Interview Esther Esselaar
February - 2022 - The Independent Hotel Show will be held on 16-17 March in Amsterdam, a seminar and networking event for Luxury & Boutique Hotels. The Director of Business Development of Hoteliers.com, Patrick Brand has been asked by IHS to perform interviews about market developments with some key hoteliers leading up to this event.
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When I walk into the lobby of Hotel Estherea, I don't have enough eyes, the warm and distinctive interior gives you a homely feeling and at the same time it is decorated with boldness and passion. Too busy for my own living room, but in hotels I always like to be tricked and inspired. Esther comes running up and we start our conversation. It took some convincing to get Esther excited about the interview; she comes across as modest and doesn't like being in the spotlight. First of all, I am curious about the name Estherea, which has clear similarities with Esther's name. ‘My grandmother gave this name to the hotel and one of her daughters was called Esther. In 1941, she was able to take over the hotel after losing her husband in the war who was in the resistance. She then placed the children with the nuns and started to build a life in Amsterdam. Hotel Estherea was at the time Singel 307 owned by a Jewish gentleman and my grandmother had offered to run the boarding house until he returned, he never came back. A courageous modern woman who also gave shelter to Polish people in hiding in the building during the war and who were able to regain strength here. She never spoke about the past, which was common in those days.’
‘In 1980, my parents took over the hotel and we also opened throughout the winter. Tourism in Amsterdam was on the rise. At a young age, I started working at the reception desk, which was a great time. Hospitality is in my blood, the dynamics of reception and guests appeals to me and no two days are the same.’
‘The interior has grown so much, we started by giving the walls colours and then we started using a lot of wallpaper.’
How long do you run the hotel and with whom?
‘In 1997 I took over my parents' hotel together with my brother and sister. A real family business. In 2016 I continued on my own and founded the freeze lab together with my sister Caroline. This company deals with cold therapy which can boost the immune system. Caroline runs this company. My brother Jan Willem left the company and continues to do what he likes. A family business is not always easy, it means making compromises and I think you accept more from your own family because of the trust that is there. We have found a good mode where we both run our own business.’
'I have a fantastic team, some I have worked with for twenty-five years and we have shared a life together. The student days, getting married, growing up with children, getting divorced, it's all been there. I have never stopped people from leaving, but some colleagues feel at home and we are there for each other. Everyone is very approachable. I don't believe in hierarchy, everyone is equal with a different responsibility. The input of everyone together brings the end result.’
I'm constantly working on the product, it's a luxury that I have a loyal and responsible team around me so I don't work seven days a week. My parents worked very hard, it wasn't easy as a child but because they worked so hard I can now take the time for my children.' Do you think the children will also work in the hotel and history will repeat itself with the next generation? I ask Esther. ‘It's my project and I don't put any pressure on my children to do so. Caroline also has a daughter and son, maybe they will like it and otherwise we will find another solution. The important thing is that they find as much passion as I do inside or outside the hotel.'
Biggest learning during the last 2 years?
‘I thought I took nothing for granted and now I realise that I took some things for granted. For example, the travel world came to a standstill, it made me emotional when I saw all the KLM planes on the ground, it was mindblowing. I started to appreciate simple things more, like shops being open and young people being able to go out. In business, it was as if everything had come to a standstill. I now appreciate the freedom of travelling and drinking coffee on the terrace more consciously. We have had some challenging moments, then the office door was closed for a while. It opened again quickly and we talked a lot and reassured colleagues. Showing that you will continue and highlighting points of light was very important. I've always had faith that it would turn out well. It was intangible, normally when your turnover drops you make adjustments but there was nothing to adjust so it felt powerless. One of the bright spots was the new webshop and we remained visible on social media such as Instagram. Pretty pictures change your mindset and that's what I needed lately.’
How do you stand out from the crowd?
What makes your hotel experience unique? 'The interior design, the location and the team are our strengths. We are an approachable hotel where guests feel homely in a distinct environment. Homely can sometimes be shabby, but that's not what I mean. We are not a hotel where you start whispering when you come in. We have board games in the lobby and also cuddly toys or coloring books for children. We have many guests who come back, when I was in reception there was a couple who came back after 20 years and had named their daughter Esther. Or I remember an e-mail from a woman who sent a picture of a Hotel Estherea sticker on a 1960 suitcase that she found in the attic. These kinds of stories make reception work very special.'
