A magician with a castle

Gerd Ripp transformed the Romantik Hotel Schloss Rheinfels into a top conference hotel thanks to daring ideas. The German conference hotelier of the year 2017 has had a few lucky breaks – but his character almost certainly had something to do with it, too.

text: Astrid Schwamberger  //  photography: Manuel Hauptmannl

That’s impossible! How does he even do that? Such thoughts must swirl through peoples’ heads when watching Gerd Ripp carry out a magic trick. With a mischievous look on his face, the head of the Romantik Hotel Schloss Rheinfels holds a red silk handkerchief in his fist, when he opens it the cloth has vanished. No way! He was taught that old classic when he was young, along with other tricks, by a professional magician – a guest in a hotel where Ripp was training as a waiter. “Ever since, it has had me hooked,” he grins. Later on he even joined the venerable Magical Circle, wrote a book about magic tricks for trainers and gave seminars on the topic. He’s still more than happy to do the odd trick “from time to time”.

Seriously, what’s a flip chart?

Ripp continued his training, entirely without any tricks or illusions. From the Rhineland surrounding Cologne, his career path took him to the Black Forest, where he worked as Chef de Rang in the prestigious Hotel Bareiss. He then continued on to Alsace, where he completed further training to be a chef, before signing up to a hotel management school in Berlin. Being the youngest state-certified hotel manager in Germany soon paid off. Just one year later, in 1982, the owner of the Schlosshotel Rheinfels hired the then 24-year-old as Managing Director of the medieval castle high above the Rhine. This “sort of upscale tourist operation”, a three-star, 22-room hotel with eight staff, soon revealed itself to be a playground where he was free to do as he pleased. That’s because the owner, an industrialist, whose little castle undertaking was just a tiny cog in his system, gave Ripp free rein and let him immediately reinvest the initial small profits he had garnered during his first year. As a result, the hotel grew larger and more beautiful. But success also brings problems: in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, it’s quite common to close through winter. For five whole months! For Ripp that was out of the question. He had no desire to render his team unemployed year after year, “because only half of them would ever come back”. The answer? A new source of income: Ripp draws guests to the valley of Loreley with conferences even during the coldest days. There’s certainly enough space to build. Although he didn’t really know what he was getting into. “For starters, I had to ask what a flip chart is?” he cheerfully admits. But he had colleagues such as Klaus Kobjoll and Rudi Neuland – “already big names on the conference market at that time” – and invited them to the castle.

Various brainstorming sessions later, Ripp dared to try something “completely new”: He set up meeting rooms, which were only for learning. These are rooms that are not used for weddings or other events, as is often the case. What’s more, a local painter drew Ripp’s attention to Goethe’s colour theory, which states that each colour has a different effect. And he immediately put this new knowledge into play. From then on, scents and colours helped to provide an atmosphere conducive to learning in the individual meeting rooms. “We had created a truly unique conference centre.” says Ripp.

And the technology in his “Amphitrium”, an outdoor meeting space, is also new and unusual. Here, Ripp picked up on a friend's idea and instead of using microphones, he had natural membranes embedded in the soil. “The Romans did that 3000 years ago,” he explains, “but in Germany no one knew that until now”. However, his projects aren’t always met with enthusiasm by his colleagues. “How many do you think have said to me: what sort of nonsense is this?” But the enthusiast wasn’t to be put off – and this paid off. It was an uphill climb but shortly after opening the Villa Rheinfels Conference Centre in 1992, the hotel won a prize for most innovative hotel in the country. Many other awards followed, including multiple prizes for the best conference hotel.

Lord of the castle in the sky

Gerd Ripp’s constant companions over the years have been courage and having the right idea at the right time. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, he longed to have magical powers too. It was 2002, the owner had passed away, his heirs wanted to sell the operation, and Ripp was to take care of matters. Nothing surprising there. But then these three impudent young managers came along, and Ripp, who had lovingly looked after and maintained his “baby” Rheinfels for twenty years, would have to just let it all go. But in the end, he threw the young guys out. “We were sitting at that table over there, I remember it like yesterday, and they wanted to make me walk the plank. In my own place!”

After he showed the trio the door, he spoke to the son of the deceased, who was beside himself with rage. “We argued so much that at some point he simply said: ‘Then just buy the place yourself!’”

As it happened, he had never thought of becoming self-employed, says Ripp, and especially not with a castle. But once those magical words were spoken, Ripp started to ponder.

He admits that what came next still, to this day, makes the hairs on his arms stand on end. All the more so, as no one from his field wanted to believe in such success, especially not the big banks close to Frankfurt. They sent him packing, just like his own bank. “They just didn’t have the guts!” Finally, “clutching at the last straw”, he was able to charm a small regional bank with his entrepreneurial spirit and a rousing presentation. “The world suddenly looked different.”

Looking good

That’s all a good 15 years ago now and the sleepless nights of being a new hotel owner are a thing of the past. Although he is sixty now, Ripp is still full of zest. He has delegated the operational tasks, with Andreas E. Ludwig managing the castle as director since 2013. But Ripp still regularly takes guests out on the Rhine in his own speedboat or chauffeurs them to wine tasting tours in a vintage bus. At the same time, he’s working fervently on his latest project “Maria Ruh”, an event centre with a forest chalet and panoramic views of the Lorelei Rock, with its own coffee roastery and open-air stage for thousands of spectators. Classical music and jazz is on the agenda, along with country and cover bands, but at the end of the season, he always draws local bands from Cologne to the Middle Rhine Valley. Ripp grins: “I am and remain connected to Cologne and the carnival.”

And of course, the hotel industry. “Can you imagine a hotel with no more brochures, no food or drink menus – not even on an iPad?” he asks, eyes lit up. And that’s precisely his next coup: the latest trick up his sleeve is to make all printed information disappear and then reappear in a book in DIN A4 format. The magician is certain. “This thing, guests won’t throw away, they’ll show it to others, and they’ll all talk about it. Believe me, it’ll be good.”


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