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In conversation with Jennifer Vogel: Manager, Orania.Berlin Concept Hotel

Interview 13 Minutes
The Hotel Orania, in Berlin: casual sibling of the Schloss Elmau.
Before taking over the management of the Orania.Berlin hotel in 2017, Jennifer Vogel and her husband, Philipp, worked at premier hotels around the world. The historic establishment in Berlin-Kreuzberg is in fact the sister hotel of the Schloss Elmau. Together with the Vogels, architect Dietmar Mueller-Elmau designed the extraordinary “Orania.Berlin” concept, setting a new standard in luxury hotels. With its individualistic design, the Orania.Berlin is in a class of its own, even hosting guest performances by renowned artists from Berlin. Considering it’s an Elmau sister hotel, that isn’t at all surprising.
Ms Vogel, let’s take the most important question first: What makes Orania.Berlin such a strong brand and so different?
 
First of all, its authentic character. At the Orania.Berlin, employees are allowed and even encouraged to express themselves. We don't work according to ready-made formulas with the usual prescribed practices, as often happens with hotel chains. Naturally, there have to be some ground rules but we don’t set fixed standards. Everyone here is hired on the basis of their personality, which is free to shine. My husband and I previously worked at some of the big hotel chains, where this wasn’t possible. The Orania.Berlin is a premium 5-star establishment that forms part of a new trend in contemporary hotels. Luxury is what we’re involved in, albeit indirectly. You can see that in our furnishings, where everything and nothing fits together. In our rooms, for example, five different types of wood were used. That would be enough to make any architect raise his hands above his head. But the architect, Mr. Mueller-Elmau, has a real knack for mixing styles, and he chooses the right furnishings to create an understated feel, to match almost everyone’s taste. With our authenticity and natural feel, we created something special that makes our guests feel at home. At the Orania.Berlin, we treat our clientele as normal people and not as royalty. I believe this is the direction in which the hotel and catering industry is heading now. 
Conceptually, would you say that the Schloss Elmau and Orania.Berlin are unrelated?
 
From the outset, there was no blueprint for how the Orania.Berlin should look and much was decided on how we felt at the time. The Schloss Elmau is a mountain resort, while we’re located in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, which is probably one of the most competitive city hotel markets anywhere. Our hotels cater to completely different markets. Mr. Mueller-Elmau developed the concept for the Orania.Berlin together with the Hilmer Sattler Architects Studio. As regards design, my husband and I have plenty of freedom and we wish to set ourselves apart from the big hotel chains. Guests like our individual approach with a personalised greeting at check-in. It isn’t the same, hackneyed phrase you get in most places - just because it’s standard. 
Does the hotel industry not yet understand that spontaneity and empathy are more meaningful to guests, or do you think those standard practices serve a purpose?
 
I think this is widely understood in the industry, but it’s hard to implement. With a staff of only 46, we can assess everything and choose only the top-level employees we want. In the large hotel chains, certain standards have to be set and the reins are held tighter.
From what you say, it seems you have the luxury of choosing your employees. Is that so?
At the outset, we tapped into our wide network of contacts within the business, but nowadays we try hard to be a sought-after employer. We’re looking at a completely new generation of employees – and I say that as a thirty-year-old myself. Young people who finish school and start their training have completely different ideas and expectations of the working world. 
We work in close cooperation with our staff. Our interaction with them is mutually respectful, working on a level playing field with the focus on team-building. We take time to be together, such as during mealtimes.

We’ve noticed that when it comes to understanding employees, there’s been a deficit in the hotel business. Can you give us any examples of how the new generation can better be integrated into the industry?

We work very closely with our team. For instance, today I handled the early shift at reception myself. After all, we’re role models, living out our values in real life. This means being hands-on, respectfully interacting with our staff on a level playing field, and focusing on team-building. Activities such as sharing meals together are at the forefront of this approach. Where possible, we also support our employees. If they need a ticket for public transport, maybe for a sporting programme or training to be a sommelier, we take care of it. We don't do it to win over our employees, but just to say thank you. After all, staff are the most important asset in a business, irrespective which industry they’re working in. This also happens to be the standpoint of Dietrich von Boetticher (owner of the Orania.Berlin). That’s why we’re prepared to invest in the further training of our employees and engage in team-building. We organise regular excursions on specialist themes for our trainee-staff. Gaining the appreciation of employees should be normal in every company.
In an interview held at the opening of the Orania, Dieter Mueller-Elmau said: "Many international stars who perform at the Schloss Elmau live in Berlin - some of them even in Kreuzberg. Now we wanted to bring a hotel closer to them and give them the opportunity to perform in Berlin". As a performance venue, has the Orania.Berlin been the success you hoped for?
 
