Budapest’s potential as a luxury destination – an exclusive interview with Julien Carralero, General Manager, Four Seasons Hotel Budapest
CPP: Recently, the Four Seasons Gresham Palace Budapest has been ranked the number 1 hotel in Northern Europe in the US edition of the prestigious Conde Nast Traveller’s 23rd Annual Readers’ Choice Awards. What are the key features of your hotel which have lead to this exceptional ranking ?
J.C.: The most important features are the warmth of our employees and the level of service that they consistently deliver to our guests, with a high level of care and attention, as well as the exceptional and unique architecture and interior design of the building. The level of comfort offered in our guest rooms, the unusual and beautiful art nouveau design touches, and our location on the banks of the Danube, are also key features of an unforgettable guest experience.
CPP: The Hungarian capital city is mixed destination, attracting both leisure and corporate travellers. What is the percentage ratio of leisure travellers versus corporate travellers in your hotel ?
J.C.: It varies based on the seasons, but overall we see 60% leisure travelers versus 40% corporate and business travelers.
CPP: How do you think Budapest is perceived as a tourist destination internationally ? Which are the international markets which the Hungarian Tourism Authority should target in order to attract wealthy travellers and what communication strategy should be applied ?
J.C.: In the last five to seven years Budapest has worked towards promoting itself better as one of the major central European capitals, but there is still a lot to do, such as building the new convention center and enlarging the airport. I think there is still more work to be done in marketing the city in North America, and especially in the United States. I also believe that the Asian markets, such as China, Japan and Singapore could ultimately bring more travelers to Budapest. In addition, now that Emirates Airlines and Qatar Airways are flying into Budapest, we should see more travelers from the Middle East.
CPP: Which are the top three nationalities who are among your most loyal customers ?
J.C.: Our most loyal customers come from the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, in that order.
CPP: Unlike other Eastern European countries such as Romania, Bulgaria or Serbia, Hungary’s wealthy segment is considered more conservative, with a lower affinity for luxury brands and less ostentatious. How important is the notoriety of brand when it comes to hotels for the Hungarians ? What would be the percentage of local Hungarians versus foreigners who are customers of your food and beverage outlets and the SPA?
J.C.: Our Hungarian guests come to the Gresham Palace because they recognize that Four Seasons consistently delivers the high quality and unparalleled service that they value. Approximately 40% of our guests in our food and beverage facilities are Hungarian. We offer a Spa membership and 65% of our Spa members are Hungarian. But in relation to the overall volume in our Spa, local Hungarian guests represent 20%.
The notoriety of brand is becoming more important as more brands are being marketed and sold in Budapest. As the upper segment of the Hungarian population continues to travel more, and the younger generation becomes more affluent and sophisticated, the recognition of luxury brands will surely grow.
CPP: What do you think about the potential of Hungarian luxury/premium brands to become known internationally ? (food, wine, porcelain or cosmetics). Do you feature such Hungarian products within your hotel ?
J.C.: We do offer Hungarian products, such as the fine wines, prime grey beef, and the Mangalica ham, as well as our prime goose liver. All these items are appreciated by the discriminating traveler who is looking to experience the tastes and culture of Hungary. We also use Herend porcelain in some of our food and beverage facilities. Hungary still has a long way to go in terms of better marketing itself in Europe and farther afield in comparison to other national luxury brands.
CPP: What is your opinion about the potential of Budapest to attract other international deluxe hotel chains ? Is Budapest a feasible destination for such chains ?
J.C.: Four Seasons has always believed that there should be other international luxury hotel chains in Budapest. The arrival of other luxury brands will only serve to further position Budapest as a key destination in Europe. Budapest is, after all, in the direct center of Europe and easily accessible to all major European capitals.
CPP: The international crisis has impacted the Hungarian economy too. What were the effects on the travel industry ? What was the impact on your hotel and what measures have been taken to counter the effects ?
J.C.: Like any other business in Budapest, and in Europe, we have been affected by the economic turn-down that started in 2008. As business decreased we had to find a smart way to continue to operate the hotel without compromising our quality and service standards. We specifically trained our workforce to become more flexible. Employees were cross-trained in multiple areas, giving the staff a lot more service flexibility. Obviously, as occupancy went down, employees that left us were not replaced, but we always maintained a high ratio of employees per occupied room in relation to our local competitors. This economic downturn has made us overall stronger and has prepared us better for future challenges. Communication and trust were essential during this difficult process, but our employees have seen the benefits of their hard work and learned a lot about how to adjust a hotel’s course to continue to deliver the service our guests expect, even during difficult times.
CPP: What are the novelties you plan to implement at the hotel in the coming future ? (culinary, packages etc).
J.C.: Our Executive Chef Simone Cerea will continue to offer small, exclusive cooking classes throughout the course of 2011. We will also continue to offer wine maker dinners in cooperation with Hungary’s top vintners. We continue to develop creative guest packages, such as the Winter Getaway Break, The Experience More Package, and the very popular Bed and Breakfast Package. Also, since the hotel opened, we have been developing relationships with local artists and offer guests unique experiences such as private art gallery tours to introduce our guests to the rich artistic culture in Hungary.
Julien Carralero is the General Manager of FOUR SEASONS Gresham Palace Hotel in Budapest, one of the finest luxury hotels in the Hungarian capital city. A beautifully restored art nouveau palace, the Four Seasons Gresham Palace has an unrivalled location overlooking the Danube river, at the foot of the famous Chain Bridge.