The sector knows him as an eloquent speaker who plays the piano, the general public knows him as a likeable "Undercover Boss" and his colleagues know him as a relaxed troubleshooter. These talents did not just propel Marcus Smola to the position of head of Best Western Hotels Central Europe. By expanding his own distribution to include strategic partnerships with OTAs, he now wants to boost the independence and economic clout of his hotels even further.
text: Anke Pedersen // photography: Felix Schmitt
Does he have a plan? Does he even have a goal? Marcus Smola didn't really have either: "I never got out of Frankfurt and I have only worked in three companies," laughs Smola, who is now 50. Everything in his life "always just happened somehow." Particularly after it had become clear to him that he would go into sales. Because "sales just suited me". But particularly because he definitely did not want to work nights or at the weekend. "I used to play football and wanted to work during the week, just like my friends." End of story!
That did not do him any harm. On the contrary. After a few positions at Steigenberger Hotels and and taking evening courses to gain a degree in Marketing and Communication, Marcus Smola took over management of hotel development at Best Western in the European head office in Eschborn, Germany at only 33 years of age, and then worked for eight years as deputy CEO of the limited company there, was promoted to CEO in 2008 and has actually been the boss at Best Western Hotels in Central Europe since January 2016.
And yet: The word "boss" does not actually fit someone like Smola at all. Bosses, that is a word that is usually associated with men of a dominant disposition, who fill a room with their presence and prone to jovial backslapping. Someone like Marcus Smola on the other hand, endowed with curls and a smile that is always mischievous behind the rimless lenses of his glasses, Smola would be more likely to pass for a lecturer in philosophical studies. But in any case he would pass for the perfect son-in-law – his desire for harmony in his personal and professional life, his passion for music and his close family ties fit this cliché too well.
But as a boss? In this area, Smola tend to keep it more like in the television series "Undercover Boss", in which he cleaned rooms, washed vegetables, carried plates and washed dishes incognito for an entire week in 2011: He prefers to fly under the radar. That means: Smola sees it as his primary duty to create an atmosphere of appreciation. He achieves this by handing over the functional responsibility to his employees for their respective specialist areas and then giving them the freedom to implement things according to their own taste. Smola: "I have specialists who know everything much better than me,and then I try to coordinate that in the background."
With this back-seat style, he is totally in line with his great role model, former Steigenberger Head of Sales Anton Wüstefeld: "He also lets his employees do their thing first, and if something goes wrong, he mucks in with them to sort it out." He is also of the same mind as Markus Keller, his boss at Best Western parent company Dehag: "You have to take a relaxed view of things now and again."
When Smola took over management of Best Western in 2008, he saw it as his task in the first instance "to throttle the speed a little" and to practice a management style based on appreciation in order to ensure that his employees received the necessary empowerment. You could also say, since Marcus Smola is a pianist: to re-tune the Best Western instrument, and introduce new harmonies into it.
If his father had had his way, he would not have become a hotel manager anyway, but a concert pianist, Smola reveals, and smiles with his shy schoolboy grin. After all, he had begun to play the piano at the age of six and even completed training as a church organist. But even though learning music and understanding harmonies constitute an important foundation: "Nope, I did not want to make a profession of it."
In that sense, he found the hotel business a lot more interesting. "I once helped my aunt for two weeks; she was the first woman to work as housekeeping manager at a hotel in Frankfurt." Afterwards, he actually wanted to study tourism, but there was a waiting period involved. So initially he did a training course in hotel management. "But when I was finished, the Wall had fallen, and then there was a long waiting list again."
And then? The hotel where he did his training near the Frankfurt Trade Fair grounds had just been sold to Marriott, and they actually want to have him there in Sales and Marketing. But in Geneva or London. Smola doesn't want that – because of the football. So he spends the next ten years at Anton Wüstefeld's right hand in the sales department of Steigenberger Hotels, completes his degree (finally), says "I do" to a former fellow classmate and becomes the father of two sons. In the meantime, playing music with his own band only occurs on rare occasions – when time allows.
