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

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