For the better part of nine decades in the hotel game, it’s fair to say that Oetker Collection was not a company synonymous with growth. In fact, for the first 89 of those years, it acquired hotels at a rate of less than one every 22 years.

But numbers do not tell the whole story. These properties were some of Europe’s most storied addresses – Brenners Park Hotel, 1923; Hotel du Cap Eden Rock, 1969; Le Bristol Paris, 1978; and Chateau Saint-Martin, 1994 – and what the collection lacked in scale, it more than made up for in prestige. Here was an operator only willing to consider the very finest properties in the most exclusive of locations – ‘masterpiece hotels’, in company parlance – and their very rarity only heightened their value.

But over the past few years, things have started to change. Since acquiring its fifth hotel and first management contract in 2012 (Palais Namaskar, Marrakech), Oetker Collection has added properties at a rate of more than one annually and suddenly boasts a portfolio of nine operating hotels. There is also talk of growing to 15 within the next six to seven years. These numbers might not be eliciting panic within the boardrooms of IHG or Hilton, but in the elevated environs of ultra-luxury hospitality, it’s a veritable gold rush.

The man leading the charge is Frank Marrenbach, who first joined the collection as Brenners Park MD in 1997 and was promoted to CEO in 2008; his elevation ushering in a transformation of strategy more in tune with an evolving, increasingly globalised hospitality landscape.

"We saw the opportunity and also wanted to show our owners that there was true potential for moving to the next level," he reflects. "And a stagnant business model is not intriguing; you start to lose people because you’ve nothing more to offer once they reach a certain level. There’s a different energy when you’re growing and setting new targets. It doesn’t happen very often in life, to be given the opportunity to grow something like we’re doing now. That momentum is very exciting."

Truth and consequence

The latest consequence of this momentum is arguably Marrenbach’s most high-profile addition to date: the Lanesborough on London’s Hyde Park Corner. Famed for a celebrity client list that would outshine an Oscars after-party and boasting the city’s highest room rates, the hotel reopened as an Oetker Collection member in July, following an 18-month refurbishment process overseen by superstar designer Alberto Pinto.

Marrenbach sees the Lanesborough as a sister hotel to the collection’s Parisian outpost, with the appointment as executive chef of Florian Favario, protégé of Eric Frechon at Le Bristol’s three-Michelin-star Épicure, perhaps the most visible manifestation of this belief. But the CEO is also insistent that new management does not mean a dramatic change in direction. Notably, managing director Geoffrey Gelardi, who launched the property in 1991, has been retained and will continue to lead operations.

"We re-engaged a third of the previous staff, including Geoffrey," Marrenbach explains. "The Lanesborough is an iconic place and has always been individually run. Our collection has the capacity to integrate individuality. That might sound banal, but we now stand at nine hotels and providing a longer leash when suitable while synchronising things when needed is more challenging that some might think."

The move into London – "One of the world’s great hotel cities," comments Marrenbach – marks a significant step for Oetker Collection. It might also be the group’s last European opening for a while. Although the CEO believes that a further six hotels can be added within the next few years, much of his focus is being invested further afield.

"As a German company, we’d love to be in Berlin, but prices are so low, it’s difficult to make a business case," he reveals. "Rome is certainly an interesting proposition, but beyond that, perhaps surprisingly, there are not so many European locations in our sights.

"There is advancement towards something more experiential and people are asking questions that weren’t heard 20 years ago. We must respond." 

"We would love to be in New York – 40% of our guests are from the US. We’d also look at LA. Despite some hiccups, there’s real potential in Brazil, particularly São Paolo, because of the scarcity of deluxe-room inventory. The GCC is a wonderful part of the world, but we need political stability and, sadly, all options are off the table for the next few years to come. So we travel further east, to Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong and possibly Shanghai. All of these have potential."

