Kempi Corvinus at 30: ‘Belonging There, not Being There’

Hotels

Stephan Interthal

The general manager of the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest, Stephan Interthal, talks exclusively to the Budapest Business Journal about its 30th anniversary, ‘footprints in our history,’ the COVID recovery, and using Hungarian art for marketing.

BBJ: How will you be marking the anniversary?

Stephan Interthal: The actual anniversary is September 11; this is the official opening of the hotel in 1992. We’ll mark this with the employees and their spouses at a brunch in Etyek at the Sonkamester [Restaurant]. As always, some will have to work, and we have morning and evening shifts, but I think we will have approximately 150 people coming.

We have done many other activities, starting from April 5, which was the 125th anniversary of Kempinski. Our 30th anniversary celebrations will continue until the end of the year. On September 29, we are inviting our partners who have accompanied us from the beginning to an official party. Earlier that same day, my owners will be giving lunch for those employees who have been here for 30 years: we have 10. And we’re going to invite people from the former board and supervisory board, the construction, our lawyers, all those who left a footprint in our history.

BBJ: Having 10 staff who have been with you the whole time seems quite impressive.

SI: To retain these employees for so many years is really a commitment from both sides. It is the difference between being there or belonging there; we have a great sense of belonging from the employees, management, and owners.

BBJ: Is this “belonging” the secret of your enduring success?

SI: I was GM for seven years, from 1997-2004. And 10-and-a-half years later, the owners asked me to come back. The owners are very much aware that one part of the success of a hotel is continuous good management and ownership and having young employees mixed with senior employees. This is not something you can explain plainly, like mathematics.

Besides the quality ratings and the scores we are getting, the nicest compliment is that people say this hotel has something that makes them ‘feel good.’ This makes me proud. We have a good atmosphere and spirit among the staff, which automatically relates to the customers. We care, especially during the last two and a half years, we care big time, and eventually, it pays off. This is, I think, one of our strengths. 

BBJ: How important is employee branding?

SI: I worked for 30 years for the company in different countries. We have a very good name in the employee market. This comes both from the brand and from the long-term HR policy of our hotel, how we have built relations and dealt with our employees over many years. I think the success of our rehiring and rebound and having been so successful in bringing people back is not only due to the brand but a local issue too.

BBJ: How has the hospitality market changed in Budapest over the past 30 years?

SI: When I came here in 1997, I didn’t know what to expect. We were the clear market leader in a small, introverted hotel market. That started expanding from 2001-2003. The bigger surprise was returning almost 11 years later, discovering a city that had developed so much for the better. It was utterly different regarding shopping facilities, high-end brands, restaurants, bars, etc. But I always felt this strong connection with Budapest. I cannot tell you why, but it happened immediately we arrived. And the time from 1997-2004 was also good. We had a good life here.

BBJ: Has the hospitality scene recovered from COVID?

SI: It’s not over yet, but I believe that those who are serious and who have a strategy and a concept, and, yes, who probably have a little financial backbone, will survive. The whole utility gas and electricity issue is beyond our control. When these increases go from a couple of EUR 100,000 to, in our case, over EUR 1 million, you cannot pass this on to your customers. You have to digest it and understand that this is just a period Europe has to go through. Until then, we must work around the problem.

BBJ: Has the pandemic and subsequent crises altered your marketing at all?

SI: We are not yet back to 2019 figures. Eventually, we will be back there, but my goal is not ultimately to achieve this as fast as possible. You must have a strategy for how to get out of this dilemma. One part that was very important during Corona was that we kept a certain number of key employees on the payroll because I knew I had to retain these people. This included all the senior managers and those getting a higher salary. If I let them go, I would never see them again.

Secondly, during Corona, we did many repairs, cleaned the hotel, renovated, and had many meetings about the rebound. What would the market expect, and what could we expect from the market? We knew one thing: there would not be as much volume as before, but the costs would still be there. To position the hotel, we changed our pricing and sales strategy. It was clear that there would be no Chinese market for some time. We didn’t know then that there would be no Russian market, but we knew that the American market would be much less in volume. So, we repositioned.

Our rate today is higher than in 2019, with lower occupancy. But we accept the occupancy because we know there is still a market for us big enough to be sustainable. I am convinced that the future ahead of us in this city is bright. We just had a three-hour meeting this morning; we have to submit our budget for next year: we expect 2023 to be a good year.

BBJ: Kempinski Budapest has an extensive art collection. How did this come about?

SI: For us, it’s a privilege, and it started from the beginning; this was a commitment to Hungary, to Budapest, that we will always support Hungarian art. We have an annual budget given to us by the owners. Some years ago, we started two partnerships: one with Ar2Day Gallery, which is organizing our exhibitions on the Promenade, and another with the Kogart Art Foundation. It gave us professional assistance in curating our Corvinus Art Collection, consisting of more than 1,000 pieces of art.

As the next step, we selected 50 pieces and started an exhibition called “Gems of Corvinus.” Our second exhibition was in 2018; we went to the Hungarian Embassy in Berlin, opposite the Hotel Adlon Kempinski. We had a three-month show there, to the opening of which our chairman came because he was so proud about using art as a communication and marketing tool. Not many have done this. We are really proud of our Corvinus Art Collection.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of September 23, 2022.

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