Galle Face Hotel Embraces its Heritage Roots

Since its launch in 1864, the Galle Face Hotel has been a landmark attracting visitors from far and wide. The hotel’s new General Manager, Robert C. Hauck, believes that the hotel’s rich heritage is the answer to set Galle Face Hotel apart from the rest.

Robert C Hauck, General Manager of the Galle Face Hotel

When you take an up close and personal look at Robert C. Hauck, the impeccably dressed General Manager of Galle Face Hotel, you will notice that his entire attire from his crisp grey-toned suit to his Panerai watch emphasises an appreciation for everything refined. A firm believer of ‘you have to dress the part,’ Hauck was appointed as the General Manager and Area Vice President eight months ago. Since then, much has changed in the oldest hotel East of Suez.

In 2016, Louis T Collection, an international hospitality management company tied up with Galle Face Hotel on a historic strategic transition in management.The Singapore-based company has several independently owned hotels under their wing, from Ares Eiffel Paris Hotel to Mantra Samui Resort in Thailand. Great things were hoped for from the partnership, which was planned for the long term. However, a little over 2 years later, in December 2018, it came to an end. “They did some great work and now it’s time we run on our own feet,” says Hauck, explaining that Galle Face Hotel was able to organise themselves well enough during their partnership with Louis T Collection, particularly in the last 12 months, and decided that they no longer needed the support of a third party.

Galle Face Hotel Colombo Sri Lanka Exterior

The main entrance of the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo

Settled on the island’s most coveted location, overlooking spectacular sunsets, Galle Face Hotel is a privately owned hotel that has been in the Gardiner family for over a century – a rare feat in the hospitality industry globally.

Delving into the challenges of working for an individual owner, emphasising that there are advantages and disadvantages in it, “There aren’t many privately owned properties anymore; at least, not ones with history. And when you have an owner who is very passionate and does not get involved in the little details, it’s absolutely perfect.” Galle Face Hotel’s current Chairman, Sanjeev Gardiner took over from his father, Cyril Gardiner, the hotel’s first Chairman in 1997 after his father’s demise. Though known to be media-shy, Gardiner’s love for the hotel has been defined by his famous saying, “If you cut me, I bleed Galle Face Hotel.”

Hauck, who previously served as the General Manager of Kanuhura Maldives and Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Cambodia, noted that backed by a strong corporate team, they are now able to support the hotel. The flat hierarchy in the hotel’s management also aids them to respond to situations much faster when compared to companies that have complicated managerial structures.

Galle Face Hotel Sri Lanka Colombo visitor demographics nationalitiesWith over 25 years’ experience in the hospitality sector that spans 14 countries, for the longest time, Raffles was Hauck’s favourite brand because of its history and potential compared to other hotels. Raffles Hotels & Resorts is part of AccorHotel, a leading travel and lifestyle group, with 13 hotels under this particular brand scattered across the world from Singapore – the pioneer of the brand – to Paris. Hauck believes, unlike independently owned properties, that hotels backed by global brands have limitations in their possibilities.

He credits Gardiner’s involvement and their work relationship as one of the defining factors of their new vision for Galle Face Hotel. “Our chairman is very passionate about the product. He’s an entrepreneur and wants to do a lot of new things and sometimes it’s my job to hold him back because he’s so passionate,” says Hauck, describing his relationship with Gardiner.  With such passion, it’s unsurprising that big things are planned for the coming months.

Plans are already underway to set up a new venture that will help owners with heritage properties like Galle Face Hotel based within the island as well as overseas. “There are many proprietors, passionate about their hotel and who do not want to give up the reigns to an international brand but maybe need a bit of assistance in managing or marketing the hotel,” says Hauck. Independent owners might not be able to get the level of worldwide recognition or press exposure and, “Many owners don’t want the name of another company on their hotel and lose their identity as it has been in their family for many years so that’s where we will come in and give support but that’s still in the planning stage.”

The new venture, spearheaded by Gardiner and led by Hauck, will place them in a competitive position with the likes of Louis T Collection, which Hauck cited was one of the reasons that they decided to part ways. With 22 hotels under the CHC portfolio (some of which are joint projects), this will be a large collection specialising in historical properties. Most of the hotels, guest and rest houses under CHC are over 100 years old, including Kitulgala and Belihuloya, which Hauck credits as playing “an important role in the travelling history of Sri Lanka.” Although some of the properties are run down and are being refurbished, the thread that links them together is historic significance. For Hauck, “That’s what the high-end traveller and even backpackers want – to explore history” and that’s what Galle Face Hotel has to communicate when they go out and represent Sri Lanka.

Entrusted with the mammoth task of overlooking the 22 properties in addition to Galle Face Hotel, as his role doubles up as the Area Vice President, Hauck says that it’s important for Sri Lanka and all Sri Lankan hotels to get their names out into the world. Despite the arrival of international hotel chains into the local market, the Galle Face Hotel’s global image continues to grow. At present, 54% of guests staying at the hotel are direct clients. He added that guests who come to the hotel anticipate a unique experience and that the hotel is able to provide “the feel of a colonial expedition.” While there are many great companies that provide modern accommodation, through this new venture, Galle Face Hotel along with the CHC group are able to cover the unique niche of historic properties.

