarily in countries such as Lebanon, where we have opened our own office, Turkey and Hungary.
- What had been missing in hotel management?
Hotels, when they are small, are able to pay just one person as manager. He or she must be familiar with budgeting and auditing, capable of developing systems to do this work and procuring suitable software for the hotel to enable reporting. He or she must be able to initiate contacts with tour operators and travel agencies, sign contracts with the former, know about Internet Distribution Systems, have knowledge of marketing, online marketing, Search Engine Optimization, and understand the current Internet landscape. He or she must also be able to manage what are essentially two hotels, the actual one and the Internet one, write the “scenario” to be “played” at the hotel, direct it, find and train the necessary staff, administer them, speak to guests, make sure they leave happy, and bring results. In my opinion, it is very difficult to find so many skills in one person. So, because the nature of the business has changed and Greece is full of family hotels, one hotel on its own is simply unable to tick all these boxes. This is where our company comes in, by providing hotel management services, filling most of the gaps by choosing a difficult path. Namely, in collaboration with proprietors, by preparing a business plan, an action plan for the year, a budget, for which we must then secure their approval. We must then implement it and report back each month. We are always on the hotelier’s side, which for most people might seem pleasant, but it is a very difficult side to be on. The greater the difficulties, the higher the demand for such services. In effect, we exist because the need arose in the market. I believe there is no way a hotel can find all the aforementioned qualities in a single manager. And I don’t think the present period is conducive to going it alone.
- Do hoteliers share certain characteristics? What kind of people are they?
There are two common traits. If we exclude hotelier-investors, most families with one hotel regard it as work, but they do it with passion. They are not visionaries, but they have the best of intentions, along with the selflessness and willingness to please which characterizes Greek hospitality. Sometimes however, they forget that it’s also a business. The second characteristic is that the hotel has usually been created from a very personal perspective, with their own particular taste, without any advice from someone with expertise. They may have listened to the architect and civil engineer, but not to someone who knows about hotels. They follow their own conviction about how the hotel should be.
- So you consider them to be egotistical?
No. Because they have created the hotel in a way that expresses them and they don’t see it as a job; it is more like their child, their home. It is their own personal creation. This is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, it creates a very vibrant relationship.
What is certain is that there is no programme capable of answering questions such as “why should I establish a hotel there, for what reasons, whom am I addressing, why should they come to me?”
There are hoteliers who, when you ask them “why should I stay at your hotel?” they cannot answer. Most have inquired about subsidies, bank loans etc., but none have carried out a proper study. This is because it is not a classic investment; it is financed with their own money and they do whatever they think best.
- Is this because many in the sector are not suitably qualified?
It’s psychological. You don’t exercise cash management with something you consider to be your own pocket. The hotel and the “I” of the hotelier are very close. Their relationship with the hotel is so close that they cannot step back a moment and say “it doesn’t matter that it is mine and I run it”.
- You have also been opening up to destinations associated with a Greek clientele. Given that we are sliding deeper and deeper into the crisis, what are you hoping for?
The crisis does not mean that all the hotels addressing Greek guests will close. The truth is that there is enormous demand for us to undertake the management of such hotels. We undertake not only those in which we believe but also those that are “ailing” yet can be “cured”.
- At what point do you consider a situation to be irreversible?
When the mistake has been made a long time ago and I am unable to correct it, no matter how good a manager I am or how effective the company is. Take for example the choice of destination and size of investment. If a hotelier has chosen to build a hotel at a location because he had a piece of land there or because there he would be entitled to an EU subsidy or because that is where his family is from – for any number of reasons – but with no other criteria, the mistake has been made and we can’t remedy it.
- What do you say to those who come to you in the hope of being saved?
I haven’t encountered many such cases. Those who come to us are people who understand that things have become difficult and seek our help. What you must do is see if you can help. If you feel you cannot, you must say “I’m sorry, I can’t help”. Or sometimes you must be even tougher, for it’s better for them to know from the beginning, and explain that the energy consumed in the effort will not bring results, since the model we have developed is of the “I win-You win” type.
- Which are the future destinations in Greece? I am not talking about Mykonos or Santorini.
The Greek islands.
- All of them?
