Oetker Collection CEO, Dr Timo Gruenert, speaks to Luxurylaunches on pairing luxury hotels with a sense of belonging, their sky-high standards of picking properties, sustainability, Gen Alpha, and more.

If you’re tuned into the world of luxury, we’re guessing that a stay at one of the Oetker Collection resorts is on your bucket list if not already a favorite memory. Think Le Bristol Paris, Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa in Baden-Baden, Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, Château Saint-Martin & Spa in Vence, The Lanesborough in London, L’Apogée Courchevel, Eden Rock-St Barths, Jumby Bay Island in Antigua, Palácio Tangará in São Paulo, The Woodward in Geneva, Hotel La Palma in Capri, and more than 150 private villas around the globe. Each featuring handcrafted elegance, handpicked accoutrements, specially selected teams, and the most exclusive experiences in the dishiest destinations, the Collection prides itself on creating masterpieces, not mere hotels.

We had a delightful coffee-fuelled chat with CEO Dr Timo Gruenert, the man who co-founded Oetker Collection and grew the portfolio from the original four properties owned by the Oetker Group in 2009 to the 11 that now exist in 2023. Having worked so closely with the Oetker family and been so instrumental in keeping the spirit and soul of the brand intact, Dr Gruenert truly understands luxury and why it’s so much more than a mere price point.

Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, Cap d’Antibes

The real luxury
Dr Gruenert believes that luxury is a combination of something that is rare and meaningful. It can therefore mean different things to different people. “What is rare and meaningful to me may not be the same to you,” he explains, adding, “But in our industry, there is one thing which is an ultimate truth for everybody, irrespective of cultural background or wealth, if you are able to spend time with the right people at the right place.” And no, it’s not necessarily related to time. “Some say that time is luxury. But it’s more about getting people to spend time with the right people at the right place, which is where we come in. The right people are those that are travelling with you, of course. But, in this context, you would also count people that are serving and hosting you. If they are able to make you feel at ease and relaxed, then it is rare and meaningful for lots of people.”

The charming CEO’s idea for his own personal luxury or escape reflects this philosophy too. As a father to two young girls – five and two years old, a lot of his travel is motivated towards luxury, but also centered around convenience, so they don’t have to travel far to see each other. Multigenerational travel is also something that he relates deeply to. “I am happy that my parents are still in good shape. They also live in different cities, and they love to spend time with their grandchildren,” Dr Gruenert smiles. “Putting all this together and being able to spend time at a nice resort, it doesn’t get much better than that. The destination is not the most important factor. I don’t want the place to be overwhelming. It has to be somewhere where you feel yourself, where you can find peace.”

The underground wine cellar at Château Saint-Martin & Spa

There are places which are built like museums, and it’s good to look at these various things. But we don’t necessarily go for that. We want an emotional connect. And that’s where the right team comes in, not one that only focuses on efficient service delivery, but who are welcoming guests almost as if it were to their own home. “When guests come to our hotels, they almost become our family. They feel a sense of ownership. When we spoke with longstanding guests, they said they felt a deep sense of belonging. They said things like ‘I have been coming here for many years’; ‘It’s almost my second home’… If this emotional connect combines with the highest quality of everything that one sees and touches, then that’s a combination that creates a really strong and vivid memory,” explains Dr Gruenert. There are certain touches that make the Oetker Collection hotels especially endearing. Like Socrate, the resident cat at Le Bristol Paris, who has a huge fan following. The furry feline is a genius move that appeals to families and kids and has now led to other hotels from the group following suit.

Eden Rock – St Barths

Pairing luxury hotels with a sense of belonging that gives guests a sense of home. It’s a great concept, but how has he gone about implementing it? “Yes, it’s fine to say home away from home. But every second travel magazine says the same thing. And everyone’s concept of home is different. So, we dug deeper in our interviews with our loyal guests to capture the underlying emotion we must seek to nurture. We decided to create an ambience in our hotels that goes by three values – family spirit, elegance, and genuine kindness. This thought process has to be translated across such a diverse portfolio of properties that we have… so we have to invest in the right set of people who believe and can deliver as per this philosophy,” says the savvy CEO.

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The terrace at L’Apogée Courchevel

That is the reason Oetker Collection has been pursuing steady but slow expansion. It takes time to create a masterpiece, which is properly staffed. They usually need a lead time of around 18-24 months to find and train people for each upcoming hotel. To find 200 ‘hosts’ who exude genuine kindness and family spirit is not easy for sure. So how exactly does one define ‘family spirit’? “It’s to have a real sense of caring. A colleague can work 8-10 hours a day and take a cheque at the end of the month while being nice. But we would want them to genuinely care for other colleagues. You can ask ‘How are you?’ and don’t wait for the answer and continue talking. You can ask the same question, listen, but do nothing. Third, you ask the question, wait for the answer and then reflect upon it. You cannot teach this quality. People either have it or not. And, of course, this must start at the top. I must live by this, so must my general managers and then it cascades. Oetker is a family-owned enterprise, which has been in the business for almost a 100 years now. So, it starts from them. They also take their time to wait for my answer.”

The Lanesborough, London

Dr Gruenert asserts that this ethos was always there from the start. “But we had to crystallise it and make it tangible, so that it can be easily communicated and implemented at new Oetker Collection properties. We have the three values plus the attribute of having a masterpiece hotel. So, it was a major exercise to just focus on these four. We got rid of vision, mission statements, hashtags and marketing that would create a confusing word cloud for employees. A 10-page book cannot create a common and desirable DNA. We had to distil it,” he explains.

