Skift Take

What's it like being the general manager of a luxury hotel during coronavirus? We asked Franka Holtmann, who looks after Le Meurice for Dorchester Collection. She spoke candidly and poetically about her worries, her new workflows, and how she cares for her team.

Travelers who dream of staying at one of Paris’s palatial hotels would struggle to find a more iconic one than Le Meurice. Opened as a hotel in 1835, the building has Louis XVI-style architecture and overlooks the Tuileries Garden close to the Louvre.

Since 1997, hotel operator Dorchester Collection has run the 160-room luxury property. It has brought Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse to oversee all of the dining, award-winning innovator Philippe Starck to reimagine its restaurants and bar. Le Meurice went through a partial refurbishment of 29 suites late last year, including the Belle Etoile Penthouse Suite, with design by Lally & Berger.

Skift contacted the general manager of Le Meurice, Franka Holtmann, this week to ask about what it’s like running a luxury hotel in Paris right now.

Holtmann has worked at some of France’s finest addresses, such as Le Meridien Etoile, The Ritz, and Hôtel Plaza Athénée. Here is an edited version of the interview.

le meurice general manager franka holtmann march 2020 source dorchester collection

Franka Holtmann, the general manager of Le Meurice. Source: Dorchester Collection

Skift: How’s business?

Franka Holtmann: This is definitely the toughest situation I have ever experienced since I have been working in the hotel industry. We have had several challenges in France over the past five years with terrorism, yellow vests [political protests], and strikes but nothing to compare with what we are living with now.

Skift: How are you planning?

Holtmann: What makes the crisis extremely complicated to evaluate is that it is happening in a cascade from one country to the next worldwide. So it is difficult to estimate the end of our actual confinement and thus the eventual business recovery.

I worry people won’t travel again soon, as governments give strict instructions to avoid the spread of the virus. We are taking all possible measures without hurting our employees who are on partial leave.

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Skift: How are you trying to be care for your staff while manage the business?

Holtmann: We are blessed to be part of Dorchester Collection. The company has guaranteed all our employees’ jobs and incomes have been protected. We all work hand in hand and never give up. This is key for all of us!

We have created chat groups and we do FaceTime calls with our teams on a regular basis and, should the confinement last longer than initially announced, we will revise our frequency of video conferences.

Our HR [human resources] director stays in close contact with our employees and remains at their disposal to answer any questions, as well as with our unions.

We even just opened a hotline where employees can call HR every day between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m., in case they suffer from anxiety or have any specific questions.

Skift: How has the rhythm of your day changed due to crisis management?

Holtmann: I go twice a week to see my security team at the hotel and follow up on video conference with our corporate office.

Le Meurice’s director of finance and I are constantly in touch to manage the financial implications and take the necessary measures week by week.

Our executive committee is constantly connected to exchange information, provide regular communication to our employees, and to make plans for the forthcoming months.

Skift: How about external communications?

Holtmann: All of our managers who are in contact with clients or business partners continue their relationship by phone or email, in order to stay in touch and to keep a good and positive spirit.

This is crucial, as after this unusual break, we will have to be ready in the starting-blocks immediately.

Skift: How do you prepare for a rebound?

Holtmann: Once again, we stay close to each other but are conscious that things will be different. We will have to change our mindset and leave our “comfort zone” before getting back to normal.

I believe Paris will come up with innovative events again, as I have heard already from personalities within the art world.

We will cope with it as soon as we have more visibility, as our projects will already be defined in advance. The difference is that this time nobody can anticipate the collateral damage of the crisis because we don’t know how and when it will end.

In the meantime, we have to keep informed at all times on the situation worldwide, we have to find new ideas to promote our destinations when the time is right, and we need all our teams to contribute to the reopening with energy and new ideas. That’s what we have to cultivate from now.

Skift: Have any of your personal routines been disrupted, and have you found a way to cope?

Holtmann: Physical contact has been totally disrupted, except with people you live with.

This is a radical change and not easy to get used to, but thanks to the digital evolution, we have various possibilities to keep in touch with those who are important to us. Social meetings via the internet with special platforms like video-conferencing service Zoom, help.

Skift: This is the first time in your career you’ve done your job mainly from your house. What’s that like?

Holtmann: I’m home with my husband, and I find a routine is important.

Professionally, I am learning step by step and realize how adaptable we actually are on our team. We often miss so many opportunities when we are in full speed in our jobs and I am convinced this period is a good occasion not only to create closer relationships with our family and friends but also to connect with ourselves and find out what else we would love to do or to learn.

Every day, I exercise on my stepper in the morning with the windows wide open. I plan FaceTime calls with my daughter to see her baby girl who I’m missing so much (she is only 2 months).

It’s the first time since our last summer vacation, I’m staying home with my husband for a while. I work every day. So we love to discuss together and to imagine the future after this quarantine. Lots of projects and ideas are in the air! It’s a new way of life, just the two of us!

Personally, I’ve discovered a passion for cooking, and I’ve also started to write a diary, just to remember this unprecedented and strange experience in years to come.

Skift: What’s your message of hope?

Holtmann: A poem from Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore that’s titled “The Storm,” which I received from a dear client and which I adopted immediately:

And once the storm is over
You won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive.
You won’t even be sure, in fact, that the storm is over.
But one thing is certain.
When you come out of the storm,
You won’t be the same person who walked in.
That’s what this storm is all about.

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Tags: coronavirus, crisis management, dorchester collection, hotels, international luxury travel market, leadership, luxury

Photo credit: A terrace view of the Parisian skyline from the "belle etoile" suite at Le Meurice, a luxury hotel. Dorchester Collection

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