Yes, the idea was to draw entertainment from Schloss Elmau to Berlin. As you say, many artists live in Berlin, and some of them even in Kreuzberg. The most diverse range of artists approach us. But it's not about the money because at the Schloss Elmau, the "play and stay" principle is applied. It means that an artist gets free accommodation in exchange for performing at the hotel. But in Berlin, artists generally don’t want to stay in a hotel, so in exchange we offer a top-level dinner plus a token fee. One also has to differentiate between the type of performances: while classical music and avant-garde jazz go down well at the Schloss Elmau, they don’t work so well at the Orania.Berlin. This is because of the constant background noise made by our open-plan kitchen, restaurant and bar area which drown out the music. Guest performances are staged in the salon, while jazz bands play in the bar and dining area. Now we’re also starting to host pop groups with vocals. The atmosphere brightens up, with people getting up to dance like they used to back in the old days. I get goose bumps, which makes me realize how amazing these events can be.

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Have your guests openly asked you to put on these kinds of shows or are they surprise events?
Both, actually. We’re lucky that Berliners or guests of other hotels come to our restaurant, and our patrons at the restaurant aren’t just hotel guests. To us, it's the individual that counts and not just a room number. Personal relationships are a value that we actually practice. There’s very little guest traffic at the reception desk, because our guests are usually having a coffee or tea to facilitate the check-in process. This of course takes more time, but we prefer to get to know our guests in advance in order to be able to provide them with the most appropriate advice. 
Do you appreciate being backed up by the robust brand of the Hotel Schloss Elmau?
Obviously, the Schloss Elmau precedes us, but we have different clientele. We host both young guests preoccupied with backyard start-ups, who enjoy good food and cocktails at the bar, as well as regular businessmen who are tired of the anonymity of the big hotels.
Will standardization no longer have a place in the hotel industry of the future?
The luxury hotel industry has fascinated me ever since I was a child. I think that in the future, there’ll only be premium hotels in the 5-star segment. There’ll leave a gap between them and the hotel chains. On the other hand, there’ll be plenty of contemporary boutique hotels, like us. While in the old days, the client used to be king – but that’s no longer the case. At the Orania.Berlin, we tried the turndown service (i.e. room prepared for the night), but it’s no longer in vogue. At my age, it’s good to be able to witness these changes in guest behaviour because in a few years’ time, I’ll be glad to remember how it used to be and not just with ‘hip’ concept hotels. Personally, I wouldn't want to be on first-name terms with each and every guest, because that's not my thing. 
Employees who come from the old-school background tend to have more of a hard time getting used to us. We benefit from those trained in the old-school hotel industry and we wish to break out of the standardized procedures. To some extent, the Orania.Berlin straddles the two approaches. The concept is actually hard to define – let’s say it's just different. 
Innovations such as self-check-in or robotic assistants will never work in the luxury hotel segment, because it's people that make the difference.

How does "digitalization" fit into the hotel industry and what are the risks and opportunities?
I have a love-hate relationship with digitalisation. As a host, personality and interpersonal interaction are a priority for me. Innovations such as self-check-in or robotic assistants will never work in the luxury hotel industry, because it’s people that make the difference. Of course, digitisation helps to save time, by increasing efficiency and automating processes. When it comes to housekeeping, we use the Schloss Elmau's IT communication system. This is excellent and makes our day-to-day work much easier.

