How Kempinski Global Hotel Management Expertise Provided a Competitive Edge during the Pandemic.
The Hotel Overview.
The Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski St. Moritz is an iconic 5-star luxury hotel located in the Swiss Alps in a breathtaking mountain setting. With 184 comfortable rooms and 44 luxury residences, 2,800 m² Spa area and culinary delights restaurants including the two Michelin Star Restaurant Cà d'Oro, the hotel has tailored the Kempinski White Glove Services Standards to ensure a healthy and safe environment for all their guests and employees. It is opened to welcome guests for 8 months a year, from June through September during the summer and from December until April during the winter season.
International guests represent about 60% of the hotel’s clients, typically coming during the summer season primarily from the U.S., Asia, Middle East, Italy and Germany, and for winter season also from other European countries, the UK, and Russia. With a strong local Swiss German market added to the international segments, the regular hotel occupancy rate during the summer season is up to 65%, while during the winter it is up to 80%.
The General Manager.
The General Manager, Mr. Konstantin Zeuke, has been working for Kempinski since 1998 and has managed Kempinski properties all around the world. During his international career, he went through several crisis situations including those resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 when he worked in the Emirates and the bank crisis in 2008 while working in Slovakia, but he was unable to draw on those experiences to face the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. He believes that his hotel’s success during the pandemic was due to the productive collaboration and timely response of his hotel management team, the information support from the Kempinski hotel management group, and Grisons cantonal government support all working together to overcome the challenges. The key to success according to Mr. Zeuke was making fast decisions and taking immediate action without hesitation. He recalls that even if one of three decisions was less than optimal, it was easier to improve it later than to have lost time and have even more issues to deal with. As an example, the decision to close the hotel was taken immediately the day after the ski lifts were closed. Everyone took the situation seriously and they were able to completely close the hotel within just two days. Similarly, the re-opening of the hotel was done with thorough analysis and preparation and timely delivery. As a result, the hotel didn’t suffer many loses.
The Hotel During The COVID-19 Pandemic.
In February 2020 the hotel was fully booked but, suddenly, by the end of February almost all reservations had been canceled due to the announcement of the developing COVID-19 pandemic. The ski lifts had stopped operation, all restaurants had closed, and people had stopped travelling. As a result, the hotel had to take the decision to close in March, just a few weeks prior to the end of the important winter season.
The Kempinski global hotel management group had faced the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in China and the lessons learned there were incorporated into a comprehensive internal document named Kempinski White Gloves Service Standards outlining safety measures, service quality standards, and procedures for immediate adoption at its international locations. This comprehensive guidance provided the management of the Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski St. Moritz with the confidence to reopen again for the 2020 summer season.
These world class service standards, linked to COVID-19 hygiene and safety measures that were regularly updated by Kempinski regional headquarters in accordance with national and regional rules and regulations, provided standardized guidance to its hotels. The local hotel management task was to implement these measures while maintaining the convenience and quality of service at the high level expected by their demanding guests.
To implement these new measures prior to the hotel re-opening for the 2020 summer season, online crisis meetings were organized for hotel personnel and follow-up meetings ensured that the new measures were reviewed with every single employee. Intensive employee training then took place, with strong focus on all operational departments. Employees fully accepted the new requirements, being already quite sensitive to the pandemic situation from their own daily life experiences. Managers and supervisors continuously monitored compliance and strict adherence to the rules by every employee.
For the hotel guests, numerous messages communicating new hygiene and safety measures were delivered at different stages of their engagement with hotel. These messages were initially published on the hotel website to inform the guests during the booking process and to reassure them of the safety of staying at the hotel during the pandemic. Upon arrival, another message was provided to the guests, outlining the safety rules and regulations at the hotel. The majority of the guests gladly accepted these rules, appreciating the safe environment guaranteed by them.
For the 2020 summer season, which is normally starts in June, the hotel was obliged to postpone its opening for a few weeks due to the persisting international travel restrictions. Notwithstanding, the 2020 summer season turned out to be successful thanks to the guests coming from Switzerland and neighboring countries like Germany and Italy. The percentage of domestic Swiss market increased from 40% to 60% during this period.
