Every so often, Christian Eckert receives a phone call from a recruiter. "Sorry, but I'm not interested" is his standard answer.
The general manager of THE OMNIA explains: “Every morning when I stand on my apartment's balcony and look at the hotel across town, I feel very good and motivated for the new day that lies ahead. And as long as I feel this way, I have no intention of leaving Zermatt...”
I am relieved to know that the giant bedrock supporting my favorite hotel in Zermatt is not the only sign of permanence at THE OMNIA. The hotel's energetic GM who has hosted us once before is here to stay... And when we returned these days for an autumn hiking weekend, it felt like a homecoming.
Seeing how competent the hotel's staff treats their lucky guests, I wanted to learn more about what it takes to manage a five-star boutique hotel in today’s times. Christian Eckert sat down with us to talk about inspiration, leadership and about what sets THE OMNIA Mountain Lodge apart.
On alpine tourism in the wake of global warming
"In the summer of 2019, tourists wearing flip flops were a new and unusual sight here in Zermatt. The locals have reported that temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius are a completely new phenomenon. And as a hotel, we have noticed that as temperatures rise, more visitors decide to cool off in the mountains."
Christian Eckert supports this statement with the latest occupancy rates at THE OMNIA: in 2019, it was a high 90 percent during summer months, and is still a steady 80 percent during September. (The occupancy rate among all Swiss hotels in July 2019 was 66.3 percent.)
While more than a third of guests at THE OMNIA live in Switzerland, the most significant increase came from Americans who now make up the second biggest group. This shift brings me to the topic of positioning: how does THE OMNIA position itself among the world’s luxury hotels?
Omnia is a Latin term that stands for “all encompassing.” So, by pure definition, there can only be one THE OMNIA in the world. "The name is well established and we are positioned as a niche product, a unique design hotel," Christian Eckert explains.
In this respect, this gem of a hotel below the Matterhorn is an antidote to the chain hotels that are aggressively entering the Swiss market. With their homogeneous interiors, big marketing budgets and centralized functions, chains are all but unique.
On employer branding
The lack of skilled employees is a hot topic in Switzerland these days. And when it comes to the hospitality industry, Christian Eckert wonders why so many young people leave the business after they complete their apprenticeship.
One of the factors might be the incompatibility with the hospitality industry with modern lifestyles. Take the example of another hotel where a young employee quit because his work schedule prevented him from seeing his favorite soccer team play.
"When I started in this business 17 years ago as an apprentice, I was in an old-fashioned setup where people would scream at each other in the back of the house." This experience has made an impact on Christian Eckert and he wholeheartedly believes that employees are his most valued asset. "How you treat your employees is reflected in the level of service they provide to the guests."
"Our staff gets two days off per week and we try to accommodate their personal lives. If someone has a hobby, is into sports or has family far away, they need to tell management so that we can schedule them off accordingly."
Naturally, THE OMNIA Mountain Lodge is located in the back of a valley, at least an hour from the nearest bigger town. For Christian Eckert, the mountains are a source of energy. But for many hospitality employees, being tucked away in Zermatt is less attractive than working in a city where they can have more of a social life.
"Finding and retaining competent employees is not an easy task. First and foremost, a working climate where everyone respects one another is the most important factor in retaining employees for more than one season. Salaries are another factor why THE OMNIA is viewed as an attractive employer. We would rather pay someone a city salary in order to keep them for a second season," Eckert explains. As proof, he adds that the hotel has retained almost the same housekeeping team for three years.
It becomes apparent that leadership topics keep this young GM up at night. Questions such as how to enable his staff members, how to guide them on their career paths, and how to let them be a part of the hotel’s success seem to drive him.
Christian Eckert: "I am very happy about my team. I want them to try new things and improve processes. If we don’t try things, we will never know whether it works."
He regularly asks the department heads to share their ideas. "I learned from my grandma to listen - whether to guests or to employees. I believe that a good leader needs to listen and interpret why someone is saying a particular thing. They are giving you hints that should not be ignored."
He beliefs that there is a reason behind each communication, and that the trust his team has built across departments is a result of an open exchange.
I cannot help but think that Eckert’s own passion is another key factor to the good atmosphere among his staff. When asked about this, he confirms that "those who want to be successful in the hospitality industry need a healthy dose of passion. And my goal is for my own sparks of passion to be transferred to my team. I want them to be proud about their job and about THE OMNIA."
Eckert concludes that he views himself as a film director who has to ensure the final picture works out. "With my current movie crew, I could easily go on vacation for three weeks and everything would run smoothly."
Christian Eckert: “I had a special relationship with my grandma. Ever since I remember, she would host people. And during school holidays, she would take me to her workplace where she acted as Head Governance. During those times, she taught me the kind of detailed perfectionism required to be successful in the hospitality business.”
Eckert attributes his calling to run a hotel to his late grandmother: “She was one of the best hostesses I have ever met and hosting is a trait I have inherited from her. I share the same passion for hosting others.”
Christian Eckert adds another factor that sets THE OMNIA apart: "In the five-star luxury category in Switzerland, you have to deliver excellent service. You can never cut back on the level of service."
With this, he is referring to his staff’s ability to anticipate the wishes and needs of guests. By carefully listening and observing, they will gather even small bits of information like someone’s favorite fruit. And based on this intel, staff members of all departments are enabled to create surprising experiences.
One such surprise for me was to find my preferred millet pillow already waiting for me on the bed; I had asked for one a year ago. Or during bad weather with impaired vision of the Matterhorn, it was his staff’s idea to surprise those lodging in a suite with a chocolate replica of the Matterhorn.
Eckert goes on to say that as a family owned hotel with a long-term perspective, time is on their side: “We do not feel the urge to shift sails and jump on every new trend. Instead, we use this time to get to know our guests. They might arrive as clients, but we want to make them depart as friends.”
For me, the hotel’s formula has worked like a charm. I appreciate the time this young hotelier has taken out from his busy 14-hour workday. And I learned a lot about his style of leadership and about what drives the next generation of hotel GMs.
Our conversation has outlasted the slow sunset behind the Matterhorn. I am convinced that this was not going to be my last homecoming to THE OMNIA in Zermatt.