Hamburg hotel ventures online

By | January 9th, 1997

The Hotel Elysee in Hamburg’s fashionable Rotherbaum district has a resolution for the new year.

It’s going online. Quietly.

The lack of fanfare may have as much to do with the Elysee’s refreshingly unorthodox management style-a non-hierarchical, North American service-oriented philosophy-as it does with the ultracompetitive lodging market in Germany’s second-largest city.

(If you haven’t visited the continent recently, a reminder: as a general rule, European hotels are unapologetically hostile to guests. The customer is rarely right.)

For the 11-year-old, privately held hotel, getting wired should come as naturally as installing new curtains or revamping the decor to meet visitor needs, to hear assistant manager and Internet pointman Frank Grigull talk about it.

And he wants it all. Not just the in-room ISDN lines, extra plugs for laptops, and outlets for fax machines. He’s after a world-class Web site that will slowly wean the Elysee off its dependence on Utell, which extracts what he terms “outrageous” booking fees.

“Utell charges $4 per reservation and 7 percent of the rate, and we think that’s a little much,” says Grigull. “Maybe a Web site would be better.”

Perhaps. With recent telephone deregulation expected to lure more Germans online, and with Web design companies springing up like mushrooms in Hamburg, the time is certainly ripe for a Web presence. Already, the property has secured the rights to “”

“That was the first thing we did,” notes Grigull.

Now comes the hard part. The hotel isn’t ready to bid Utell Auf Wiedersehen. Not after the Web sticker shock it recently suffered. One Internet design company run by a 21-year-old infopreneur offered to put up a page at a “bargain” $85,000. That’s about the time the Elysee suspended its search for a contractor.

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As this column goes to press, the hotel’s top management is expected to meet behind closed doors to hammer out the details of a cyberspace strategy that will take the Elysee into the next millennium. One of the ideas under consideration is to hire someone in-house to begin the evolutionary process of a Web site. Another possibility is piggybacking on an existing reservations site that specializes in hotels.

Either way, 1997 will be the year that the 305-room property sets out on an online adventure the likes of which it’s never experienced. It’s about time, adds Grigull.

According to an internal hotel study, the Elysee and its competitors-including the venerable Four Seasons in downtown Hamburg-are stalling in tandem with the German economy, with annual net incomes slipping across the board for the top nine properties in town. At the same time, occupancy rates have tumbled to a projected 72 percent in 1996 from 87 percent four years ago at the Elysee, despite only a modest rise in average room rates-from $160 a night to $163 a night during the same period.

The market is bad, in other words-and it’s getting worse, or at least more competitive, as Hyatt moves into Hamburg with a new property in 1997. All the more reason, according to Grigull, to try something new.

The Net won’t solve all of the Elysee’s problems. But the hotel’s eagerness to embrace interactivity, it’s safe to say, will surely pay dividends in the years to come.

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