GLOSSY Editor Tako Khelaia and Mr. Weller discussed the country’s touristic potential; safety procedures in place at the Hotel as a result of Covid-19; and those significant changes which have been experienced at the Hilton Hotel due to the pandemic. So enjoy their interesting interview below and read all about when the tourism sector is expected to return to a normal state, as envisaged by Torsten Weller.
How would you evaluate your years of being General Manager at the Hilton Batumi?
Hi Tako, first of all thank you very much for inviting me to feature once again in Glossy Magazine. It’s always a great pleasure and an honour to be interviewed by you. In answer to your question, I would definitely say that these years have been marked by progress! For sure there has been tremendous change and progress over the last three and a half years since I arrived in post here at the Hilton Batumi. You know there is unbelievable growth going on in the country, in this city specifically, and we are responsible in part for that as well. We have been successfully developing our team, improving our quality day by day with great success - and all of that has been reflected in our revenue, which resulted in a record year for the Hilton Batumi in 2019. Now, obviously, we have entered a different stage, however the progress continues, and what’s more, with even greater motivation and passion despite the crisis.
Being an experienced hotelier, what was the first strict policy you implemented at the Hilton Batumi Hotel?
That is a great question actually. You know it is all about people. We are in an industry, where people are serving people and that is the most important thing. In the process of building a winning team the first change we went through was to implement transparency. I emphasised transparency to everybody, “Speak up for what is right”, “Let’s talk about things which happen” - so that we can improve, move on and progress from them; so that we can learn from them. Therefore, transparency is a key strategy to implement in communications and in everything in general. I would say that from the start, the first thing we talked about was transparency and trust.
Ever since the day it first opened, the Hilton Batumi has proven to be one of the most popular hotels in the Black Sea region. How does it manage to be so successful?
I touched on this in the previous question which is that it is all about people serving people. Therefore, I think the biggest contributor to success that we have is the team members we have. They are the greatest asset to any business and I do believe in them delivering heartfelt experiences and services that prove to be the most memorable. So our goal is that we want people to say, “You know what? Hilton Batumi is our favourite place to go and that is due to the team members there, who are skilled, who have the passion and drive to bring everything like quality and guest experiences to the next level”. I think that the huge success our hotel has enjoyed over recent years has definitely been due to the great team we have, the biggest asset that any company can have.
The Hilton Batumi was among the first hotels to re-open following the Covid-19 lockdown. How have you managed to overcome all that the crisis brought with it?
There are definitely many factors which influenced our reopening and the very strong comeback we experienced over the summer. First, we all stuck together as a team, which is important even during a time of emergency closure such as we had. Secondly, we spent the time looking over the past. We had to identify any mistakes we had made - and of course we had made some, naturally. So we were all about fixing those mistakes, which was another big success and a good basis for a new beginning. Thirdly, being close with customers, we showed true grit. We wanted to bring in every single guest we could in order to show them that we are a good hotel to stay at, especially with the Hilton CleanStay programme, and being in full compliance with government guidelines. I believe we had another great asset in Hilton CleanStay, which basically charts a guest’s journey from the beginning of their stay upon entering the hotel all the way through to departure; it’s all about Covid-19. It is another great opportunity to show guests that we are taking care of them, that we are trying to give them the best, cleanest, safest and most disinfected environment possible during this pandemic so they can build trust with us. Moreover, the team did an incredible job with all those challenges which came along with the pandemic, and I think all those factors combined made a good recipe for a strong comeback.
Tell us about the special safety rules that your hotel strictly recommends to guests.
