Finding Luxury: Oetker Collection Executive Roundtable

With luxury service, it’s ok to break the rules, says Frank Marrenbach (left), CEO of Oetker Collection. Frabrice Moizan, general manager of Eden Rock-St. Barths, is shown right.

Luxury Travel Advisor recently hosted a roundtable of Oetker Collection executives at our Manhattan office. Joining us were Frank Marrenbach, CEO, Oetker Collection; Joelle Edwards-Tonks, senior vice president, sales and marketing, Oetker Collection; Celso do Valle, Palacio Tangara - Sao PauloSandro Fabris, Jumby Bay Island and Fabrice Moizan, Eden Rock-St Barths.

The roundtable was moderated by Ruthanne Terrero, VP/Editorial Director of Luxury Travel Advisor. Following is a condensed version of our conversation.

Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: Let’s start out by talking about what luxury really is and how it’s evolving.

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Frank Marrenbach, CEO, Oetker Collection: Luxury is about hosting other people and caring about their needs. Of course, we always talk about what the future brings and a lot of things change. But what doesn’t change is the ability to add the human touch, to the way you render your services and to truly care about your guests. That will remain and survive.

The rest, of course, is packaging. Packaging can be, where is it going to happen? How is it going to happen? What is the destination? What’s the conduct of service? How do you provide service?

Clearly, we see a very large difference from what it was 15 to 20 years ago when formality was often associated with grand hotels. It’s less formal these days, and that is related to the lifestyle of most people. You have your busy agendas, you have to live up to a lot of expectations, there are a lot of norms out there, but when you go away to restaurants or to hotels, you don’t want to have this surround you. But you must retain quality, because often what people misread is less formal means less good. We, as service providers, need to provide pretty great service. Maybe we don’t put our hands behind the back anymore. Maybe we use first names. Maybe the way we speak is less aloof. But it has to be attentive, proactive, and only this combination makes it good.

That is a little introduction to how we see the world changing. For us, hotels are places where people meet and come together. You can see how the design of spaces has changed. There are a lot of great young companies that do that. They create spaces where people can meet. But our hotels have always been providing these spaces. 

What we care about are three elements that sit in the heart of our company’s philosophy. First, we want to be hosts of choice. A host, obviously, is more than the super service provider. A super service provider is very good at servicing you. The host is educated; he or she knows more than what is happening around them. They would always break the rules if it suits the clients. But, they do know the rules that they are breaking. That is really important. Breaking the rules in a good way requires a profound understanding of them. 

Second, we believe in meaningful connections. We think our hotels should be designed in a way that connections can happen. Meaningful connections are very different from person to person and situation to situation. But, meaningful means it is important. It can be a meaningful connection between you and the place. It can be you looking at the Mediterranean Sea. It could be you meeting other people. It could be you meeting the staff and the team. But the quality is meaningful. It needs to speak to you.

The third element, of course, is an endearing place. Our hotels are a micro-destination. Hotel Le Bristol in Paris is right across the Élysée Palace. Take Palacio Tangara in Sao Paulo, it is in the Burle Marx Park. Take The Lanesborough, it’s in the heart of London.

So being the host of choice with meaningful connections and endearing places is the Oetker Collection.

Eden Rock St Barths has 37 suites and villas. Shown here is the infinity pool of the 2,045-square-foot Waterlily Diamond Suite.

Fabrice Moizan, Eden Rock-St Barths: I am lucky to be part of the Eden Rock-St. Barths team. We are a small home in the middle of the Caribbean with 37 suites and villas. As Frank said before, five years ago, we launched a different kind of hospitality and I am lucky to have joined the company five years ago. As Frank just said, it is all about passion. We have 240 team members at Eden Rock to make the magic happen and to let our clients leave with good memories. I used to say at the morning briefings, “We are not launching people to the moon, we are not doing surgery, we are here to experience and to connect, to leave something with our guests and friends.” We want to be a family hosting members of our family. When you host guests in such a way, you are not just welcoming guests, you are welcoming family members. You break some rules.

