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We need to showcase Astana as a destination in the golden age of travel - Jochem-Jan Sleiffer

1 December 2017 15:11 3822
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We need to showcase Astana as a destination in the golden age of travel - Jochem-Jan Sleiffer

ASTANA. KAZINFORM - Jochem-Jan Sleiffer, Senior Vice President Operations, Full-Service Hotels at Hilton Continental Europe, sat down for an exclusive interview with Kazinform International News Agency to talk about the new hotel Hilton Astana, his career path, trends that are currently shaping the hospitality industry and what the future holds for the hotel industry in Kazakhstan. 

Mr. Shleiffer, you have been loyal to one company for almost 30 years now. Why did you choose a career in hospitality? Why Hilton? How do you keep your passion for this job alive for so many years?

It's a very good question. When I was a kid, I had to write an essay. And I said I was going to go to a hotel school. So, when I was very young, I knew what I wanted to do. I still have that essay actually, my parents framed it for me. I didn't go to the hotel school. I did the school for Facility Management, but when I had my internship, I worked for Hilton. And, after I finished school, Hilton hired me back. This was in August 1990.

First of all, we are [Hilton] very good at developing people. That is something we definitely want to do here in Kazakhstan as well.  One of the things the Government does very well here is sending students abroad to get their experience at good schools. We have a lot of students from Kazakhstan in Swiss hotel schools, quite a few actually in Spain. If people join a company, like I've done at a time, we like to spend time on them by training them, by developing them.

What we are looking for is people that are mobile. I was in Belgium, I was in France, I was in Greece, I was in London, I was in Frankfurt. When I spoke to the team members here in the hotel the one of the things I told them. Don't look at the location, but look at the job. Look at what you can learn. Hilton has always given me opportunity to go and travel, see different places, they promoted me into different roles and I could learn with them.

And, the third point, which I find important, is to work for a company which innovates, which tries to be better every time. The company has changed, because we do a lot more things digitally. We were the first in a lot of things that we've done over the years. This is why I stay passionate, because every day there is something new. It is just a fun business to be in.

A lot of people have to understand that ... you can have a career in hospitality. It is something you can do for the rest of your life. There is no other business in the world where we employ so many people from different backgrounds. What I mean with this is that we have so many different jobs in the hotel. We need engineers, we need people in marketing, we need people that have done tourism studies, we need people that have done cooking school, architects and designers.

The second thing, which is nice about our business, is that we employ people with no education. We are employing about two hundred people here in our hotel. Some of them are with hospitality background, some have no hospitality background. We are trying to educate the people here, we try to show them what hospitality is all about, because we want to make sure that hospitality industry is something that will grow in Astana over the years to come.

We have a very capable Swiss General Manager here, but in the future I'd like to have a Kazakh General Manager here. We should try to find a talented team member, bring that team member to the different hotels we have in Europe, get him or her grown up in the company and send them back to Kazakhstan to go to Astana to be the general manager here.

What was the first time you actually heard about Kazakhstan?

The first time we looked at this project seriously was probably a year and a half ago. I think that EXPO has helped Astana to put themselves on to the map. With the influx of a number of new hotels that have opened just this year and the last year, we've now created an infrastructure where companies can actually come to Astana and there is a choice of accommodation.

The second thing, I think we have to do as a hospitality industry, including the government actually, is to sell Astana as a destination. I think we should put our brands aside, it is an effort of the entire hospitality industry, including the guides who do the city tours. Everybody has to sell Astana as a destination first.

I am very impressed, I have to say, by the infrastructure of the city. It's an easy-to-navigate city, to go around. It's nice that there are a lot of references to the past of the city and of the Kazakh people. You see the proudness of the people.

What is the goal of your visit?

The first goal is to wish the team well and say ‘welcome to the family', because we opened only two or three weeks ago now. But, it's firstly to celebrate the opening and say' well done', because they all worked extremely hard over the last couple of months to get the hotel ready.

For the second one, is to appreciate the city, to understand the culture better and understand the people better, see what drives them, to make sure that we are having the right strategy for the hotel, how we are going to be selling the hotel, how people are going to talk about the hotel, what are the strong points of the hotel, to understand what other brands are doing in the city.