The Vineta Hotel, which will be the first Oetker Collection property in the United States, is due to open in Palm Beach later next year.

The world is their oyster, but they are picky about their pearls!
The Vineta Hotel at Palm Beach, Florida, USA, set to open in the second half of 2024, will be the Oetker Collection’s first in the United States and their twelfth masterpiece. We ask Dr Gruenert to expand on more plans for expansion. “After Palm Beach, we are looking at Europe, where there are several nice places. We would like to expand where our loyal guests travel, and not urge them to visit to a fancy place, where we might think of opening a hotel, but where they don’t customarily travel to. Let the bigger companies open new markets that are in the magazines but not yet popular on our guests’ itineraries. Capri is the best example. When we opened, our guests asked, ‘when can we book?’! So, places like the South of France, St Tropez are interesting… There are other ski resorts. Aspen, St Moritz will be nice. We are working on something in Tuscany, which could see the development phase soon… Dr Gruenert lists enthusiastically.

These are the next steps. But as always, growth will be slow and cautious, he points out, quipping, “I was looking at how other hotel companies expand. They always look at almost doubling… if you have 40 already, and you must have at least 35 in the pipeline. They are not thinking of masterpieces by growing at that pace. It’s very easy to say that we are focussed on authenticity and uniqueness and sense of place, and we are also doubling our portfolio. But are you really?”

The Hotel Le Palma, Capri is the newest Oetker collection property.

Masterpieces in the making
So, when Oetker is acquiring hotels, how do they identify one as a potential masterpiece? “I always ask the team to look at masterpieces in other fields, like a painting, sculpture, an haute-couture dress. What unites all of these is that it took a long time of craftsmanship and an almost obsessive attention to detail.”

Dr Gruenert’s passion for perfection is evident as he speaks about how, when the Oetker family is not the owner of a property, they work hard to find a partner whose thoughts are on the same page, which is like finding a needle in a haystack. Apart from this, there are five to six criteria, which are super important, he explains, “It starts with location, the external architecture, and then, in the interiors, it’s about space and bespoke design, the quality of the materials used. Many of our guests have more than one home and they are used to a high standard of design and quality of materials. So, we have to match this or try to even better it. Each restaurant in the hotel must be able to stand alone on its own merit even if it were taken out and put in the middle of the city. If like the hotel in Palm Beach, if the location, architecture, number of floors cannot change, then it must already be a masterpiece. All we then have to do is to work with interior design and hire quality people.”

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The Oetker Collection is very picky about properties. Only three out of 100 properties may get shortlisted and then at the board meeting, the family might still reject two out of the three! This may be frustrating in the immediate moment, but in hindsight the team realises, it is the best thing to happen. There are about 60 people in the corporate office, and a core team that consists of six people who are always available, making all the magic happen.

Guest arrives at the Chateau Saint Martin spa

Meeting the new needs of the luxury traveller
We ask Dr Gruenert, who has his finger on the pulse of luxury whether travel in this sector has evolved after the pandemic? He replies, “There is currently a trend for people to travel realising how much they have missed out during the pandemic. But over time, as they get busy with other things, they will need to remind themselves about the importance of travel. They will look for meaningful places and reasons to travel. There was always a choice to take a picture of a moment and putting it on Instagram or not putting a picture and enjoying that moment. The trend seems to be moving towards the latter.”

The Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa, Baden Baden Germany.

He points out that meaningful luxury travel now means that the traveller is also looking for hotels and resorts that are making efforts to be sustainable and environment friendly. To this end, Oetker Collection has a dedicated team member, who has done a roadshow of all our hotels and he has made a list of 700 things that they can do to improve sustainability, which the brand is implementing in a phased manner.

“I was reading a report, which said that the current biggest spenders of luxury are the baby boomers, but the trend is changing. By 2030, 40 per cent of luxury spending will be by Generation Alpha. While they are just 13 years old now, they will have identity and inherited money by 2030 when they are 20. You have to be sustainable to be relevant to this market,” emphasises Dr Gruenert.

The Le Bristol Paris

So, what are their main thrusts towards this? They have started working on energy, which is the biggest thing, and they are exploring whether they can create their own energy. Like solar panels in the Caribbean, energy from lakes and rivers in Geneva and Paris, etc. Dr Gruenert shares, “At one of our hotels, we have replaced plastic bottles with metal bottles filled with water that we produce by harnessing atmospheric water vapour (humidity)! In some of our restaurants, people pay 300-400 Euro per meal, but we place these refillable metal bottles there too. Should a guest ask for mineral water, we provide them that. But ultimately, it is about a hotel being self-confident that this is the new reality. A menu that provides water from all over the world is no longer sustainable.”

The Woodward Geneva uses water from lake Geneva for heating and cooling.

He explains how they also try and pay close attention to sustainability while sourcing, even checking the sustainability practices of their suppliers besides sourcing locally to minimise the CO2 footprint. “It’s tricky if someone wants Norwegian Salmon instead of local trout, but it must be done,” avers Dr Gruenert, elaborating, “How you do it is also important. Look at Tesla… There were other electric cars before Tesla. But they were slow, ugly, and unsafe. Tesla made electric cars cool, sexy and desirable. Similarly, at the breakfast buffet, you cannot remove avocado, kiwi etc, which are not sourced locally, and just keep it empty. You have to replace it with something that is equally if not more delicious!”

Dr Gruenert’s fine sensibilities and sharp business savvy help keep Oetker Collection constantly striving to be cutting edge even as it carries on its legacy of elegance that originated in 1872.

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