Frank Marrenbach, CEO, Oetker Collection: And if I may add what Fabrice and his team did really well, Eden Rock is actually Eden and Rock, which provides two possibilities: You can do rock and roll if you want and you have an Eden-like haven or cocoon.

Everything Fabrice and his team do is in this pedigree. Because you as a guest can do both [Eden and Rock], if you want to or just one. It depends how you feel. 

Fabrice Moizan, Eden Rock-St Barths: To make the new team members who join us understand, [we tell them] that every single action we implement, every single thing we do, must reply to a question: Are we Eden? Are we Rock? 

In my opinion, as we discussed it before, it’s all about having all the process in the back of the house. But when you come to the front of the house, it needs to be you. When we recruit people, too, we say exactly that. 

Celso do Valle, Palacio Tangara Sao Paulo: I was invited to join the Collection three years ago, to open Palacio Tangara; we just celebrated our two-year anniversary last May. We opened on the 10th of May 2017. It’s an amazing property. It’s almost an Eden outside of the Caribbean. We are exactly in the middle of Burle Marx Park, which is a protected area. It doesn’t matter where you are at the hotel, you can always see greenery, except at the social bar, which is a more closed and intimate space without windows. But it doesn’t matter which room or which wing of the hotel you are in, you can always see green. It is unique. You don’t feel like you are in a big town similar to Sao Paulo or New York. I’ve heard comments that if this hotel were in New York it would have to be in the middle of Central Park.

The locals say that Palacio Tangara is like leaving Sao Paulo without taking the road. Sao Paulo is a huge city; as you know, 12 million people live there, and we are in a unique area. It’s really a paradise. We have 141 rooms, 59 of them are suites. You have a lot of natural light coming in everywhere, the ceilings are very high and there are high doors. You have sunlight coming in no matter where you are.

Every room has a terrace or at least a balcony. Our smallest room is 47 square meters [506 square feet] and we are 100 percent focused on offering something that is not available in the city, not just the location but service-wise. We have a team of 280 and we are there to exceed guests’ expectations and to offer them something that they don’t find in Sao Paulo. Our training process takes place at the back of the house, but when they cross the line to the front of the house they should be following some rules and breaking some other rules in order to exceed guests’ expectations. They have the autonomy to do that. So, although we are very new, just a baby in the Oetker family, we are very happy that we are on track. There is so much opportunity to improve what we’re doing but we are very happy with the course of these two years.

We are very clearly two hotels in one (different on weekdays and weekends). It’s like turning a leisure and corporate hotel on and off. We are unique because we have two Olympic pools, one indoor and another outdoor. We are very flexible with the meaning of being corporate Monday through Thursday and leisure from Friday to Sunday.

We have a very nice restaurant in partnership with Jean-Georges Vongerichten from New York. We were happy to be awarded in our first year of operations a Michelin Star, which was re-awarded this year in May. We have an amazing spa with six treatment rooms in partnership with Sisley. We are very excited about the years to come.

Leading Luxury: Fabrice Moizan, Eden Rock-St Barths; Celso do Valle, Palacio Tangara Sao Paulo and Sandro Fabris, Jumby Bay Island.

Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: Did you have any surprises when you first opened as to how the people responded to the hotel? Did it take on its own personality? Because you have this beautiful structure and you have all these things in place, but then real life humans come in and start using it.

Celso do Valle, Palacio Tangara Sao Paulo: Yes, the market was so excited about the imminent opening of Palacio Tangara in May 2017. And the feedback that we’re collecting from our corporate and leisure guests, locals and the U.S., which is our second market after Brazil, of course, is really positive. Some analogies that the guests are using are “it’s an oasis in Sao Paulo,” “it’s a refuge,” “it’s a place to enjoy,” and “a very unique place in Sao Paulo.” The sense of arrival at this property is amazing. Once you cross the gate, you drive about 250 meters or so, and you have the hotel just appear behind the trees. One of our most frequent guests who has been with us 25 times already in two years, and is a businessman from Rio de Janiero, made a very special comment, saying, “When I am in any other hotel I am waiting at the end of a heavy day of work, to go back to my room. At Palacio Tangara, once I come back I just leave my bag in the room, take a shower, and I come out and enjoy myself.”

