Thomas M. Fischer has been in charge of the Corinthia Hotel Budapest for the last year and a half. The Budapest landmark celebrates the tenth anniversary of its reopening this year but is actually 127 years old. We spoke to him about the market position of the hotel and its prospects, as well as his reasons for offering generous terms to the hotel’s latest tenant, the editorial office of The Budapest Times and Budapester Zeitung.
How was the first half of this year for your hotel?
We can’t complain. We recorded a growth in turnover of seven to eight per cent compared to the same period of last year. We were also able to improve our occupancy rate and our average revenue per overnight stay.
What do you see as the reason for that positive development?
One reason is the further strengthening of our profile in the private customer field, which was necessary for reasons including the Malév bankruptcy. In tandem with that, the corporate customer field also picked up. In addition, the high water level of the Danube and the resulting interruption of traffic on the river led to increased demand for accommodation in the premium hotel segment. We benefitted from our very good cooperation with the cruise companies. In general, however, all hotels are helped by the fact that Budapest is an incredibly attractive city where the value for money is unbeatable in the whole of Europe.
What about the current image of Hungary abroad?
Unfortunately that’s still a topic. I was recently on business trips in Germany, England and Switzerland. The current image of Hungary came up in all the talks. It doesn’t make it easier to market Hungary. Without wishing to sugarcoat anything, I repeatedly have to make clear that a lot of what is written in the Western media about Hungary doesn’t entirely match the reality. However, there are also misconceptions in other respects, for example with regard to purchasing power. The large hotels in the premium segment here have average rates of 100 to 120 euros per night and then, unlike in London or Paris, that’s the end.
What do you think is the reason for the fact that the number of bookings in the corporate sector is gradually recovering?
A lot of airlines are rediscovering Budapest. Those who are really benefitting tend to be the hotels in lower categories, rather than the five-star hotels, but of course some of it gets through to us as well. The general business climate has improved somewhat here. Overall our good figures are, however, also an indication that we have simply worked hard.
What distinguishes your hotel from its competitors?
We’re certainly the hotel in our segment with the longest history, dating back to 1896. That’s one reason why a lot of customers choose us. We’re a grand hotel with history but absolutely competitive and with a modern interior design. That combination is highly valued. We even offer tours of our hotel, both to guests of our hotel and external guests. We have a small hotel museum which we put together this year to mark the tenth anniversary of our reopening. Another great advantage of our hotel is our complexity.
How do you mean?
We’re the most “complete” hotel on the market: there’s no comparable hotel that offers so many different rooms and other options. Our wide range of conference and meeting rooms sets standards, not to mention what is probably the city’s most beautiful ballroom. Such high ballrooms – ours has a height of eleven metres – are rare throughout Europe. Another highlight is our beautiful indoor swimming pool in the spa area, which dates back to 1886. In other words, it’s even older than the hotel itself. Its size also makes us stand out in our segment. We offer our guests six different dining possibilities under one roof. That’s unique as well.
Presumably all that more than makes up for the lack of a Danube view.
Yes, definitely. And indeed it can even be debated whether the Danube represents the city centre, or rather Andrássy út. There’s no other five-star hotel that’s so close to Andrássy út, and in particular to cultural institutions such as the Hungarian State Opera House and the Budapest Operetta and Musical Theatre. The Liszt Ferenc Music Academy, which will reopen in October, is so close to our hotel that theoretically you can drink a glass of champagne at our hotel in the concert interval. Just a few minutes’ walk from us is also the Jewish quarter with its famous ruin pubs and one of Europe’s largest synagogues. Of course it isn’t the case that we simply fall back on all those advantages. We’re constantly engaged in developing our hotel and improving what we offer.
What are your plans in the near future?
We want to develop our dining offering further and develop our events field, which functions well even now, especially in terms of technology, for example by offering modern solutions using smartphones and tablet computers. We plan to make greater use of such solutions in general. The Apple stores and airports are my models for that. There are a lot of solutions there that could be adopted by us in the hotel industry, for example when it comes to checking in or conferences. I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be possible to use a smartphone or a QSR code stored on it as a room key, along the lines of the solutions used at airports. I believe there’s still a lot of potential for development there and further opportunities to distinguish ourselves from our competitors. I don’t want to have a hotel that’s just like all the others. We have to think ahead. That includes looking out for successful solutions in other fields and implementing them here, as well as a certain openness and eagerness to experiment in general.
Do you have sufficient freedom here to do things your own way?
Of course we have group guidelines that we have to follow but we’re a family-run company with nine hotels, and considerably quicker and more flexible in many respects than a mega enterprise with several thousand hotels. Our tenth hotel, in Taormina in Sicily, will join the group next year, by the way. We’re also working on further projects in European metropolises, as well as in New York, Africa and Rio. Another key difference is that all our hotels are owned by us. In other words, we aren’t a pure management company like almost all other large hotel chains. Our capital is invested in our hotels. Of course that also has an effect on our everyday business. The general managers are expected to run their hotel like their own company. Anyone without an entrepreneurial spirit who simply waits for instructions from the head office would be out of place. That’s quite unlike many large chains and requires a certain managerial type. Of course we also have corporate guidelines but also a great deal of freedom. Good communication between the managers of our nine hotels is very important. That makes it possible for good solutions to be adopted quickly by other hotels. Such experimentation and development is what makes my work so attractive.
