Igor Gondár, director of Hotel Zlatý Kľúčik: “In recent years we have been more HR and psychological specialists than hoteliers – the positive thing is that we are still not psychiatrists.”

Just as Zobor is the natural landmark of the city of Nitra, the Zlatý Kľúčik Hotel is a hotel landmark. Excellent restaurant, quality service, superior accommodation, luxurious wellness and much more including romantic weddings, lounges or complete congress facilities. Not to mention one of the best views Nitra has to offer. From the terrace of the hotel you have a panoramic view of the city below, which is magical at night. The four-star hotel Zlatý Kľúčik with the Superior attribute will satisfy even the most demanding customer. If you are looking for a romantic escape from reality, a place for a wedding, a corporate event or just a delicious dinner or a relaxing massage, you would hardly find a better place in the region.

Since our last interview with the current director of the Zlatý Kľúčik Hotel seven years ago, a tremendous amount has happened. From career challenges, life changes to pandemic years at the end of which came the offer for the vacant director’s chair of the Zlatého Kľúčika. Igor Gondár is a seasoned manager with a number of successful projects under his belt, which he has helped to launch and set up processes all over Slovakia. On this sunny day, we will talk about the hotel industry, the challenges that the whole segment is currently facing, but also about his life and work in Hotel Zlatý Kľúčik.

Covid has made its mark across the entire foodservice and hotel segment. How did you handle the pandemic as someone who sits mostly in the director’s chair ?

Paradoxically quite well. Through covid I worked as a project manager and later as the executive director of the RAJ Health Ayurvedic Centre in Bratislava, with the most difficult period being during the pre-opening phase. I didn’t have to deal with the problems like many of my colleagues in the pure hotel business. Those who have endured deserve recognition. I am grateful to the owners of the RAJ Health Centre for the “leeway” in which I was able to endure this difficult time.

Why such an atypical project as an Ayurvedic centre?

I like a challenge, although I don’t like the profanity of the word as such. But I can’t more aptly name the momentum, or rather the adrenaline, that propels me forward and gives me new motivation all the time. In addition to a corresponding evaluation, I need to know that I can move things forward and that my presence in the project is meaningful. For the owner, employees and clients. For this reason, for the last 10 years I have been almost exclusively working on new projects or some form of reboot. I usually have a contract with the owners for 2 – 3 years, where we define competences and goals. Once they are reached, my role is over and the project is taken over by a “long distance runner” who is better at dealing with the routine.

RAJ of Health is a yoga and ayurvedic centre, which includes accommodation, a lacto-vegetarian restaurant, fresh bar, SPA and shop. Compared to a standard hotel, however, these are complementary services to Ayurvedic therapies and physical activities. The primary focus of the centre is on longer-term therapeutic stays and programmes. As I have worked mainly in wellness and spa hotels in the past, this was not a completely atypical project for me. Rather, an extension of know-how in the field of Ayurveda and a holistic approach to health. This is where RAJ Health is exceptional.

Hotel Kľúčik in Nitra has become your next project. What made him so appealing to you ?

With its currently untapped potential and distorted reputation. In the post-Covid period, the hotel needs new impulses to further improve the quality of service and the economy. A few years ago, there was a media lynching of the hotel that severely damaged its reputation. Good partner relationships and public trust are built in business through quality service and a pro-client approach. I therefore see any judgement as destructive or even dangerous. For the individual, the company, and the whole society.

So how do you perceive the hotel today ?

Last year saw a change of ownership, management and several investments. We reconstructed part of the rooms cat. Standard (a quarter of the total room capacity of 44), modernized the reception area, lobby bar and Restaurant Cle d´Or and Frenchie Terrasse. The hotel is located in a highly attractive environment at the foot of Zobor with a panoramic view of the whole Nitra. The space is architecturally very well managed with a high sense of detail. The hotel has modern conference facilities – Louis XIV Congress Hall with a capacity of 150 guests and Louis XIII Meeting Room with a capacity of 20 guests, all equipped with state-of-the-art technology. The hotel grounds include an exclusive wedding pavilion with a capacity of 120 guests and a garden for outdoor wedding ceremonies. It has a long tradition of quality gastronomy with a concept that combines French cuisine with Slovak tradition. The hotel is the recipient of many gastronomic awards. Guests can enjoy the themed Oriental Luxury SPA and fitness with professional equipment. Of course, the high standards of service provided by the hotel staff are a matter of course. All this makes Hotel Zlatý Kľúčik the flagship of the hotel industry in the Nitra region and is also a space for self-realization of smart and passionate people.

