Interview with Aneta Lewandowska - director of Sofitel Warsaw Victoria
- You have been promoted last spring. What were your first feelings?
Yes, I am now the General Manager of the Sofitel Warsaw Victoria Hotel. The same Victoria Hotel, which is well known to all Poles from movies and songs. It is an iconic hotel. Its legend began before I was even born and has lasted for over 40 years now.
- You have been involved with Orbis and AccorHotels for 17 years now. How did your career progress? What were its milestones - including those related to your career development, greater responsibility?
I have been involved with Orbis since 2001. I started work as a receptionist in the then smallest ibis hotel, i.e. the ibis Ostrobramska hotel. It was meant to be a 3‑month episode before leaving for the United States. I never thought I would become committed to the hospitality industry, which seemed dull and monotonous to me from my student’s perspective. The reality turned out to be surprisingly different and hospitality pulled me in for good.
Given that I have always been connected with the Warsaw market, with this city, I went through different brands. I began my adventure with the hospitality industry in economy hotels and worked my way up from the position of a receptionist to the General Manager. I joined the Mercure brand by taking the position of the Operational Director at the Mercure Warszawa Grand Hotel in 2014, while now for a year I have worked for the success of the five-star Sofitel Warsaw Victoria Hotel.
In addition to numerous opportunities of promotion offered to me by the company, I would also say that my milestones include participation in development programs to which I was delegated by Orbis and AccorHotels, such as Oxygen or Top Talent Hotel Management program co-organised by Orbis and the University of Łódź. The relationships which I established with participants of these programs have to a large extent lasted to this day, while the exchange of professional experiences in addition to gathering experience on my own has been the most effective way of development.
Over these years I worked with twelve superiors, each of whom was different. They had different styles of management, different approaches to guests, different task prioritizations.
I greatly appreciate this diversity of experiences. Thanks to this I was able to build myself as a leader and develop my attitude based on my personal aptitudes, consciously reinforcing the qualities which I admired in my bosses and working on the areas that needed improvement.
I am a Hotelier by profession and it does sound proud. I remember filling-in some mandatory papers in the hospital before giving birth to my son, where I put down “Hotelier” in the profession column. The nurse looked at me brusquely though her glasses and asked in disbelief “Is this a profession?” “Yes, it is.” I replied.
- What is your driving force?
Hospitality is my passion. I am a strongly motivated kind of person. In general, I am simply driven by the feeling of fulfilment, satisfaction and pleasure that I derive from what I do. I’m also driven by people. It is people, their enthusiasm, expectations, ambitions and needs, that make a team. Let’s also not forget our Guests and their requirements. I dislike routine or administrative tasks, so I always strive to build a team in such a way so that I don’t have to devote much time to them. I am outgoing, I like to be with people, talk to them and make choices together, support people in difficult situations. That is why this profession is so wonderful. The heartfelt and spontaneous gratitude of both our Guests and co-employees is the best driving force behind new challenges, which are a powerhouse as well.
- How do you balance family life with your professional life? What tips can you share with other women?
The highest cost of this work is that you cannot leave it behind when you go home. A hotel is just like a hospital – it is open 24/7.
For a long time now I have had the feeling that I could do more in terms of family and professional life balance.
I am very grateful to my family for their understanding, compassion and support. I devote as much time to work as my close family accepts. On a daily basis we are not seeing much of each other, so we try to take trips together as often as possible to enjoy our company. Preferential rates for employees in the hospitality industry make I easy to go on relatively frequent trips. My four-and-a-half year old son is a keen traveller, who constantly inquires “Mom, when are we going to go on a trip again”?
I have cast-iron principles when it comes to reconciling family and professional life. These are: to keep the promises made to my family and be there whenever they need me.
- You have been to the Paris meeting for managers of AccorHotels Group luxury hotels – did you bring back any interesting observations, expertise, inspiration?
