Hotels & Preference Hualing Tbilisi is a five star hotel with a French touch located on the shorelines of the famous Tbilisi Sea. Just two months since opening, the Hotel has become a popular location not only for business meetings and conferences, but also for wedding receptions.
The Financial interviewed Petter Lillvik, General Manager at Hotels & Preference Hualing Tbilisi. In his exclusive interview, Lillvik talked about the international experience that the company is bringing to the Georgian hospitality industry. He gave suggestions for how to raise the popularity of Georgia as a travel destination.
“Tourism in Georgia is quite new. To attract visitors the Georgian Government, as well as the country’s tourism association, have to take the initiative to join different tourism exhibitions in countries across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Georgian officials have to showcase the country at these exhibitions. The wine industry, cultural heritage, national dress for both men and women, in addition to the traditional dancing - are all unique to Georgia and should be introduced to foreigners. Presenting your country at such exhibitions is really important as there are many other countries that are competing with you. It is crucial to arrange an event that will fill viewers with positive emotions and leave them with the desire to visit your country. I, personally, had never heard of khachapuri, which is really amazing. You can take Georgian chefs to those exhibitions, bake khachapuri and give visitors the chance to taste it. It will work really well as it will fill people with tangible feelings. Georgia may be a small country, but at the same time that is a big advantage. It means that a person visiting Georgia can see the whole country in five days. While in other countries you might spend weeks and not see even half of its sights. The ski season is starting soon and that should be promoted as well. Not everyone knows about the ski resorts of Georgia. Georgia has reasonably good resorts and they are on offer at cheaper prices. So it is really good value. In addition, Georgia can provide river rafting, vineyards - all of which are really fantastic,” said Lillvik.
Q. What is Hotels & Preference Hualing Tbilisi’s model?
A. One of our main advantages is that we are a new hotel. Hotels & Preference is an international company, based in France. The company has great experience of the world’s hospitality industry. We are bringing this experience of the modern hospitality industry and new services to Georgian citizens. The Hotel has big guest rooms. Standard guest rooms are 40 square meters. Each of them is equipped with the latest technology. We have the biggest ballroom in the whole of Tbilisi, measuring 800 square meters. We can accommodate up to 700 guests. All of these attractions contribute to the already-existing demand for our services. The Hotel is already quite busy just two months since opening. Together with the ballroom we have three smaller meeting rooms. In addition, we are expanding in this direction and are constructing three more meeting rooms. We are expanding our meeting facilities by an additional 600 square meters. In the future we will have more than 2,500 square meters of meeting space available to our guests. This is something that we are really focusing on. Our facilities will support the development of MICE events in Georgia. Hotel Preference can accommodate them better than any other hotel.
Our food and beverage options are additional attractive advantages of our hotel. At the moment we are running our all-day dining restaurants. Our chefs are from Malta. We have just hired a new chef who is coming from France to support us. We will soon start offering more French and Mediterranean cuisine therefore. It will be an additional option that we will be offering to guests from October. On the second floor we have our Chinese restaurant - Ensemble. It is unique in Tbilisi. While there are already some Chinese restaurants in Tbilisi, we are bringing in a high class dining experience. My team of ten people hired from different parts of China are bringing their knowledge to the Georgian market. We will incorporate three different cuisines in our restaurant - those of the eastern, western and northern parts of China. Our guests are given the option of private dining. They can book a private room, with private service, and even book private chefs.
We will be offering cinema and karaoke facilities. We will provide a really exciting venue for spending evenings. On top of the hotel we will have a rooftop garden. It will be located on the eleventh floor. We will convert it into a barbecue and sky lounge. That means that our guests will have the unique opportunity to spend a pleasant evening there and enjoy the charming view of the Sea and surrounding hills. Arranging barbecue and cocktail events on the top floor of our hotel will prove to be an entirely unforgettable experience for guests
Last but not least, we have our recreation centre, which will be officially open in the middle of autumn.It is the biggest one in Tbilisi, spread over 3,500 square meters. There is a 600 square meter gym, fully-equipped with the latest technologies straight from the USA. We have invested millions in our equipment. We also have a full-size swimming pool, as well as saunas for both men and women. Starting yoga, aerobics, as well as Thai boxing classes - is also on the agenda. It will be a very nice addition to Tbilisi gyms,especially for people who are looking for a new experience in gym culture. Residents of the surrounding districts do not have any local gym at the moment. So, from now on they will have the opportunity to use it.
Q. The Miss China contest has just been held in Georgia for the first time. Your hotel was hosting the participants. How do you promote the country abroad?
A. We have two head offices: in France and in Shanghai. So, we are really pushing hard to make Georgia known to our Asian customers. The level of awareness of Georgia in Asia is still small. They still confuse it with the U.S. state. Together with our head offices we are working hard to promote Georgia as a destination for leisure and business travellers. Arranging to hold the Miss China competition here is one such example. In cooperation with the Georgian Government we are working on hosting a Silk Road event in Georgia. Bringing this forum to Georgia will promote the country as an investment destination. Awareness of the country is higher in Europe. The problem is that flights to European countries are not so frequent. Once the infrastructure changes and flights increase we will get big inflows of tourists here. Georgia is a rather cheap country for European travellers. It is very attractive for them to come and visit it. It is good that the country is just two hours away from the main cities of Europe. The absence of direct flights though is a big problem that is hampering the inflow of travellers. However, I am optimistic that it will definitely change. We are pushing hard for our office in Paris to promote our hotel and accordingly, the country of Georgia in France. Since the restricted visa rules have been lifted, it is easy to get a visa to Georgia online. So we will see a return of those tourists that failed to get a visa just one year ago. We see big interest in Georgia from the citizens of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. I think that Georgia has a really fantastic future ahead of it.
