‘Off season is the new in season’: Luxury hotel CEO reveals insider trends

Experiences

Hotel La Palma, in Capri. (L), Timo Gruenert (R). Image source: Oetker Collection

Timo Gruenert started his career at Oetker Group in 2005 as the Assistant to the Managing Partner of Dr. August Oetker KG. In 2009, he co-founded Oetker Collection based on what was, back then, a portfolio of four prestigious hotel properties owned by the Oetker family: Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa in Baden-Baden, Le Bristol Paris, Château Saint-Martin & Spa in Vence, and Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes.

For the following decade-plus, Gruenert, now CEO of the group, would expand the hotel group’s offering. Its most recent luxury opening, and Italian debut? Hotel La Palma. Capri’s first-ever hotel, originally built in 1822, has been transformed into an exclusive 50-room-and-suite hotel, located steps from the famous Piazzetta.

You took Oetker Collection from 4 Masterpiece Hotels to 11 how did you drive that growth?

I would say we took our time to find the right Masterpiece hotels and, crucially, the right partners to collaborate with. It’s all been done through an exceptionally measured approach because we have a duty to safeguard the Masterpiece status of our existing portfolio.

In fact, it is sometimes more about what you do not do: we do not join the race for growth that many other companies pursue at the moment. Many luxury brands have announced plans to double their hotel portfolios over the next few years. This is all not for us. Finding hotels that deserve to be called Masterpieces is a true challenge, like finding a needle in a haystack. We enjoy this search, and occasionally we find one, but good things take time. In terms of location, we like places that are much appreciated and frequented by our discerning guests today: Capri and Palm Beach very much underscore this approach.

What do you think makes an Oetker, ‘Masterpiece’? And what defines the Oetker Collection experience?

Masterpieces are – by definition – truly unique; examples of rare craftmanship and created with an almost obsessive attention to details. Think of a sculpture from Michelangelo, the Mona Lisa, or an haute couture dress by Dior. We translate this concept to the world of luxury hospitality. It all starts with our aspiration: we do not see it as our mission to manage luxury hotels, our aim is to create Masterpieces. We never ever compromise on quality. Then it comes to our team members – they share a strong family spirit, have a real passion for being hosts, and genuinely care about our guests. I expect everybody in the organization to be in perfect harmony with this culture. It is this rare combination of quality and attitude, that creates the special emotional bond between our guests and our hotels.

Every one of our hotels has its own distinct personality. Hotel Le Bristol is, for example, a true Parisian Palace with unapologetically ornate interiors and world class French gastronomy. But while it is exceptionally grand, there is an unmistakable atmosphere of warmth. At Eden Rock – St Barths, things are glamourous, chic, and a bit ‘rock ‘n roll’, but again, the service is like you’re being hosted by great friends. This is what sets us apart – our teams give our hotels a soul and personality. We aim to create exceptional hotels with a high level of sophistication and elegance, while at the same time welcoming guests like they are part of a family, and I would say that defines the Oetker Collection experience.

Tell me about the Capri residence – what excited you about that?

First off, we only seek to open in the world’s most desirable locations, and you don’t get much more iconic than Capri. Hotel La Palma is an island legend – the very first hotel on Capri – with an amazing history and fantastic architecture, so the bones of a Masterpiece were there. We enlisted world class design with AD 100 interiors guru, Francis Sultana, whose vision pays homage to the hotel’s heritage and incorporates bespoke furniture and fixtures from the most prestigious Italian artisanal companies.

For culinary concepts, we partnered with Michelin-starred local hero, Chef Gennaro Esposito. We are also fortunate to have a much-coveted private beach club, Da Gioia by La Palma in nearby Marina Piccola. Everything about Hotel La Palma is a dream and we are so excited to be open for its first season.

Hotel La Palma, in Capri. Image source: Oetker Collection
How do you go about transforming something old into something new? What do you keep – and what do you change?

For us, amazing architecture is a prerequisite for a hotel joining Oetker Collection, so we try to pay homage and restore original elements where possible. In The Vineta Hotel, for instance, we have found something very special, starting with its Mediterranean Revival architecture. Acclaimed designer, Tino Zervudachi is leading the complete renovation. I have another interesting anecdote about original features: The Woodward in Geneva was formerly a bank in an earlier incarnation, so we converted that to a speakeasy-style cigar lounge, complete with the big foreboding steel vault door.

