Personal contact with the guest and digitalization are not mutually exclusive!
Verena Jaeschke holds a doctorate in Cultural Studies and is currently Director of the Hotel Oderberger Berlin, as well as Business Development Manager at the GLS Language Centre. The former Stadtbad Oderberger public bathhouse in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg was sold in 2011 to the GLS Language Centre, whose founder and owner is Barbara Jaeschke, Verena’s mother. The refurbished Hotel Oderberger opened as a listed boutique hotel in February 2016.
What makes the Hotel Oderberger so special and gives it such a strong brand?
It's nice that when you came in you noticed right away that this doesn't look much like a hotel. That's exactly what our concept is all about. Although the Oderberger is a boutique hotel offering all the services you’d expect from a hotel at this level, the unusual thing about it is that it’s also a public pool. We’re the local meeting place in our neighbourhood, the Kiez, as they say in Berlin. With the swimming pool, bar and restaurant we offer Berliners many facilities. This building is a special part of the Berlin experience and, at the same time, an experience for Berliners themselves.
In the hotel industry authenticity does matter and Airbnb competes strongly with hotels, especially in the cities. What makes it so special? Airbnb offers guests an authentic experience and they feel part of the life of a city. In my opinion, hotels can do the same. I learned this from my mother, who always says: "People don't want to be in those anonymous rooms (especially if you travel a lot on business) where you wake up in the morning and you don't know if you're in London, Shanghai or Barcelona. We don’t distinguish between business and leisure travellers. Our guests are looking for a hotel that can provide them with a special experience.
Would you give us a quick insight into the long history of the Hotel Oderberger, and its transformation from a public bath to a listed boutique luxury hotel?
This establishment opened in 1902, when it was known as the “Volksbadeanstalt”. At that time there weren’t just the baths, which you’ll see at the entrance, but there were also almost 200 shower and bath cabins. To put it bluntly, it was a hygienic institution. The swimming pool remained in operation until 1986, and the shower and bath cabins lasted until the mid-nineties. By that time the establishment had survived two world wars without sustaining significant damage, and was located in the DDR, before it was eventually closed as it was so run down.
A residents' committee was quickly formed to create a cooperative, which was supposed to buy the property with the intention of renovating the public swimming pool. This unfortunately did not work out due to financial reasons, but the cooperative managed to ensure that the former public baths had an extended lease of life as a public facility. Dance and theatre performances, as well as wild parties were held here, particularly in the post-reunification period.
My family eventually acquired the building in 2011. Our business, “GLS Sprachenzentrum”, has been in the linguistic travel business for over 30 years. It’s already been more than 12 years that we’ve been in Prenzlauer Berg, offering accommodation to participants in our courses from abroad. Thanks to the renovations we made at the Oderberger Stadtbad, we’ve been able to grow while transforming this unique building into a special concept.
Do you really have parties "in the waters" of the former Stadtbad? That sounds quite extravagant and unusual.
Since we don’t receive any public funding for the swimming pools, the municipality allowed us to close the baths on average two days a week. On those days, we hire out the swimming hall for various events. The floor of the swimming pool is moveable and has a hydraulic mechanism to lift it up. The water drains out to the left and right and in the middle into a basin underneath, where it’s kept warm and clean. The floor is covered with a protective covering so you can literally dance on the water.
One shouldn’t forget that hotels, especially those managed by their owners, are made by people.
Do you have many returning clients?
Yes, we nurture and take care of our regular guests. When we opened to the public, we did what is called a “soft-opening”, because the renovations weren’t yet fully completed. The regular guests who accompanied us right from that "zero hour", are special to us. We shouldn’t forget that hotels, especially those managed by their owners, are made by people. We aren’t robots and we care personally about our guests. Which is why it is nice when clients have an on-going relationship with us at the Hotel Oderberger.
You have an interesting CV with a different career path. After completing your doctorate in Cultural Studies, what prompted you to get involved in designing and managing a boutique hotel yourself?
“Two hearts beat in my chest”, you might say. On the one hand, I have a strong academic inclination, which led me to complete a degree in the humanities, resulting in a doctorate. On the other hand, my identity as a "proud heiress" also matters to me. I’m the daughter of the founder of a successful business, and one of three siblings. Of course, my mother achieved this together with my father. They founded the business just before I was born. She is still running the GLS Language Centre today, and the Hotel Oderberger is part of it. With entrepreneurship comes great responsibility. You have to put your heart and soul into it, doing the best you can while supporting the people for whom you’re responsible. At the same time, you have to remain dynamic and be on the lookout for new trends, so that you don't fall behind the market. As my mother says, "What's good today is old tomorrow." Even if you’re well-positioned, you have to look at how you can improve further. That’s what my parents have taught me all my life, and why I’m strongly attracted to free enterprise. During the refurbishment of the Hotel Oderberger, I realised that I have an affinity for interior design and that’s how I became responsible for the interior design. I realised that you can't furnish a hotel if you are unable to focus on how it should be done. So at the outset, I posed some basic strategic questions and as a result, am now in charge of the hotel.
