Berlin diary notes reveal the warm, human side of IHIF
Berlin diary notes reveal the warm, human side of IHIF
13 MARCH 2017 7:13 AM

My Berlin diary during the 2017 edition of the International Hotel Investment Forum reveals big laughs, CEOs sitting on bean bags chairs, possibly the smallest hotel room yet devised and even a rare slip-up by Marriott International’s Arne Sorenson.

Berlin in March can only mean one thing to this industry: attendance at the International Hotel Investment Forum, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last week.

The conference has not lost any of its spark.

This year’s conference was a first for me because it included the CEOs of all three of the publicly listed hotel firms I cover—Alison Brittain from Whitbread PLC and Richard Solomons from InterContinental Hotels Group participated in the same panel, and Sébastien Bazin from AccorHotels gave a keynote address on adaptation and digital technologies.

My camera was kept busy.

Alison Brittain (center), CEO of Whitbread, and Richard Solomons (right), CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group lead companies that both began by brewing beer. (Photo: Terence Baker)

The following are some editorial outtakes from the show.

AccorHotels goes all-inclusive
At the 2016 IHIF, I stayed at the wonderful 25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin, known for its hip Monkey Bar.

This year I was there for an AccorHotels press event in which the company announced its 50% buy of the operations component of Turkish all-inclusive chain Rixos Hotels, which has 25 assets, nine of which are in Turkey. Four, interestingly, are in Kazakhstan.

AccorHotels’ CEO Sébastien Bazin made use of the IHIF conference to announce his partnership with Turkish all-inclusive chain Rixos Hotels. (Photo: Terence Baker)

Seated on bean bag chairs and low cushions, Bazin said the deal was attractive because of Rixos’ knowledge, funds and distribution. The agreement is similar to its partial buys of other innovative companies, including 25Hours Hotels, Bazin added.

I’ve never met Rixos’ chairman Fettah Tamince before. His huge smile is immediately evident, and it might well have grown larger last Monday.

Sorenson leaves something on the table
Another A-list CEO was at IHIF, too.

In terms of market capitalization in our industry, they come no bigger than Marriott International President and CEO Arne Sorenson, who was in Berlin to receive the 2017 IHIF Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sorenson drew a comparison to former U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize when accepting his IHIF award: “(This is) a starting point for something we have to build. … rather like President Obama receiving the Novel Peace Prize in his first year in office, a promise of hope, rather than an active achievement.”

Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International, received the IHIF Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s conference. (Photo: Terence Baker)

Sorenson took the chance to criticize current global thinking in regards to the movement of people.

“Travel is not the same thing as immigration, but we have to be careful in how we talk about it so that they do not become so,” Sorenson said.

Sorenson was genuinely abashed at being recognized for his achievement, so much so that after a Q&A session he inadvertently left the crystal obelisk award on the stage.

It will be sent on to Bethesda, Maryland, no doubt, but for the time being it remains the only thing Sorenson has in his long hotel career probably ever left on the table.

Who you meet at lunch
Unfortunately there is not always time to do a deep dive into the delegate list of IHIF’s website, so networking opportunities at the conference itself take on a greater importance.

Having to find a spot for your food plate requires sharing valuable real estate in the lunch area, and it was there I met two executives from United Africa Group: Haddis Tilahun, its founder and executive director, and Willem Mouton, group CEO. The company is an owner across many asset classes, including 11 hotels across Africa.

It was great to spend time with such wonderful people, and the company is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

The company is based in Namibia, which is a place I have always wanted to visit. The country is famous for its Skeleton Coast and Namib Desert, its Kalahari bushmen, one of whom inspired the 1980 movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” and 200-meter Olympics Games silver medalist Frankie Fredericks, who is currently trying to defend his integrity.

Smaller rooms, tiny rooms
One trend we’ve seen in the past decade is the reduction in hotel guestroom size. The argument goes that some guests only use the rooms for sleep and showers, preferring to either be out in the destination or with other like-minded souls in exciting public spaces.

Will this then be the next step in that Lilliputian direction, the tiny room?

Could hotels room be this small in years to come, and cost the same to build, approximately $100? (Photo: Terence Baker)

I arrived in Berlin the weekend before IHIF to see friends from Rome who are spending 10 months in the city. During our wanderings around the Kreuzberg neighborhood we saw a tiny house on wheels.

My friends had seen it several times before, and they were convinced someone lived in it, but that turned out not to be the case.

We were all pleasantly surprised to see the Tiny House outside our lunch destination A. Horn. On opening the menu we saw the explanation for what had mystified us all: It is an experiment to use space more effectively and perhaps offer a solution to housing shortages or city pollution. A note said the room cost €100 ($106) in materials to build.

In Germany there is a whole movement for such an idea.

One hundred of those tied together, perhaps still on wheels, with some public spaces that might require more euros in development costs, and an entire hotel could be up and running for $15,000.

Investors could make their investment back in two weeks.

I have written in our pages a similar low-cost hotel plan in India, around a company called Chototel.

Email Terence Baker or find him on Twitter.

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