GM interview: Alexander Schneider
Youthful German GM focuses on young minimalism in his corporate philosophy
Ahead of his time, intuitive and thoughtful — and with a refreshing sense of humour — Alexander Schneider, general manager of Rixos The Palm and Rixos The Walk, believes his core strength lies in brands and trends.
“I look back at my life and I think one thing I’m really good at is understanding brands and establishing services and strategies that support these brands and trends,” he says, in his distinct German accent.
Schneider’s interest in creativity is what led him to join Rixos Hotels & Resorts in February this year. The young brand, established in 2000 in Antalya, Turkey, has just 30 properties in its portfolio, spanning the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, which according to Schneider makes it “very pliable”.
“We’re young, we’re fresh and we’re determined to go where the market goes — that’s what attracted me [to the company].
“I think Rixos right now is the perfect size to be extremely fast and agile and you need to adapt. We’re no longer in an industry that tells the traveller what to like; the traveller tells us.”
Schneider has experienced both the corporate gigantism of Hyatt Hotels — a company he joined in 2001, where he became Hyatt’s youngest EAM at the age of 28 — and the creative buzz of a boutique start up, having overseen the opening of Casa Camper, Berlin as general manager from 2009-2011.
“After eight years of being in this corset of an extremely well-organised American corporate hotel group, it’s good to venture out and test your entrepreneurial skill,” he comments.
“I think all of these policies and procedures are very good and I think they’re extremely necessary, but the question is, if you only live in that corset, what happens if someone takes the corset away from you? Are you going to fold and fall down, or are you still standing?”
Schneider is certainly still standing, and in his role overseeing both Rixos The Palm, and the upcoming Rixos The Walk, to open on Dubai’s JBR in 2016, he is taking his first steps into a more corporate role, where he will be in a position to influence the direction of the company — and he admits this is his “long-term perspective”.
While Schneider started out in the industry in the F&B side of operations, he prides himself in having experience in all three core verticals of hospitality: F&B; rooms; and sales and marketing. And this, he believes, is what gives him integrity as a leader.
“It must be extremely strange when you climb almost to the summit of a mountain and then you look down and see two slopes that you have never experienced before, yet you’re totally responsible for them,” he muses.
“I have worked with a lot of GMs that only did one part of the trade. I can go into a hotel and I can feel within an hour or so whether the GM is from rooms, F&B or from a sales and marketing background.
“I think credibility as a leader is always one of your key ingredients and I’ve always thought it must be horrible to sit in a meeting and take a decision on things you don’t understand.”
As well as a wide spectrum of experience across the key areas of operations, Schneider cites “spirit” as another important aspect of management.
“I think spirit is the most important ingredient in any team work. When you want to be a leader, you have to align people behind you and in order to do so you have to have a compelling idea. Our idea on The Palm was to become a lifestyle resort, and I think we’ve gone to great lengths to achieve that.”
Creating a successful team, in Schneider’s opinion, involves first hiring the best people, and then showing them appreciation above all things.
“I believe that first-class people hire first-class people and second-class people hire third-class people.
“I always like to surround myself with people that are better than me at the things I’m not good at, and with this you have to be open to different opinions and input and be willing to listen. I like to listen and I like having people around me that challenge my opinions,” he states.
A relatively young general manager himself at 37 years of age, Schneider encourages new ideas, and believes innovation drivers come from the bottom of the pile — the line staff — rather than the senior corporate hoteliers, as once was the case.
“Your innovation drivers are at the bottom,” he states. “They’re young, sharp, fast people — the hungry ones. To encourage them, offer them a career, guidelines and a bit of protection. In return you get great ideas, commitment and you also get loyalty.
“I truly think you need to create an environment where people feel appreciated, and I’m not just talking about employee-of-the-month sort of appreciation.”
So how does Schneider ensure his staff feel needed? “I think taking their opinions seriously, listening to their ideas and showing the rest of the team that if you have a great idea it will not just be listened to, but it will be implemented.
“Talent wants to be recognised and wants to be working among other talented people. Also talent wants to see rewards and to see that untalented people, or those that don’t pull their weight, get penalised.
“If you’re the one that goes the extra mile every day and you’re surrounded by people who are taking everything lightly, then your motivation will not remain, and that’s a very simple psychological process. I think when we talk about recognising the individual, this is what it should be.”
Testament to this, Schneider’s best staff, he hints, will take on cluster roles, overseeing both The Palm property and the new JBR hotel. While currently 400 associates work at Rixos, The Palm, the new 440-key hotel will have 450 staff.
“We’re going to use a lot of synergies to create a shared service centre, and I also want to establish think-tanks for these two properties, where you have people looking at ideas and a great deal of cross-exposure. With these fresh sets of eyes, it’s amazing what you can do.”
As well as staffing synergies, Schneider believes the two properties will complement each other in terms of facilities and “vibe”, comparing them to Copacobana and the Seychelles.
He reveals that a jetty will be built on to the JBR property to provide water transportation between the two properties.
In terms of the target markets for the new hotel however, Schneider quotes Winston Churchill: “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”
Referring to the consumer mind-set shift towards social media and review sites when making travel decisions, along with market volatility over the past 12 months, Schneider says it is important to act quickly in order to remain relevant.
“Obviously it’s a time of change. We have some countries that are not performing as well as they used to, but as with everything, you need to be swift with detecting those changes.
“If you can stay ahead of the curve, or let’s say, in the curve, then you have a good chance of adapting quickly, and I think we’ve been extremely successful.
“We’re looking at an occupancy level of 83%, but the whole city has lost some – that’s an open secret.”
Rixos The Palm hasn't just changed its sales and distribution strategy in response to Dubai’s decline in the number of Russian visitors over the past year. The team also revisited its service approach to cater to western Europeans, and part of this strategy saw the relaunch of the hotel’s bar, Biber Lounge during the summer.
“We’re relaunching Biber because we feel that with our new target groups, we need to have a more stylish pub approach, rather than the same old hotel bar. We’re hoping to welcome more European guests that want to see the Champion’s League football, the PGA golf, etcetera.”
Schneider also hopes that, despite the 12km distance from the foot of the Palm to Rixos at the tip of the northern crescent, the refurbished bar will attract more Dubai residents, among whom he is also seeing a shift in behaviour and attitudes. “The expat crowd is forming individual cells and I think in Dubai now you need to accept that you’re not talking to just one audience.”
With this in mind, Schneider would like the hotel to offer a more casual version of the luxury experiences saturating the city — new beach packages, a revamped spa menu and 'stripped back' music concerts are being introduced. “We’re closing in on a series of acoustic concerts and we’re looking at some very serious performers from overseas.
“Dubai is always hammering away at the super-luxury and it’s getting a little tiring, I have to say.
“I think we’ve gone to great lengths to offer that casual luxury — to be the resort where you don’t need to dress up, you get everything that you want, but when and where you want it. And I think that’s a differentiating factor in the current competitive landscape.
“I think what you will see is Rixos The Palm becoming a lot more fun and more honest, and I think that’s what lifestyle is,” he concludes.