A former Sultan’s palace on the shores of the Bosporus, the Çırağan Palace Kempinski frequently plays host to prestigious events, from lavish weddings to G20 gala dinners. Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul General Manager and Regional Director of Kempinski Residences Turkey Ralph Radtke explains how the hotel maintains its dominant position by constant investments in facilities, services and training.
Istanbul is now the fifth most visited city in the world, outpacing even New York. What makes Istanbul such an appealing destination for business and leisure travelers?
Business is really strong, although we had a little downturn during the last two years. If you compare Turkey to other European countries or with our neighbors, we’re in a much better position.
Due to business activity there’s been an important increase in demand and the third airport currently being constructed in Istanbul is expected to turn this city into an important hub of international aviation, as well as being the biggest airport in the world.
Tourism, on the other hand, has always been present in Turkey. The difference is that now the government has a special approach to attracting 60 million travelers by 2023.
This step forward to a different level also requires the expansion of Turkish Airlines. We need to offer direct flights from a larger number of countries; this, along with an improvement in infrastructure, will increase capacity.
Turkey is a country with a very rich history – not only Muslim history but also Christian history. Istanbul, under the name of Constantinople, was supposed to be the capital of the Roman Empire with its Christian emperor: Constantine.
When visitors come to Turkey, the main destinations they visit are the beaches in Antalya and Bodrum or the city of Istanbul, whilst locals also visit Ankara.
However, there are many other regions and areas in the country that remain unknown, despite having huge historical potential.
I would add another reason why people come to Istanbul: now it is one of the most popular medical tourism destinations with reasonable prices compared to other countries.
I came here four years ago, and since then I witnessed a huge increase in the number of people coming here for medical interventions, from heart implants to dental treatments or cosmetic surgeries.
Core markets Germany, Russia and the UK all grew in 2014, whilst there has been a huge increase in arrivals from the Gulf, North Africa, and the Far East. How have the source markets for Çırağan Palace changed over recent years, and how have you responded to the growing number of arrivals from the Gulf, Maghreb, and the Far East?
Due to seasonality and weather conditions during December and January – with the exception of holidays – we may only have a little decrease in arrivals throughout the year.
Apart from these months as, we do not have a low season, and we continue to be one of the important meeting points in Istanbul.
The main markets for us have always been America, Great Britain and Germany. However, some of these markets tend to be too sensitive about safety sometimes and they don’t really know much about Turkey, our location, or our present situation.
Therefore we may face a decrease due to misconceptions.
We are not too dependent on Russian tourism, unlike the beach destinations such as Antalya which have experienced a difficult time due to this dependence lately.
Fortunately, Russians who come to our hotel are not impacted by the current political and geopolitical problems.
During the summer season, for instance, we have more people arriving from the Gulf. The royal families from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE come here at that time of the year.
But we’re not the only city receiving tourists from the Gulf. If you go to Munich in August it’s full of Gulf tourists as well, although they travel to Europe for other reasons, like avoiding the high temperatures in their areas.
In the summer season, we have 50% leisure tourists and 50% business people; and we also receive school vacation groups from all over the world.
Çırağan Palace is the most famous luxury hotel in Istanbul. What are the features of this hotel that allow you to stand out from the competition?
I think our main advantage is our location. Çırağan Palace is in a unique place with expansive grounds.
We’re the only hotel in an imperial palace with a long history; three sultans have lived here and it also was the first Turkish parliament building until it burnt down.
God gave us the location, the palace was already here, so we only had to restore the building. However, we don’t want to be known only for our location, but also for the quality of service that we provide to our guests.
That’s the reason why we don’t need a lot of publicity when we have celebrities here, unless it’s their wish. We have special procedures concerning confidentiality.
We have more than 700 well-trained people working in the hotel who are focused on guest satisfaction. While working in the hospitality industry, you must be a team player.
We always aim for perfection.
Çırağan Palace essentially embodies the notions of Turkish hospitality and opulence. In light of the G20 link between tourism and employment this year, can you elaborate on how Çırağan Palace Kempinski supports the development and training of your staff to maintain the highest levels of service and hospitality?
We invest a lot on training at Kempinski because we strongly believe that training people and enhancing knowledge will lead us to a better future.
We have internal and external trainings; we have contracts with other Kempinski hotels that allow the staff to learn from the experience of working with other people, in different countries and destinations.
Moreover, we’re implementing exams in order to reach excellence, so if you don’t reach a certain level you can’t be promoted.
The major problem we face is the lack of language skills. This is an especially sensitive issue because we’re in the service industry and, if we have problems communicating, guests get really annoyed.
We had, for a long time, a permanent English teacher teaching our staff. Although schools and universities in Turkey are usually very good, there are not many people outside Turkey that speak Turkish, except for some surrounding countries or Germany where there are about 3 million Turks.
Then we have online training. This is for all kinds of positions, from room service staff to waiters and front desk staff. We attempt to make the learning process fun, as the best way to learn something is while having fun.
In February you hosted a gala dinner for G20 Finance Ministers. Do you expect to play a further role in G20 activities this year, and how do such events enhance the appeal and reputation of Çırağan Palace for MICE tourism?
We are always having politicians and government delegations visiting our hotel and they’ll continue to come as long as Turkey plays a major role in this environment.
Regarding MICE business, Istanbul is one of the most popular congress destinations in the world and an ideal city to convene congresses and events.
As Çırağan Palace we host very prestigious and high profile events every year. The G20 Finance Ministers’ dinner was one of the most prestigious events of the year, but in terms of the volume we also host bigger events.
In the MICE segment, due to the high budgets of clients, the best service is required. My team is quite experienced in terms of providing the best service even to 1,000 guests in one day at the same time.
This helps to positively differentiate us.
In terms of your future business opportunities, considering this is a $100 million revenue hotel, who are the clients you’re targeting in the future? Do you expect your customer base to change in the years to come?
In the hospitality industry, if you do not invest in the product and people, you cannot create consistency in your success.
Therefore, we have some strategic plans in terms of the product and structure that we currently present to our guests.
With these developments, there will be a change in the guest profile; the average age will decrease. In terms of nationality, there are some very important emerging markets for us.
For instance, Mexico is one of the rising markets. Direct flights from Mexico will also help to increase the tourism potential in here.
Furthermore, the Turkish government is playing a key role in opening new markets for us. This approach will help us to have and create more key markets for Istanbul and Turkey.
You are a German citizen who has worked all over the world before you arrived here in Istanbul. What would be your overarching message about Istanbul that sums up its potential as a destination to visit for both business and leisure?
I don’t have a favorite place. Thanks to my job, I enjoy the great luxury of combining my leisure with the places that I wanted to discover. All the places I worked in are very special, so I couldn’t choose one.
If you are at the Cipriani in Venice, for example, you’ll think Venice is the best place in the world.
Whenever I go to work in a different country I expect to leave the country with much more experience. So by the time I go to the next destination I am better prepared than I was before.