National geographic

Oetker Collection has always leant heavily on embodying the finest traditions of European hospitality, but one wonders whether there is a danger of this becoming somewhat diluted as its geographical footprint grows. Marrenbach acknowledges that we are seeing a degree of evolution in how the luxury experience is delivered, but believes the company must remain true to its heritage regardless of locale.

"Luxury is not an absolute and means different things to different people," he says. "Clearly, there is advancement towards something more experiential and people are asking questions that weren’t heard 20 years ago. We must respond.

"But we are a European hotel company; it is part of our DNA and will always be reflected in how we create and run hotels. We avoid superlatives and ostentation. Some might not like that, but you mustn’t try to please everyone. We have a reputation and guests choose us for a reason.

The expectation is that growth will be driven by management contracts, but a willingness exists to invest in real estate should the right project arise, as evidenced by Oetker’s co-ownership of Eden Rock – St Barths, which joined the collection in 2014.

If this is all starting to sound somewhat bullish, Marrenbach is at pains to stress that he will only consider the very best opportunities, a freedom afforded by the privately owned nature of the company. He estimates the ratio of proposed to accepted properties as being in the 20:1 range.

"As a family-run business, we have the privilege to say ‘no’," he explains. "Sometimes, you could say we take things a bit slow and that’s not a message you’d want to deliver to the stock market as a CEO because investors demand super-growth. We believe one opening a year is realistic, but that’s not set in stone. I’ve come to realise that managing growth is not easy. We’re handling things OK, but it can be a stretch. You can have problems with resources; sometimes you don’t have all the people you need. We have to be careful."

One would certainly not expect such frankness from the CEO of a publicly listed company and Marrenbach is quite open about the extent to which he has needed to learn on the job, as the size of Oetker’s portfolio has more than doubled since 2012.

"It’s been a steep – and sometimes quite painful – learning curve," he says with a wry chuckle. "We now operate across various time zones and geographies, and I’ve come to appreciate that managing cultural diversity is one of the most challenging elements.

"People are not all the same; you have to speak to them differently. I’m a big advocate of actually getting out there and seeing them. Yes, we live in a digital age and technology plays a huge part, but to reach people and convince them, to not just give orders, but create a sense of belonging and an understanding of what we’re doing and why we do it, that’s had a significant impact on the way I work."

Marrenbach is that increasingly rare beast, a hotel CEO with a background on hospitality’s front lines. Prior to joining Oetker Collection, he worked at some of Europe’s most prestigious luxury properties, including The Berkeley and Hôtel de Crillon. Overseeing just four outposts allowed for a degree of hands-on management, but a fast expanding portfolio has enforced a change in approach.

"Any hotelier will tell you, we love the details; hospitality is all about the small details," he reveals. "But to grow in this role, you must learn how to give direction without micro-managing. The travel, interactions with owners, maintaining good relationships across the company, there are already so many responsibilities and a failure to delegate means you’ll have everything on your table. It’s about finding a very fine balance and learning this only reinforces the importance of getting the absolutely best people.

"I look back over the past six or seven years and this experience has given me an amazing opportunity to develop personally. You come across questions you’ve never had to answer before and that demands great introspection. You don’t necessarily always have to answer immediately and you grow into it. I’m fortunate enough to have a company structure that has always been supportive and provided me with wonderful people."

The real star

The affection that Marrenbach holds for the collection and the Oetker Group as a whole is tangible. With around 28,000 employees, annual revenues of €11 billion and interests in everything from frozen pizzas to shipping, it hardly fits the popular image of a family-owned operation, but the hotelier draws on a deeply personal moment that does some way towards accounting for the length of his service with the company.

"When I joined, the late Mr Oetker sat me down," the CEO recalls. "He said: ‘We will offer you a lot of opportunities here, but never forget one thing: the company is the star, not its managing director.’ It’s always been the philosophy and even the Oetker family lives up to that expectation. Some people might not be comfortable with such a culture, but it’s made to measure for me."