In the aftermath of a pandemic, how do you feel the luxury travel market has changed?

I think a key takeaway from the period of isolation during the pandemic, is that it made people come to the realization that spending time with the right people at the right place is an essential part of a fulfilled and happy life. This is for sure a trend that we appreciate a lot. I would say multigenerational travel has increased – again, an appreciation on the value of time and maximizing it with loved ones – and also people have taken to going on even more trips throughout year, enabled by remote work.

I also feel today’s travellers are increasingly taking note of a hotel’s sustainability credentials before booking, making it vitally important that each individual property within the Collection is doing its utmost to reduce its ecological and social impact. There has been a significant rise in the number of travellers visiting with an increased focus on wellness experiences.

By virtue of the distance that Australian travellers have to come and the desire to fully maximize their stay, they tend to travel to multiple destinations while in Europe, so we see multi-country bookings. They may start at Le Bristol Paris, go onto Brenners in Baden Baden, then onto London, before flying to the South of France for a stay at Château Saint Martin. We have also seen huge pick-up from the market at Hotel La Palma in Capri and we know Italy on the whole is hugely popular with Australian travelers.

It is not necessarily new, but I think discerning luxury guests are more and more seeking a high level of personalised service. They want to feel valued and appreciated. They want anticipatory service which is bespoke and curated to their needs. I don’t see this changing anytime soon.

It is also true to say that “off season is the new in season,” as travellers are increasingly opting to visit during the typically quieter months in order to experience the best of a destination without the crowds. In particular, the Caribbean, that is now considered a year-round destination – Eden Rock – St Barths and Jumby Bay Island are benefiting from this trend.

Oetker’s price point knocks out the younger generation – or does it? What are you noticing with the next generation?

In contrast to recent years, a younger crowd is visiting hotel restaurants as the next generation are much more open to investing in unique and luxurious dining experiences, particularly when travelling for a special occasion. Our hotels’ social media is undoubtedly serving as a catalyst to attract a younger generation to our hotels especially through the reposting of organic user-generated content.

I believe we are also resonating with the next generation of guests through innovative partnerships – for example, with Drest, the world’s first luxury fashion gaming app, which invited users to style avatars as if they were staying at one of the hotels.

What’s the best or most interesting thing about your work – and conversely, what’s the hardest?

My role is safeguarding our collection while considering the opportunities which we are presented with as potential new Masterpiece additions to Oetker Collection. We are currently in a highly exciting period with the addition of three properties since 2021. Firstly, we opened the doors of The Woodward in Geneva in September 2021, then this summer, we have just launched our first ever Italian Masterpiece Hotel with Hotel La Palma in Capri. We also recently announced our foray into the US with the forthcoming opening of The Vineta Hotel in Palm Beach, slated for a 2024 debut. I also find the constant evolution of our hotels inspiring; we have these amazing properties, many steeped in history, but while upholding their incredible legacies, they are constantly striving for more and innovating.

A case in point: Hotel du Cap just launched its Dior Spa and this season, unveiled a brand-new Italian restaurant, while Le Bristol Paris just launched an exclusive NFT project and new Pasta Atelier. The ongoing challenge is ensuring we constantly exceed our performance and our guests’ expectations. We have a responsibility to deliver upon our value promise.

Hotel La Palma, in Capri. Image source: Oetker Collection
What’s your favourite travel destination and why?

With two small children, I must admit that convenience gained a bit of importance recently. Overall, I like diversity: I love to be in metropolitan cities like New York, Hong Kong, or London, where the energy is infectious. But I also enjoy the nature, especially the Alps, in winter as well as in summer. The serenity of the landscape there puts lots of things in perspective. Brenners Park Hotel & Spa in Baden-Baden is by the way a wonderful place to combine both: urban living with excellent options in art, concerts, and gastronomy, in the middle of a pristine countryside. I also love being by the sea, and we are spoilt for choice with the options in the collection, from Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc to Hotel La Palma and our two stunning hotels in the Caribbean.

What are the plans for Oetker Collection in the next 5 years?

To continue doing what we are doing to our exacting standards and having our guests explore the entire collection. We are in a fortunate position that the Oetker family thinks in decades, rather than short term vision – we seek to open just one hotel a year at most. What we do takes time, patience, and dedication – not to mention sweat and tears! – so for now , our focuses are on our immediate openings in Capri and, soon, Palm Beach.

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