It is 45 years since five of Rome’s top hotel general managers met at the Hotel Ambasciatori to discuss the changing nature of their role, in the context of an increasingly integrated European hospitality environment.

They conceived an uncomplicated, proudly elitist concept: "an association of professional managers operating first class or luxury hotels of international repute committed to fostering fellowship and fraternity".

The following year, in 1976, representatives from some of the continent's grandest hotels gathered at the Ambasciatori for the first general meeting of the European Hotel Managers Association (EHMA). But questions were raised regarding the pan-European nature of the group; among its first 40 members, only ten were non-Italians. By the 20th general meeting in 1992, however, total numbers had swelled to around 380 members drawn from 20 nationalities.

Fast forward to 16–18 March 2018 and EHMA, under the presidency of Hans Koch, is meeting in Marbella for the 45th year. The association now boasts over 400 members drawn from almost 30 European countries and, while its ultimate purpose remains the same, many aspects of the industry it represents are virtually unrecognisable.

From the significance of global brands to the nature of hotel ownership to the power of digital platforms, GMs have needed to learn a lot of new skills over the past few years and EHMA has had to evolve accordingly. Yes, the general meeting remains a wonderful opportunity to catch up with old friends and share war stories, but it is also now a forum for learning new skills and meeting an array of experts invited from inside and outside the industry.

Modern organization

This year, the theme of the event was “smart data for luxury destinations”, with a programme built around the value of leveraging digital platforms and new technologies, in order to improve operational performance and get closer to one’s guest. The significance of fusing old values with new tools was a theme that delegates returned to throughout the event and EHMA is indicative of this trend, extensively modernising while at the same time remaining close to its heritage.

“I can still remember growing up [as] the son of a general manager, seeing the EHMA book on my father’s desk. It was his bible,” reminisced Tomas Feier, general manager of Paris’s five-star Disneyland Hotel and one of 26 new members to join the association this year. “I had a childhood dream of joining this glamorous organisation, so for it to actually be happening is something amazing.”

In such a competitive market, attracting new members is always going to be a challenge. A major addition to this year’s event was the debut of the Young EHMA Project, a programme that seeks to engage rising stars of the hotel scene nominated by member GMs. This freshman group consisted of ten young hoteliers, introduced to the conference following their own separate educational session on the first afternoon. They joined the rest of the conference for proceedings throughout the education day, providing a valuable injection of youth that has the potential to greatly enhance the association as a whole over the next phase of EHMA’s evolution.

Specialised app

The other major innovation at this year’s event was also indicative of the association’s commitment to modernise and engage. A previous criticism of EHMA has been that not enough was done to leverage the talent and expertise among its members in the 12 months between general meetings. Here was a collection of some of the continent’s best hoteliers, exchanging ideas and best practice, but, all too often, the conversation would end after two days of networking, as delegates flew back to their respective countries. The question has been how to keep that dialogue going and the solution is EHMA Talk, a communication app developed in collaboration with Beekeeper.

The impact of this platform was startling throughout the event, with mobiles buzzing constantly as delegates shared photos, ideas and feedback with their peers. It has been heartening to see members continuing to engage with the app since returning from Spain and the added value that it brings to EHMA membership is already tangible.

“It’s a really exciting development,” Hans Koch told Hotel Management International over coffee during a break in proceedings on the opening afternoon. “What we really want is to get people talking throughout the year, sharing experiences, keeping in contact. This has been specifically designed with the needs of EHMA members in mind and now we need to keep encouraging people to take part.”

I can still remember growing up [as] the son of a general manager, seeing the EHMA book on my father’s desk. It was his bible.
Tomas Feier, Disneyland Hotel

But you still can’t beat meeting your peers face-to-face. People don’t usually need much encouragement to visit Marbella and, despite a soundtrack of steady rain throughout the weekend, one couldn’t have hoped for more generous hosts. The official welcome was provided by Count Rudolf von Schönburg, better known as Conde Rudi, an iconic figure in Marbella hospitality and former member of EHMA; Susana Ibáñez, Andalucía’s secretary-general for tourism; and Kika Caracuel, vice-president of the Diputación de Málaga. Furthermore, the host hotels served as wonderful ambassadors for the region’s hospitality scene: the Gran Meliá Don Pepe, which held the main body of the conference, and Hotel Puente Romano, which hosted the gala dinner on the final night.

