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Interviews with Successful Hotel Managers : Rainer Burkle, GM, Ritz Carlton Shanghai Pudong, China
By Lily Lin, Chief Editor, iworkinhotels.com
Rainer Burkle was born in Baden Baden, Germany. He qualified as a Master Chef at the age of 24. He also completed the summer college at Cornell University in Marketing, Finance and Human Resources. Rainer has been with Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company for 20 years and has worked in the hospitality industry for 35 years. In 2009, he was appointed as the General Manager to develop and open the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong, the seventh Ritz-Carlton hotel in China. He had also carried the position of the Regional Vice President since his arrival in China in 2007, which put him in charge of managing the properties of The Ritz Carlton China in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Sanya, Shenzhen as well as the new upcoming openings in Chengdu and Nanjing. Prior to his current position, he worked in the hospitality industry in Europe and the US, including being the GM of the Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul and the Ritz-Carlton, Berlin, from where he also oversaw Ritz-Carlton hotels in Moscow and Wolfsburg in a regional capacity and thereafter the award-winning Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai. Earlier, he held various food and beverage positions at Claridge's and The Berkeley in London. He also worked in the U.S. in various key positions in operations and food and beverage in various Ritz-Carlton Hotels.
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company operates 78 hotels in the Americas, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean and has won the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award twice in the US for its outstanding customer service. The Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai, Pudong, is a luxury hotel that has 285 rooms and occupies the top 18 floors of the Shanghai IFC South Tower, which is located in the heart of Shanghai financial district, equivalent to the Wall Street in New York. Recently, the Hotel was voted as "The Best Hotel in The World" by the readers of Conte Nast.
You started your career in F&B. Did you always want to work in the hotel industry?
I would say yes. My parents ran a car dealership. They had close relationships with their major corporate clients and were always concerned with customer service. Some of their corporate clients, when attending the local car shows or visiting my parents' dealership, stayed in the local hotels. When my parents took me with them to visit their clients at the hotels, I always found the hospitality business interesting and connected quickly with the hotel staff.
You worked for a Michelin-Star Restaurant in Germany, Traube Tonbach. Did that experience inspire you to have a Michelin-Star restaurant in your hotel one day?
I was fortunate to have worked in the Black Forest at The Traube Tonbach Hotel. It was a family business over many generations. Chef, Harald Wohlfahrt, who had started his gourmet restaurant, Schwarzwaldstube, just a few years before, accepted me. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn about a different kind of cuisine in my early days. The focus was on details - on keeping everything precise and meticulous. Nothing was left to chance. Today, his restaurant is amongst the top 30 in the world and for over two decades it was awarded with three Michelin Stars. As a young cuisinier, it was really an inspiring experience!
You opened The Ritz Carlton Shanghai, Pudong. What was the most valuable lesson you have learned from this experience?
I opened The Ritz Carlton in Pudong. Pudong is the new Wall Street of China. I've been in China for five years and during this period Shanghai has changed tremendously. Pudong was at one time the outskirt of Shanghai but is now a part of the city center! Our luxury hotel is a part of a huge complex that includes a sumptuous shopping mall, office spaces and serviced apartments. Ritz Carlton occupies the top 18 floors of one of the twin towers.
Not only have I learned many things while opening this hotel, also, as a Regional Vice President, I also supported the opening and managing of other Ritz Carlton hotels in China. I've learned that it's important that the owner understands the requirements of a luxury hotel, the location is right and the quality of product is up to the standards. On top of it, if you add the wow factors, such as fantastic room views, coupled with the Ritz-Carlton service philosophy, you have a winning package! In the end, it is essential to deliver what is promised; providing guests with a personalized, high level of service that focuses on details!
I have the feeling that you are a people-oriented person. Has this affected your management style?
We want to create for our guests a memorable and unique experience in our hotels. This requires all employees sharing the same goal. A GM is on his own unless his people share the same views. You don't lower your standards --- even if you are challenged by the situations or by your employees. I believe one of my talents is to work successfully with people. I try to convince and inspire them to reach the ideal standards. If you can get everyone to work towards the same direction and understand the real purpose, you can create truly good experiences for your guests.
Are you a strong leader? I mean, how would you describe yourself?
I wouldn't be here and I wouldn't be working for Ritz-Carlton for 20 years if I weren't a strong leader. I constantly critique my own actions and try to find ways to do better. The journey is never ending.
One of your previous hotel management experiences was in Berlin. What are the cultural differences between Berlin and Shanghai?
In the end --- and according to the theory of Maslow's Needs --- the requirements of employees are basically the same no matter where they are. The German way is very accurate and detailed -oriented, but we often forget to smile. Efficiency is important but without a heart it is not complete. Chinese are a little different. You have to convince your employees that the standards are not to be compromised and are to be kept consistent, so that our guests will get the kind of luxury services that they expect. Obviously, the more I can help our employees to achieve our goals, the better the results. We work with many very young and less experienced employees. There are moments you can comment on your people's performance, and there are moments you must wait for them to discover on their own. We rather go for the talented young people and build them up, so that they will learn and understand the Ritz Carlton way from the first day, and are willing to stay with us for many years to come.