After this meeting I came back very inspired, strengthened and confident that I can literally move mountains. The “Woman on stage” conference was a meeting of women from AccorHotels luxury brands in Europe. Its purpose was to strengthen us on our way to yet another professional challenge, however, please note that I am a part of the Orbis Hotel Group and the AccorHotels Group in the Central and Eastern Europe, where 40% of the general managers in 127 hotels are women. We stand out in the statistics in a very strong and positive way.
During this meeting, leaders shared their experiences which were often very moving, their difficulties, successes, thoughts and emotions.
We really need such meetings to take place. Luxury hotels follow a traditional and conservative approach to service and diversity in employment. 41% of those working at Accorhotels Luxe are women, but there are only 15% of women at the positions of directors. It’s time to change that, of course not because this or that gender is better than the other, but simply because diversified teams are the most effective ones.
During the conference we have been presented with very interesting research results on the correlation between the degree of team diversity and the Guest satisfaction level as well as the financial performance.
The most effective and the most successful hotels (up to 15pp better in terms of quality and up to 6pp better in terms of financial performance) are those with the most diverse teams. Homogeneous groups are not able to produce such results.
The conclusions were obviously predictable, yet the scale is quite surprising.
We can easily fall into the trap of our habits and assess the reality through our personal perspective. It is therefore important in the professional life to be surrounded with people with different competences, ages, experiences and beliefs. To have them around, to let them express their opinion and to listen to them. Competition on the market makes innovation and original solutions the key foundation of the reason why guests choose our hotel and not any other hotel.
- A luxury brand goes by its own rules - what should the luxury brand of a hotel be like? What is the Sofitel Warsaw Victoria Hotel like?
When thinking about luxury, people have different images and associations in their mind depending on their experiences, imagination or status. Luxury hotel brands are founded on a number of core elements, which ultimately create the effect of uniqueness and exclusivity. The status of the brand is built not only on material attributes such as gold door knobs or crystal chandeliers, as many might imagine, but also on positive emotions that it evokes.
Here the team plays the biggest and the most important role. Thanks to their commitment, attitude, pride and based on the values and standards of the brand, the team builds relationships with guests and thus shapes the perception of the hotel.
At Sofitel Warsaw Victoria, I have the pleasure of working with people who take their first steps in the hospitality industry as well as with those who have been working here for several dozen years, of which I am very proud. It is a true treasury of expertise, experience, anecdotes and stories embracing the splendour of this place.
Therefore, it is the people that make a hotel into a luxurious one. I would also say it is the invariably high quality, prestigious location, cherished and unique history and special guests - prominent people who trust the brand.
The Sofitel Warsaw Victoria Hotel is a blend of modern design and the classic French elegance. It stands in the very heart of Warsaw, at the Piłsudski Square, in the vicinity of the Saxon Garden (Ogród Saski). It offers a unique style, flair and interior design by the famous designer Didier Gomez, who collaborated with such renowned brands as the Yves Saint-Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Kenzo and Christian Dior.
People representing the culture and art world, politics, business and show business are our regular guests. We have had the honour to host prominent guests such as Ronald Regan, Elton John, Prince Albert, Steve Wonder, Julio Iglesias and Juliette Binoche.
“Life is magnifique in Sofitel” - this is our guiding motto.
I would like to invite you to experience our hospitality.
- What are the challenges for this brand in this industry these days?
New challenges are the new trends in luxury hotel service. At present, it is not enough to offer our guests a carefully prepared and well thought-out, comfortable stay in beautiful interiors, with smiling staff. Guests expect from luxury hotels emotions, laughter, authentic excitement, true feelings and special experiences which they would often want to share or boast about with their friends.
Service personalisation is a global trend, not only in our industry, but also in other areas. Responding to these expectations, Sofitel developed a beautiful and unique concept of Cousu Main, i.e. a heartily service custom-tailored to the guest needs. Based on observation or knowing our Guests’ preferences, our employees spontaneously surprise them with various solutions to enrich their experiences during their stay. Cousu Main as a pillar of the Sofitel brand is appreciated by our guests and 100% based on creativity, passion and commitment of the entire hotel team.