Is the Zlatý Kľúčik also a “start up” ?

No, as the Hotel Zlatý Kľúčik has been on the market for 30 years. In this case, it is a reboot, which is a bit more challenging than starting from scratch. Building a team of people you choose yourself is more rewarding (though not easier) than working with people you inherit, so to speak, from previous management. Everyone usually has stereotypes and ruts that are harder to give up. It is important to build on the good things of the past and integrate new practices when things go wrong.

To what extent can the project be restarted with the original staff ?

The prerequisite is the transfer of new energy and positive motivation to the original employees. In biblical language – “Cleanse the old leaven that you may be a new leaven.” In a reboot, even more than in a start-up, not only professional and human qualities are expected, but also a healthy level of enthusiasm and passion for the project is essential. Being competent is not enough in this case. In the Golden Key, I think we have succeeded in this first step in the last 6 months. In addition, some new and old-new employees have been added to the team. After a two-year “exile”, the chef Viliam Beňo, who previously worked at the hotel for 12 years and was also behind its successful gastronomic concepts, has returned. We have recruited Zuzana Antalova from Hotel Lomnica for the position of marketing manager. From the original line-up, we have redeployed the positions of reservations, events and sales manager. Seeing the new employees pulling together with the old ones is amazing, just like seeing the resigned people waking up in the post-covid time.

What does the new director actually mean for the hotel itself ?

New expectations from everyone. From owners, employees, guests and the director himself.

There is a certain amount of uncertainty associated with this, but for people who want to change things for the better, it is a positive phenomenon. At best, the hotel director comes from hotel operations or hotel marketing. In the worst of finance… I am always amused by the statements of new managers (even in the professional media) who, as “globetrotters”, know the operation from the guest side and are therefore 100% prepared to manage it competently. And they don’t doubt it at all…

Are we in a position today to afford to make redundancies in this segment ?

To some extent, everyone is replaceable. The question remains, how good, how fast and therefore at what price? In any change, the time needed to recruit and integrate a new employee, as well as the level of risk of retention, must also be assessed. Of course, there are situations when a manager must not be afraid to make such a decision even today. Otherwise, the employee senses it, the manager becomes a prisoner of his employees, pressure comes not only from above (from the owners) but also from below (from the employees) and after a while anarchy comes to the employees and disgust and frustration to the manager. However, redundancies should always be a last resort. A specific problem in a reboot is inherited workers who do not internally identify with the change, who etch the team from within by spreading negativity and “verbal poison”. Such “union sellouts” can have no place on the team because they destroy the efforts of everyone else. In such a case, the manager must be as principled as in the case of theft, alcohol or other gross breaches of work discipline.

Speaking of working with people, what should a good manager be ? And how are you ?

Simplification, there must be a leader. Professionally proficient, rigorous and human at the same time. Positive motivation is increasingly needed, especially in younger grades. Hotel management is no longer just about knowledge of hotel operations and management practices. It includes a wide range of knowledge and experience in other areas such as marketing, economics, accounting, law, HR and psychology. I’ll say a little hyperbolically that in recent years we’ve been more HR and psychology professionals than hoteliers. On the positive side, we are still not psychiatrists….

Well, what am I specifically, you’ll have to ask my colleagues 😊.

With what goals did you enter the hotel ?

I took over the hotel after the covide, when cost-cutting measures really had to be taken. For this reason, the standard middle management was missing and functions that should not be cumulated in a hotel of this category were also cumulated. The first objective was therefore changes in the organisational structure and in the overall organisation of work.

