Jonna Simon speaks to Rainer J Burkle, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Istanbul
Q: As general manager I presume you were just starting to build up a customer base, when the 9/11 disaster hit the tourism industry - how did you cope with this sudden downturn in visitors to Istanbul?
A: We opened on October 6, 2001 and our customer base was very strong from the USA and after 9/11 we were practically dead in the water, as nobody was travelling any more. We had to drastically review and reschedule our whole marketing strategies. Looking at our customer profile today, it is totally different to what it was before the tragedies in the USA. Our customers now mostly come from the Middle East, Asia, Europe and a growing contingency from Japan as well as from Turkey.
Q: You joined The Ritz-Carlton hotel group in the USA and then went to Berlin - is there any difference in managing a hotel in the USA, Germany or Turkey or do the same principles apply?
A: When you talk about principles, I presume, you mean the company’s philosophy - and yes, they are the same all over the world in the hotels we manage. When it comes to people there is a difference. In the USA, a business meeting has a definite agenda and will be conducted very professionally. In Germany, nearly all meetings take place in offices and are very businesslike. In Turkey, business is conducted totally differently in a more relaxed and friendly manner. The biggest challenge in running a Ritz-Carlton hotel is to keep up the standards set by the company. Every day all staff and I review the previous day’s events and happenings. All staff members have input, which I have to listen to. Training of employees is ongoing year round and everyone is measured against the standards and the philosophy of the company.
Q: In your early career you qualified as a master chef and also held the food and beverage managership at the prestigious Claridges in London. Is your culinary experience reflected in the restaurants of the hotel?
A: I suppose the expectations are still there. I am very fortunate in having a great food and beverage team. We have recently appointed a new master chef from Australia, who came to us from Shanghai. He is a great leader of the team and the guests like him very much. The food and beverage director is from Italy and has a tremendous knowledge of wines and cuisine.
Q: Would you describe your hotel as a business hotel or are you participating in the tourism industry in Turkey in a big way with your spa facilities, sauna, massage rooms, Hamam etc.?
A: The Ritz-Carlton Istanbul is a very versatile hotel. We are the first hotel in Turkey with facilities enabling guests to use their laptop computers anywhere in the hotel and connect, to the Internet. I believe that the time of the business centres in hotels is almost over, as guests mainly use their own computers. We have banqueting and meeting facilities for business clients with a dedicated conference concierge. For leisure travellers, Istanbul has much to offer with a 3,000 year old history. Visitors can frequent the modern shop Ping malls around the city or visit the gigantic bazaar with all its Middle Eastern attractions. We have noticed that many business clients will extend their stay with us for 2-3 extra days after their business meetings have been concluded.
Q: Which part of the market do you think will show the greatest development in the hotel industry in Turkey? Business? Conferences? Tourism?
A: I actually see growth in all areas, it mostly depends on the time of year. The economy has stabilised, the Government has brought the inflation down, so business trends have increased. Tourism is growing as well with many visitors spending a few days in Istanbul and then going to the south or to the coastal resorts. Istanbul has three conference centres, but the MICE segment was quite down after 9/11, but recently we have seen this segment of the market picking up as well. Plans are under way already for meetings in 2006 and 2008, which of course will help the city. The infrastructure is there to cope with an influx of participants in large conferences.
Q: Though your hotel is modern with many technological amenities, it also offers traditional Turkish-inspired decor. Does today’s visitor come to stay because of the ambience and continue to stay because of the modern facilities?
A: Visitors may come for business reasons, but they also like to stay in an atmosphere reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire, although within a modern building with all the conveniences today’s travelers Demand. Visitors walk into the hotel and at once realise they are in Turkey. We employed a Turkish interior designer for the decor. Just walking into the bathroom, a guest will feel he/she is in a Hamam with the design and the tiles etc.
Q: Do you think 24-hour room service and complete concierge attention are mandatory services for a five-star hotel?
A: Yes, but a guest needs much more than that such as superb personal service and attention. We have recently added The Ritz-Carlton Club to the hotel, an addition which has been very popular with guests.
Q: I am intrigued with your Technological Butler service - what exactly does that entail?
A: It means that 24-hours a day there is somebody capable available to help guests with their computer problems and it has proved an extremely popular service.
Q: Many of the hotel’s facilities on offer would attract the female business visitor - have you set out to attract this segment of the market deliberately?
A: No, not deliberately, but we are very safety conscious at the hotel. For instance, using the lifts requires a special key, so not just anybody can take the lifts to the floors. All our business facilities can of course be utilised by any businessperson. Female business people are just as outspoken and demanding as their male colleagues.
Q: Any news from the hotel such as new facilities, new restaurants, plans for extension or renovation?
A: In January next year we are opening a new restaurant called “Cam”, which is the Turkish word for glass. The decor shows lots of glass and the dishes are very authentic. For instance if a guest orders a chicken curry, it will not be the European version, but a truly Indian dish. Since the opening we have been working all the time on our spa facilities and we are just about to introduce a new concept for couples. We have Hamam for ladies and for men and now we are golfing to have one for couples. We have introduced new baths with 160 jets to help guests with their wellcare. We have also started a new catering banqueting division, which caters to groups at several interesting venues in Istanbul for up to 120 participants.
Q: For our travel agent readers - what is the best and fastest way to book rooms for their clients and how quickly is their commission paid to them?
A: The policy of the hotel is to pay within 48 hours. If the commission is not paid within that time-span, we have a complaint desk, which the agents can call and if the problem is still not solved, the general manager receives a fax. Bookings can be done and confirmed through our reservation system or by directly with the hotel.
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