First and foremost, full compliance with government guidelines. This is the most important to follow because it comes from the NCDC and then the Ministry of Health, which are under the umbrella of the World Health Organization. What they say absolutely makes sense and we have to follow and to lead by example in these cases: social distancing is crucially important; wearing a mask correctly in the hotel is hugely important; and last but not least, personal hygiene - washing hands frequently, disinfecting them frequently. If those three things are taken into consideration, I think you can contribute to a much safer environment. Secondly, is our programme Hilton CleanStay, which is a very specially designed industry leading programme, when it comes to cleanliness and disinfection during this pandemic. In that one, there is the integrated Hilton EventReady, which allows people to organise and attend meetings, again whilst strictly observing social distancing, food hygiene and hygiene standards in general. All touch points are cleaned in a satisfactory way with the correct detergents, which we provide. In addition, the third main point is educating people. We have to educate people. When someone doesn’t wear a facemask we have to tell them constantly “Please put your face mask on correctly”, “Please social distance”, “Please only two people in the elevator at any one time”, and I think we are doing all of this with great success. People trust us! And last but not least, the NCDC committee who had a meeting in our hotel remarked on this too, which made us extremely proud.
What changed most significantly at your hotel during Covid?
Many things have changed from our side actually, definitely cleanliness and disinfection. It is a top priority to disinfect high touch areas, and actually everything starts upon a guest’s arrival at the hotel: social distancing; floor mapping; temperature checking; following all guidelines; elevator social distancing. It has been a big change not only for guests, but for the team members as well, because we actually have to educate guests in certain ways to wear facemasks, to social distance, etc. Therefore, that is probably the biggest change we have had. Of course, we shouldn’t forget either that team members are having to work in a very difficult work environment. They have to wear masks, gloves and a work robe when they enter a room, so that makes things much more difficult. However despite that, safety for our guests and our team members always comes first. That is why we have Hilton CleanStay and that is why we follow government guidelines so strictly.
The Hilton Batumi Hotel actively promotes its staff and management by advertising their success stories on social networks. It seems you pay a lot of attention to your staff’s career development. How does the Hilton Batumi career policy differ from others?
We at Hilton put people first and I think this is the most important factor in the hospitality business. If you have happy team members, you have happy guests, and if you have happy guests, you have a successful and prospering business. So that is why we are focusing on putting our team members first always, no matter what. We have development programmes; we spot talent; we thrive; we progress; and if you are talented and you show passion, drive and spirit, hospitality-minded thinking, then you are one of ours. It is very hard work but all together is part of the fun of our job. We love to serve people, we are people serving people, and we need to have fun with that. That is why our team members always come first. We coach behind the scenes and lead behind the scenes. We lead by example, delegate tasks, empower our people to make their own decisions. What’s more, making mistakes is absolutely fine, because we use this as a platform to learn from them and move forward. It is kind of like we celebrate successes in order to be better and stronger and to grow as a very strong team member - to make one’s own decisions in order to make guests happy and deliver the light and warmth of hospitality.
You are always promoting Batumi as one of the best destinations to visit. Why do you think this city is so exceptional and what do you think is the main attraction of the city?
Batumi definitely exhibits the diversity of the Black Sea flanked by mountains. When you drive for 45 minutes, you are in a completely different world, going up into the Adjarian mountains where you can see old bridges, churches etc, which is what makes Batumi so special. We have an excellent location, right on the coast, and the Black Sea itself, of course, is stunning. My favourite time of the year is April-May, when you see the dolphins swimming through the sea. It is just an amazing feeling to walk down the boulevard and to feel the vibes of the city. That makes it special. The Argo cable car enables you to go up the mountain and see the incredible city thriving alongside the Black Sea. I think it is also generally just the hustle and bustle of the city and all that comes with it that makes Batumi so special.
You are one of the most active general managers who always promotes the hotel and knows the value of advertising. Do you think that this is one of the main reasons why the Hilton Batumi is one of the most popular hotels in the Adjara region?