When it comes to experimenting, does having such a historic hotel pose difficulties?
On the contrary: we see our great past as a commitment for the present and the future. Our hotel set standards in the premium segment in Budapest over a hundred years ago and that should remain the case. It’s a question of carefully retaining the achievements of the past, while also satisfying the demands of the 21st century, i.e. combining tradition and modernity. Of course we need to know what direction we want to head in but we also shouldn’t forget our history.
When did you begin work as general manager here?
A year and a half ago. The time has passed incredibly quickly and I don’t have a fixed-term contract. As long as our owners are satisfied with what we’re doing here, I don’t see any reason to turn my back on Budapest. My predecessor was here for six years. I can envisage a similar timeframe.
Some managers would already gradually be thinking about packing their bags again.
To my mind that doesn’t make any sense. I don’t regard stays of shorter than four to five years as very meaningful. Luckily my approach is in line with our very long-term company philosophy.
You even go so far as to live in the hotel itself.
That’s not strictly true. I don’t live here in the hotel – that’s a key point. We also have 26 residences in a separate building that we manage. That’s where I’m living at the moment. The two buildings are connected but essentially I go home in the evening from work like anyone else. Probably I won’t continue living there forever. I don’t intend to carry on living there throughout my time at the hotel like my predecessors, but for the start it’s naturally perfect. I’m relieved of having to take care of a lot of things myself that I would have to if I had, say, a house in Buda. And of course that begins with the complicated search for a suitable home…
You live not only near your workplace but also in the centre of an exciting district of Budapest. Do you take advantage of that?
Yes, certainly, whether we’re talking about the doner kebab stand just around the corner, the local Starbucks or one of the many fine-dining restaurants within walking distance of a few minutes, such as Fausto. The multitude of gastronomic and cultural possibilities here is impressive, and it’s continuing to develop. More and more sections of streets are becoming traffic-calmed areas and new venues keep springing up. The whole of this quarter is excellent. It’s fun going out in the evening here.
Which restaurants or bars would you personally recommend to guests?
First of all, those in the hotel itself. Working their way through the menus there would keep guests busy for quite some time. (laughs)
Then I would perhaps first recommend the restaurant scene on Liszt Ferenc tér, where there are around 20 bars and restaurants in one spot, grouped around a small park. It feels almost like a large inner courtyard. The whole lower section of Király utca is very good. I would definitely recommend a visit to one of the ruin pubs, in particular the perhaps most prominent representative, Szimpla. I haven’t seen such decor anywhere other than in Budapest. The large market that takes place every Sunday in the Jewish quarter is also an experience.
What would you recommend on the cultural front?
Definitely the Hungarian State Opera House and the Budapest Operetta and Musical Theatre. It’s also certainly worth visiting the Madách Theatre, which, like us, is situated directly on the Nagykörút (large ring road), just a few minutes on foot towards Blaha Lujza tér. It’s an excellent theatre for musicals. I lived for three years in London and saw a lot of shows in the West End but the quality is better here. The productions are absolutely world-class. The stage sets alone are unbelievable. I hadn’t expected that, especially as the Madách Theatre is not particularly spectacular from outside. I really take my hat off to them.
You give the impression that you regularly find time in the evenings to visit all these places.
Far less than I would like to but enough to be able to form an opinion.
My next question concerns our own affairs. You have offered our editorial office generous rental conditions. Why? What is your reason for doing so?
Like The Budapest Times and Budapester Zeitung we are a strong brand with a very interesting and exclusive clientele. There are large overlaps between our target groups. I hope the fact that the two newspapers now have their editorial office here at our hotel will have both direct and indirect positive effects for our business. I also assume that in terms of publicity it’s certainly not a disadvantage that these two valued newspapers of the expat community are situated here. I’m thinking here of reporting about hotel events in particular. Or how do you see it?
There’s a phrase “out of sight, out of mind”. I think the opposite is also the case, so I would say your assumption is correct.
However, there’s also more to our hospitality. It’s not easy for media companies today despite their importance. I’m aware that The Budapest Times and Budapester Zeitung are hardly rolling in money and that their survival depends greatly on the solidarity of the German-speaking and English-speaking communities. I find it very important that both newspapers continue to exist as integral parts of Budapest’s foreign-language infrastructure, as well as the Hungarian press landscape, so I was happy to contribute to that with the help of my hotel. If the community wants to continue to have its own newspapers, its exponents need to contribute within their means. Incidentally, taking responsibility for our host country and its institutions is part of our business philosophy. For that reason we also support, for example, the work of the Csodalámpa (magic lamp) foundation, which helps seriously ill children. To me and the Corinthia Group, sustainable management means looking beyond our own nose and engaging in other socially important areas too.