FRANKFURT, GERMANY—In February, right before COVID-19 spread across the globe, Rogier Braakman was named managing director of Penta Hotels Worldwide, which operates 28 properties in Europe and Asia. He returns to hospitality after spending two years as a consultant/investor in the technology industry. He has served in managerial positions for Hilton and at the Ritz-Carlton brand, and also spent 12 years as an entrepreneur building up Sandton Hotels and Pillows Hotels from scratch. Braakman connected with Hotel Business to discuss his new role, the company’s COVID-19 response and the future.
You spent a few years on a “hotel sabbatical.” What made you come back to the industry, and why was Penta Hotels Worldwide the company that brought you back to hospitality? What I love best about hospitality is working with people. I was drawn to Penta because it is an attractive and distinctive hotel brand positioned around people, with a buzzing community spirit. I share Penta’s vision for a modern approach to hospitality, where giving back to the community and providing a relaxed, neighborhood feel is at the center of its brand.
Earlier this year, I took the lead of this vigorous and forward-thinking organization with great talent on board. Our staff’s remarkable team spirit and desire to truly make Penta a success has made me feel extremely supported and inspired my confidence that we will continue to succeed in the future.
During my sabbatical, I embarked on some start-up adventures in the world of tech as I believe we have to use tech on a more intensive scale in the future of hospitality. This proves to be correct since the pandemic started. I really want to find a new balance between technology and human input in the future.
What are some of the things that you learned in your previous positions that have helped you in your role with Penta Hotels? Two experiences of mine that proved to come in handy: building and leading a hotel brand and navigating a company through a crisis. I learned that as long as we clearly focus on what we have influence over, set clear goals, communicate on a much more intensive scale and instill pride amongst our team, we will be fine in the end. And so we are.
You came aboard right when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. How did your company fare during the height of the crisis? When I joined the company in February, I held my first Penta staff meeting to present my priorities and what I wanted to tackle. At this point, we were informed about the new coronavirus outbreak in Asia, but we couldn’t foresee the total scale of it.
Luckily, having been in the hotel business for two decades now, I have the experience and knowledge to guide my colleagues on how to act in difficult and unprecedented situations. I was working at Hilton in 2001 when 9/11 happened, and we saw the hotel bookings get canceled straight away. Then we had the 2008 financial crisis, which was another major disruption. But the COVID-19 pandemic is of a whole new magnitude, and I could not have anticipated the severity of its impact.
Over the last few months, we have experienced a huge challenge and had to make some difficult decisions. Having 90% of our revenue down at the lowest point of the pandemic, we had to temporarily suspend some of our hotel operations, which was difficult for the business, the owners and the investors, but also for our staff members facing uncertainty. However, our staff are very committed, positive and are genuinely passionate about the brand—and our team spirit and can-do attitude have been a core strength during these challenging times.
As Winston Churchill once said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” and though we do see the detrimental impact, we have been determined to learn from it and understand the positives we can get out of it. We rose to the challenge with innovation and creativity, and developed a program outlining our new operating standards. This took four to five weeks to develop from inception to execution, which normally would take one-and-a-half, maybe two years. Out of our 23 hotels, six have remained open during the quarantine period, and we were able to test out our new standards, which we themed under our new campaign, “Between Us.” Now that all our hotels are back in operation, we have a huge task ahead of us.
Tell us about Between Us. Why was that name chosen, and what are some of the protocols for safety and cleaning? We wanted to implement all the necessary hygienic measures to maximize our guests’ safety and comfort without entirely compromising the special Penta spirit and what makes Penta appealing to guests as a lively neighborhood hotel.
So we came up with Between Us to guide our guests through their journey. We are saying that while we are forced to create a physical distance between us, we are also finding new and fun ways to reconnect and bond with each other.
Some of the measures we implemented include the VIP Rock Star Service—inspired by rock stars, who know a thing or two about social distancing—where we mapped out the routes that our guests can take around the hotel to limit interaction with others. Cash payments have been eliminated for the time being, and our guests receive useful perks on arrival such as the complementary “Take Care” package featuring a face mask, gloves, sanitizer and other items.
We developed the Naked Room concept, stripping back our rooms to contain just the essentials that our guests truly need, and only allow items back in that are safe and hygienic. Rooms are cleaned to a maximum standard, but during a stay we are not supplying housekeeping unless requested. In the morning, we’ll also put a snack bag outside the door with all the essentials; should a guest require additional items, we arrange it. We have included all the services that we believe to be beneficial to the current external circumstances, and we have taken some things out that decrease the level of comfort for our guests.
We also utilize technology to improve guest safety and experience. We made our own Penta Pointer, which is similar to a keyring that can be used to open all access points within the hotel, therefore reducing the risk of contamination. The Penta Hotel app that we are developing has features to allow guests to check in from home or chat with reception using their cellphones. We are even doing trials with heat cams to evaluate our guests’ feedback on whether this enhances their feeling of safety.
Are there any new hotels in the pipeline? Our current focus is to grow our brand in prime locations in secondary cities or in secondary locations in primary cities across Europe. Expansion should arise as a result of our strategy, not so much the other way around. We continuously explore expansion options and we have ongoing contacts with potential locations that are not ready for announcement yet.
Does Penta Hotels have any thoughts of expansion to the Americas? Nope. Not just yet.
How long do you think it will take for the hotel industry to return to the success it was having before the pandemic, and why? Unfortunately, COVID-19 is a predator and it will stay around for a while, so we are going to have to learn to work with it. As an industry, we are having to take a real “don’t crack under pressure” attitude as we adapt to the new circumstances. In order to do this, we have to stay strong and try our best to turn this crisis into a success by playing to our strengths, as well as recognizing which aspects were not working well even before the crisis. In the meantime, we keep on going with Between Us.
Where do you see Penta Hotels five years from now? Ten years? We have all the great ingredients: our supportive staff, financial stability and a diverse portfolio in different countries. We want to continue on the path that we were on before the coronavirus struck. We want to be a chain of lively neighborhood hotels in the mid-tier, four-star level for people who are looking for interaction and enjoy social hubs.