THE PERFECT MIX
WITH 10 TOP-FLIGHT HOTELS ACROSS THE WORLD AND GROWING, THE OETKER COLLECTION FITS ITS HOSPITALITY TO THE DESTINATION. WHETHER IN LONDON, THE RIVIERA, THE CARIBBEAN OR SEYCHELLES, LUXURY BEGINS WITH THE LITTLE THINGS.
Hospitality is like craftsmanship, says Frank Marrenbach, CEO of the Oetker Collection, a curation of luxury hotel properties across the globe, from London and Paris to St Barths and the Seychelles. As WISH sits with down him one wintry London morning in the elegant surrounds of Céleste, The Lanesborough’s Michelin-starred restaurant, shafts of natural light flood down through the room’s glass-domed ceiling, bouncing with a bright airiness off the pale blue walls marked with Regency-style plastered reliefs of ancient Greek scenes and crystal-feathered chandeliers.
“It’s like being a tailor or a cobbler, you have to be really in every detail. You need an eye for things, and you really have to like people,” he says. “If I see somebody hasn’t been given their tea, I will serve it to them. As CEO, if I pass a guest schlepping their suitcase up some stairs and I don’t care enough to stop and help them, there is something fundamentally wrong.” His hands-on approach has earned him respect – not just from the Oetker family (who tasked Marrenbach with the job of evolving and building the hotel brand), but from the 2700-odd staff across the group’s 10 hotels.
“Nobody would expect me to care about these things, but I do. And it’s relevant because otherwise it says I don’t appreciate our guests – I am a custodian of a certain culture heavily influenced by the founding Oetker family,” he says. “I want people to feel their work space is more than their work space – it’s also a professional home, and home means being recognised and respected. It’s how to attract the best people.”
It’s certainly been a busy couple of years for Marrenbach and his team, with the opening of the 141room Pálacio Tangará in São Paulo last summer; the addition of a luxurious member’s club and spa at The Lanesborough; the rebuild of Eden Rock St Barths following the devastation of Hurricane Irma in September (it is due to reopen in December after the revamp, which is being overseen by leading London interior designer Martin Brudnizki); and taking over the management of Antiguan private island resort Jumby Bay.
Its prestigious 19th-century Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc at Antibes in the south of France will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2020. Cities like New York, LA, Berlin and Rome remain on their radar as potential locations for hotels to expand their already bulging portfolio. “We can’t create destinations, we have to be realistic – if you put us in the middle of New Zealand, we won’t do well,” reflects Marrenbach. “We don’t have a magic stick, we simply look to where our guests like to go. Where people go, that attracts talent, and talent attracts jobs, jobs create wealth. This is the game, you don’t have to be smart to understand that. We look at the big growing cities and fill a niche there.”
Marrenbach has an easy, genuine charm, and also a quiet Teutonic passion for precision and planning. Born and raised in Düsseldorf, he joined the hotel world early. “At school, everyone in my class did law or medicine,” he says. Instead, he applied to hotels. “This was the mid-80s and service wasn’t considered very popular then, but I knew I didn’t want to work in a bank. I liked the lobby of the hotel more,” he laughs. “Honestly I mean it. I related to it, I liked its ambiance. I wanted that ambiance around me.”
Unusually, his parents spoke no foreign languages – “typical at the time for people born post-World War II,” he says – but his father was open-minded. “He said to my brother and me ‘your future will be Europe’,” he recalls. From the age of 13, summer vacations were spent with his brother in Britain, France, America. “It was remarkable given our parents hadn’t travelled very far or spoken any English. Now, for my own two teenage boys, their world will be truly global.”
Marrenbach’s first job away from home was as a receptionist at The Berkeley (just two blocks down the road from where we sit today at The Lanesborough). Just as he was getting itchy feet, the Gulf war broke out in Kuwait and he decided to stay in London, taking a job as the hotel’s computer systems manager. “I had no training, I knew nothing, but I had a laptop so they assumed I knew about IT,” he laughs. His salary tripled, he had a nice office and “suddenly, I could wear a proper suit.”
That job took him to Paris, even without any French, to work at the Hotel de Crillon, then owned by Taittinger. He joined Oetker in 1997 as managing director of Brenners Park-Hotel and Spa in Baden Baden, founded in 1872 but owned by the Oetker family since 1923, which overlooks the historic park of Lichtentaler Allee. He grew restless again, but then Richard Schmitz, Brenners MD for 32 years, retired and Marrenbach took the job. “Baden Baden is a small town but Brenners is so international, people come from all over the globe. The opportunity to take over this iconic German hotel was irresistible.”