That depends on each individual island. But the prevailing trend is blue and white, sea and sun. So you may at some point be able to “sell” Greece’s other attractions but this will take time, at least in the traditional markets. In those which we are now addressing, I believe there is the potential for them to discover a different Greece. Generally speaking, I believe in the Greek islands, but tourism cannot grow somewhere that cannot be reached.
- Can Greece become a year-round destination?
I have never believed this and I don’t think it will happen. If, as a country, we start branding Greece as something different, even if it is successful and even if we secure financing, it will be possible only after 20 years. Besides, our product is inextricably linked with the word ‘holiday’.
- What is the thinking behind your collaboration with Small Luxury Hotels?
Small Luxury Hotels is a group of hotels recognized as one of the best luxury brands. Because we don’t provide our own brand to each hotel, we encourage some of those we manage to become members of such international organizations, either Small Luxury Hotels or Relais & Châteaux or Leading Hotels of the World, or others that enhance their reputation, visibility and market penetration. The fact that we have the privilege of being the official representative of Luxury Hotel Partners (company managing luxury boutique hotels in Eastern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East) is an honour but also another tool for expansion and more business. Because I am convinced that we Greeks are much better trained in creating amazing small boutique hotels than anyone else in the wider region, I believe we have greater chances to do better than other countries.
- What exactly is a boutique hotel?
Well it doesn’t mean small! It has become quite fashionable: whoever has a small hotel calls it a boutique, a word that – to be honest – we use to communicate among ourselves and doesn’t really mean much to me.
- What would you suggest?
The most successful name is Small Luxury Hotels of the World. This is where the group’s considerable strength lies. It is a very targeted way of explaining what it is. As for my view of what a boutique hotel is… it is a hotel with personality, attitude, for which someone has written a scenario in advance. It is a stage on which a performance will be presented, one based on the leading character, unlike with the big hotels. And the process is like putting on a performance. First of all you write a script. Then you find the actors, a director, a stage designer and make it all work, so that guests feel they are part of the experience, part of the theatrical performance. For me, this is what a small, luxury boutique hotel is all about, a hotel with a concept, which offers experiences and emotions.
- How much emphasis should be placed on appearance, more specifically the décor, so as to avoid excesses?
The directing must serve the scenario. If the only scenario that has been written is “I’m a designer and I will prove it”, this will result in excesses. But is it enough to simply call the hotel a boutique hotel? No! Design and quality lifestyle are appreciated but alone cannot offer experiences. On the other hand, a hotel cannot stand alone on the international stage. We are in Greece, but the whole world is looking at us. If visitors do not go to a small, luxury hotel on Santorini, they will probably head for Portofino, Capri or the south of France. So there is no way you can survive on the international stage just because you offer design accommodation.
- Have you seen cases where the general rule that visitors first choose the destination and then the accommodation is reversed?
I have seen visitors first choosing the experience and then the destination, but not that often. There are visitors who will come to Greece and then begin looking but also those who seek well-being. An experience they can have on Santorini, in Italy, in France. This is the case when the hotel surpasses the destination. But things are not so cut-and-dried. Even if they find the experience they want, they may not go because they don’t like the destination. People now choose on the basis of many factors. In the past, their choice would depend on where the travel agency had an all-inclusive package. Now the customer says: “I want to go there and I’ll find the best option on the Internet”.
- How do you choose a hotel when you go on holiday?
I choose what I want to do. If it’s winter and I want to go somewhere warm, I’ll look for a suitable country. Then, I must choose the setting, the experience. For example if I visit Singapore – where I have been on business – staying at Raffles is an absolute must. But I am probably not a representative example!
- Nevertheless, it would be interesting to hear how someone in the business chooses his holidays.
I choose on the basis of what I have heard about a hotel, particularly when it tells a story. I once heard about a hotel in Morocco which used to be a perfumery. When guests arrive, they are told: “here we have 20 rooms, each of which will be scented according to guests’ personal preferences. We will take you to the old factory, you will choose what you want, you will be given the entire set and for as long as you are here that scent will be yours alone”. This creates emotions; you feel that you are somewhere authentic; you see the old perfumery; even the sense that here there are 20 people who all smell different is quite special. So, the creation of images is very important. Something else I always have in mind is that I am not going to a place to sleep. I am going for the experience.
