There are few better ways to see the colour-splashed and gold-plated onion domes of Moscow’s skyline than from one of the almost ridiculously roomy riverside suites of the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, which offer 180-degree views of the city’s most famous sights – St Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin – and come complete with a telescope for those with an eye for detail.
But one should not necessarily expect to find the features that mark out the Baltschug hotel at any other Kempinski property.
“It is more interesting to have variety than always have the same thing. We are certainly not cookie cutter,” says Gianni van Daalen, managing director of the Baltschug and European regional president for Kempinski.
“Each of our hotels is very different – not one is the same. We have small hotels of 80 rooms, or lodges in Africa, to big hotels like the one in Sofia which has 500 rooms. Our hotels in China all have between 500 and 600 rooms. Some hotels you may like and some you may not. If you are looking for continuity – where the light switch is always on the left and blue glasses are on the table – that is definitely not what we offer,” he says.
Likewise, a guest who has a happy experience at the Kempinski Baltschug will not be able to repeat it on visits to the major cities of western Europe: Kempinski is not there. But head to Almaty, Baku or Tbilisi, or Yerevan even, and Kempinski has it covered.
“We are not in the classic European capitals, except in Germany. We are not in Paris, we are not in Madrid, Milan or London. We are quite well established in the East, and very well in Germany as we are a German company, and we now have a hotel in Geneva, which is our first step towards the West. Our next development phase will be in the European capitals,” says Mr van Daalen.
The first focus of this ‘go West’ plan will be the home turf of Germany – there is not yet a presence in Cologne, Düsseldorf or the city centre of Frankfurt – it is then on to London and Paris. Mr van Daalen says he expects strong growth in Spain and believes in the enduring appeal of an Italian holiday – “everybody has to go to Italy somehow” – despite the current decline in tourism numbers. Milan is of particular interest.
In central Europe, the company will take a look at such locations as Vienna and Zurich; Scandinavia has not yet factored into the expansion plans but it is likely to in the next two years, says Mr Daalen.
Yet the company’s orientation remains very much eastward-facing, just as it has from the beginning. Opportunities for management companies are generally much better in eastern Europe than western, he says, “where you can only either buy or be a part-owner or be a lessee of properties – and if you are a lessee it leads to quite heavy-risk situations”, especially in high-price cities.
“In eastern Europe we were very progressive in the years 1990 to 1992 by going into then-exotic locations such as Istanbul, where we still have the best hotel in the city. Likewise with Budapest. In 1992 we opened in Moscow. From Moscow we have gone into the east of Russia, as well as the south, north and west and we have quite a few new contracts signed.”
Work in progress
Two additional hotels are in development in Moscow; there is one in St Petersburg already as well as in Nizhny Novgorod and Rostov; and plans are afoot in Novosibirsk. Project agreements are about to be signed in Sochi and Ufa.
“I am very bullish on Russia,” says Mr van Daalen. “It is a country which maybe is undervalued as regards tourism. It is quite strong on business and there is a lot of growth potential, and with that comes opportunities for hotels in all those cities.”
Of the other major eastern European cities, he says: “We are not in Bucharest, which is under negotiation, and we are not yet in Warsaw, which is also under negotiation. There is hope that we will cover those two holes that we have on our map and we will then be in every major city in the East. We are just missing those two.”
Kempinski hotel projects are either in existence or in the works in Bratislava, Budapest, Prague, Riga and Vilnius. The company is present too in Slovenia and Croatia, where a resort hotel is due to open this summer in the Istria region, and expects to move into Belgrade and Montenegro within a few years. There are also projects in Minsk and Kiev.
“The locations we pick are future locations. We hope that in two or three years, when these projects come onstream, there will be major changes. In the markets like Minsk, who is there? But Minsk is a city that is absolutely a part of the business tourism circle of Europe. The same can be said for Kiev. Kiev is a fabulous city that is really not being used by many people right now, be it for tourism or for business. As soon as those countries stabilise a little bit more politically, business and tourism will take off,” says Mr van Daalen.
In total, the company has 60 hotels opening, 40 under construction and 20 under final development – big numbers considering the tourism slump and economic downturn. But Mr van Daalen says the point is not where the market is now but where it will be in a few years’ time.
“The incubation period for a hotel – if you find a plot of land and build, rather than taking over a hotel that is branded by somebody else – can be five, six or seven years, so you are looking at 2015 and the whole business and tourism cycle will look very different.” Just like Kempinski hotel decors.
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