The hotel lacked conceptual marketing and active marketing, which we started working on in September last year. The goal is to gradually increase revenues by 50% over three years with a corresponding EBITDA, furthermore to improve the revenue structure by increasing the share of accommodation revenues to a minimum of 50% of the total volume, to increase the average room occupancy rate to 55% with an increase in ADR by 20% over the same period of time. This presupposes further improvement of the quality of resp. expanding hotel services and significantly improving the pro-client approach. To change the mentality of “We are the Zlatý Kľúčik and the guest must be grateful to use our services”. Recognise that a guest today can spend their money elsewhere and the competition has not rested on its laurels in recent years. And the specific aim, the icing on the cake for this hotel, is to restore its credibility with the public.

What is important for the success of this project ?

For every project, the basic recipe is the same. Success = destination + service + marketing. The quality of service is influenced by the aforementioned investments, staffing and, in the case of restarts, innovation. Marketing, especially digital marketing, is now a separate professional discipline in hotels along with revenue management. In our hotel they are already conceptually handled by the marketing and reservation manager in cooperation with external specialists. We cannot directly influence the attractiveness of a destination. We try to help it with our own contribution in the form of quality accommodation catering and wellness services, although this is not always appreciated by the residents.

Is the ambition to go for five stars as well ?

No. It is better to have a quality four-star hotel than a five-star hotel that does not meet this standard. For a 5-star service, you need to have guests who are willing to pay the price. Such demand, which reflects the attractiveness of the destination, is, in my opinion, exclusively in Bratislava. That’s why we want to continue on the path of honest 4*. The uniform European classification of the Hotel Stars Union platform allows for the use of the Superior classification for this hotel category. And although Slovakia is only an observer, not a full member of the HSU, and there is currently no regulation of categorisation at national level, we have adopted this designation to distinguish ourselves from the competition.

How was last season ?

Good, but not so good that it couldn’t be better. The hotel recorded an overall increase in operating income of 22.8%. However, the challenge to address remains the unhealthy revenue structure with the dominance of food service revenues, lower room occupancy and average room rate. In the structure of overnight stays by nationality, the share of foreign guests increased to 50.38%. This is related to the presence of multinational companies in the region, but also to the high demands on the quality of service from foreign guests.

What news are you planning in the near future in Zlatý Kljuky ?

Since the beginning of February, we are changing the breakfast concept from a standard buffet breakfast with front cooking to a French country buffet, which is also adapted to the interior of Frenchie Terrasse. Under the name Golden Family-LunchTime, we are reviving the formerly very popular family Sunday lunches with the traditional way of serving. In the spring, we plan to relaunch another successful gastronomic concept from the past. Called the Golden Grill Party, it will be an all-you-can-eat dinner with grilled specialties on the summer terrace with panoramic views of the city. In addition to the classic model of changing the seasonal à la carte on the first day of the season, the Golden Menu, designed primarily for business clientele, changes on a weekly basis. Twice a year we continue the successful Live-Cookings of the past, with one of them always handled as a fundraiser. The proceeds from the last one, which took place in November last year, were donated to support the Pomáhajko civic association from Drážovce. For 2024, we have also prepared new stay packages and themed evnets in line with the hotel’s philosophy, such as Golden Randez-Vous, Golden Vitality, Cherchez La Femme or Golden Etiquette. During the summer, we are preparing a cooking school with Vil Beno called Golden Culinarie or a wedding exhibition Golden Wedding Show, which we want to organize in cooperation with our suppliers. During the autumn months, we want to return to the successful theatre performances in the Golden Theatre and the Golden Christmas Melody Advent Concerts at the end of the year. Based on my experience from previous projects, since October last year we have launched traditional Asian massages and Ayurvedic therapies in Oriental Luxury SPA, which we provide in cooperation with external therapists from India, Nepal and Bali. We are currently the only ones in the Nitra region with relaxation (not medical) Ayurveda. However, we are also planning other innovations that are necessary for the restart of the hotel. Interested parties are encouraged to follow our website www.zlatyklucik.sk or social media presentations.

Why especially young people do not want to work in the catering or hotel industry ?

