The Elefant In The Room

The silly memories recounted in my previous post were popping into my head as I sat in the Elefant Hotel in Riga. I don’t have any profound observations to make, but the experience I enjoyed at the Elefant during the Valentine’s Day meal provided further evidence that there are some smart operators in Baltic business – smarter than me, that’s for sure.

The Elefant opened a year or so ago. It’s a sleek, modern four-star hotel with interesting architecture, a spa, tasteful decor, good prices – and a very bizarre location halfway between the city centre and the airport. That actually makes it sound like a great location, but it’s a sort of no-man’s land: not close enough to the airport to be considered an airport hotel, not close enough to the centre to feel at the heart of things.

“Shame,” I said when it opened. “It looks nice, but it’ll never last.”

So far I am delighted to have been proven wrong. There are two reasons: imagination and training.

Imagination explained why I was there with my family on Valentine’s Day. The Elefant offered a three course meal with drinks for 6 lats per head. Kids ate for free and a children’s entertainer was employed in the conference room to keep them amused.

It was an excellent meal which I might normally have expected to pay 16 lats for rather than 6. By pitching the deal at families with kids instead of the young lovebirds and couples who normally comprise the Valentine’s target market, the Elefant had managed to draw in a decent crowd for a Sunday afternoon in February during what is supposed to be a catastrophic recession.

But even more striking was the excellence of the staff. It is a curse of Anglo-Saxon attitudes that waiting staff and indeed all jobs in the hospitality sector are generally regarded as low-grade employment. As with most trades, waiting can be done very badly, but it can also be raised close to an art form, which the French, Italians and Spanish acknowledge to their eternal credit.

There is a certain poetry in watching a table being laid precisely and deflty. A good waiter manages to combine the talents of a psychoanalyst, stockbroker, personal secretary and dancer. Training really matters, too, and the way the staff at the Elefant deported themselves it was clear that they had been very well trained.

They were not subservient – this again is the mistaken and reductive demand of Anglo-Saxon culture – they were confident, knowledgeable and efficient while remaining genuine and friendly.

I thought the Elefant would not survive because no hotel could survive the curse of its location. I failed totally to account for the fact that excellence of service can outweigh such handicaps. I made blind assumptions about appropriate business zones and the necessity of signposting. These things are still important but they are not all-important.

If a place gets a reputation for excellence, people will be prepared to travel further to reach it or plan their arrival a little more carefully than usual.

It used to be the case that hotels in Riga were based on the principle: build it and they will come. That’s no longer the case, and the Elefant is a great example of why that could be very good thing for the future.

Build it and the clients may come. Train the staff well and the clients will probably come back many times. I certainly will.

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