Most people probably only know Thomas Althoff in connection with stars. Lots of stars. However, it is much less well known that the 62-year-old was previously a manager at Best Western Hotels. And that he does not just deal "in luxury", but also "in business hotels". Currently, he has even set his sights on the budget segment. Oh yes, and China.
text: Jürgen Baltes und Anke Pedersen // photography: james arthur allen
Iris Gleicke had actually been invited to the CEO Panel at the Deutscher Hotelkongress (German Hotel Convention) at the beginning of February. But Germany's Federal Government Commissioner for Tourism had to cancel at short notice; and it was probably lucky for her that she did. Because otherwise she would have encountered a man who was remarkably angry. So angry that it would hardly have been possible to fob him off with the usual political waffle. Not on the topic of bureaucracy in the hotel industry. Not that day.
Yet it is really very rare that Thomas Althoff is not the person he really is: a hotelier who is always obliging, always charming and interested in his counterpart. A knight and a gentleman, who has dedicated himself to the boundless beauty, harmony and cheerfulness of this life – whether when dealing with people or with respect to art, culture and cuisine. A hotelier with heart and soul.
But sometimes even the amiable Mr Althoff loses his rag. For example when it comes to the sharing economy. "That is blatant distortion of competition," the hotelier fulminates at the convention in Berlin, "a scandal! We are personally liable, and then there are others who simply get around this. And you yourself always have someone there from the authorities and you have to constantly deal with things that are of no use to the guest." He sees this no differently with respect to the German Law on Working Hours: "It just cannot be possible that our employees aren't allowed to work longer than ten hours, not even voluntarily," he rails to a thousand colleagues who are nodding in agreement.
Althoff's unaccustomed vehemence is particularly remarkable because it can be presumed that there is a lot more behind it than just worry about a slump in revenue. In the final analysis, a man like Althoff will perceive politicians' ignorance as a resounding slap in the face: for his "value-oriented corporate management", whereby the appreciation of one's employees forms one of the cornerstones; for the amount of passion with which he does his job and which is necessary for this business; and thus, last but not least, also for his own life's work. Because if Althoff, born the son of a businessman in 1953, had always taken his bearings from the time clock and not from his visions – he probably would not have been able to build up a flourishing company with hotels that have won international acclaim too.
And that he would sometime have his own company and achieve something – the young Thomas was already planning this during his time at commercial college, and after he graduated he began a traineeship at a brewery as a business manager.
Althoff's heroic tale began a short time later. He was just 21 years young when he leased his first own hotel in 1974 – in Aachen at the border with the Netherlands and Belgium. Why Aachen, this relatively small city? "Well, who was going to lease me a hotel at that age already?" the grand hotelier (one of his hotels is called "Grandhotel Schloss Bensberg" – editor's note) responds with an impish grin. At 21, he simply did not have a wide choice, he says. So he took what he could get; and shortly afterwards he also leased hotels in the Harz and Black Forest tourism regions.
Until 1980, when offer then came from Best Western Hotels, which even then was one of the largest US chains. "They had just entered the European market and were looking for someone to develop business in Germany," Althoff recounts, and he did not let an opportunity like this slip through his fingers. "I was able to learn a lot from them with regard to marketing, reservations, procurement and training systems," he says. "Back then, they were far superior in Germany."
During this time, he acquired around 100 hotels as Managing Director, and parallel to this established consulting and management company Althoff Beratungs- und Betreuungsgesellschaft. It was through precisely this company that he came across the Hotel Regent in Cologne in 1984. Shortly afterwards, he terminated his guest performance with the Americans and took over the four-star hotel. Today, Althoff says the Regent was "the real incubator" for the Althoff Hotels, "the foundation stone of the company as it is today."
And indeed it was particularly this business approach, which was rather exotic at the time, which got the perfectionist into the black quickly: Because the young entrepreneur by no means sees service and process efficiency as a contradiction in terms. Rather, he brings together the "best of both of these worlds" and defines system processes and functionalities that are as clear as they are measurable for all aspects of his aspiration to "service, individuality and focus on the person".
Althoff proved that he expected to be successful with this strategy in the luxury segment also with the takeover of Schloss Lerbach near Cologne in 1990. It was not just his first step into business in the five-star-hotel industry. With the strategically clever move of hiring Dieter Müller, who had just been selected by Gault-Millau as "Chef of the Year" the ambitious young man from the Rhineland also established the third pillar of the Althoff Hotel Collection concept, which still supports it today: Cuisine, architecture and design, as well as service.
With resounding success. Although the sector is initially sceptical as to whether "the new generation still really wants a concierge and silver service", they celebrated him already in 1995 as "Hotelier of the Year". Subsequently, events moved very quickly, and suddenly the man with the many stars from Saint-Tropez and London is also recognised in public far beyond national borders.
However, the fact that he does not just keep investing in new lighthouse projects, but also remains faithful to his original segment, somehow gets lost in light of the headline events like "Althoff's Festivals of Master Chefs" and the "Schloss Bensberg Classics", his own very personal homage to classic vintage cars and rare automobiles. In 2007, Althoff therefore decided to amalgamate his city hotels, which were distributed across Germany and Switzerland, under one common umbrella brand.
However, the aim was not just to include existing hotels under Althoff's new four-star brand Ameron. The opening of the first hotel designed from A to Z to Ameron standard in the World Conference Center Bonn (WCCB) was planned as a kind of kick-off and blueprint for further expansion. Because the fraud scandal related to the WCCB in 2008 stymied this plan, the first hotels to be newly built as an Ameron Hotel were not completed until 2014/2015: in Hamburg's Speicherstadt warehouse district and in Davos, and "with further developments in the design, the art concept and cucina à la mamma."
As a next step, Althoff is planning Munich, Düsseldorf and Stuttgart. And he achieved a coup yet again in the luxury segment too: The Cologne businessman achieved the takeover of the renowned Domhotel opposite Germany's favourite tourist attraction: Cologne Cathedral. He plans to reopen the hotel at the end of 2018. "But that's a story in itself; I'll tell it to you another time."
Because in his mind, Althoff has long since moved on much further. After the luxury and city hotel business segment, he and his long-standing team of managers, and nowadays also fellow shareholders, now want to conquer the budget design segment too, "that's where the highest growth rates are." Initially there will once again be a pilot project first, "but that will take three years." What the sophisticate has in mind is a "lifestylish, quirky, young" concept with high-quality fittings and an independent art concept. "Let's see how it turns out, whether it isn't even more beautiful than budget in the end," he smiles.
And let's see if Althoff hasn't also long since moved on much further geographically in 2019. Because at the 2016 ITB, he had announced his cooperation agreement with Plateno Hotels, according to which the Chinese will open Ameron Hotels across Asia in future under franchise. "Initially, ten hotels are planned in China, then 50 in Cambodia and Vietnam too. That will go very quickly." Althoff is not afraid of being swallowed up himself in the end. "It isn't a joint venture, is it?" the businessman's son emphasises and grins: "We are franchisors, and that means that Plateno pays us a franchise fee for every hotel."