It was also his chance to take the initiative. At the time, the octogenarian Rudolf-August Oetker was still at the helm, having inherited his grandfather August Oetker’s family-run business in 1944. With a fortune derived from the development of baking powder, he had grown the business to include not just its famous Dr Oetker cake mixes and frozen pizza, but shipping, brewing and hotels. Today, his sons August and Alfred are chair and deputy chair on the advisory board. (The younger generations of Oetkers have made no secret of the company’s involvement with the Third Reich; they even commissioned a historian to write a book, Dr Oetker and National Socialism, published in 2013.)
“Mr Oetker told me to write down my plan on two pages,” remembers Marrenbach. He read it, sucking on his pipe, and then said “write five pages”. “After he read those, he asked me one thing: ‘would you do it if it was your own money?’ I said yes.” Oetker gave him three years to see his ideas to fruition. “By the time I left that room, the responsibility sat so heavily on my shoulders. I was only 33 but I hoped he’d applied proper judgment and he didn’t think I was too stupid,” Marrenbach says.
After Oetker Sr died in 2007, Marrenbach had the opportunity to bring the group’s four hotels together, maintaining their individuality but allowing them to help each other more. Personally, “it was the right timing for me,” he says. “I had the right energy and skills, I was the right age, it all came together.”
In late 2008, the Oetker Collection was born. “When we started, we had nothing, not even a head of management contract,” he says. “We were effectively a start-up, so we had to convince people to come and work with us. It wasn’t easy but we had four super assets and people gave us the benefit of the doubt.”
Marrenbach refers to each of the properties in the Oetker Collection portfolio (there are also hotels in Courchevel and Vence, just north of Nice) as a “masterpiece”, defined by four things. “One, craftsmanship. Simply the ability to make the bed in the most wonderful way,” he says. “It sounds so banal but everyone, from the chefs and sommeliers to the doormen, plays that role.” Second is focus: “Don’t try to suit everybody’s style.” Next, heritage: “Not to be confused with tradition. Tradition is what you inherit and where you have come from; heritage is what you create today that will become the traditions of tomorrow,” he emphasises. Fourth, rarity. “It’s a uniqueness, probably derived from the result of the first three points, which is about capturing an essence that’s hard to find anywhere else.”
Take Le Bristol in Paris, for example, he says. “Le Bristol is the most Parisian hotel you will find in Paris. It starts with its design and continues with Michelinstarred chef Eric Fréchon in the kitchen. It’s deeply anchored in its neighbourhood, not made for tourists alone but for the people who live there. It’s a Parisian palace,” says Marrenbach. Eden Rock St Barths is the ultimate barefoot beach rock’n’roll experience; Fregate Island boasts unique access to the preservation of its surrounding nature, on sea and land. “We always look at where a hotel is positioned and how we can use that to make it different,” he says, citing the haven of rainforest tranquillity surrounding Pálacio Tangará as it sits in the heart of São Paulo’s Burle Marx park – the perfect escape from “an exhausting city with 23 million people”, he says. “I think it has the potential to become one of the very finest hotels in Brazil.”
Remaining relevant for the next 10, even 100 years concerns Marrenbach. “I have to make sure tradition doesn’t hinder us. When it comes to forward thinking, we might love that one of our hotels looks elegant but if we hang on to that notion too much, we risk losing it.” Tastes change. “When I did my apprenticeship, everything was always a stage production. Everybody was like an actor, but that’s the last thing people want today,” he says. Will people continue to want good food? Yes, but the way they serve it will be very different. “Where will technology take us?”
Seeking answers to this question, Marrenbach established a future room laboratory in Paris “to anticipate what a room can look like,” he says. “It’s less a question of paint colours and more about things like air-purifying carpets, bed heights which can be adjusted, and water management.” Services go beyond the perfect turn-down and a seamless checkout. There are made-tomeasure adventures associated with each hotel: ski with an Olympic medallist, free-dive with a world record holder, play tennis with a clay court star, taste the rarest of wines with a world-leading sommelier. At Brenners, it’s not just massages and manicures – guests can have a full body and mind makeover. Oetker even started its own training academy for staff on Fregate Island in the absence of a hotel school in the Seychelles.
“Every guest who comes to us comes for relaxation, inspiration, and being understood,” says Marrenbach. “Our audience likes the human touch. They want us to understand their needs without having to ask them. Our challenge is to work out someone’s feeling and turn it around. Anything that can contribute to this helps us to bring guests back.”
“Tradition is what you inherit; heritage is what you create today that will become the traditions of tomorrow.”
Brenners Park-Hotel and Spa, Baden Baden Jumby Bay Island, West Indies Palacio Tangara, São Paulo