TBY talks to Henri R. Blin, General Manager of Çırağan Palace and Area Director Kempinski Turkey and Bulgaria, on the uniqueness of the hotel, target markets, and the tourism sector in general.

Henri R. Blin
Henri R. Blin began his career in 1968 and gained much experience in all areas of hotel management. Between 1970 and 2003 he worked for Sheraton and Intercontinental hotels. He has spent time in various countries, including Indonesia, Dubai, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, and Hungary. In October 2005 he was appointed Regional Director of Eastern Europe for Kempinski Hotels, and in August 2006 he joined Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul as the General Manager and the Area Director for Turkey and Bulgaria for the Kempinski Group.

Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul is consistently recognized as one of the best hotels in the world. What makes it so special?

The soul of Çırağan Palace Kempinski is the people. Of course, we also benefit from the best location in the city. We have a very long piece of land on the Bosphorus, and this wonderfully restored Ottoman palace. Nobody has such a setup. But as I always stress to our staff, we can't depend on the location. The service has got to be there. Talking about service to Turkish people is a bit difficult as a foreigner because they basically invented hospitality. So all I do is fine-tuning, talking specifically about guest expectations. In 2010 we welcomed more than 120 nationalities. Different cultures have different expectations. Our challenge is being able to reach different cultures and expectations in order to deliver the best possible service. Luckily, we have a wonderfully capable staff, and we embrace this challenge.

Out of these 120 nationalities, which represent your largest markets?

There are five countries that represent 60% of our business. We are proud to say that number one is Turkey, but all of them are coming from abroad. In 2010 some 15% of our guests were Turks living abroad. This segment is continuously growing and we are extremely proud of this. These are Turkish people who have done very well for themselves, they come here to visit family and friends, and they choose Çırağan Palace Kempinski because it represents something special to them about their mother country. The same number of quests, 15%, came from the US. Americans have been very loyal to this hotel over the last 15 years, especially since John F. Kennedy Jr. came here for his honeymoon. That was a tremendous event for Çırağan Palace Kempinski, and put us on the map for US travelers. This is particularly true of up-market travel agents, who began to recommend us to the upper echelon of US travelers after that event. The popularity of Çırağan Palace Kempinski has been sustained ever since. About 70% of our US guests are leisure travelers, and a large number of them are repeat clients.

The third and fourth spots are tied between the UK and Germany, each representing 10% of our guests in 2010. We have steady business from both countries. The UK is more leisure oriented, and Germany is more business, reflecting a long tradition of commercial relations. The number five position in 2010 was France. Brazil was number six, which is very interesting. A few years ago this category was non-existent for us. Its growth represents the strengthening of relations between Brazil and Turkey. The first push was the agreements between the Brazilian-Turkish Chambers of Commerce, both here in Istanbul and in Sao Paolo. That was followed by the official visit of President Lulu and his wife, with all the major meetings taking place here in the Palace. Of course, this resulted in a lot of exposure in the Brazilian media. Next came Turkish Airline's non-stop Istanbul-Sao Paulo-Istanbul flight, which has recently increased its frequency to four times per week. As a result of these, Brazil has risen quickly on our list. It is an amazing story. In the number seven spot is the Middle East and the Arab Peninsula. This category is growing as well.

In your career you've worked all over the world, particularly in East Asia. How does Istanbul compare?

There is something very special here that I have not seen anywhere else in a natural setting. I arrived here with my wife on a Saturday, and we drove around the city for a couple of hours. We both had the initial impression that there is something Asian here, and I still feel this five years later. Not only geographically, since Istanbul has a foot in Asia and a foot in Europe, but the traits of the city itself reflect the best of Asia. For one it is a bustling city, but there are also the smiles, and the kindness of the welcome when you enter a shop or restaurant. There really is the best of both worlds here. And the history of the Ottoman Empire shows the way this area absorbed the best of many cultures, but there is also something uniquely Turkish. The food is a good example. It takes its influences from different areas, but it has been remodeled and repackaged, and now it's uniquely Turkish.

Are there challenges in running a luxury hotel business on such a historic property?

It is the hotel's 20th year and our 18th with the Palace. And the Palace has never been anything but a plus for us. We have to be careful, but this is not a negative at all. We are guardians of the Palace, which belongs to Turkey, to the Turkish government, and to the Turkish people. We are privileged to have the responsibility to keep it in shape. We want to absolutely preserve the physical integrity of the Palace as it should be. The Palace has an obvious grandeur. That is why it is famous, and that is why so many major social functions and high level political events are held here.

The Turkish government is ambitiously targeting 50 million annual visitors by 2023, the centenary of the Republic. What do you feel should be done, by both the private and public sectors, to make this goal possible?

We all need to continue promoting Turkey. In this sense, Turkish Airlines is doing a fantastic job. The amount and quality of advertising it is doing is absolutely incredible, and it helps all of us. Whether it is their ad campaigns with Kevin Costner, Kobe Bryant, or Caroline Wozniacki, it is not just advertising the airline but also Turkey itself, and it is clearly intending to do so. Everyone I've spoken to in the sector is full of praise for what the company is doing. I only fly Turkish Airlines these days because it flies to 99% of the places I go. This is a very strong arm to support the growth of tourism in Turkey, and this type of support will be important for us to reach such arrivals targets. It is important the country makes itself known, as there is a lot of competition. For example, when it comes to attracting big meetings, we aren't competing with hotels as much as we are competing with other cities like Paris and Barcelona.

Istanbul has always been a brand name, but it has become so again in a different sense, and I think this is key. An important element in this branding, specifically for Istanbul, is looking beyond the traditional attractions. Of course the top five attractions in Istanbul are amazing, and they are must-sees, but Istanbul is so diverse that you can visit 10 times and do something different each time. We should all work to raise the visibility of everything the city has to offer. For example, here at the hotel we are currently working on culinary tours, architectural tours, yacht tours, and even walking tours that may take people off the beaten track. There is simply no end to what this city has to offer.