It is great that we have the infrastructure in Astana, but now we have to make sure that people come and enjoy it and you can start building the business over the years to come.

The hospitality industry is one of the most investment attractive markets in the world. Do you consider Kazakhstan attractive for foreign investors?

Absolutely. Why would you not find it attractive?! Infrastructure is here. I think that there is a very good vibe in the country. It's very safe. I think it is a good country to do business in.

Finding a reliable investor is quite a challenge. In your opinion, what other challenges the hotel industry in Kazakhstan is facing right now? What steps should be taken to overcome those challenges?

One in ten jobs in the world is in tourism and hospitality. It's massive. It equates for 12% of global GDP. It's a massive amount of jobs we create and we hold. I think people need to have the confidence, especially if they look at the hospitality.

I give you an example. In 1950s, long time ago, IBM wanted to have a factory in Mainz, in Germany. And they said to the local government, we only come if you build a Hilton. And so we've had a Hilton in Mainz since that date.

It shows that if you build a Hilton hotel, it gives the investors the confidence that it's a good place to be, to do business. It will attract not only other hotel brands, but other investors also.

I don't think we face any challenges for the time being. There is good buzz in the market. There are a lot of things being built for the moment. Infrastructure is good. [Astana] is very young. You have to give a bit of time to the hotels. Beside tourist, also on the business side, we can attract meetings here. Meetings is a great business to have.

We call it ‘The Golden Age of Travel'. Everybody talks about travel nowadays. Travel is very accessible to everybody, because it's cheap to fly nowadays. We expect travelers to increase over the next years from 1.3 to 2 billion travelers per year. Can you imagine how many people are going to travel?

So, this city will do extremely well over the next couple of years. I have no doubt in my mind. But it needs effort from the airlines, it needs effort from the hotel companies, and it needs effort from the government.

Let's talk about the future of the hospitality industry. In what direction is it moving? What does the future hold for the hotel industry in Kazakhstan?

I think hotel industry over the next couple of years is going to be all about digital. Delivering exceptional customized experiences, because it's personalized. I think we will see a lot of artificial intelligence over the next couple of years. By the way you book your travel and everything, we will know a lot about you.

Hospitality in the future is going to be a lot about people, finding the right people. I think we have a challenge in general in our business to find enough people that want to work in hospitality. We have to make sure that people understand there are great opportunities to make a career in hospitality. That would be my dream for Kazakhstan to have all Kazakh General Managers here in 5 or 6 years-time.

I think that the hotel industry will continue booming. I think you will see more and more brands coming, because people are looking for very specific things. We want to be local. We want them to feel they are in Kazakhstan, they are in Astana. We want them to feel there is a local touch.

You are very passionate about the people you work with, especially about young talents. What would be your advice for those who want to carve a career in hospitality? What skills do they need to succeed in this industry?

If I would give a couple of tips to somebody who wants to work in hospitality, I would start with having the right attitude. Education is not really important. It's great if you come with great education, but we will hire anybody who has the right attitude. You have to love people. You have to love working with people. You have to love giving them an excellent customer experience. So, people that really want to make a difference and really serve our customers are the people we are actually looking for. Some of the things you can do, look on the Internet. What's up in the market? What are the newest trends in the market? What is happening? What are people liking? What are the new concepts in the market? These kinds of things I would say are the things that are really interesting to look at to advance in your career in hospitality.

The other thing I would say is learn languages. Make sure you speak at least a couple of languages. So here in Kazakhstan, I would say, you speak at least Kazakh, Russian, English and may be one more language. So, really try and challenge yourself learning another language, either through school, through online course or through travel.

Which brings me to the next point. The next point will be travel. Make sure you travel in your career. Don't stay only in Kazakhstan, but go and learn somewhere else. Go and do a job somewhere else. Anywhere in the world is fine as long as you can learn. When you are young, location doesn't really matter. But go and work somewhere where you can learn something. Really you want to learn something new and you can bring it back here to the country later, because we are looking for a lot of people. We are planning to open many more hotels around the world. Hopefully, many more hotels in Kazakhstan. We want to have lots of people working for us and deliver an excellent service to all our customers.

Thank you!

By Tatyana Kudrenok


Keywords: Astana, Kazakhstan, Tourism,
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