Recreating the brand

With a keen eye for detail and the enthusiasm and energy of ten, Hauck is charismatic and has an uncanny resemblance to a James Bond character. He is always on the move, ensuring that everything is running smoothly, whether it’s a conference or evening tea along the veranda. “To run a hotel is relatively easy. To run an old hotel; well, it’s quite difficult, and to run it extremely well is almost an art,” says Hauck.

Galle Face Hotel has 156 rooms on offer in five room classifications including two suite categories. Originally launched as a hotel in 1864, no two rooms are identical, and over its 155 years of prestige has hosted many eminent personalities from statesmen, royalty, and celebrities, including Emperor Hirohito of Japan, Donald Bradman, and Vivien Leigh.

In Hauck’s view, the ideal customer, or the guests of Galle Face Hotel, visits the hotel to be a part of its history and does not expect everything to be perfect. It’s important for hotels to attract the right kind of guests that fits in with the product’s philosophy and this is especially true for Galle Face Hotel, which prides itself for its niche angle, “You have to put the right people in the right shoes, and we practically sell handmade leather shoes and not running shoes,” says Hauck.

Hauck believes that those who come to the hotel are unique in their own way and expect a certain quirkiness, eccentricity, and great service. To enhance the guest experience, Hauck has initiated a few practices starting from presenting handwritten welcome cards to every guest that stays at the hotel. While the task may be considered laborious and time consuming, the concept of a handwritten, personalised note has the potential to take the traveller back to an era where this was the norm, executing the vision Hauck plans for the hotel’s new direction.

Hauck has also resurrected four postcards featuring old images of Galle Face Hotel and the stamp which was launched in 2012 – the first and only Sri Lankan hotel to be featured on a stamp. He has even restored a sculpture of Yuri Gagarin – the first man in space – a gift given to the hotel by Russia in the 1980s, which he had stumbled across during his many wanderings in the hotel’s storeroom.

In addition to the upcoming project, which Hauck guards safely in his suit pocket, he is also determined to place Galle Face Hotel alongside some of the most sought-after hotels in the world. He is currently working with Andreas Augustin, Founder of the Most Famous Hotels in the World, an independent company that produces literary publications of historical hotels to publish a book on this iconic hotel. Giving guests and visitors the chance to get an insight to the hotel’s vibrant history.

Competing in Colombo

The landscape around Galle Face has gone through significant changes over the last few years, with global names such as Shangri-La, ITC, and Hyatt staking a claim on this prized land in the heart of Colombo. Hauck feels that “competition is important to increase quality” and that they are not simply competing with other hotels in the island, but also, with other destinations.

General Manager Robert Hauck Galle Face Hotel Colombo Sri LankaHauck, whose career has taken him to the likes of Switzerland, Portugal, and several Asian countries from China to Taiwan, explained that in the past, they have made the mistake of competing against four-star hotels in Colombo. “We are moving away from that pattern because there are more and more international brands coming into the country.” Hauck is now committed to correcting past mistakes, because he feels he has understood the needs and psyche of their clientele; “They pay for this history and would be disappointed if it was very modern.”

He observed that he wants to distinguish themselves from other hotels that provide a simpler product unlike Galle Face Hotel, which is historic and has a different attachment and angle, especially to those who appreciate heritage. “Even if they don’t stay here, they have to come see the Galle Face or come for afternoon tea.’’

Since his appointment in July 2018, Hauck has been instrumental in organising several noteworthy events, including a vintage suitcase competition hosted at the iconic chequerboard and celebrating Sri Lanka’s No. 1 ranking in Lonely Planet with guests from the global publication. Pimm’s o’clock, another initiative by Hauck, which takes place every evening is the signature drink of Galle Face Hotel as well as the recipient of the first crate of Pimms to arrive in Sri Lanka in 1865, carving a landmark in the history of the hotel.

With a strong background in brand development and public relations, Hauck is resolute in positioning the island on the map as a destination that must be explored. They have generated a lot of press coverage internationally and he believes that boutique hotels and nature hotels should also move in the same direction.

“Sri Lanka has the essence of many things that other countries don’t possess,” says Hauck, stressing that they have to take advantage of the country’s unique location. At the same time, he emphasised that it’s important to look at long-term gains so that everyone in the hospitality sector will enjoy its benefits.

The minimum room rate has been a hot topic of discussion for some time. In Hauck’s view, Sri Lanka has to be careful of pricing itself too low. While potential guests are willing to pay set prices, it is human psychology that if they get a bargain, they would rather pay that instead. The Galle Face Hotel has been actively trying to get their rates up and has made a conscious decision to push for more FIT business, which they feel is suited to Galle Face Hotel’s iconic status.

A staunch believer of firm leadership, he doesn’t expect anything from the staff which he can’t do and says that in a hotel such as Galle Face, “the work never runs out.” Although adequate systems have been placed, systems alone will not ensure that things will run smoothly, and this stands particularly true in historical hotels.

He highlighted the value in setting priorities and directions, particularly when it comes to old hotels. The staff can be disorganised, but when they are aligned in the same direction, it becomes easier. “At the beginning, when you take over a hotel like this, you have to do a lot of micromanaging. I’m not a fan of it, but it’s almost like a brainwashing exercise to show people what the standards are. Once you reach a standard and everyone is on the same page, you can then concentrate on other areas.”

Driven by the vision to place Galle Face Hotel and the group’s latest venture at the forefront of hospitality by preserving its history and giving it due recognition, Hauck is leading the way for big changes at Sri Lanka’s grand old dame.

From March/April issue of Hospitality Insider

Hospitality Insider Issue 4