The selection and development of employees should be taken care of on a daily basis, just like in any other luxury brand, and even more than before given the challenging and competitive labour market. Therefore, we continue implementing the Heartist® programme which aims at a cordial and authentic atmosphere which is conducive to the growing satisfaction of our guests and the well‑being of the entire team working in the hotel.
Luxury market brands follow global trends that have so far been shadowed mainly by mass-market brands. A good example is the digital revolution that is implementation of solutions which have been designed especially for mobile devices and creation of systems that integrate data and facilitate management.
Only a few years ago it was unthinkable in traditional luxury hotels to forego the personal relationship with the guest during check-in or check-out and replace it with online check-in or fast check-out. Now these amenities have been deployed and are growing more and more popular.
The global macroeconomic situation is also a challenge.
Positive results inspire optimism, but also provoke questions about how long we would be able to enjoy them.
Challenges faced by hoteliers, in particular by hospitality leaders, have changed significantly over the years. The competencies of hospitality leaders have evolved towards techniques based on emotional intelligence and empathy. This is our domain. It is the domain of women.
- Women enjoy a lot of attention in in AccorHotels – they are present both as members of the staff, management and as clients.
Women have gone through a major transformation in recent decades. Emancipation, pursuit of professional career, market changes and ultimately the access to the web determine women’s choices and behaviour as employees and consumers. These choices are much more conscious now.
The Forbes has published an interesting study which revealed that 80% of decisions concerning travel are made by women, regardless of where they travel, with whom, and who is paying the bill. It is women who decide what to see, which hotel to choose and where to have dinner.
According to study results, the main reasons why women would go for upscale and luxury hotels are: comfort, exceptional service, attention to detail and experience in general.
In hotels of the Sofitel brand we have built a unique relationship with women by addressing these very issues. To add to the success of MyBed, the world’s most comfortable beds, we offer relaxing and restful teas before bedtime. For bathing comfort we offer a special bathing menu based on the best cosmetics of luxurious brands with aromatic oils. A choice of many options is available, for example a soothing bath with therapeutic salts or a romantic ritual based on goat milk and rose petals. Sofitel has a pleasant aroma. The refined fragrance that embodies the brand’s Essence de Sofitel brand's character envelopes our interiors. The bright notes of Bergamot, White Rose and Jasmine reflect the spirit of the brand, and the scent of white sandalwood spices up the flair.
All these efforts elusively and emotionally improve the well-being of women.
Actually, not only women. The Essence de Sofitel fragrance has recently turned to be the decisive element in choosing Sofitel Warsaw Victoria as a place to organize an important major event. The choice was made not by a woman, but by a man who is the CEO of a large logistics company. It simply works.
- What actions do you as the General Manager take for the benefit of women?
Women are 53% of my team and take 60 % of managerial positions. It’s a good trend.
Quite recently we have celebrated the International Women’s Day. In one of the rooms we have set up a day spa where our ladies could experience a bit of luxury on their bodies. One of our friends is an amateur photographer, so she took the role of a professional photographer and shot a session on that day. The celebration was complemented by an excellent service provided by men on that day and delicious specials prepared by our treasured cooks.
We invest in the development of women so that they can become managers and take positions they are interested in. We select training courses, programs and projects matching their needs and interests. Strengthening women’s potential is important in every segment, also as conservative as the world of luxury brands.
- What is the book that you would give to a woman who begins her career as a member of the management team?
“Influence” by Robert Cialdini. This book raises awareness of how we function in relationships with people. It has helped me understand when others try to manipulate me, influence me to get something, and how to effectively defend oneself against this unwanted influence.
- What is your motto in life?
“If you want to change to world, go home and love your family” – these are the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Late in the evening, when I am still working, I remember this sentence and then close my computer and go home. My family is most important to me.