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At the Orania.Berlin, it’s the little things that count.
How does digitalization support the management of customer relations?
We couldn’t do without it. The system holds all the information about our guests, including which books they prefer, if they’re vegan, which flowers they like, and so on. This makes a big difference. Client Relations is clearly what I care about the most. Each guest receives a handwritten note from us with a wax seal. This is obviously time consuming to make, but at the Orania.Berlin we take these kinds of personal touches very seriously, putting much attention to detail. We take care not be intrusive and we receive a lot of positive feedback. Without digitization, we couldn’t be as responsive to our guests as we are. 
Can you use these unique features as selling points in your marketing operations and external communications?
 
It might sound flippant, but until now we haven’t found the need to increase our marketing effort. We focus more on our guests on-site at the hotel. Our marketing strategy on Facebook and Instagram doesn’t target specific groups. In this respect, Schloss Elmau is a lot more advanced and professional than we are. Orania. Berlin is like its wayward sister!
The range of options in the city hotel business and especially Berlin, is enormous. Competition is intensifying, with a greater number of hotels entering the arena with innovative concepts.
Which digital distribution channels do you primarily use and to what extent?
In general, the large OTAs (online travel agencies) serve as our major distribution channels. In the city-hotel sector, the range of options is enormous, especially in Berlin. The competition is increasing with more hotels coming up with innovative concepts. In the end, hoteliers lose out because of Booking.com and the others. We’re happy to say that well over half of our bookings are received directly. If guests book through a third party, we charmingly point this out to them when they check out, in order to increase the percentage of direct bookings. 
To what extent do influencers play a role in marketing and sales?
 
When influencers approach us, we usually decline. This is because they simply don’t fit our clientele. They’re more suited to the hip Soho House or similar establishments. Do you know the Public Hotel in New York? This is the most ubiquitous hotel on Instagram, because of its escalator with light and mirror effects. If you wish to appeal to the young and trendy influencer group, this is the way to go. But for us, it makes little sense. The Orania.Berlin clientele doesn’t take much note of influencers and our guests write their own reviews on the social media channels. What mattered to my husband and I right from the start, was that the Orania.Berlin should be accepted and appreciated by those working in the sector, irrespective of whether they’re hoteliers, chefs or sommeliers. They pass on the message by word of mouth, serving as more credible multipliers. This works better than if companies organise events here and invite influencers to come.

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If we talk about new and outstanding hotel concepts around the world, which first come to mind?
There are two concepts that I find really inspiring in the premium sector. The first is the Maybourne Hotel Group, with three luxury hotels in London. I myself worked at Claridge’s and consider it one of the best hotels in the world. But the Rosewood Hotels are the current movers and shakers in the industry. They manage to combine the classic grand hotel ethic with contemporary elements, without seeming contrived. This is exactly what I like. Take the doorman, for example. He doesn’t wear a top hat and tailcoat, but a Burberry outfit. And hey: you’ve just reinterpreted an industry standard!
In every field, the courage of omission is needed. (...) We shouldn’t have to apologize to a guest if a room or a table isn’t available. Only the brave get ahead!

Is there a figure in the tourist industry you have always wanted to meet? Or perhaps someone from another sector? Who would that be and what would be your central question to them?
Thanks to the various positions I’ve held in the hotel industry, I’m lucky enough to have met numerous personalities. But if I could put a question to just one person, it would have to be Steve Jobs. He’s created an organization that comes close to being a world power. Apple is one of the strongest brands I know. From product design, to sales, packaging and presentation in their stores, they’ve got everything just right. Even unpacking a mobile phone can be an experience in itself. We can benefit from their know-how. At the Orania.Berlin, you won’t find any normal menu cards thanks to haptics. Like Apple, we’ve tried to build a “love brand” that appeals to the client's need to always have the latest product. In developing their brand, Apple have created many bold and clever innovations. I’m talking about “must-have” objects that people want and I can say that Mr. Mueller-Elmau is one of those. The ‘courage of omission’ is a necessity in every industry, and we’re no exception. We’ve decided to do without a doorman and there’s no turndown service either. We don’t apologize to clients if there’s no longer a room available or if we cannot reserve a table for them. Only the brave can achieve something and that's what fascinates me about Steve Jobs. With all that knowhow, you can create a hotel brand that works in a similar way. Their slogan was: “think differently”. That’s what Apple is about ... and it's fascinating.

Copyright Titelfoto S/W: Claes Bech-Poulsen