Despite the ruling generally prohibiting events and public gatherings during the pandemic, the Kempinski St. Moritz hotel was able to host a classic car event. It was possible because during the event the participants were sitting in their own cars and following all of the COVID-19 distancing and mask restrictions. The St. Moritz municipality and the Grisons cantonal authorities assisted by providing guidelines on how to manage this event.
In December 2020 the hotel opened for the winter season with all of the restrictions and safety measures in place to provide a secure environment. The hotel management had decided to limit the occupancy of the hotel during the winter season to 60% so that it could comply with COVID-19 social distancing requirements and provide sufficient comfort and services for the guests under the restrictive pandemic circumstances.
Even though all events that are usually scheduled for the beginning of the winter season had to be cancellated, the numerous returning loyal guests were able to partially compensate this loss. Also, because Switzerland was the only country in Europe that didn’t close ski lifts during the 2020-2021 winter season, many people were attracted to functional ski resorts like St. Moritz and the bookings were encouraging. All outside restaurants were closed or offering only take away services, and this obliged hotel guests to have their meals in their own hotels which reinforced revenues from the hotel restaurants.
All hotel employees were tested for coronavirus weekly at the cost of the hotel, and this frequent testing allowed an early detection of an outbreak of the South-African variant among hotel employees that obliged the hotel to close in the middle of January 2021 together with another 5-star luxury hotel in St. Moritz facing the same challenge.
When the coronavirus infection was detected among employees, all of the guests were informed and immediately isolated in their rooms for a quarantine of 24 hours. With guidance from the canton, a crisis management meeting was organized and a task force team was created by the hotel to manage the situation. The guests were informed that they all must undergo a PCR test and that they could be released if the results were negative. During this quarantine period, the hotel provided room service to every guest free of charge. None of the hotel guests tested positive for coronavirus, so they were all allowed leave the hotel which was then completely closed for two weeks. This showed that the preventive measures undertaken by the hotel worked perfectly. The feedback from these guests was mostly positive because the entire situation had been managed with care and in a most professional manner. Those employees who tested positive, and had to be isolated, received full support from the hotel during their quarantine period. Their colleagues assisted them with food shopping and delivery of any medications required.
This story was published in many Swiss newspapers and ironically played a significant role in building an image of a safest hotel in Switzerland. This unintentional publicity attracted the attention of potential clients and eventually brought even higher number of guests.
Unlike many other luxury hotels in St. Moritz that were forced to close for quarantine and did not open again, the Kempinski St. Moritz decided to reopen. Many of those guests who were locked in their hotel rooms for 24 hours and had to depart after testing immediately returned upon the reopening of the hotel. The virus outbreak among employees had alarmed the hotel management, and pushed them to implement even more stringent safety measures. At reopening, every guest had to provide a negative PCR test certificate, be vaccinated, or show proof of recovery from coronavirus. There was no resistance or any complaints from the guests, and they clearly appreciated the increased safety measures and gained more confidence in the hotel knowing that they were surrounded here with every guest and employee checked for coronavirus. In addition, the hotel opened a COVID Test Center in the hotel for their guests and this was very much appreciated because most guests required a negative PCR test result to travel back home.
Enhanced COVID-19 Safety Measures
In a 5-star luxury hotel the hygiene standards are already at a high level, but during the COVID-19 pandemic intensified training of the staff took hygiene to a higher level at the Kempinski St. Moritz. Cutlery was polished more often and after every guest visit both lounges, the saunas, and other areas were systematically cleaned and disinfected. The hotel provided masks and hand sanitizer to the guests in their rooms, equipped every employee with a set of masks for the day, and hand sanitizer dispensers were available throughout the hotel. For valet parking, guest cars were fully disinfected after each use by a hotel employee. The guest luggage was also disinfected after delivery by an employee to a guest room on arrival or to the guest car at departure. None of the traditional services where employees touched guest possessions were abolished to ensure that the luxury service environment was maintained, with just a strict disinfection policy being implemented. The only exception was room service which was delivered to the door for the guests to take the chariot into their room themselves, unless a guest specifically required being served in the room by a hotel employee; however, most guests accepted this safety measure. Also, the guests had a choice of suspending housekeeping services and having no hotel personnel entering their room during their stay; however, most of the guests elected to continue having their room being cleaned twice a day as during normal times.
