Staying with the brand

Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria general manager Guy Klaiman loves his hotel because it proves that Israel can compete with the rest of the world in hotel luxury, quality and service.

By
May 19, 2016 16:32
The Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria

Guy Klaiman, the general manager of the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

 
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 Long before the advent of the global village – in the days when employees were company men and women, staying with the one employer for at least half of their working lives – people in the hospitality business led a nomadic existence.

These days, it’s still nomadic, with chefs moving from one restaurant to another and hotel staff moving not only from hotel to hotel, but from city to city and country to country.

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It’s not just the geography that changes; it’s also the employer, with hotel staff moving from one chain to another.

There are exceptions to the rule, and even though the geography may change from time to time, the employer remains constant. Within the parameters of that exception is Guy Klaiman, the general manager of the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria, which opened its doors to the public just a little more than two years ago.

Klaiman is a company man who has spent a quarter of a century working for the same brand, albeit not always in the same hotel or even the same country. He started out in 1991 with the Tel Aviv Hilton. In 1993 he was transferred to what was then the Jerusalem Hilton. In 1994, he was back in Tel Aviv. The year 1995 was a little more exciting. He was transferred out of Israel to Glasgow. In 1997 he was in London, and just a year later in 1998, he was back in Jerusalem – but only for two years. In 2000 he was sent to Istanbul, and in 2004 he was once again in London for a relatively long stint, until 2011, when he was sent to Jerusalem in advance of the opening of the Waldorf Astoria, which is a link in the only international luxury hotel chain currently operating in Jerusalem.

“I move where the company moves me,” he tells The Jerusalem Post. “We’re like a foreign office.”

Admittedly, the Fattal chain, which also operates in Jerusalem, is international, but even though it is in the fivestar category it does not quite have the status of the Waldorf Astoria.

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Klaiman’s initial task was to hire and train staff so that by the time the hotel was open for business, everyone on staff would know exactly what service means and how to render it.

KLAIMAN RECALLS that around that time Israelis were not particularly keen to work in service industries. Hospitality is an industry in its own right, but for the most part, people working in hotels are employed in a service industry.

Acutely conscious of the fact that he had to find the right people to fill the 320 slots available, Klaiman was frankly amazed to receive 10,000 applications.

When he ran a survey in an attempt to learn the reason for such a surge of applications, he discovered that it was the magic of the words Waldorf Astoria. Everyone wanted to work for Hilton Worldwide, but more than that they had a chance to work at Hilton Worldwide’s luxury brand hotel, the Waldorf Astoria, which to many of the applicants was a status symbol in comparison to working for any other hotel, with the possible exception of the historic King David.

In the first stage, Klaiman was able to narrow down the number of potential employees to 5,000. The other 5,000 were deemed unsuitable.

Then came the more difficult challenge of narrowing down the 5,000 remaining applicants to 320. The solution was much simpler than at face value, or to be more accurate, it was the face value. Hotels and restaurants are supposed to provide service with a smile. All 5,000 applicants were asked to smile, and were photographed in the process. All the photographs were put up on a board and closely examined.

There are angry smiles and there are happy smiles, Klaiman explains.

“You can see a person’s character in a smile. It’s a matter of attitude.”

Attitude is the first condition in approving employees, he continues.

“If the potential employee didn’t smile during the interview, he won’t smile later. You can’t teach people to be friendly and hospitable. It needs to be natural. If people don’t have the right attitude, you won’t able to achieve the warmth of hospitality that you want to convey.”

KLAIMAN LOVES the hotel, and not just because he is its founding general manager or because of its inviting atrium or the impressive Arabic architecture, based to a large extent on the original Eastern ambience of the building when it first opened as the Palace Hotel in 1929.

The building later served as offices for the British Mandate government, and in 1936 was the site of the first public radio broadcasts in English, Hebrew and Arabic. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the building housed the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, until the ministry finally relocated in 2004.

Over the years, there had been various initiatives to restore the hotel, but it wasn’t until the Reichmann family, famous for its international real estate mega-projects, purchased the property, that the restoration concept finally took hold. Klaiman loves the Waldorf Astoria because it proves that Israel can compete with the rest of the world in hotel luxury, quality and service.

For many years, it annoyed him when he heard people say that as much as they love Israel, the hotels and the restaurants left a lot to be desired, especially when it came to service.

Last year readers of Condé Nast Traveler voted the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem as the seventh-best hotel in the world and the best in the Middle East in its 2015 list of top global hotels.

The hotel received a score of 97.5 points out of 100 from rankings that included input from 128,000 global travelers in the 2015 Readers’ Choice Awards.

At the time, Klaiman noted that it was the first time that an Israeli hotel had been mentioned in the top 10 rankings in the 28-year history of the Condé Nast listings.

He also made the point that it was a great honor not only for the Waldorf Astoria, but for its employees and for Israel’s tourist sector in general.

More than that, he says in retrospect, guests who stayed at the hotel were proud that they had contributed to its image by voting for it, and Klaiman received a lot of positive feedback after the ranking was announced.

AS AN Israeli, it pleases him that the hotel has prompted changes in Jerusalem’s hospitality market. Competition being what it is, other hotels have introduced significant improvements in their décor, their service and their food, but Klaiman genuinely believes that the food served in the restaurants of the Waldorf Astoria is unsurpassed – especially in the Palace gourmet meat restaurant, where chef Itzik Mizrahi Barak is constantly coming up with new concepts to delight both the eye and the palate, and has even been invited to cater gala events abroad.

At a time when there has been a decline in tourism to Israel, Klaiman boasts that the Palace restaurant is often full, and that on average 20 to 30 people who are not staying at the hotel come in from the outside every night. Guests and outsiders particularly enjoy the Friday night dinners, says Klaiman.

Pressed to name some of the celebrities and dignitaries who have opted to stay at the hotel, Klaiman is reluctant to name names, explaining that Waldorf Astoria hotels around the world have a policy of discretion.

He finally drops a couple of names, simply because their place of temporary domicile had been reported in the Israeli media. One is actress and comedienne Roseanne Barr, and another is Paul Ryan, Speaker of the US House of Representatives.

This year, the Jerusalem Hotel Association chose to have its annual convention at the Waldorf Astoria, as did Keren Hayesod for its annual World Conference. Klaiman was delighted that towards the end of last year The Jerusalem Post held its highly successful annual Diplomatic Conference at the Waldorf Astoria, and he is looking forward to this year’s Jerusalem Post Conference, which is also being held at the hotel.

Business, political, religious and tourist groups from China, Indonesia and Nigeria have also stayed at the hotel and more are on the way.

The Chinese are familiar with the Waldorf Astoria brand, says Klaiman, because there are Waldorf Astoria hotels in Shanghai and Beijing.

He is now eagerly awaiting the completion of the hotel’s spa, which he says will be one of the best state-of-theart spas in the world.

“We are the busiest hotel in Jerusalem,” he asserts, and is looking forward to being even busier once the spa goes into operation.

To register for the Jerusalem Post Annual Conference: https://members.jpost.com/nyc2016.aspx

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