Interview with Johann Kerkhofs: It gets more and more difficult to motivate people to work abroad.
Johann Kerkhofs is Managing Director at Lindner Hotels Real Estate, subsidiary of Lindner Hotels & Resorts, and Arborea Hotels & Resorts, two leading companies in hotel development. A seasoned practitioner and thought leader with nearly three decades of experience under his belt, he discussed with Movinhand about sustainability, the importance of design in modern hotels and the way technology is disrupting the hospitality sector.
I have noticed that hoteliers over the last few years pay more attention to aesthetics, particularly design. Is the reason that customers care more about it or something else?
Hotels focus on what the customer wants, which is in many ways different from 10 years ago. We have seen changes in the way both hoteliers and consumers approach hotel design, including interior design. Technology for example has changed, so you need infrastructure for smartphones, i-phones etc. A few years ago a customer who wanted to check something about the location or a restaurant nearby would ask the concierge, but today they use their smartphones for that.
Sustainability has also become more important for customers, not just hotel owners. We are trying to make buildings in ways that are not conventional. The same goes for public areas, eg parking and public space. Hotels also need to fit in the climate of the location. So we try to adopt a green approach and use natural materials - not plastic and concrete but stone, leather and wood. This is the general direction of travel in terms of design.
You also have to pay attention to how much people are prepared to pay nowadays. For example when people go for dinner, they prefer to go to local restaurants and not stay at the hotel. The hotel experience is changing and this creates a challenge to create new products.
Does the demand for sustainability come from customers or hoteliers? Or both?
Both. We see that investors more and more expect buildings to be constructed in a sustainable way. Hotel operators have the same attitude too. One reason is to reduce cost because energy can be quite expensive. In the conference industry too many companies expect the hotels where their events will be organised to be sustainable. People from the corporate world also look more into it. Many senior people think “I am staying there because it has a sustainable concept”.
I believe we will see more of that because we are facing environmental challenges. Governments and the media have also been raising awareness on these issues. For example in Germany and Holland they push people to use solar energy at home. Some think that solar energy is too expensive, but on the other hand it has become more affordable than in the past. At one of our hotels for example, Green Media Hotel in Belgium, we aimed to make it as energy effective as possible, so we developed systems to reduce the amount of energy needed to run the hotel.
You have created some thematic hotels around concepts such as football, well-being, etc. Is this the future of the hotel industry?
Indeed, our team has focused for many years on thematic hotels on themes such as race track, sports, zoos and others. It’s an interesting niche market. We believe that all hotels should have something special and be recognised for a specific identity, so that customers know where they are. We have many corporate clients who like to use this kind of facilities and it is also an attraction which helps you go the extra mile compared with normal hotels.
You mentioned technology as an important factor in the customer experience. There is a lot of buzz around the sharing economy, Airbnb and the like. Are these platforms a foe or a friend for traditional hotels?
It is something that hotels have to embrace. Some hotel companies see it as a threat, but because it is a new trend we need to understand why the client is engaged - why people prefer staying with a local rather than in a hotel. They want a product that is more individualised, so hotels should try to become more individualised too.
In terms of interior design, I think we should develop hotels that are and look different from existing ones. Many people don’t like anymore staying at hotel chain branches that all have the same design. With Airbnb it also matters a lot what you get in terms of service. So for example you get to know the owner and if you need something they can help. Younger people in particular want to have more contact with the locals and get to know them.
So I think that with Airbnb we are in the middle of a transition period. A big part of the hotel industry has not understood that very well. Some hotels have adapted well and have developed a different atmosphere, so they are more successful than many big players who tend to be stagnant and have a uniform system in regard to how they develop a hotel.
But you have to take into account how new clients think. Young people have grown up in the era of the internet and the smartphone, so they have different needs. Customer behaviour is changing and hotels have to adopt. I think that the hotel with 300 rooms that are all the same is not anymore what the client wants.
A big part of it is also nostalgia, going back to the roots. In the past, you knew everyone in your building, but nowadays people in the cities feel alienated and want to talk to each other and communicate. I think we have to get back to that.
And a few questions about recruiting. When developing a hotel in a foreign country do you hire locally or do you bring people from abroad?
Both. When we develop a hotel in a foreign country we usually place a German team and match it with a local one. In some cases the General Manager is German and most other people are local.
Do you face any skills shortages internationally?
Yes, sometimes it is difficult to find the right people. In most cases we have managed to do it mostly by motivating people from within the organisation to move abroad, but we also partner with local online platforms to find staff. It largely depends on what level of seniority you are looking for.
Is the main problem visa regulations? Or that people are not aware of these opportunities?
It gets more and more difficult to motivate people to work abroad. If you are used to working abroad it’s ok, but within big organisations some senior members of staff have always worked in Germany and don’t want to move abroad. So if we need international staff, we see it as something difficult. In many cases we build the profile of the ideal candidate and then we look at competitors and try to find people whose CVs meet our criteria. In a way it is easier to find managers than rank-and-file staff!