Exclusive Interview with Peter Knoll

PragueConnect.cz interview with Peter Knoll, General Manager Kempinski Hotel Hybernská Prague

PragueConnect.cz is happy, to present you today an exclusive interview with Peter Knoll, one of the most respected and successful Hotel Managers in Prague. Being now three years General Manager of the Kempinski Hotel Hybernská Prague, there is a lot of interesting news and stories about him and his work in Prague. Enjoy reading and dive a few minutes into the world of a successful 5 Star Hotel Manager...

1.) You have been working as the GM of the Kempinski Hotel Hybernská Prague for over 3 years now: What were your thoughts three years ago when you were coming to the Czech Republic?

I was already quite familiar with the region, and I had had my first step into the Prague hotel market when I attended a Leading Hotels event in October 2006.  This showed me that Prague is a very competitive city and that it allowed for some great potential. However, I also knew that with the economic downturn that was the result of the banking crisis in 2008, the hotel market had an oversupply of rooms available compared to the number of potential clients and, due to this, there was a huge price war going on.  It was therefore a big challenge to survive in the hotel market, especially with a more specific or boutique style hotel. But when I was offered the chance to come to Prague I was happy to take it, as I had been in this situation twice before, when I was asked to make a turn-around of a small property and get not only the financial performance up, but also the recognition of the hotel within the local and international market.

2.) What was the main “reason” you were relocated to Prague?

There were actually two reasons that led to my move to Prague. First was the fact that I had recently rejoined Kempinski, but in a number 2 position (whereas I had been a General Manager before), and my goal was to get a General Manager’s position with Kempinski Hotels within two years of re-joining the group.  The second reason was the fact that our property in Prague was facing some challenges, for which someone with my expertise and background was needed, so it was a great match at the right time.

3.) How would you compare managing the Prague hotel with any of your other hotel experiences?

Having had the opportunity to work for hotels that ranged from 23 rooms to up to 700 rooms, there is quite a big scale of difference. But if you look at my more recent post in Budapest, for sure the biggest difference is the communication and responsibility line within the two hotels. In Budapest we had an executive team of 12 persons, each of them with a deputy and specific duties. Whilst there the job was more of a 'managing the manager' situation, the difference here in Prague is the fact that we have a very streamlined team, with just 6 people in the Executive team.  Most of them are without a clear deputy and are in job-combinations, such as Finance & Human Resources, etc, so more of a 'managing the people' style.  This allows for a much greater access point to the front line staff and, hence, overall team bonding.

4.) How would you compare the clients here in the CR and in the last hotel you managed?

There is not too much of a difference in regards to nationalities, as Prague and Budapest are more or less aiming for the same client mix. However, having a smaller, boutique style hotel, with very limited conference facilities, versus a larger hotel that is fitted for meetings, conferences and events in Budapest, the purpose of travelling to the hotel is different. Overall, I can say that we have a much higher mix of leisure travellers in Prague than we had in Budapest, where the majority of guests were visiting for the business purposes.

5.) Can you describe your first impressions when you first visited Kempinski Hybernská as the new GM? Does it always feel new and challenging or do you start to be a „pro“ and feel that it is just another „hotel to be fixed“ ?

I had made my first impression of the hotel half a year prior to my arrival, when I was asked to attend a 'fix-it' workshop and we put a road map together for the next year, the year I actually arrived. At that time, I was not scheduled to go to Prague and hence I could look at it with a different and non-biased view, as I just gave my input on how to fix it, but was not scheduled to be part of the change-process. But this changed due to the delay of another project internationally which I was supposed to take over and, due to this, I ended up in Prague after all. As a matter of fact this was a good move for everyone; the team in the hotel, the owners and the Kempinski, as I had looked at the changes again and now, with an operational view, some of the proposed changes that had been made on the 'green table' needed to be altered to fit with the reality. One point, for example, was the restaurant approach, where we wanted to re-locate the breakfast serving into our Winter-Garden, but once on site I realised that, with the potential growth of the business, the space would never be big enough.

6.) Can you please tell us what were the main changes you have done in the hotel and how have these changes influenced its operations?

