What advice does the winner of the Dutch Hotel Award 2021 have for the next generation of hoteliers?

An interview with the winner of the Dutch Hotel Award of 2021 – by Răzvan Dumitru

Some say travel is the best teacher. Besides travel, experience and education also represent invaluable tools in shaping an outstanding career. Reinier Bunnik shares our opinion. He is the Operations Director of Zoku and a proud graduate of Hotelschool The Hague who agreed to share his amazing story with us. Through travel, Reinier developed his network and furthered his education, gaining experience and meeting people. Discover his views on internships, the hospitality industry, and his advice for both hoteliers and students!

How was your journey with Hotelschool The Hague?

It all started in 2002 and ended in 2007, what a journey! The delay of one year was due to the full boarding year that I took from my student association, La Confrerie. Having researched numerous hotel schools and also visited a couple of them, I opted for Hotelschool The Hague because I considered it had the most international-oriented mindset.

My first year ended very well, leaving for my internship in Mexico with my propaedeutic diploma. The best description of my process of searching for an internship is me walking into the Placement Office and asking, “What is the farthest I can go?” Since I worked in Barcelona for two years, my Spanish was good enough so I was allowed to go to Los Cabos where I worked as a Front Office agent. My time there made me realise how amazing this industry is and represented the moment when I chose to stay on this path!

My second internship took place in Aspen, Colorado. I was placed there as part of the management placement internship program “Vita Futura”, ran by Starwood at that time. I was sent to an impressive mountain resort, having never skied in my life! The question I got asked by all my friends was, “Why, out of all people, are you going there?” Little did they know that nowadays I would end up snowboarding!

What is your opinion on internships? Are they different nowadays?

Thanks to the circumstances of my internship, I benefited from much exposure to the hospitality environment as I was sent for training in Rome, London and Amsterdam. Sadly, there are hardly any programs nowadays offering as much as the ones I took part in. The hands-on experience and encounters with General Managers, Vice Presidents and so on are invaluable in forging a successful career. Unfortunately, this kind of in-depth internship lost its popularity and I personally consider that the current lack of talent, which is experienced by the hospitality industry, is a result of this. I think that companies will soon face the need for finding new solutions to train and most importantly, retain, their newly acquired talent. I was also lucky to have a very supportive GM. The very first question he asked me was, “What is your least favourite department?”, to which I replied, “Housekeeping”. As you might have already guessed, this was the first department he put me through, but I actually started enjoying it. His trust and support enabled me to grow.

What is the motivator behind your career?

The fact that every day is different! I have never had two similar days in my entire career. This is partially due to working in teams, but most importantly a consequence of working with guests. Even though I have a schedule, my day looks completely different by the time I have my first cup of coffee. I constantly meet people and hear inspiring stories and I think that the reason behind all this is my network.

One thing that I learned about networks is that even though people might seem far, they are closer than you think. I think this is one of the greatest things about networking. As everyone is always open-minded and willing to get in touch, you can just make a phone call or send a quick message knowing that you are coming to a certain city and the people are more than happy to grab a cup of coffee and catch up. I think this is one of the unique features of the hospitality industry.

How was it to implement the theme “Resilience & Connection” within Zoku during the pandemic?

The Dutch Hotel Awards have been taking place for a good ten years or so. For the season 2019-2020, the decision was to turn to this theme which was very representative of this period. When the COVID-19 outbreak started, we already took some steps such as making an internal documentary starring our staff. We decided to do this because, even though we could not predict what would follow, we wanted to remember what we have done during this time. That said, we sent a nomination and then the team came together and compiled a video with the footage that we already had. It was a great experience because we could also discover the artistic and creative side of many of our employees. It turned out that some of them had this passion besides their work while some of them had it as a second career.

While making that video, we realised that it would be the perfect opportunity to recap this chaotic, unprecedented year, and how much we have done during this time. We were also among the few hotels in Amsterdam that chose to keep their doors open for guests; we thought that there are still opportunities, enough guests to take care of, and of course, staff to take care of. Fortunately, it was exactly as we thought. With a view to this responsibility that we took, we turned towards connectivity and came up with the idea of being resilient through it. In the end, it was our network that we worked and combined efforts with, coming up with creative solutions that got us through this period.

What is the most important lesson learned during this period?

Quite frankly, I believe in the quote by Winston Churchill, “Never waste a good crisis." Even though it might seem like a cliché, it turned out to be completely true. We used it to shape our mindset into finding opportunities where others could not.

I completely understand that the decision to close or not depends on various aspects, such as the location of the hotel. For instance, it would have been pointless for a hotel near Schiphol to keep its doors open when no flights were landing at all. However, I was disappointed in the hotels situated in the city centre because a great deal of them did not look for alternatives. Consecutively, there were also certain types of hotels or lodging facilities that boomed during this period and outperformed big names in the industry simply by having different settings of the rooms or adapting them to the new requirements. So, I think that the importance of responsiveness and adaptability were the most valuable lessons.

Considering that everything is opening, which pandemic-related measures will you keep and which will you not?

We will not stop doing anything that we have introduced or learned. On the contrary, we will continue innovating and working on our projects such as the escape room that we incorporated in our loft. In some cases, we learned that finding the right partnerships also plays an important role in introducing new concepts as it can add more value to a project and boost its results.

More importantly, we redesigned our thinking and perspective on the hotel. Instead of being anchored by certain metrics as simply selling rooms, we shifted towards seeing a hotel as a space and time product. Therefore, we sell space and time and whatever you can do with them depends on imagination, partnerships, or situations you are in. I strongly believe that this vision will start to gain more popularity within the hospitality industry because we think that the landscape will change.

What are your future plans?

We are successfully getting our venues in Copenhagen and Vienna going, which is a top priority for me as we want to spread the concept of Zoku beyond Amsterdam. We are planning to expand Zoku even further but only time will tell!

Being an international chain, we are already designing our own rotating internship and employment program. As travelling and discovering the world becomes more and more appealing career-wise, we believe that an opportunity to travel and work will be welcomed by many candidates.

What is your advice for other hoteliers?

Always challenge the status quo! If you just come to work, take a walk around the hotel and think, “Everything seems fine and under control”, you should be extremely worried! That means that you are about to go into a situation that you have not anticipated at all. For your team, it means they will get bored, and boredom eventually leads to turnover. You need to constantly learn and develop!

From my point of view, we need to continue developing our teams, enabling them to learn and grow at their desired pace in order to keep our industry full of talent. I think this is the broadest assignment that we have in our hands as professionals, and it requires thinking out of the box.

What is your advice for students and graduates who are aiming to enter the hospitality industry?

You may not get the most ideal working hours or the highest salaries, but you will have the coolest stories to tell other friends in a bar or a social gathering and it is still something that no one else can do. Also, do not plan too far! Sometimes I hear so many stories during selection days from young individuals, but my advice is to embrace the unknown as you can never know for sure what is on the horizon!