‘Our regular guests have chosen the hotel mainly on purpose and are between 35-65 years old. They want to enjoy travelling and prepare their trip well. We have a lot of Dutch people, which helped us during the Corona period. It took some switching. The Dutch are much more price-conscious than Americans and Britons who we usually have more of. Fortunately, these target groups book again very quickly after restrictions are lifted.’
Want to know more on this topic? Visit the Independent Hotel Show and follow the session 'Experience Vs. Transformation: Stand Out from the Crowd'.
What data do you use of guests?
‘We always ask guests to hand in their room key at reception, we do this to get to know our guests better and because of the large cloche attached to the key, most guests do. Despite the 93 rooms, we are in constant contact with the guests, and conversations about excursions or things that stand out arise. The same faces and team contribute to the fact that guests share more.’
‘We don't do much with guest data, I find it annoying to get a lot of emails from hotels and the guest relies on his own experience. I use Instagram more to connect with my guests who appreciate the style of Hotel Estherea.’
Want to know more on this topic? Visit the Independent Hotel Show and follow the session 'How well do you know your guests'.
What is your most memorable with a guest who stayed with you?
'We have hosted many famous and less famous guests. Discretion is very important in the hotel business; before you know it, you're connecting someone's wife, who pretends to be a secretary and her husband's business trip turns out to have a different meaning. Always find the balance and ask yourself how far you can go. Woody Harrelson has stayed with me as a guest, what a funny man he was, very friendly and approachable.
There are also emotional events that go wrong, for example once we had decorated a room for a proposal, everyone in the hotel sympathises, the man comes downstairs with a sad face and says... She said no I want another room. Then you're at a loss for words.’
What do you do to get more direct guests?
How do you invest in this? ‘We always try to get guests to book directly, if they come back they receive a free breakfast. We also offer three and four nights promotions through our own website. We have our own hotel fragrance, which we give away in the packages. I have been busy with our branding and have filled our webshop with nice products. The hotel fragrance is extremely popular. The scent stands for effervescent, the bubbling of champagne, young and happy.’ Suddenly, I become very curious about this fragrance, which has also been given the name Esther's. Esther arrives with a sample and I first spray the fragrance on my wrist, which was not the intention because it is a room spray. We are laughing and try out the scent in the lobby. It is indeed refreshing and moves pleasantly in the room. ‘Smell is an important stimulant and is thus a nice reminder of their stay in Amsterdam.’
'I see the booking parties as a necessary evil. Things have changed in the past period because we now have a better division between the parties; one party should not have too much power. Fortunately, Arjan, the hotel manager, is taking care of that. For direct bookings we work together with Hoteliers.com, this has been going well for a long time, it's nice that it's a Dutch company. In the beginning with Booking.com I loved working together, until the culture changed and then you end up in a different atmosphere. I like it when companies are Dutch in terms of accessibility and don't have a call centre in India, for example. That personal contact is also important for us with our guests. In our recommendations, we first go and see for ourselves before we share them. Many of our colleagues are young people who live in Amsterdam.’
What do you expect of 2022?
‘I think it will be good, the hospitality industry will be open again and this year the Keukenhof will open again, after 2 years of closure, which is important for the foreign guests. Valentine will be the kick-off to start running again, we already have many reservations. I hope we will not have to close next winter, but I am taking it into account. As long as that period gets shorter and shorter and we move forward. An empty hotel goes backwards, the soul goes out. A hotel has to keep moving and be maintained, this goes better when we are full and all the teams are running full.'
'Personally, I am very much looking forward to travelling, my first trip will be Aruba which I leave for tomorrow. Dubai is my favourite in winter because of the time difference and facilities. In summer I stay in Europe. I draw inspiration from my travels; the booking process, the stationery, the way people are contacted, I pay attention to everything. I choose specific hotels based on their interior and how they carry on the style. The feeling of luxury varies from one hotel experience to another; it may be a large marble hallway and at another it may be the cosiness. During a stay at The Rosewood in Paris, they had woven initials on the pillowcases, which made an impression. I then think about the process behind it organizationally.’
‘Most of all, I hope that everyone has a very good year!’