Responsible hospitality is needed in the crisis, according to Mathieu van Alphen, General Manager of Hotel Intercontinental Budapest.
Dutch national Mathieu van Alphen, General Manager of the Intercontinental Hotel Budapest says he was definitely at his senses when he chose Budapest to reside after spending almost six years in Cologne, Germany within the Intercontinental group. “I love this part of the world,” he notes, adding he also loves challenges. In 1993, he changed his Hamburg residence for the war-troubled Croatia, where he worked for three years, and loved it. Van Alphen considers himself a cosmopolitan European, who now seems to settle in Budapest easily. “If you are in the hotel industry, you obviously get used to different countries and cultures, and I am in the business for 25 years now.” He was born in the small town of Venlo, close to the German border, so different nations and languages around him seemed totally natural. The profession is in fact in his blood, as his architect father used to drag his family from hotels to restaurants throughout Europe. “He always wanted to become a cook, but my grandfather just wouldn’t let him. Right after WWII learning to be a cook just did not seem decent enough.” So he retained cooking as a passionate hobby, and so did I. Tin the mean time, I utterly fell in love with the world of the hotels and hospitality.”
Hungarian hotels have suffered a major setback due to the world financial crisis. “I am optimistic, but we are still not out of the crisis,” he says, adding he does not expect business to pick up before the second half of 2010. “5-star hotels dropped their prices by 20 %, but the overhead remains, cleaning still has to be done, breakfast has to be ready. Luckily, our hotel welcomes a good mix of business and individual guests, of which 95 % are international guests, coming from the US (20%), UK (20 %), Europe (50%) and Asia (the rest),” he adds. “There will emerge travelers who will spend less on travel.
The big spenders may cut back a bit, but because of the wide variety of services that cater for virtually all consumer spending capacities, there will still be business for us, even in the acute global economic recession. Most people worldwide will continue to earn income from their jobs and want to enjoy their fruits of their labor. They will want to take a vacation, attend weddings, take honeymoons, and there are always those on business trips.” According to the GM, Hungary and Budapest still have a good price and destination value, and he sees huge potentials, especially in the capital city. “Since July 2009 the VAT rate for hotel services is 18%, so I can see the government is trying. But, for Budapest being a dominant destination, there should be more cultural events, more festivals and fairs, targeting not only the young,” he notes. “That 3% city tax we are paying should be invested in promotions and image-building ads that reach the world,” he notes. “Our responsibility as hoteliers is to put Budapest on the map, for all our sakes,” he adds.
“I guess those who have the ability to adapt to the new circumstances, will survive in this sector. These times provide the opportunities to reinvent yourself. It is a sort of “going back to the basics” view we found utterly useful,” he notes. “If the hotelier digs down deeply to figure out what’s the best he could do for his hotel, taking PR, adverts, presents and gifts, etc. in consideration, then what he will soon conclude is that he has to provide damn good service to his clients,” he explains. “No abracadabra. The room’s not cleaner when there’s a little chocolate gift on the bed.”
Van Alphen finds it essential to strengthen their catering line, reflecting that this is the ultimate way to reach local clientel. “Our kids’ brunch is very popular and we always have some exhibition on display. Right now, the giant gingerbread house is the newest attraction,” he reveals. He also finds it important to be interactive and he intends to check and respond to comments on Tripadvisor and other tourist websites. A hotel has to fulfill the role in the community, according to the GM. “We are trying not to choose the easy way by giving money only,” he adds. The challenge comes when you try to put effort into something. Sometimes, it’s the little things that matters, I believe.” The hotel is keen on blood-drive days, energy-saving solutions, and the “more about the life than the job” sort of aspect towards its staff of 300.
“In these days, when there’s no extra budget, it is essential to keep a healthy environment where people are motivated and like to work.” And, as for the “little things”, he says he handed over office equipment and furniture worth HUF 2 million (EUR 7,500) to the Hungarian Red Cross. “The furnishings, still very useful, were no longer needed after hotel renovations,” he explains. They used the beds, tables and chairs to furnish the Families’ Temporary Home and the Mothers’ Home in Csepel. “Furniture needing repair will be given to its service house to provide work for the homeless.” Hotel Intercontinental Budapest, under van Alphen’s leadership, won the CSR Hungary Award in 2009.