However, from 1999 onwards, Smola's time at Best Western (BW) begins – "they had just started looking for someone to acquire new hotels." And at BW, his harmony doctrine is in demand, and not just with regard to management. In order to liven up his lectures at conferences and conventions, he soon only steps onto podiums and stages with a keyboard. "I always find lectures on quality standards boring," he explains in the manner of the perfect entertainer. "So I said to the audience: 'If you interrupt me, then I will play you a song." And his listeners don't need to be told that twice! Whether the lecture was on the "BW Surprise Strategy" or "Customer Orientation": His success is so resounding that Smola is booked nowadays outside the sector too, as a speaker to audiences of bankers, for example.
Nevertheless, he does not see himself as a soloist by any means. On the contrary: When he assumed a senior management position in 2008, he did not just just strike up a new tune at the headquarters in Eschborn. Parallel to this, he started looking for new arrangements for BW Europa. His thought process: Do we really need 15 independent country organisations? "After all, that is inefficient, and because the requirements are constantly growing, is also becoming increasingly more expensive."
With a lot of patience and diplomatic skill, the "Undercover Boss" achieved his goal as of 1 January, 2016: Just in time for the Best Western brand to reach the 70 mark, the company now has a lean and powerful presence in Europe with only six country organisations, including Smola's BW Hotels Central Europe, which amalgamates 11 countries under one roof. "We defined shared values and introduced continuity, we have become extremely constructive and can now invest more money in marketing and expertise," the Boss says happily. "We should have done this already ten, twenty years ago."
But Smola's oeuvre is far from completed. "Our service comprises of making individual hotel managers more successful economically," the new boss of Central Europe emphasises. And particularly in times where new e-commerce strategies are constantly coming online, this is a real challenge and a "brilliant job", he says. You could also say: A job that is tailor-made for a man who even can play the complete repertoire of harmonies up and down the scale in his sleep. Because now it is about playing a duet with OTAs.
Are you serious? "Some people think that the range of cooperation opportunities on offer nowadays is less attractive, because every small individual hotel has its own booking engine and website.
Yes, that's probably true. The actual technology can be bought in easily nowadays. But much more importantly: The multitude of individual and different booking engines is not what customers like. Companies like Amazon are not successful because they have a pretty, colourful or even emotionally appealing website, but because the purchase process is always the same. That is convenient (because data are already stored), that is familiar (I've done this many times already), that is secure (trust) and I can rely on it. That is also one of the reasons why OTAs are successful. And at this point, we as a brand have to develop services that fulfil the current market requirements."
"Today, we offer services and consultations for our hotels for all relevant and operational areas – that ranges from distribution, sales, quality management and service through e-commerce and revenue management right up to a comprehensive range of training courses. Our strategies in the area of distribution and sales are concentrated on boosting our own distribution channels using modern technology, as well as innovations and further developments of exclusive products. To complement this, we focus on optimising third-party distribution using global partnerships wherever it makes sense to do so. As a large group, we are in a position to enter into strategic partnerships with agents based on conditions that are beneficial to our hotels and constitute win-win situations for both sides. OTAs are not the enemy, and we should investigate how we can collaborate with them in long-term partnerships. In short: It is no longer a question of OTA or proprietary distribution, but of both together, especially now."
"Fifteen years ago, we were purely a marketing service provider; today, 50 percent of our services comprise consultancy work. Why is that? Because hotel distribution has become so infinitely complex and is becoming more complex every day. We are observing that hotels nowadays are frequently overwhelmed. That is why we offer them the complete package: Consultancy on the one hand, the system on the other. And by creating interfaces between agents and our booking system, BW hotels can not just be booked directly through the various portals, they can also maintain their hotel in the Best Western window and will then no longer need any channel managers in the future."
That sounds like a plan.
Thank you very much for the interview, Mr Smola.