For many years, the former Hotel Kröger had been languishing in torpor. Until former Steigenberger manager Wiebke Ortmann and her business partner took over the 37-room hotel in the deepest recesses of east Hamburg and tuned it up for "sensory overload".
TEXT: Jacqueline Brunsch // PHOTOGRAPHY: Lucas Wahl
From the outside, admittedly, the corner house on Ahrensburger Strasse 107 in east Hamburg does not really attract any attention. In fact, with its reddish-brown clinker bricks, it looks as if it has adapted to the streetscape of the conservative Wandsbek district. What many passers-by and first-time visitors to the new Kröger by Underdog Hotels would never have guessed: Looks can be deceptive. What's more: They are being hoodwinked very intentionally. Because the private hotel, true to its name, is playing with the image of the outsider.
"Particularly at the beginning, I observed business travellers time and again who would be looking at the building sceptically and obviously wondering: 'What on earth has my secretary booked?'" says Wiebke Ortmann, managing partner of the Kröger by Underdog Hotels. This does not bother her. Because at the latest when her guests cross the threshold of the loft-style lobby, they realise that they have made a lucky strike with this little gem, which reopened in 2014. Even on the ground floor, a combination of design enthusiasm and joie-de-vivre already awaits them: Skateboard decks and beer crates, in which classic games are piled up, hang between high ceilings, red metal pipes and robust reinforced concrete pillars.
For those who are initially disoriented, a track shows the way through the 400-square-metre lobby. The goal is the bar. The stylish, wood-clad bar forms the heart of the hotel building, and it is surrounded by pulsating life. Because the lobby in the Underdog is a lot more than just a rest area. "It is the reception, play area, office and lounge in one." That means: Whoever wants to play can pick up a games console or can work off their energy at the football table. Whoever has to work can use the big tables as a mobile office or book the conference room next door with colleagues. "And whoever simply needs a break can fortify themselves with a drink or a snack," says 37-year-old hotel manager Ortmann.
To her mind, the mixture of different styles and functions, as well as the sensory overload that accompanies it, is totally intentional. "We find it fun to polarise, we want to get away from the mainstream character and prefer to be a bit more earthy." This is how she describes the concept she developed together with her co-lessee Nils Jacobsen. What might sound rebellious is more than anything else a means to an end. Because unlike similar concepts – like for example the Superbude hotel in the St. Pauli district – the success of this hotel, which is situated around half an hour away from Hamburg city centre is closely interwoven with this earthiness. Or to put it the other way around: "We believe that this location needed a rather different type of hotel," Ortmann emphasises. And in order to stand out from the 1950s buildings and rather plain competitors, a certain contrast was necessary, she says.
That is why the focus at Krögers is preferably on understatement, in order to persuade guests with concentrated creativity, design and three ever-present guiding principles: "Sleep, Work, Play." "These concepts are our top priority," Ortmann adds. The managing partner brushes aside any suggestion that implementing these buzzwords could make the atmosphere too exuberant for some of her guests. "During the day, it is usually very quiet in the lobby. However, anyone who really wants to have their peace in the evenings is better served going to their room." However, many guests book the room particularly because of its lively atmosphere, she says.
In any case, these dynamics reflect the principles held by Ortmann, who trained as a hotel manager at the Steigenberger Hotel Hamburg, and her business partner Jacobsen: They committed themselves to instilling new life into this sleepy hotel in the Hamburg suburb of Wandsbek. And it has worked: After carrying out substantial refurbishments, Ortmann describes her occupancy rates as "very promising".
When asked about the construction phase, she heaves a deep sigh: "The hotel was in dire need of renovation; it had neither been marketed, nor was it known among competitors or potential guests." And this was despite having a 30-year history. Because of this fact, the challenge, both then and now, she said, was to establish a hotel in a rather conservative district that stood out from among the other competitors but still remained credible.
Not to mention finding a name for it: It took almost a year before the pair of lessees officially turned the internal working title "The ugly duckling" into the "Kröger by Underdog Hotels". And all the time, the solution was only a stone's throw away: Because thanks to the neighbouring "Universum Box-Promotion" boxing club, sport has enjoyed a long tradition in Ahrensburger Strasse 107. The power brokers in the former boxing stables regularly put their boxing stars up overnight in the previous hotel. "It was even frequented by the Klitschkos or by Graciano Rocchigiani," the managing partner reveals. However, lesser known boxers, or even outsiders in the sport – known as "underdogs" – were also likely to have put up at the hotel.
Today, many sporting accessories are still distributed across the entire building as reminders of the era of muscle-bound guests, particularly a brown punch bag in the fitness area. In the small, 16-square-metre room, gymnastics balls, sling trainers or a hanging passageway can be used for functional training. Ortmann, a triathlete, drew up and tried out the instruction diagrams herself. And because the best ideas are generated while moving, the fitness room can also be hired as a conference area.
One storey higher, the rooms with their minimalist décor are also anything but run of the mill. In the bathroom, discarded table football figurines are used as towel holders, and instead of a classic wardrobe, a ballet barre serves as a rather different type of clothes horse. "In our rooms, we pick up on many themes that we had already distributed around the lobby," says Ortmann. The walls are decorated with playing-field markings and the red metal pipes make a reappearance as curtail rails.
But despite all the details and creative ideas: "Without suitable employees, we would have been much less successful," is the manager's conviction. That is why she concentrates on "real guys" when choosing her employees. Whether these are students or pensioners, she doesn't care. But: "Just like the fittings, they too have to be capable of multi-tasking," the manager quips. Thus the receptionist is also the person who pulls beers and serves gin and tonics in the evening, she says. "That makes the atmosphere even more relaxed and people start up conversations faster." The cheerful attitude in dealing with people is one of the hotel's basic recipes. "And of course, now and again we buy a guest a beer or have a pleasant chat with them," says Ortmann, who hails from Hamburg herself. The guests are grateful for this: "Young and old are always totally enthusiastic when they leave the hotel."
In plain terms: Many guests come back. In the end, it does not make any difference either that the location in Hamburg-Wandsbek is not quite as attractive at first glance as a location in Hamburg's city centre. Because looking at it more closely, explains the hotel manager, the disadvantage is actually an advantage: "Thanks to a direct motorway exit, we are very well connected to the A 1 and A 24 motorways," she explains. This is very attractive, she says, particularly for business travellers with appointments in east Hamburg. After all, during the week, business customers make up the vast majority of guests. "But at the weekend, private travellers are also very happy to accept the hotel's location, because we are cheaper than many hotels in the inner city," – to be precise: for a double room, they only pay €89.
In future, the location is going to be made even more attractive by rental bikes. What's more: "In February/March of next year another 21 rooms will be added, so we'll have to create additional seating arrangements for breakfast time," says the managing partner. That is why the lobby will be reorganised beforehand. When the extension is built for the new rooms, the Kröger hotel will also get an underground garage.
So there will be a lot to do at the Underdog on Ahrensburger Strasse. And what if should become boring sometime in the future after all? "Sooner or later, I will definitely cast my eye around for something new," Ortmann discloses. Her dream: She wants the Underdog Hotels to grow into a brand with several hotels. "But there is plenty of time for that; there are no firm plans at the moment," she assures. Then at the latest, that would probably herald the end of the outsider image for good.