Q. How will you transform the hospitality industry of Georgia?
A. It is not all about the bed and the room. The whole experience of a hotel starts when you first arrive. And it only ends after you leave. What we are trying to issue is the full experience for guests. When they arrive we are meeting and greeting each of them as VIPs. We understand that the Hotel is a little bit far from the city. For those concerned guests who think that we are too far away (although we are only a ten minute drive from the centre) we offer a daily shuttle bus for free. There is a big shopping centre planned to be opened next year right next to our hotel. Before it opens however, in regard to how guests cannot purchase different things near to the hotel, we provide the opportunity to drive to the nearest spots. We provide all of these extra services to our guests in order to give them the full experience of our hotel facilities. Our five star standard can be felt in every simple detail. We do our best to provide all possible services to our guests. In line with that motto, the Hotel, together with our owner company - Hualing Group - is building and developing a new city area. There will be all the facilities, including shopping facilities, a hospital, police office, fire station, recreation centre and casino. It will be an“enclave”, a new city within a city. The development of this district has been neglected for a time. We are in the beginning stages now. We are building a lake and waterfall coming from the hill down to the Hotel. It will be an additional bonus for guests. The whole infrastructure that we are developing is not only for the benefit of our hotel and its guests. It is to be enjoyed jointly by the residents of the surrounding districts and the city as a whole.
Q. In just the two months since you opened, the Hotel has already hosted two weddings. Meanwhile, we know that restaurants are traditionally the preferred locations for wedding receptions in Georgia. How optimistic are you about changing this tradition?
A. We are very fortunate that interest in holding wedding receptions in hotels is improving. There was no such practice before. Perhaps it was due to the limited size of the banquet rooms that were available. We have been working hard on promoting ourselves as the preferred wedding venue in Georgia. So far we have had two weddings and we now have three additional bookings for next month. All of them are big weddings, accommodating 300-400 people. Our hotel’s 100 square meter dance floor, band station, non-traditional cuisine, international flavours - all of these aspects contribute to the high demand for our hotel as a popular place to hold a wedding. We have special menus for weddings. Right now we are building a canapé area. Guests can have their drinks party or free wedding ceremony held outside if the weather is good.
Georgians have always been open to experiencing innovative and modern trends. The case is that due to low experience and knowledge, not many companies were able to offer this sort of different service. We are glad to be here now and to be sharing our experience with them.
Q. How do you plan to remain at the top?
A. We are not trying to compete with anyone, as all of them are in the city. We are competing with ourselves. What we have to do is to remain innovative, look for different new promotions, modern technologies, closely watch what they are expecting and meet their expectations. Accordingly, we have a staff force made up of 30 different nationalities working in our hotel. It allows us to bring all these individuals’ ideas, knowledge and trends to the fore. The majority of them have experience of working in five-star facilities. In addition, our head office in Paris, along with the second one in Shanghai, is regularly updating us with the latest trends.
Q. In the great experience of Hotels & Preference and also yours, how have the requirements of guests changed over time?
A. First, you always have to go back to the basics. A comfortable and clean room, together with good food, has always been their main demand and still remains at the top. Ignoring these basic rules deprives one of anything else. Modern guests are all about connectivity. Providing WiFi, and a good quality of internet all around the Hotel free-of-charge, is really important for them. So, we are of course meeting these demands. Security is also of key importance for guests. We are spending lots of resources in this regard as well. Relaxation is quite essential especially for business travellers. Considering this factor we decided to build a recreational area. After having dinner, guests can relax in the swimming pool, or enjoy the spa centre. They can then move on to the bar, have a drink and listen to the calming ambient music. There is nothing which our guests will be forced to look for outside of our hotel. We are trying to provide everything possible under one roof and provide absolute comfort while hosting them.
Q. How do you measure the success of your hotel?
A. If we were to ask our managers, they would say the success comes from having a high profit. On a personal level our success comes from guests’ feedback. When we get positive feedback from our guests, they appreciate our services and they come back, they talk to their friends, share their views on social media, and that to me equals success. Most frequently I hear from our guests that they like our staff, who are characterised as polite and smiling. When the guests are happy, that makes us happy.
Q. Service quality still remains a challenge for the Georgian hospitality industry. How do you manage to deal with this issue?
A. A schooling system, especially in the hotel and hospitality sector,practically doesn’t exist. There are only one or two schools,and they are mainly focused on the kitchen. There are tourism classes at universities but they are mainly focused on travellers, not service. So, to find experienced people in the hotel sector is very difficult. It is a challenge not only for us but for any hotel in Georgia. The good thing about Georgian people though is that they are naturally very friendly and smiling. It comes from their hearts. It is always possible to teach service, but how to be polite and gracious cannot be taught.
Q. Is Hotels & Preference Hualing Tbilisi a place where the guest is always right?
A. Guests are always right,up until a certain point. Our main goal is to be flexible with our guests, even if they are mistaken. We will ignore those mistakes and still treat them as if they are right. It is a standard of the hospitality industry. The guests are paying, so they are allowed to demand quite a lot, even if it not necessarily within our framework. Our motto is to leave guests happy, so we will do everything to meet their requirements.
Q. Which upcoming events are scheduled to be held at your hotel?
A. On 31 October we will be hosting David Allen, who is known as the“Time Lord”. He will be holding a two-day masterclass for the audience in time management. The main segment is which is going to be the top management of various companies. As we have the largest events hall, organizers decided to stage the event at our hotel. And considering the importance of Allen, we expect listeners to travel from neighbouring countries to attend.