- Would you like to have become a stage director?
No, I am doing what I always wanted to do!
- Have you ever wavered?
No, never. In any case, I don’t feel that we do is art. Certainly, a hotel experience is often more interactive than a theatrical performance. The good and the bad are there in plain view. You don’t wait for reviews to know whether people are having a pleasant or unpleasant time, you see it every day in their eyes. And because the product is not the hotel per se, but its people, it is the perfect combination. People with people.
- What is the aim of HotelBrain Braining Centre?
When we had just a handful of hotels, contact with the management team was much closer. So it was much easier to convey certain values – our passion, our attitudes – to employees. But we want to find young people and instead of saying to them “come and learn how to run a hotel”, we say “we have a system that we use to run hotels”. And most importantly: “come, share our values, feel our passion”. In effect, we have come up with a way to create new “janissaries”, who feel that they must win a battle. But I believe, as do my associates, that you cannot do this work unless you enjoy it. You must devote a large part of yourself, your personal life; you must give your all. This is why it is called Braining Centre, because we endeavour to instil our passion in their brains. They learn the system, but most importantly we want them to leave with the right attitude, to be aware of what is happening around them and view the hotel in the same way we do. We view it from a slightly more romantic perspective, without forgetting of course that it is a business.
- Is this feasible at a time when salaries are being cut, when values and skills are sometimes undervalued? How can the qualitative element flourish in such an environment?
Whatever has value and benefit cannot simply be produced, you must work for it. Let’s say I am 23 and want to work in a hotel. It’s not easy to become the manager; simply wanting it is not enough. I must strive for it. There are no hotel entrepreneurs who, when you give them something, refuse to accept it. I have never seen young people in this business who, when they have enormous will to succeed, in the end are not rewarded with high salaries and positions. A person who gets ahead on his or her own merit will stand out. I am not pessimistic. I believe this is the era of the little man who survives…
- But in other sectors at least it is the era of the big players…
If you look around, and I am no economist, you will see it is the big players who are in trouble. Small businesses survive more easily. In a small business, employees are more aware that in order to be paid there must be profit and they can see whether the business is doing well or not. Moreover, they can communicate more easily. There are no managers and “quasi-managers”. I think it is a blessing that Greece has so many small hotels and I believe they will survive. It is the era of small businesses, which however need small leaders.
- How do you start your day?
I sip a coffee, smoke a cigarette and have a morning meeting with myself, that is, I think about the business of the day.
- And when do you finish your day?
When all the work has been done, when I’m tired, when I feel I have nothing more to give.
- How do you see Greece as a tourist destination in the coming years?
We will do very well. I am optimistic; we have the best piece of real estate.
- What role does gastronomy play in the “directing” of your hotels?
We place enormous emphasis on it, but I am of the opinion it is the experience that counts, not the food per se. It also depends where you are. If you are somewhere in the Greek countryside, French cuisine may not be the best option. There has to be an experience and cuisine must serve the needs of the performance. This is why I don’t agree with chefs who say “I’ll do my own cuisine”. But I do agree with some talented chef coming and preparing cuisine that is appropriate to the hotel. And if someone has a particular cuisine that in itself attracts guests, obviously I accept that too. A hotel can have a restaurant that is reason alone to go there.
- What is your opinion of the efforts being made to position Greece as a gastronomic destination?
As HotelBrain, we applaud them. In any case we believe that on a Greek island you should be eating Greek cuisine. But we are not dogmatic; it’s not a case of “Greek cuisine or death!” It may be that a hotel must offer guests more options. When Italians go on holiday, for example, they want Italian food. So, if it serves needs, we should also have Italian food. It shouldn’t be a matter of “this is Greece, eat this”. In general you should convey your identity, transmit your message, without being dogmatic. If I go to a hotel that operates in the international market and I want to eat pasta or a club sandwich, what we call international delicacies, I don’t expect to be refused and told instead to eat a Greek sandwich. But when someone wants to eat for the experience, you must give them your own identity and concept.
- Your company began operating on Santorini. Do you feel it is a unique place, or has it been debunked?
Quite the opposite, it is an international destination. If we want to be honest, there is Greece and there are two tourist states, one is called Mykonos and the other Santorini.
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