The key change which I made was a change to our overall mission. Before the hotel was opened and the crisis had hit Prague, the aim was to be 'The Best!', which is something that quite a few of my colleagues in Prague have on their agenda. It is also very intangible and, due to this, difficult to achieve. When I arrived, I discussed this with my team and we changed it to a new mission, which was to be 'The Most Unique'.  Since that time we have prepared our plans and strategies differently. We did not copy others and try to be better, we started being innovative and doing things differently. One of the moves was to avoid 'The Brunch', which I was constantly being asked to do by different sources, but instead come up with the 'Thursday BBQ' instead, which was unique and, at that time in 2010, not yet seen in Prague.

7.) Are you planning any major changes in 2013?

We have made some major changes in the last two years and we are planning to fine tune those during 2013, so there is no major plan for change this year. However, we are now working on a three year document to position our F&B more clearly and to bring it from good to ‚the best‘ and the outcome of this will involve the whole team. Whilst I have some clear ideas already, I am unable to reveal them at this moment, as we need to look at the priorities as well as the profitability of all of these ideas and how we can turn them into reality.

8.) You have focused a lot on the dining experience – how would you describe development in this area?

The dining experience was key for me and we have made some major progress in this area. For sure this was due to the excellent creativity and leadership of Marek Fichtner, our Executive Chef, who is in charge of all restaurants, front and back of house. Having ideas by myself would not work if I did not have the right person to execute them as well. Marek has become a point of reference for the Prague media, has been for two consecutive years co-operating with Czech airlines on the business class meals for their long-haul flights, as well being approached to support Czech Tourism on their international representations. I feel that this is proof that we have a good approach that is making superb progress.

9.) You come from a hotel trade family - can you imagine working in a different industry? If so, what would be your dream job?

When I was a little boy, my grand-mother asked me what I would like to do. At that time, I was around 8 to 10 years, my dream was to become a Zoo Director. And if you are looking closer into the work of a General Manager of a hotel, you can see that there are similarities. You deal with different nationalities and cultures, have to adopt to different behaviours and needs, and most certainly never have a dull moment in your working week. On top of it, like in a Zoo, you have to be on stand-by 24h, in case something happens, be prepared for the unexpected, and plan for the unknown. With my family having their own hotel and being involved in the business since 1934 (it is now into the fourth generation) I cannot really imagine another field of work, as I enjoy it very much and get a lot of satisfaction out of it.

10.) You talk very positively about your current situation on the market – would you say that the general situation on the market is getting better (and if so, why?) or is it just your hotel?

For sure we have made great progress over the last three years and have positioned ourselves at the top of the rankings in the Prague hotel market. But this was not because we did everything right and the others wrong, but more due to the slow recovery of the market.   Having said that, it can be clearly seen that we have been able to change our positioning and gain a stronger share than the rest of the market; so it is certainly a mix of market stability and having the right strategy with the right executing team.

11.) Are you, personally, a difficult hotel guest?

By all means NO. I am more of a difficult traveller to myself, as I always look out for what is done elsewhere, what ideas are great and I could benefit from when I take them back with me to my work place. And if something goes wrong, I do not complain about it in a way that I am dissatisfied, but I try to give feedback to my colleagues to ensure that they can improve on it, not that I get a benefit out of their being wrong. This allows me to still enjoy my stays in other hotels, especially when I go for a vacation.

12.) What would be the next place that you would like to work in?

A question that I get frequently asked and I have no answer to. My preference would be to keep working in the European Union, as I have built my life in this area. With some openings coming up within Kempinski, I trust that some rotation will happen eventually and than we will see what becomes available when and where. But I am also happy to stay longer in Prague.  However, when my call comes and the location is right, I might just listen to it.

13.) If you can name one thing - What is it that makes Kempinski Hotel Hybernská Prague different from the other hotels in Prague?

It is impossible to pin this down to just one thing, but if I have to narrow it down, it would be two key elements: the uniqueness of the place itself (we call it the luxury of space), combined with the fact that we operate an international hotel group property as if it is family run within our team.

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