Hospitality in Crisis! (II)

PRAGUE MARRIOTT HOTEL

 I have had a very long relationship with the Marriott Hotel in Prague, from when it first opened and I kept my car in its carpark, to the many different client events that my agency organised in its conference centre or I attended, to some of the best Sunday brunches ever in its restaurant.   Years ago, when the hotel opened its ‘World Class fitness centre’ in the basement and my trainer took up residence, the hotel pretty much became my ‘second office’ in Prague – most mornings I would head to the gym first thing (which, when I was super busy, was at about 6.30 in the morning, and at that time you would see heads of many big companies there; it was probably the best place for business development!) and then organise any meetings that I needed in the centre of town to take place in the hotel’s coffee shop or bar (for breakfast, obviously!). 

I last visited just a couple of days before everything started to go crazy, at the beginning of March.  At that time, the hotel was in the middle of a massive expansion and reconstruction programme which the GM, William Boulton-Smith, and everyone involved with the hotel, was getting increasingly excited about.   With all hotels suffering horribly during the past nine months, I wondered what had been going on in this landmark hotel in Prague, and therefore spoke to William to find out more (and since I am now locked down in Spain again, the following is in the form of a written interview!).

JW: How did you manage the period from March to the end of the first lockdown in the CR?   

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WBS: We were essentially closed for the whole of the first lock down but we continued work on the expansion plans that were started in 2019, with the end of the works planned for next January/February. On reopening following the first lockdown, we got creative with new ways of generating business, such as operating a takeout coffee service from our new ‘Artisan Corner’ and offering our premium meeting spaces to individuals and businesses looking for a professional environment to work in, outside of their own office.

JW: I think you stayed open throughout the summer (both the hotel and all restaurants)?   Did you have to slash prices, and what sort of occupancy levels did you have in the hotels, especially compared to normal?  Was it possible to stay profitable during that period or you were just ‘keeping afloat’?

WBS: Prices certainly went down during that period, although in our view there was no point in slashing prices dramatically since we had just invested so much in the hotel. Instead we focused on improving and heightening our health and hygiene processes and made these the cornerstones of our operations. Occupancy ranged from 7-15% throughout Prague, meaning that if we had lowered our prices we would have had more work for the same money, with higher costs. There was no long-term benefit in this, especially as we are geared towards the business segment and we realised we were unlikely to capture a large slice of the local leisure markets. To ensure continued income we tried to develop our business in a creative way. We opened our new Artisan Corner, and our restaurant and meeting spaces presented us with the opportunity to keep up a steady stream of business, but with further waves of the virus potentially coming in the future we knew that we had to establish a ‘New Normal’ hotel experience that focuses on high standards of cleanliness. We need to entice guests back by ensuring that they feel confident about staying in our hotel, since trust plays such a key role in the visitor experience at any hotel, even under normal circumstances.

JW: Now that the country is in lockdown again, are you trying any new things?

WBS: We continue in much the same way as before, with our main focus on health and hygiene: we are striving to be the most modern and up-to-date hotel in Prague and our global “Commitment to Clean” initiative continues to guide our operations, since this focuses on enhanced cleaning and hygiene protocols at all Marriott hotels.

JW: How do you feel about the whole situation?  Will the hotel survive if the lockdown continues past Christmas?

WBS: We probably won’t find out until the beginning of 2021. Obviously hotels that are part of bigger international brands have a big advantage over smaller, domestic chains. The Marriott has a loyalty programme that includes around 130 to 140 million people worldwide, which is a massive number.  45-60% of our visitors to Prague are people with a loyalty programme card and these customers provide us with great opportunities, both now and in the post-pandemic era. The main advantage is their loyalty to the brand, which is one of the reasons behind our strength in the market. Our main worry is how the smaller, independent hotels will ride the storm. Hotels with 30 rooms can be serviced by only a few people – for example by a single family – but larger ones need a lot of staff and incur other added costs. Such hotels will face problems. Small Czech hotel chains do not have many tools at their disposal to keep their businesses going and many of these have already closed their doors, as have other businesses in the hospitality sector: the number of empty shops and small independent shops, particularly in Prague, seems to be growing by the day.

