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DIALOGUE: Managing Tianjin’s Most Iconic Hotel: An Interview with the GM of Astor Tianjin
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The Astor Tianjin is the city’s oldest and most celebrated luxury hotel. Opened in 1863, this magnificent venue has hosted Chinese Emperors, US Presidents and an extensive list of famous historical figures from around the world. At the head of this iconic hotel is general manager Christian Metzner. Originally from Germany, Christian has spent the past seven years working for some of Beijing and Tianjin’s most exclusive five star accommodators. His current role as the head of such an important historical venue is one of incredible prestige and requires excellent management skills. We caught up with this outstanding hotelier to gain an insight into his work and the splendid venue that is the Astor Hotel Tianjin.
 
Firstly, tell us about your background and your career to date.
I was born in Germany and that is where I started my career in the hospitality industry. After working for Starwood in Munich for three years, I decided that it was time to see the world. The hospitality industry provides some opportunities to do so. The company gave me three options: the US, Dubai or Asia. I chose to go to Beijing and work as part of the opening team at the Westin on Financial Street. Three years later I came to the Westin Hotel in Tianjin and worked as the head of sales and marketing. Then finally, in April this year, I started working as the general manager of the Astor.
 
So far, what have been your career highlights?
I have had some truly great moments in my career. Opening a hotel is just amazing. The build up to the opening is absolutely crazy, you have to work 24 hours a day leading up to it. So when the time comes to welcome the first guest it is a very special moment. In terms of big events, I have helped to organise functions related to the football World Cup in Germany, Formula 1 races and the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Preparing for special guests is always great. I have served many famous people over the last few years including former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Kylie Minogue, Usain Bolt and the Real Madrid team. It gives me great satisfaction to ensure that guests enjoy their stay and that all of their needs met.
 
Tell us about your experience of living and working in China. What are the unique challenges you face?
I chose China over other great places and I believe that I have made the right decision. There are plenty of amazing career opportunities here and I have met some incredible people during my time in this country. I have a great life and I really enjoy myself. Of course there are challenges. Recruiting the right staff is perhaps the biggest one for me. For a country with over a billion people, it is still difficult to find the right talent. This is not just a problem within the hospitality sector, but in an industry whereby people have to serve others, it is not always the most sought after career path. We often struggle to find the right associates.
 
How would you describe your management style and your approach to the job?
My job is challenging but it is made easier by the unique quality of the ‘product’ we sell. There really isn’t anywhere else quite like the Astor Tianjin. It is a magnificent venue with such a unique historical significance and offers the best quality of service available in the city. The atmosphere which the venue offers to its guests here is so good that we can dedicate more time to working on ‘soft skills’. I try to focus on developing the subtle elements of customer service- how to serve dinner, how to open doors, how to welcome guests, the way we say hello. For me, these aspects make a very big difference our customers. 
 
Being in charge of the staff requires me to be personal with everybody on the team. I consider myself to be very close to everyone who is working here- the managers, the waiters, the chefs, the cleaners and anybody else who is part of the Astor team. I think it is very important to be myself, be friendly to everyone and to continually try to innovate and inspire.
 
The Astor has a very rich history which gives it the edge over other hotels in Tianjin. Can you give us a brief overview of the hotel’s background and tell us why you think this gives it an advantage?
The hotel first opened in 1863 and since then it has been at the forefront of the hospitality industry in Tianjin. Originally it was a place for trading, so it was important as a commercial centre for Northern China. It was the first building in the city to have running water, a power generator and a telephone line. We have the oldest OTIS elevator in China; which still works! Over the years, many famous historical figures have stayed here. The US president, Herbert Hoover, lived here for a while and dined here with his guests. The last Emperor of China, Pu Yi, regularly came to the Astor with his wife to attend the annual autumn balls. Dr Sun Yat Sen, former Dalai Lamas and many other big names and celebrities have stayed in this hotel.
 
The building’s history very much influences today’s service. For example, we offer our guests two fabulous themed suites, the Sun Yat Sen suite and the Herbert Hoover suite, in which customers can stay in the same room as these distinguished previous occupants. Furthermore, we have archives of all our past menus so that guests can choose to dine in exactly the same way that our famous visitors did all those years ago. We offer a truly unique service here and we also have the Astor Tianjin Museum which is located within the hotel. As part of the hotel’s identity, the history is also very important in attracting clients. These days we have many Chinese guests who grew up in Tianjin but are coming back from elsewhere and wanting to relive the exciting times they spent here as children eating and looking around the building.
 
In terms of facilities for general guests and those looking to host corporate events here, what does the Astor Tianjin offer that gives it the edge over the competitors?
Although we offer the same standard facilities and services that are available in other five star hotels in the city, staying here is a unique experience because of the historic feel of the venue. Our ballroom and meeting rooms are different from the modern equivalents in other places because they look and feel like rooms that you might find in a castle or a traditional Victorian building. This makes the Astor very popular for corporate events, weddings and other kinds of functions. We also have our hugely popular themed suites and our authentic British style pub, O’Hara’s, which offers a truly traditional experience like nowhere else in Tianjin. The hotel is a very special place which is ideal for guests who are looking for something different.
 
Give us your thoughts on the hospitality industry in China. How has it evolved in recent years?
In the seven years I have spent working in this industry, the changes I have seen have been phenomenal. Our company, Starwood Resorts, are opening 25-30 new hotels across the country every single year. It is great for customers because they now have plenty of options and they can choose the most exceptional venues and find great service anywhere they go in China. The clientele has changed remarkably in recent years. Now, I would say that 65% of our clients are Chinese- which is nice for our staff because they can have a balance between serving Chinese and foreign customers. Also, of course, the amount of competition within the sector has increased significantly. I think this is actually a good thing for us because sometimes we need a bit of a kick in order to work harder and to rethink our approach in order to raise the quality of our services. That is not just in terms of overnight guests but also in terms of our catering and other services. 
 
Finally, tell us what the future has in store for the Astor Hotel Tianjin and for you as its GM.
I am very optimistic about the hotel’s future. There are still improvements and possibilities to be explored, but that is the same as anywhere else. Our business is constantly improving and in September we achieved the highest monthly revenue in the hotel’s long history. It is has been exciting to see this happen and whilst there will be ups and downs, more and more people want to come here so, on the whole, the future looks very good.
For me, I have only just started my work here and I am very happy and lucky to be working with this excellent team. Living in Tianjin is fantastic and I am really excited about being here in the future. The hotel has an incredible history and I want to become part of it. With the team we have now, we can write a new history for ourselves. I would like to make the hotel even more established and recognisable as the premier place to stay in Tianjin. I want to build a team of staff who are proud to tell people that they work at the Astor. That, and of course, to keep having happy guests!
 
 

By Josh Cooper
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