To enter the Spa area, a reservation was required to reduce the total number of guests there to only 35 at a time. Also, a reservation was required for the restaurant and two seatings were arranged that shifted the overall time of the restaurant service to earlier hours. Now it was open from 6 pm instead of 7 pm and had to be closed at 10 pm, with the second seating starting at 8 pm. The seating at the restaurant was limited to 4 people per table and in any case of disobedience, guests were asked to leave the hotel. In accordance with government regulations, the hotel did not accept any external visitors to its restaurants, allowing only registered guests to dine there. There were naturally a few guests who complained about the restrictions; however, the hotel had clearly communicated all enforced measures multiple times to the guests prior to their arrival and during their check in, so the vast majority of them did not have any negative comments. The guests had no other options for dinning because all of the restaurants outside of their hotel were closed during the pandemic.
The hotel buffet breakfast, which has always been known as one of the best in Europe, required a different approach during the pandemic. Hand sanitizer dispensers were provided at every strategic location, and guests were required to wear a mask and gloves while taking the food from the common service area where the buffet tables were protected by plexiglass shields. The option to be either fully served at the table or to use the self-service buffet was offered to every guest, but all drinks were served at the tables. The chef was cooking eggs to guest orders, but the portions of cold items like cheese and meats were packaged separately for individual use. Thanks to the reduced density 60% occupancy, the buffet services were able to be managed in compliance with all COVID-19 safety measures.
In addition to the shielded buffet tables, plexiglass protective shields were placed every place where close interaction between guests and employees was necessary, including the main and Spa receptions and other service areas. These particular pandemic-oriented safety measures turned out to be quite useful, and will be kept in place permanently.
Marketing efforts by hotel were actually reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic because events were not allowed, while regular guest reservations were coming through established channels that did not require additional push. Still, social media channels were used more than before. Many returning loyal guests that were usually staying at the hotel only during the winter season also came to the hotel during the summer because their preferred summer destinations like St. Tropez or Sardinia were all closed. The only thing that has been done differently is that the hotel provided virtual tours to its top agents worldwide via social media and conference calls. The hotel also shared video online showing how different meals and cocktails were prepared. Despite the pandemic, in February 2021 the The Cà d'Oro restaurant won a second Michelin start and his achievement was widely announced on social media. Various cooking classes by the restaurant’s head Chef were also eventually offered virtually.
While many countries remained restricted from travel, the Eastern European market with guests from countries such as Poland, the Check Republic, and Slovakia has picked up significantly during the pandemic. These new countries have expanded the geographical coverage for the hotel, bringing new business without any promotional efforts in those geographical areas.
The hotel slightly increased prices during pandemic period to partially compensate for limited room availability due to the 60% occupancy rate limitation. Most of the reservations were arriving at the last minute and that forced the hotel to totally rethink their planning process. As an example, during the winter season at the beginning of the week there were sometimes only about 30% of the rooms reserved but by Friday all of the available rooms were fully booked for the weekend. It was never like this before the pandemic, but clearly people could not plan their vacations in advance due to uncertainty from the constantly changing travel regulations.
During the winter season the hotel was able to maintain all of its employees that were on the contract thanks to the Swiss government’s financial support. With subsidies for the reduced working hours, the hotel placed about 20 % of its employees on a 100% paid leave until their contract expiration. During the 2020 summer season there were about 25% fewer people employed than before the pandemic. For the upcoming 2021 summer season, the hotel plans to have only about 10% fewer employees as compared to pre-pandemic times.