Sharing a Passion for ‘Grande Dame’ Hotels With a Soul
As the popular Maltese hotelier Jean Pierre Mifsud prepares to bring his Hungarian adventure to a close (a four year posting he says he cannot believe has passed so quickly), he already has half an eye on his next project, just next door in Bucharest.
Jean Pierre Mifsud
“I have had a phenomenal time here, really,” he tells the Budapest Business Journal between meetings at the hotel. “Here I spent four glorious years; met so many friends. The people are special, the city, the country, the gastronomy; everything.”
General managers, like diplomats, rarely spend more than four years in one location. “We move, we rotate,” as Mifsud puts it. His next project is not just close geographically, though; there are other similarities.
As with the Budapest hotel, the Grand Hotel du Boulevard Bucharest is a “Grande Dame” of a building Corinthia is restoring to its former function and glory. This is something of a Corinthia specialty. It has done the same with what was the Grand Hotel Royal in Budapest, of course, but also its hotels in London, St. Petersburg, and a property it is currently developing in Brussels.
Grand Hotel du Boulevard, due to open in Q4 2020, is even older than its Hungarian sister, having originally opened in 1867 (the Budapest hotel opened its doors in 1896, to serve the millennial celebrations for the founding of the country), although it has not been put to that use for more than a decade.
“It was most recently used as offices; however, Corinthia is bringing it back. That is something we enjoy doing, giving these beautiful properties new life. They are hotels with history, and that historical background gives them a soul.”
Mifsud smiles and spreads his arms wide, encompassing the hotel we are sitting in. “You can feel the history. How many people have visited this hotel, had celebrations in this hotel, had fun being here, made memories here? It is special.”
He will hand over the Hotel Corinthia Budapest in the first week of August, before taking a short break and then move to Bucharest to begin the process of settling in. His three children will start school there on September 3.
He had known the move would happen for about a year, although staff were told in February. Initially, he had been overseeing the project, as he was based so close, before Corinthia asked him to take on the role of opening GM.
“It is an exciting destination. I was very pleasantly surprised the first time I went there last year,” Mifsud recalls. “Here public transport is phenomenal, there it does not exist, everyone drives to work, so it needs some infrastructural investment. And Bucharest needs to market itself as a leisure destination, because it has a lot to offer: gastronomy, places of interest, history.”
How would the GM measure his success in Budapest? Statistically, the property has done well. Occupancy has grown to 81%, with 2019 already looking set to beat the record set since the opening, he says, and average room rate has grown too. The hotel itself has helped.
“Because of its size, we can be quite versatile, and I think we have managed that very well; we have a business profile, a luxury profile, a conference profile. I tend to believe we have been very successful in how we have split the business between the various segments. We are not a city center hotel, not a business hotel, not a conference hotel. We are a luxury hotel with all these facilities. That allows you to be versatile, to be more flexible.”
He says the hotel has only a few Hungarian guests; most visitors come from the United States and the United Kingdom, with Germany, Italy, Spain and Asia also important markets.
“Personally, I think the Middle East has been something of a missed opportunity, and a market we can tap into. Business does come from there, but it could be stronger than it is right now. The U.S. is working phenomenally well. Americans enjoy coming to Europe because of all the history; it is a bonus for us that the hotel itself is historical.”
Brexit is causing a lot of uncertainty in the U.K. market, however. “That is going to remain until a final decision is made, one way or the other, and the sooner the better. A decision needs to be taken; deal, no deal, whatever.”
What will he miss, I wonder. “One thing is the people. I think I have been blessed with an excellent team here. When you have the right people and then train them well, you are halfway to your destination. When you treat them with respect, you get two fold back, if not more. When a Hungarian gives you his or her heart, they do so forever.”
Mifsud says one of the benefits of the team is that there are connection points with the hotel’s past.
“The beautiful thing is we have people who are proud to work in the hotel; a number have family connections: either their parents or grandparents worked here or were married here, some remember coming here as kids when the Grand Ballroom was a cinema. So they have a special connection, and are proud to work at the Grand Hotel Royal. Even though we call it the Corinthia Hotel Budapest now, it will always be the Grand Hotel Royal. There’s a reason why we still have the name up on the façade.”
He will also miss the many friends he has made, he says, and the city itself, which he says has made “tremendous progress” in his four-year term here.
“It has certainly become a more trendy, cool destination in my time here. Trendy, but also with a strong culture and all that history. And you can see that from the numbers, here in the hotel and out in the city itself; it is clearly visual to me. It will continue to grow; however, I think it has now got to the stage where Hungary needs to think more about the quality of people it is attracting, and not just about the quantity.”
For all that progress, there is one final box Budapest should tick, Mifsud believes. “When I came, everybody was at a high level of excitement about the arrival of a national convention center. Four years later, I am leaving and it still hasn’t arrived,” he says with a laugh.
“Personally, I think that should be the next step, to make Budapest comparable with Prague or Vienna, a conference center that can take several thousand, with the guests shared around the hotels. We have 2,000 sqm here at Corinthia; that’s quite sizeable, but it is not enough for really large conference. Build that, and I am sure it will lead to a lot more business.”
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