Talent and ideas

Invited speakers for the education day were drawn from an array of sources and included presentations on opportunities in an emerging luxury hospitality hotspot from Kurt Grötsch, CEO of both Chinese Friendly International and Silk Road Experience Group; Carlos Díez de la Lastra, CEO of Les Roches Marbella, on the need for greater adaptability and nuanced talent management on the part of luxury hoteliers; the impact of the internet of things (IoT) from Álvaro Carrillo de Albornoz, director-general of the IT Hotel Technological Institute; and José Luis Calvo Salanova, cognitive computing director of Sngular, who also addressed IoT, as well as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and blockchain.

Palmiro Noschese, Meliá Hotels’ managing director for Italy, presented a project he has undertaken on behalf of EHMA, developing a certification programme for hotel general managers. This is an exciting proposal and it will be interesting to see where it stands in 12 months’ time. You can read about developments in more detail on page 78.

But the star attraction on this year’s bill was Dietmar Dahmen, a selfdescribed “creative consultant, visionary, futurologist and innovation expert”. For more than an hour, the former advertising executive prowled the stage, speaking passionately without notes and backlit by a series of striking visuals, as he highlighted the need to adapt to a changing digital environment and evolving customer expectations. “If something is everywhere, it becomes the new atmosphere,” he said of the allencompassing influence of data. “This new atmosphere oxidises old technology, old ways of doing things. Fail to grasp that and you, too, will die. Digital is the end of mass thinking, because it allows you to individualise things.”

However, Dahmen stressed the promise of technology to empower rather than replace. “The digital upgrade allows you to engage in the human things much more,” he said, in conclusion. “It is not digital versus analogue; it is digital plus analogue. It's not fact versus emotion; it's fact plus emotion. It's not machine versus human; it's machine plus human. The ‘plus’ makes the deal.

“Yes, you need to have new members in your teams, experts in digital or AI or VR or whatever. You don't need to know about it – have somebody else do it for you. These individuals are not a threat to you; they allow you to be better. Update the members of your team, update the expertise of your team and update the power of your team.”

Dahmen left the stage to rousing applause. “A wonderful, inspiring speech,” enthused Giuseppe Rossi, general manager of Lugano’s Hotel Splendide Royal. “It really created a better understanding of the benefits of leaving the old ways behind. Our focus must be upon turning guests into fans.”

Prizes and praise

As is tradition, the event closed with a black-tie gala dinner, during which two awards were handed out: the EHMA Sustainability Award by Diversey, and the Hotel Manager of the Year. The former went to Robert Herr, general manager of the Bürgenstock Resort Lake Lucerne, who has demonstrated a commitment to sustainability throughout his property, from reusing building materials during the remodelling project, to the extensive use of lake water and a reliance on local sourcing.

EHMA Hotel Manager of the Year was Hans J Kauschke, GM of the Steigenberger Grandhotel Handelshof Leipzig since October 2010. A mainstay of the group, Kauschke has been with Steigenberger since 1981, starting as room division manager at the Steigenberger Hotel Berlin and subsequently promoted to GM in October 1990. Prior to joining the German operator, Kauschke held various positions at a variety of Europe’s most celebrated properties, including the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, Hotel Le Bristol in Paris, The Dorchester in London and Hotel Atlantic Kempinski in Hamburg.

“I feel very honoured,” Kauschke told the assembled delegates. “I took up in the hotel industry more than 40 years ago and, believe me, I do not regret a single day. Almost. It is still my passion, running a hotel and a profession I greatly believe in.”

It was a fitting note on which to close the event: things may change almost beyond recognition, but certain truths and disciplines remain timeless. Members will reconvene in Paris next February for the 46th annual general meeting. They left for their properties with a lot of ideas and inspirations to put into practise between now and then.