Tasked with re-establishing the iconic InterContinental Hotel as one of the premier five-star hotels in Bucharest, General Manager Jonathan Soper discusses opportunities for the capital’s high-class service sector
“The NATO conference will be a massive media and marketing opportunity for Bucharest and I would hate for the city to lose out on this,” says Jonathan Soper, General Manager of the InterContinental Hotel Bucharest.
Exploiting the event will be the biggest test of the capital so far. Around 1,000 members of global press corps will stay over between 2 and 4 April this year to cover the summit where heads of state, including Sarkozy, Bush, Brown and Merkel, are set to debate security issues, such as troop deployment in Afghanistan and relations with Russia.
Soper has experience of managing the InterContinental Ceylan in Istanbul during the 2004 NATO summit.
“Istanbul handled it spectacularly,” he says. NATO’s stamp of approval heralded a boom in conference business for the Turkish city – a trend that Bucharest should anticipate. But the Romanian capital still lacks a convention centre that can handle over 10,000 delegates. “If Bucharest wants to sell itself as major convention destination, we need an airport, infrastructure, hotels, a convention centre and facilities for at least 5,000 delegates,” says Soper.
In January 2007 Soper took over the InterContinental Bucharest, when the hotel ceased to be a franchise and became part of the UK-based InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG). The symbolic 23-floor building was designed by a mix of Romanian and American architects in the 1970s. During the 1989 Revolution it became the backdrop to major demonstrations and a haven for journalists covering the fall of the Ceausescu era.
Since then it had faded into the background on the five-star city hotel scene, as the revamped Hilton and massive JW Marriott emerged in the late 1990s. Soper was signed up to re-establish the hotel’s high position in the market.
“I don’t want to be running a mature hotel which has been the same for 20 or 30 years and managers floats in and float out,” says Soper. “Here one can hopefully make a difference.”
Since taking over, Soper says he has managed to establish the hotel as a “serious competitor” to the Hilton and Marriott. Activity in the lobby, restaurant and, especially, in the conference rooms has moved up a gear.
But competition is on the rise. This April the 424-room Radisson SAS will open on 63-81 Calea Victoriei, offering tough competition. “As long as the market is buoyant there is room for another five-star hotel,” says Soper. “The Radisson is a big hotel with a strong brand in a great location.”
Soper believes the new entry could hit the JW Marriott, which is further from the centre and airport. “In the Radisson the rooms may prove to be less large than they may wish for,” he adds, “which could continue to give the established five star hotels a competitive edge.”
There is also a plan, as yet unconfirmed, to open Starwood’s five-star brand Le Meridien in the under-construction Victoria Complex on 133-135 Calea Victoriei for a tentative date of 2010.
“After Le Meridien, the five star market will be well-covered,” says Soper.
However he believes the super-exclusive brands may see future opportunities in Bucharest, such as the Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons, which offer intimate service in unique buildings.
“A top quality hotel will not survive here without a well-respected brand name,” says Soper.
Business travel still outnumbers tourists across the city’s hotel markets. For the InterContinental, 95 per cent of its visitors come from outside the country, while in Turkey at least 25 per cent of the business was domestic.
The clients of the InterContinental are mainly from the USA, western Europe and Israel, while leisure tourism is a minor part of the business. This gap in the city break market means Bucharest’s hotels can see 100 per cent occupancy from Monday to Thursday, but a drop down to 50 per cent at the weekends.
Hoteliers have argued that Bucharest needs a joined-up approach to promote the city involving the Mayor, central Government and private business.
“Bucharest has fabulous architecture, museums and galleries, fantastic traditional and classic music scenes,” says Soper. “For visitors who fly in on Friday and leave on Monday, there is more than enough to keep occupied. Bucharest just needs destination awareness.”
Major problems include the traffic circulation, parking and ubiquitous, dangerous and unsightly overhead wires, argues Soper.
However Bucharest lacks a consumerist mentality in marketing its tourist spots, says Soper. “There is no retail effort at all in the museums,” he adds. “In the west there is always a gift shop, restaurant and cafe. Here you enter a museum and see a couple of people reading a newspaper and having a cigarette. No one is promoting the place or making customers feel welcome. This can change. Romanians are nice, friendly people. There just needs to be training.”
Who is Jonathan Soper?
In 1968 a teenage Jonathan Soper was interviewed by a psychoanalyst to work out which career path to follow. “We played around with bricks and I put pins into the things and the upshot was that I should either be a journalist, diplomat or hotelier,” he says.
Taking a gamble on the latter option, Soper studied hotel management in Switzerland, worked for Block Hotels in Kenya and was then hired by the InterContinental chain in 1980. The next year he was running the InterContinental Livingstone in Kenneth Kaunda’s socialist Zambia, where the economy was dependent on copper and there was no foreign exchange.
“In Zambia there were only two bottles of whisky in the hotel,” says Soper. “One was in the bar, the other was in my apartment. If a customer asked for a whisky, the staff would call me up and ask if this was possible. I would tell them: Is he a VIP? Is he a Six Continents Club Member? If the answer was yes, he could have one, but just one measure.”
For the rooms, there were no mod cons to clean the floors.
“We ended up bartering with South African lorry drivers moving between Tanzania and their home country,” says Soper.
He gave drivers a shopping list of appliances in exchange for bed, board and beer. In return, on their way back from South Africa, the drivers came back with six vacuum cleaners.
This never put Soper off management. Since then he has run hotels in New Orleans Abu Dhabi, Jordan, Istanbul, and the Al Bustan Palace Hotel, Muscat, Oman, which, in 1989, won the Best Hotel in the World, according to the magazine Leaders.
Redevelopment of the InterContinental Bucharest will start in September this year with a completion date target of 2010 in an investment of between 15 and 20 million Euro. The hotel does not plan to close during that period. There are currently 283 rooms and the redevelopment will see the number increase to 379. The lobby, which now has a bright geometrical design with an interesting golden theme, will be gutted and redesigned. There will be new restaurants and bars, while the 21st floor will be transformed into a function space and a 400 sqm executive lounge with panoramic views over the city.
The InterContinental Hotel is the only IHG brand managed directly in Romania, since the Crowne Plaza transformed from direct management to a franchise at the end of last year.
Soper does not believe there is the potential for an InterContinental brand outside of Bucharest, but believes IHG’s three-star Holiday Inn or Holiday Inn Express would “definitely” work in Romania. “There is a real market for a good strong three star brand,” he says.