Thank you for this question. Yes, marketing is actually very important. It is as important as the team members you have in the hotel. We want to create an experience where people say, “Hey, this is my favourite hotel”. That is partially the team members, who are successful in doing that. The other part of it is marketing, online marketing in particular. Social media is becoming more and more attractive and we have to be big players on Instagram and Facebook. We are going to start launching a series on YouTube very soon. And here we are putting our services and people first. We are currently doing a series of team members exploring their favourite places here in Batumi, called #MyHiltonNeighbourhood. This has a huge impact, because our team members are the most professional and knowledgeable people about their own city, so they are messengers for our guests and guests trust them. That is why marketing is extremely important and if you do it right and if you put emotions first, it is a very powerful tool to make people love you in a very short time. So I do believe we have to be cool, we have to be different in terms of our social media marketing and be unique by presenting what we do best.
In your view when will the tourism sector fully go back to normal?
Good question! We had a little up in the summer and now there is a little bit of a down again. However, I always say it will start to go back to normal again once there is a vaccine around the corner, which most likely will be the beginning of next year. When all people are vaccinated, then obviously travel will return to normal. Hopefully, next year will be much better than this year. I am sure it will be. It will definitely take one, two, or maybe even three years to come back to the level we were at before. However, the magic of Batumi is that you can come back quickly. We have the usual destinations where people travel from to Batumi and I do believe they love it so much here that it will be a very fast comeback for the city and for tourism in Adjara and Georgia more widely. We have to be careful, mindful and for sure continue with what we are doing when it comes to social distancing and I am sure that we as a Hilton, Hilton Batumi, will have a very strong comeback, because this is what we are working on right now.
How do you predict you will overcome the coming autumn and winter months, while the world is still battling Covid?
That is a very good question and currently we are in a situation where we are facing a very challenging time. I was not expecting it as early as September to be honest. For the last few days we have been seeing rising new case numbers of 150, 160, or 170 in Georgia, with many of those here in Adjara. So this is the second wave of the crisis. We are back to the beginning basically, however with one crucial difference - we know how to react now. The city knows how to react; the government knows how to react. And we have the NCDC, who have been great advisors along this whole journey and are always ready to offer their support, which makes it a little bit easier. That should avoid another lockdown and now it is up to us to get as many guests in as possible. I call it street fighting sales, we have to go out, we have to do telephone book sales, we have to go to every customer, and we have to email everybody. All the hard work over the last three years, building trust with our customers, now needs to pay off and we need to be in contact with them, care about them, see how they are and show them love and care for who they are. By that token, we have to fight so that even in these difficult times they come to our hotel to support our business and that is how we can get through these uncertain times. Once they are in the hotel, we have to deliver top class service; provide Hilton CleanStay to its fullest; follow the government guidelines; and focus on quality, quality, quality! These will be the reasons for their continued return and I am very sure, positive in fact, that we will overcome these difficult times. The key thing is to visualize it, believe in it, stay positive and of course, work hard for it, and I think then we will be coming back very strong in 2021, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Do you think Georgia is a safe country to visit?
Yes, I still believe that Georgia is a safe country. Again, NCDC and the government did an amazing job keeping the virus down and keeping it under control here. Even now (when the outbreak naturally is higher) they are doing a great job. I do believe Georgia is safe and if you pay attention to social distancing and wearing masks then you are very safe. I just heard today that WizzAir and Ryanair are going to be resuming business, perhaps as early as October. That was the announcement, but let’s see what happens. If flights do reopen then I would urge everybody to come to Georgia, visit this wonderful country with its wonderful people and its amazing culture.
What would you tell those people who are planning to visit Adjara and are afraid of Covid? How will your hotel ensure a safe and healthy stay for them?
Don’t be afraid, it is a very safe country! Take the tests, don’t think it will be a lot of work to do it, you will not regret it. If you travel to beautiful Georgia, then absolutely come and visit Batumi, visit us at the Hilton Batumi. We have the highest safety standards you can imagine with our Hilton CleanStay programme and we will spoil you as best as we can. You will be made to feel as safe as possible. So, I hope to see you soon in Georgia, in Batumi, and in our wonderful Hilton Batumi Hotel, with our wonderful, passionate team.
Thank you very much for this interview, thanks Tako! See you soon! Bye-bye!
Interview was first published on GLOSSY mag - The FINANCIAL sister publication.