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ON THE HOT SEAT

Timing of hotel's opening was tricky

Mandarin Oriental manager brings lifetime of experience to post

(David L. Ryan/Globe staff)
October 26, 2008
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Guests at the three-week-old Mandarin Oriental, Boston, hotel may admire the bamboo spa floors and ornamental guestroom silks imported from Asia. But what distinguishes this exclusive global brand from the city's other luxury properties - and explains why it charges the highest room rates in the city - is something travelers can't touch: Five-star customer service. The keeper of this culture is general manager Susanne Hatje, who until moving to the Hub held the same position in Hong Kong, at one of Mandarin Oriental's flagship hotels. Hatje spoke with Boston Globe reporter Nicole C. Wong recently about her long history as a hotelier, her decision to leave Asia for the East Coast, and opening the property amid the hospitality industry's tight labor market.

I hear the knack for being a hotelier runs in your family.
I do have pictures of when I was 4 years old with a vacuum cleaner. The year I was born, my parents opened a hotel. We started with 25 rooms. It's now 52. We still have the hotel. It's a family-run business in the suburbs of Hamburg, Germany. My brother and sister and I - the youngest of three - we really grew up in the hotel. There's no way any of us could have overslept ever to go to school. There was always someone doing something. When the phone rang, everything was dropped to make sure the customer was served.

Why did you decide to leave the Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong to open the Boston hotel?
I was asked by our chief executive if I would consider that. I said, "Oh my God, I've been here 3.5 years. I'm starting to collect the best awards." He said, "Why don't you apply to Boston, enjoy and look at the city, and see if it is something you would be interested in."

I came to Boston and stayed four days here, staying in different hotels and doing things you would do when you live in a city, but also sightseeing. It was in May. It was warm. It was sunny. People were sitting outside. I walked around. Do they have a pilates studio? Where can I get my nails done? Are the people friendly? Everything felt just right.

While I was here, I was fascinated by the diversity Boston has to offer. I personally was not aware, and now I'm honored to go around the world and educate people about what's happening here.

Which hotels did you stay at during your May 2007 visit?
I stayed at the Four Seasons. I stayed at the Taj. And I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton.

How did your experience as a guest in those hotels influence your vision for running the Mandarin Oriental here?
At the end of the day, it was launching our brand and making sure we defined our own service and our own design for this property. We all know what's happening in other properties, but it was concentrating on what's happening in Mandarin Oriental, Boston.

The Mandarin Oriental is an exclusive brand with particular criteria for picking which cities it will operate in. Why didn't it open a hotel in Boston sooner?
There are a lot of changes in the city right now. Project development is a long-term investment. Five years ago the project was already underway. Approximately in 2000, when Mandarin Oriental was mostly an Asia-based company, we started the expansion of the hotel globally. We have 22 hotels. We expect to double our size in the next three to five years. For us, it was critical to start in a city like New York for the brand awareness in this country. We have Miami. We have San Francisco. We have Washington, D.C. We will open in Las Vegas next year. Boston is very high up on the timing.

What was the hardest part about opening this hotel?
Time. It's a deadline you're working towards. There are so many loose ends you have to put together and so many components you have to think about. Because I did an opening before, I know what's coming my way. How long it takes to get the china, silver, and glassware shipped. Get the uniform done. Get the linens produced. Working with so many partners, stakeholders on this project.

Our CEO often calls it, "We want to provide the 21st century luxury experience with an Asian charm."

Boston already has two five-star hotels. How will the Mandarin Oriental's Asian charm create a different luxury experience?
It's the attention to detail. It's the caring, the sincerity.

It could be reflected through an orchid in the room. It could be the pictures. It could be the welcome tea in the guestroom which is delivered upon arrival. It could be the unique spa experience where we'll offer Asian treatments.

Hotel managers throughout the city have had a harder time hiring all kinds of workers this year as hotel expansions and grand openings created hundreds more hospitality jobs, yet the pool of workers hasn't grown as quickly.
That's what I was concerned about.

We were very fortunate finding colleagues. That's the most important service component. It's the team that supports me and the brand that's delivering the service. We had a response that nobody expected. We had 240,000 hits on our website. We had 14,000 applications for over 300 jobs. That really showed there were people who wanted to work for us and gave us a good feeling about finding the right talent.

So, you didn't run into the tight labor market. Other hotels have been concerned you'd be able to cherry-pick their best workers.
For new colleagues, they're also looking to grow and develop. They look for the opportunity now to take over a new responsibility. It's a natural change which happens in every city, every couple of years. We'll probably feel it in a couple of years, that our people look for new opportunities when other things are happening. It's certainly in our interest having people who are well trained.

When construction began on this property and the InterContinental Boston a few years ago, both hotels resisted committing to hiring only union workers. Will your 300 new employees be part of a union?
Right now we just welcome all unions, and it's up to our colleagues on what they want to do.

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