How did you personally make the adjustment of moving from the West to the East?
It doesn't help to deny the fact that you must adjust. The change of moving from Europe to Asia is considerable. When you know you are going to a different culture, you should research the culture and its history. Also, you can learn so much about the behavior patterns from the people you are working with and surrounding yourself with. I am not a know-it-all person. I ask questions and my people are happy to answer. Of course, you make mistakes but you learn from it. One mistake is OK but the same mistake twice becomes a problem. Of course, it does take some time to adjust to the local culture.
You have been in China since 2007. What was the most difficult issue you had to face?
Personally, I didn't face any particular issue that really affected me. My wife and I are concerned parents; so the most difficult thing was to move my two children to different schools several times. It took approximately 9-12 months for them to adjust to their local environment. I wished I could have avoided that.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
One of the most difficult issues for a leader in China is finding ways to keep your employees. Many people will move from one job to the next simply because they will receive a slightly better pay. This makes it very difficult to keep consistency, while conducting the daily business and securing service qualities. The solution is for the leaders to build and maintain closer relationships with their employees, so that they would feel a sense of collaborate identity, loyalty, and would be willing to stay with the company much longer.
Do Chinese employees depend on their leaders on both business and personal matters?
It is true that people rely on their leaders on business and personal issues more so in Asia than in Europe and in the US. But the younger Chinese workers are changing --- they are becoming more independent. Nevertheless, if one of the employees is getting married, we might be asked to actively take part in the wedding. Our employees are also heavily involved in their community, helping the elderly or underprivileged children, for example.
I am sure that you are aware of the economic situation in Europe and in the US. Has this affected the hotel industry in Shanghai?
We haven't seen a real decline in sales. It is probably because of our hotel's location. We have had a strong Chinese base right from the beginning. Nowadays, approximately 75% of our guests are Chinese from Mainland, Hong Kong or Taiwan. In spite of the challenges, over the years many European and American businesses have set up their operations in China and this has helped to continually bring their business to this part of the world. However, we saw some declines in leisure travelers from Europe and America, which we hope to reverse this year.
Overall, in China, increases in the number of travelers have led to more brands and consequently to more available rooms, thus, overall competition is increasing.
Is there a fundamental difference between the European hotel market and the Chinese hotel market?
There are many differences. From the product availability point of view, most of the luxury hotels you are seeing in China are brand new --- from the last four to six years. From the growth point of view, China is leading --- the growth rate is phenomenal! From the guest expectation point of view, Chinese guests are learning fast! No longer is there a significant difference in guest expectations between the Chinese and Europeans --- except that Chinese guests can be more critical about the services provided and the physical set up of the hotel.
How do Chinese guests make their hotel reservation?
Most of the guests review hotels online. But 80% of the reservations are done through the telephone.
In your opinion, will social media websites become one of the major players in making room reservations and selling hotel rooms in China?
It's already a major factor. Although Chinese love to read and give opinions online, they feel more comfortable making reservations over the phone. The booking window is getting shorter worldwide but in Asia it is almost instant. Some travelers would call the hotel at 10:00 in the morning to make a reservation and two hours later they are checking in. Nearly 10% of our business on weekends is done this way.
If you were to hire a general manager, what are the most important qualifications?
I would like to see the individual who possesses:
What advice would you give to those who are interested in pursuing career path in hotel management?
When I first started in this business, I had a dream to become a GM. I always let my supervisors know that I wanted to grow. Possibly because of this, they always helped me. My advice is: "Go for your dream!" Keep in mind that it's important that people around you feel good about your ambitions too. Steve Jobs once said that you have to "live" at the moment, "love" what you do, "learn" for the rest of your life, and "leave a legacy" of what you believe in.
My legacy for instance would be that I opened this hotel and 20 years from now the physical property will still be here. Yet, the most important legacy for me is that our employees will keep striving for excellence.
What were your proudest or the most satisfying moments in your career life?
Two years ago, I received the Ritz Carlton President's Award. The Award is given every two years.
If there is one thing you could do it over again, what would it be?
So far, I've made all the right decisions. I work for a great company and good bosses. I have a great wife and two kids. I'll speak up if I don't like something . . . .
Finally, what will be your next career move?
I've been in China for five years. I've been privileged to be a Regional VP and the GM. By the end of 2017 we will possibly have 10 additional Ritz Carlton hotels in China. It has been a rewarding experience. Eventually, I might move into a position in the regional office or the headquarters. We will see. . . . I will keep going as long as I have fun.
About Dr. Lily Lin's Blog
Lily Lin, MBA, Ph.D. is the Chief Editor of Dr. Lily Lin's Blog at http://iworkinhotels.com. She has extensive experiences in marketing management, consulting and training. She has taught in American, German and Dutch universities. In addition, she is also an academic board member of the Schouten University, Master of Business Administration, a British accredited online university.
For more than 20 years, she was the designer and the senior lecturer of a number of courses at the Hotelschool The Hague, including Revenue Management, the first ever offered at the School. She conceived her latest project, "Interviewing Successful Hotel Managers Series", in which she interviews hotel managers from major international chain and independent hotels. Her interviews and other works are published regularly in her blog.
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