Guests like to read a book by the sunset, or they want to smoke a cigar, or go to the spa to have a drink with some friends. They invite their friends to the hotel instead of going out. So it is really very special.

Sandro Fabris, Jumby Bay Island: At Jumby Bay, I want to put this sign at the entrance of the hotel saying, “If you are not barefoot, then you are overdressed.”

It is a totally private island. The hotel has only 40 rooms, plus 16 suites that are two to four bedrooms, but the service is the same at the hotel and you consume your meals in the hotel, etc. Plus, we have 34 beautiful, huge private residences that we also rent. But, there, you have the butler and you have full services inside the unit. So, it is a totally different experience compared to the rooms and building. And we have these dualities. Being a private island, we have an advantage of total security. Just imagine that none of our private residences, villas or rooms have a lock. You can lock yourself in, but you can’t lock your room. You do not receive a key when you are arriving.

The hotel has been renovated recently. We updated the decoration of all the private areas last year, with Patricia Anastassiadis, who is the same interior decorator who did the Palacio Tangara. The public area is beautiful. We are in the process of renovating the rooms.

The property is totally relaxing. The island is 300 acres. We have our farm in the middle of the island, where the kids love to go because we have 60 chickens producing eggs. So we have clients going and collecting eggs in the morning and coming down asking if we can make them an omelet. We have farm-to-table dinner once a week there. I think it is all about experience and creating special moments for the families. You come to Jumby Bay Island for a multigenerational experience; if you have a large family, you can have a big, private villa or estate. If you have a smaller family, then you can have a villa or stay in the hotel.

We have three swimming pools, two of them are directly in front of the sea, and a lap pool. There is always a quiet corner where you can stay. It is not a crowded place. And you have your own bike to get around there. Every room has its own bike. It feels really like a different way of living. 

Jumby Bay, set on a private Caribbean island, is two miles off the coast of Antigua. All of its suites are steps away from pristine white-sand beaches and offer views of the Caribbean Sea. 

Fabrice Moizan, Eden Rock-St Barths: One thing that is interesting is that the Millennials are starting to have children, and they want the kids to have experiences. So, having the chicken and the farm and the herbs, etc., [works well]. We have a program where we have a beach, which is called Turtle Beach, where the turtles come and you write your name down, we wake you up even at three o’clock in the morning if there is a turtle that is coming to lay eggs. And there are quite a lot of young families that want to be woken up to go see the turtles laying the eggs.

Ruthanne Terrero, Luxury Travel Advisor: It came quickly the Millennials having children and that’s a huge change isn’t it, from 10 years ago?

Fabrice Moizan, Eden Rock-St Barths: And they expect the kids start to have experiences. I was at a long meeting last week with the kids’ club manager trying to find what we can do for these children. 

Frank Marrenbach, CEO, Oetker Collection: On this notion, when you look at the [recent] European elections, the most successful party was the Green Party. You asked at the beginning, “What is changing?” You carefully need to look at how society changes, and that is really important. The past may be these grand hotels, which were havens of luxury and opulence in a good sense. But today, the environment is an extremely important topic to a lot of people and a lot of young people. When I speak to my boys, they’re 20 and 22, the way they look at things is very different. I will give you a little example, and will come back to how we connect it to what we feel we should be doing.

My youngest son, he loves logistics, and there is a big company globally, known for this, and I said, “That would be a cool place for you to do an internship.” And he said, “No, Dad, I’m not going to do it because they don’t treat their people very well.”