In short, a lot of work, less free time, money and social disrespect. I don’t want to generalize, but a large portion of our “millennials” want function, money, and leisure at the same time, and they want it now. Insolence is called healthy self-esteem, lacking both humility and patience to work out and sacrifice something to achieve a goal, The mental set of society is such that manual labour is actually a disgrace. This is a problem in many sectors, but it is most acute in tourism. There is a lot of manual work, work is done on Fridays – holidays, the economic output is lower compared to other sectors and therefore the wages are lower. Consequently, there is already a lack of interest in the sector in secondary vocational schools. And so there is a looping problem.

How do you motivate your employees to reduce the turnover rate ?

Money always comes first. It is true that every price (even the price of labour) is always an equilibrium, i.e. balance between supply and demand. As the demand for work in the hotel business, and especially in the catering sector, is significantly higher than the supply of skilled labour, the pressure to increase wages is growing. Often without any rational basis in labour productivity. Therefore, in the staffing plans I always count on at least identical salary evaluation as in the case of the competition in the region. Specifically in Hotel Zlatý Kľúčik it is 10 – 20% more, which corresponds to our expectations. In second place is positive motivation. Each employee must have the opportunity to participate in decision-making and in the running of the operation within the scope of his or her responsibilities. I don’t assign tasks “from the table”, I learn to listen, to communicate a lot and sometimes, for the benefit of the whole, to change my original decision. I find it even more important to integrate employees into the co-decision process in new projects and wherever we want to make a positive difference. In third place is a healthy working environment and good relations between colleagues. Therefore, I assess each new team member not only from a professional but also from a human point of view. I try not to enter into conflicts if the employees can resolve them themselves. On the other hand, I will always take categorical action against slander and intrigue. I am paving the way of complete openness “between the four eyes”. To strengthen workplace relationships, I organise teambuilding (skiing, an afternoon by the water, hiking and a Christmas party) four times a year. I try to fill positions with employees of approximately the same age where the job description allows. In fourth place is the opportunity for professional growth. We organise regular training sessions, especially for employees in the catering department. In fifth place are employee programs and other benefits for employees and their families in the form of discounts and selected complimentary services at the hotel. It’s all so simple, yet so complex.

We talked in the introduction about how you handled Covid. In what state has the corona left the hotel industry in Slovakia ?

Covid left damage from which several operations have not recovered. Some of the smaller ones, and especially those that did not have financial support from other sources, could not cope with the situation and the market was slightly reduced. The loss of sales combined with the rise in energy prices and the rise in labour costs were literally the final nail in the coffin of an industry that even before the pandemic had low added value. Many quality people have left to work in other segments or abroad. We have lost some of the foreign guests who did not return for the antediluvian period. This is a problem on a national level. While the number of overnight stays of domestic guests in hotels and guesthouses in September 2023 reached the level of the tourist record year 2019 (according to the data from the SRU), the shortfall of overnight stays of foreign guests was almost 13% in the identical period. This should give us some indication of whether the quality of our services and/or the attractiveness of the destinations is commensurate with the prices, taking into account the quality-price ratio of competing facilities abroad (not taking into account our costs). Young Slovaks already consider themselves Europeans, they have no language barrier and are used to traveling “on their own”. In doing so, they compare and forgive nothing. A relatively large proportion of overnight stays in traditional holiday destinations are still recorded by guests from the Czech Republic. Slovakia is also interesting for them because of its geographical and linguistic proximity. Many of them are “resident recidivists” who have blazed trails from the days of the common state. In the same way that the dropout rate of younger guests may grow, this nostalgia of Czech guests will not last forever. In this context, a memory from a recent skiing trip in Kaprun resonated with me. Seeing cars in Austrian ski resorts with BA license plates (or others from Western Slovakia) is already a common standard. But seeing cars with KK or PP plates is at least something to think about. If we do not work on the quality of service, pro-client approach and together on the attractiveness of destinations, there may be more and more cars in foreign destinations. It is not enough to tell ourselves that we have beautiful mountains or quality spa resources.

Author of the article Kávičkári.sk/ Rudolf Sladkovský