Reinventing standards in the temporary abnormal: Q&A with Penta Hotels MD, Rogier Braakman

Eloise Hanson catches up with Rogier Braakman following his appointment as managing director of Penta Hotels, to hear how he’s redefining the company’s brand standards.

Congratulations on your appointment as managing director of Penta Hotels. You’re leading the company through a very difficult time. How have you found the role so far?

“Luckily I have been in this business for a while – this is my third decade working within hotels. I therefore have experience, and experience is important because you can teach people how to act in different situations. I’ve had my learnings back in 2001 when the twin towers were hit. I was working with Hilton at the time and we saw American hotel bookings cancelled straight away. And then we had the crisis in 2008/9. But this is of a completely different magnitude, and I could not have expected it to be this severe. 

“Penta has had a rocky climb in the last year or so, being sold from the Rosewood Hotel Group to our new group of owners. Our staff are really positive and are genuinely passionate about the brand. That positive, can-do attitude of the team has really helped. Yes we’ve had to make very difficult decisions but I feel extremely supported by the staff.. The canyon that has been created for us is so deep that it will take an intense climb to get back to former standards. Luckily we don’t back away from an intense climb…

“This has been a real crash course for our company where the old clichés have proven to be true, like ‘don’t crack under pressure’. I think our upbeat spirit and our ability to turn this crisis into something positive and work together in a different way has made us very creative. We’re learning a lot and are now looking forward again.”

A hallmark of the brand is the Pentalounge – a combination of lounge, bar, café and reception. With several different components of one unified space, are you having to take extra precautions when hotels reopen? What are your plans for the space?

“COVID-19 is a predator and it will stay around for a while – we’ll just have to learn to live with it. So we revisited our business operations and figured out how best to safely and securely reopen. We do not want our hotels to serve as extended intensive care units, though we need to make sure that all hygienic measures are in place and that people feel safe. We do not want our brand standards to vaporise due to all these extra precautions. Therefore we chose to redefine our new operating standards within this ‘temporary abnormal’.

“We came up with our Between Us campaign. It’s a programme that has taken us four or five weeks from inception to execution, which normally would take one-and-a-half or even two years. For us, acting under pressure has made the business fluid. Out of our 27 hotels, six have remained open and we’ve been able to learn and test these new standards.

“Our advantage here is that all our hotels have extensive Pentalounges. It’s actually very easy to maintain physical distancing; we’re lucky in that we do not have small lobbies. And we’ve taken all necessary COVID measures initiated under the Between Us campaign. For example, when you check in, you’re given a ‘Take Care’ bag from Penta, and we’ve even made our own ‘Penta Pointer’ which is similar to a keyring that can be used to open all access points within the hotel, therefore reducing the risk of contamination. We’re even doing trials with heatcams to see how our guests are responding and whether it adds up to a feeling of safety.

“With every hotel we’re opening up the Pentalounge, and have decided to make these cashless for now. We’ll have to respect the governmental measures when it comes to how many people we can maximally facilitate or host, but we want to make these Pentalounges a vibrant living room. The safety of our guests is top priority, but also the feeling of being welcome is of great importance.”

Brand standards have largely been tested against coronavirus. How do you see the hotel sector being shaped by what we’ve endured?

“For me, a hotel is all about people. I always go back to those places where I’ve enjoyed the service the most and where I’ve been appreciated as a guest. The most important part is the interaction. What we’re looking at is trying to make sure that we only let our people do what is actually vital and incremental to the guest experience. Everything that we can do from a technical and IT point of view that our guests can handle themselves is a big plus. We’ve therefore introduced the Penta Hotels app – also an innovation that would normally take organisations a year and now it’s taken us four to five weeks to find a solution. It’s not fully in place yet, but it means everyone can check in from home using their own device, or even chat to our reception team.

“Rooms will be cleaned to a maximum hygienic standard, but during a stay we are not supplying housekeeping unless a guest wants us to. In hotels where restaurant facilities are limited, we also put a breakfast bag on the door knob with all the essentials in the morning; should a guest require additional items, we can arrange. We’ve simply included all the services that we believe to be beneficial to the current external circumstances, and we’ve taken some things out that we think decrease the level of comfort for our guests.

“We’re very adaptive – the fact that we have pulled this off in such a short time is impressive. It’s not the strongest that survives, nor the smartest… it’s the most adaptive to change. Slowly but steadily we’ll achieve our goals.”

What is your vision for Penta Hotels?

“We want to be a lively neighbourhood hotel in the mid-field, four-star level, for people who are looking for interaction, enjoy social hubs and look for something else in the regularly boring ‘midfield’. Our staff are informal but respectful, dressed in informal clothes both able to professionally check a guest in and also pour them a drink in the afternoon. The versatility of our concept has been a very strong asset of Penta all the way, and we’ll keep on embroidering on this in the future. We don’t have to change a lot, we just have to tweak.”

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