x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Hans Olbertz's reign over the Emirates Palace coming to a close

Hans Olbertz, the general manager of Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi's most iconic property, is leaving the hotel at the end of this month.

The Emirates Palace has evolved under Hans Olbertz's direction with an array of additions such as sports facilities and restaurants. Lee Hoagland / The National
The Emirates Palace has evolved under Hans Olbertz's direction with an array of additions such as sports facilities and restaurants. Lee Hoagland / The National

Hans Olbertz was "speechless" and "overwhelmed" the first time he walked into the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, three and a half years ago.

The general manager of the US$3 billion (Dh11.01bn) hotel is preparing to leave at the end of this month. But during his time at the landmark property, the hotel has evolved with an array of additions, including sports facilities and restaurants, while striving to raise the high-service standards that keep attracting the elite, from rock stars to heads of state.

Now this chapter in Mr Olbertz's career is over. After a continuous stream of high-profile events and celebrity encounters, he is heading back to Vienna to open a hotel there for Kempinksi, the operator of the Emirates Palace.

"When I entered the first time, it really takes you by a very positive surprise, from the luxury, the scale itself of the Emirates Palace is [tremendous]," Mr Olbertz said.

"It's a logistical challenge naturally, due to the size, with so many restaurants and almost 1,800 employees of 59 different nationalities."

A seasoned hotelier, Mr Olbertz was working for InterContinental Hotels Group as a general manager in South Korea when he was approached by Kempinski to take on the role in Abu Dhabi. He was familiar with the city, having been the resident manager of the InterContinental there between 1988 and 1990 - and it was an offer he could not refuse.

"It's hard to top the Emirates Palace," he said. "It's the biggest privilege in my career to be able to run this hotel, and having the trust from the owners and the Government to be able to run the best hotel in the world."

In his time in the position, Mr Olbertz has seen market conditions deteriorate as the economic downturn set in and new hotels sprang up in Abu Dhabi, creating competition for business and forcing all hotels in the UAE to cut their rates.

"We are still looking to get those figures in terms of occupancy and also revpar [revenue per available room] and rates back," Mr Olbertz said.

And that pressure on hotel performance is likely to continue as more luxury properties open this year.

"Personally, I see that it will still be an extremely challenging time, the next two to three years," Mr Olbertz said. "The cake at the moment doesn't get much bigger, so you have to fight for the slices of the cake.

Also, Abu Dhabi is competing with Dubai. The danger is it shouldn't become a price war between the two cities. I think Abu Dhabi is much more catered to the upmarket market, the culture market and also the sport. But I think what Abu Dhabi from a strategy and the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority has done will help put Abu Dhabi on the map.

"Naturally any new hotel coming online in Abu Dhabi will have an effect. We're not so arrogant that we say that 'we're Emirates Palace, nobody can harm us'. People try out new things."

Still, he thinks the uniqueness of the property will continue attracting guests, while it has also become a hub for business meetings.

"It's still the venue. You can't bypass the Emirates Palace when you come to Abu Dhabi. It's a destination," he said.

One of the highlights of the job has been meeting an endless array of celebrities and politicians, including Nicolas Sarkozy, Paris Hilton, Bon Jovi, Guns'N'Roses, George W Bush, Tony Blair, Ben Kingsley and Elton John.

"For me of course it's quite nice to have been able to meet film stars, models, rock stars, tycoons in business. That's quite a rewarding aspect of our business," he said. "They're all humans, and if you approach them in a very normal way like you talk to anybody else, I think they appreciate it very much."

During his tenure, Mr Olbertz has watched both the city and the hotel evolve.

Emirates Palace has added cricket, football and rugby pitches. It has also added two restaurants, including Hakkasan, the popular London Chinese cuisine brand, along with a marina. There are plans to add restaurants and shops, as well as a marina club to open up the area to the public, he said.

Mr Olbertz was born in Cologne, Germany, but he fell in love with Vienna after spending some time working there and he now considers the city to be home.

"To open a hotel in your hometown is fantastic. One day you have to plan your retirement.

"If you travel so many years, you like to one day go back home."

He has been travelling since 1973. When he returns to the Emirates Palace, it will be on holiday.

"I can say now I've seen it all."

rbundhun@thenational.ae