What does the concept of art have to do with the Hotel Oderberger and how does it affect your clients?
There’s a lot of art that we exhibit, from artists who live and work in Berlin. It doesn't really matter where the artists originally came from, but the fact is that they are based and work in Berlin. Ideally, the art should have some sort of connection to the city or to our building. For example, we display photos from Johanna Keimeyer’s POOL AREOUND ME series. These are found in all our hotel rooms and you can also find them on our website. The content of this series is about thinking processes underwater, the feeling of weightlessness that one experiences there. As the photos were shot in hotel swimming pools around the world, the relationship to our hotel is as the local one, as Keimeyer is based in Berlin. We met during the renovation phase and she asked if I’d like to do an art project with her. While the hotel was still being renovated, she filled the unrefurbished swimming pool hall with water at an event. In 2016, when the pool was reopened after the renovations, she arranged a dance performance in the water with other artists, bringing us full circle.
How can guests appreciate the full history of the building?
It is indeed something of a challenge for us to convey the rich history of this building to our guests, but we try as much as we can. Each room has a digital folder in it containing all kinds of information about the hotel. It presents the artists whose works are exhibited here, as well as the history of the hotel. There’s also a section with recommended galleries, museums, nightclubs, restaurants and live music venues.
I see more advantages than risks in digitalization and I think this trend is inevitable in the hotel industry, for medium-sized establishments and even smaller businesses in the rural areas.
What does "digitalization" mean for the hotel industry? What opportunities and risks do you see?
Personal contact with the guest and digitalization are not mutually exclusive! I believe that personal interaction with clients is irreplaceable, because people are social beings. But there can be occasional inconveniences, such as at check-in. Guests arriving late in the evening will often be tired and just want to go to their room. For them it would be nice to be able to check in online and only receive a brief welcome at the reception. If they want to find out more about the hotel, all the information is digitally available in the room.
I see more advantages than risks in digitalization and I think this trend is inevitable in the hotel industry, even for medium-sized establishments and smaller businesses in the rural areas. Digitalization is already very much part of daily life. When we book a trip online, order something on Amazon, buy things on eBay we expect digital solutions. That's why hotels should be astute about how digitalization can be used; not just when clients make their bookings, but also during their stay. Digitalization can’t replace the staff, but it should allow them more space to be more relaxed and have time to assist guests with advice.
I think it is a good strategy to see Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) as partners, while at the same time doing your own marketing, in order to acquire customers directly and to retain clients in the long term.
Since OTAs are strong in the cities, how do you handle this topic in terms of guest communication?
To us, OTAs are basically partners. Of course, clients have to pay extra costs when they book via OTAs, but when it comes to online marketing and the development of international sales channels, OTAs have completely different budgets. So, I think it is a good strategy to see OTAs as partners while at the same time doing your own marketing to retain clients in the longer term.
Though OTAs contribute to our revenue, most guests are our own clients who found us online, either through our marketing or by personal recommendation. It makes our work much easier when clients return or recommend our hotel to others.
Do you have your own marketing & communications team?
We have a small, but effective marketing team and we also do a lot of things ourselves, including ratings response, website maintenance work and PR. But we rely on support from outside agencies for search engine optimization or the analysis of visitor flow data on our website. If you’re running a hotel, looking after your guests and having to take care of administrative tasks such as accounting, it isn’t so easy to also get involved in online marketing. So, it makes more sense to find agencies who can provide you with a concept and support you, providing you with a head start.
Generally, I have a great deal of respect for hoteliers and restaurateurs who run their business, shaping and improving it day after day.
Talking about ground-breaking hotel concepts around the world, which would first spring to mind?
There are quite a few. The ones to watch at the moment are the “25hours” Hotels. They have a really good concept. In another market segment, “Motel One” has built up an impressive forward-looking hotel chain in a very short space of time, with a clearly defined brand. Generally, I have a great deal of respect for hoteliers and restaurateurs who run their business themselves, shaping and improving it day after day.
Is there someone from the tourist industry whom you’ve always wanted to meet? Or perhaps someone from another industry? What would be your main question to this person?
It’s difficult to narrow this down to one person. There are many people (both men and women) who impress me. However, I noticed that in the last few decades there have been many prominent women. I find role models really interesting, not only as far as women are concerned, but in a diverse society. When I see someone with whom I can identify, or read something about them, I feel that I’m not alone and that there are positive role models out there who are like me. This might be a woman in a position of leadership, a woman in cosmetics advertising who is not perfect. It can take in everything, like someone from the LGBT community, cultural diversity, as well as physically-challenged people. I am inspired by strong female characters who have managed to break through in different ways. These role models are there to help and encourage others, so I wouldn’t want to point out someone in particular. There are strong women out there and I wish to thank them for being so bold and outspoken.