So, connect the dots here. What is the future of luxury hospitality? For sure, it has to be very responsible. And you need to explain to people, why are we responsible? Why is it worth spending these elevated prices? And the reason is not to just spoil yourself to death or to have weird things that come from remote places. An increasing amount of people want to feel good when they book a luxury hotel. This is the big subject of corporate social responsibility. We operate hotels in remote places. Water is a scarcity. We operate hotels where the people need education. How are they treated? How do you support them to grow as well, so that one day they can open their own businesses? Where do you source things? What is your water management plan? What is your waste management plan? 

Last year, we implemented a total plastic ban. It takes 15 months for us to get rid of what we have on stock, but it’s important. The difference is, that for the first time, guests are making decisions based on that. 

What is also new is the villa rental business. This is also result of people traveling together. Often it’s multigenerational or it is friends together, so you want to have this privacy, this space, and a hotel can only provide so much to this need. And we have seen this in the past years, which has led us to create Eden Rock Villa Rental, which is a big business. The rental of the estates represents 50 percent of revenue. The villa rental is a result of people’s needs. It’s less “I want more space,” it is more, “I want to be together with people I love, like family and friends.” And we have taken it to another level and have created what we call Masterpiece Estates, Oetker Collection Masterpiece Hotels. 

Joelle Edwards-Tonks (left), of Oetker Collection, is seeing a strong demand for the company’s new Masterpiece Estates.

Joelle Edwards-Tonks, senior vice president, sales and marketing, Oetker Collection: I think it comes back to the hosting element that we’ve touched upon, which, obviously, is very much present in all of our hotels. But as we know, when we host someone in our own homes for dinner it doesn’t stop the minute that they walk out the door and we completely ignore them until the next time that they come for dinner. As a Collection we have really looked at how we can be part of our guests’ lives beyond our doors, and how we can ultimately add to the value of those lives that they have and bring them new things that they would enjoy. So there are a couple things that we have done.

One of those things is Masterpiece Estates, as Frank said. Today, we have six extraordinary private estates in England, Scotland and Ireland. These are estates that are privately owned. And, you don’t just book a room in them, you book the whole place. The properties with the land around it, because these are estates, are not villas as such. What makes them different from the villa rental is these are big, stately homes. It is a kind of place where you would go if you want to be lord of the manor, perhaps for a week or a weekend. People, when they looked at them, made comparisons to places like Downton Abbey. So, this is somewhere people aspire to stay, where they would enjoy being a part of the local environment. But also at the same time, it offers ultimate privacy. So, as Frank said, this is where you go with your family and with your friends and for multigenerational travel. It is a place where you can spend time together and connect, where the kids put the smartphone down and enjoy time together, because it is not only the place, but it is also the activities that you want.

All of these places are very well-serviced in terms of activities because they are set for the most part in the countryside. So, there are activities, such as clay pigeon shooting. The ones that we currently have are very British, I must say. In that sense, there are lots of very classical country pursuits that people can enjoy, but that we’ve added a host to each of these places is what really makes them special.

So, you will be welcomed when you arrive at your estate by a host who will be there for the entirety of your stay and take the guest by the hand and really make sure they get the 100 percent experience and they don’t miss a trick. They know when is the best time to go and have a picnic at the end of the lake. They know when to go for a dip in the lake. They know when the sun rises and sets and the host can sit down and have dinner with the guests and tell them stories about the place. It’s not a concierge or a butler, this is somebody who knows the place really well and can share their own experiences, which, again, we really think makes it a very different experience.

The hosts that we have are all very experienced in this country lifestyle and country pursuits.

One of our hosts, for a Scottish estate is James Middleton. I was lucky to have him as the host at Glen Affric, and he really is fantastic because he gets very involved, and rolls up his sleeves and joins in with everybody and tells some fantastic stories about the highlands.

We have six properties and we’re about to add two, one more in Scotland, and our first in the south of France. We launched last September and we have had a lot of interest. Clearly, this is something that our guests enjoy. 

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