JW: I know most of your marketing has been carried out centrally, and you are, of course, a well-known brand.  But since I believe you mostly target the American market will you be changing your strategy as and when things get back to normal?  How do you keep staff morale going?

WBS: We will have to adjust our strategy and focus on areas and markets where we can see that travelling is relatively easy and commonplace. There will be lots of new opportunities, and we are studying all the options. The biggest challenge facing Prague is airlift; developments in air transportation will be crucial for the return of tourists. If airlines are unable to fill planes, we cannot hope to return to the 2018/19 numbers for at least the next 2-3 years. In terms of staff morale, the most important thing is keeping them informed. You have to communicate with them, explain the situation, and be honest. Everyone knows the challenge facing the industry, and if they are informed about the impact on the business they are supportive and want to work with you to make things better.

JW: Do you ever feel like just closing the doors and giving up?

WBS: That is not in my nature. You have to fight but stay true to your principles. The hotel industry as a whole has to take responsibility for its own destiny. We need to implement new solutions to bring customers back when restrictions are lifted. This means putting hygiene and cleanliness first, while keeping our service standards as high as ever. Nobody can guarantee a COVID-free zone, but we must do our best to minimise the risks for everyone staying in the hotel. Making sure that customers feel safe and secure is more vital than ever across the entire hospitality sector. I firmly believe that people will return to the hotels which served them well during these difficult times.

JW: What special things do you do to stay ‘positive’?

WBS: Sometimes it’s important to just take a deep breath. I try to accept the situation as it is without becoming fatalistic and without losing hope, because one day this will all be in the past. I am determined not to slow down, to keep striving to make things better until the situation is over. At the moment I am busy looking for new ideas and ways in which we can improve our business in the future. I also try to keep in touch with some of our regulars to find out how they are doing and to strengthen the bond between us. On a more personal level, exercise is a great way of staying positive. There is a nice 50-60km route that I enjoy cycling, which always clears my mind. I also try to get out on the golf course as much as I can.

JW: Is there anything else that you think could be useful to others reading this blog?

WBS: Right now, the world needs innovation, adaptability and creativity. We have certainly had to adapt our operations, and creative thinking has been all-important: opening up a takeaway coffee service from ‘The Artisan Corner’ coffee shop, for example, or moving away from a buffet breakfast to ‘A la carte’. As the Artisan restaurant is now closed, we have put our chefs to good use and asked them to come up with a fresh breakfast concept that takes inspiration from a dinner style of service. This has been really well received: prior to lockdown, we started to attract non-residents for breakfast at the Marriott. The same goes for brunch: we serve brunch course-by-course at the table, with dishes either arriving together or separately depending on preference. Guests had to be encouraged to try this new brunch concept, but when they did they immediately fell in love with it. All of a sudden, brunch had been transformed into a proper family lunch. With people no longer having to constantly leave the table to get food, the experience is much, much more sociable. It also meant guests tried a bigger variety of dishes, instead of sticking with the same old things.

JW: Are there any offers that you would like to include for readers of this blog?  

WBS: I would definitely suggest that readers take a look at our residential package, which we recently introduced as part of our ‘Winter Charity’ promotion. This package includes parking, breakfast, and a donation per night to the Salvation Army to support those without homes during the coming winter months. The Marriott is constantly striving to support local communities. We recently gave a donation of over 70,000 crowns to SOS Czechia, the fundraising initiative led by Člověk v tísni. Although like every hotel in the country we are struggling with the closure of our business and reduced revenues, we are grateful that our position within the Marriott International brand gives us the possibility to keep helping those in serious difficulties. Our website has all the latest information about our other exciting offers, and I strongly recommend that readers take a look: www.marriotthotels.com.

For many people (including me!) the Prague Marriott Hotel is a focal point in the centre of Prague, and it is hard to imagine that whole area of the city if it were to fail.  I decided to feature it here, even though I have never worked for it (in fact I used to work for the Kempinski (as was then) just around the corner!) as I think that it is easy to feel that the ‚big guys‘ will be OK and we need to support the small local companies (which, of course, we have to do too).  The fact is, though, that just as with the Puente Romano in my previous blog, these big hotels need the local community now more than ever, as if they fail, then the rest will likely tumble around their ears.