How important is setting goals for a successful career?

An interview with the Regional Vice President of Accor in Mexico & Central America – by Răzvan Dumitru

Excellence can be achieved through dedication, long hours of work and an undefeated willingness to learn. How could we get any better other than by meeting new people, discovering new places and accepting new challenges? This week we would like to introduce you to a truly remarkable alumnus of Hotelschool The Hague: Robert-Jan Woltering. After having graduated, Robert set out on his journey in The Netherlands, accumulated experience in over 12 hotels with ACCOR and then decided to further his education at Cornell University. Today, Robert-Jan is an experienced and well-travelled professional with 30 years of experience in the hospitality industry! Let’s find out what he shared with us during the interview!

What did you do after finishing university?  

I started to work immediately! I set a target for myself, accompanied by a plan and I started working towards achieving it. In short, my goal was to be the director of a Food & Beverage operation within Hilton before I turned 30 and a General Manager before 35.

I made it with a slight delay. I was promoted to my first position as General Manager ten days after having turned 35! A good analogy to depict the moment of achieving this target could be the rush of the United States back in the ‘60s to reach the moon. After doing it, one great question rose: “Now what?” And from wondering whether this is the end or just the beginning, I reached the conclusion that innkeeping, as I like to call it, is my true calling.

Today, the only difference is that apart from being an innkeeper, I am also Regional Vice President for the luxury brands of ACCOR and General Manager of a 401-room Fairmont Hotel. My joy stems from contributing to the materialization of ambitious projects such as setting up, renovating and refurbishing hotels.

You have served as a General Manager for many years. What entails being a General Manager?

First of all, the nature of this job is completely changed and innovated in comparison to when I was offered my first GM role. Nowadays, the amount of time that you spend with guests as a GM has been extraordinarily reduced. The job entails keeping your team motivated and moving forward with your strategic direction, apart from the daily e-mailing routine, of course.

A critical view and an eye for detail are also crucial in being a successful manager. During each stroll that I take in any of the properties that I supervise, I constantly ask myself: “Can we do this differently? Better? More efficiently?”. Thus, creativity and innovation are definitely part of the job, and a good manager keeps thinking and developing solutions to improve not only the customer’s experience, but also the employee’s, or as we say in Accor: the HEARTIST experience.

For instance, I am very enthusiastic about the last diversity & inclusion training that we implemented. It revolves around the concept of discovering new life perspectives and the fact that every human being has a great story to tell. The belief behind it is that offering respect is the very first step in order to develop an individual and I think this is a valuable life lesson.

Can you tell us a story of a time when you felt challenged? 

I believe that the moment you do not feel challenged anymore, you should ask yourself where you are heading. This is why I like the feeling of being challenged. I think that we should consider every day a challenge to become better and outdo ourselves.

COVID-19 is one of the greatest challenges that I have ever faced. Even though it is not officially over, neither the world nor us will stand still and wait. Bearing this in mind, the task of securing jobs for 700 people here in Mayakoba or renovating a new property can become significantly more daunting than usual.

You have worked in many different countries and cultures. Which has been your favourite? 

It is difficult to answer this question because I created long-lasting memories, lived unique experiences and met extraordinary people everywhere I lived. From Madagascar to Yemen, France and The Netherlands, each country represents either a milestone or a significant moment of my career.

If I were to pick one, I would say that I really enjoyed the time that I spent working for Sofitel Legend The Grand in Amsterdam. That was a crowning moment of my career since Amsterdam is the city where I was born and raised. Moreover, my parents had their wedding at Sofitel, followed by me. Therefore, being chosen to transform that property from a Sofitel to a Sofitel Legend through a € 35 million investment and seeing the results, such as becoming one of the best hotels in Amsterdam or being awarded a Michelin star, was a very fulfilling and heart-warming experience

Nowadays, I am very happy to discover what Mexico has to offer. From the outstanding cuisine to the welcoming and diverse people, the beauty of the country seems to be never-ending!

What achievement are you most proud of?  

I am incredibly proud that my 18-year-old son started his studies at Hotelschool The Hague – Amsterdam Campus in September. As a father, seeing that your children share the same passions as you, is an unmatched feeling. The passion for the hospitality industry has a long tradition in our family. I was initiated in it by my father, who studied at Hotel School Maastricht and was initiated in it by his mother. She opened her last hotel at 65 years old in Kitzbühel.

What do you consider your biggest failure? 

This happened during my short time spent in Yemen. My mistake was not having considered all the stakeholders in a hotel, the true power of owners and their representatives. Failing to notice the influence of certain individuals in the area, that was not acting according to best practices, values and norms, resulted in me getting fired. But after 26 years, I look back on this as a great learning experience because even though it represented a deception at that time, it made me a better leader.

How do you see sustainability being balanced with meeting luxury customer demand at your hotels in the next ten years?

I think that sustainability is the greatest task that needs to be tackled in the coming years, having a long-term impact on the business world. Another aspect of Mexico that I admire is that the importance of nature is held in high regards by the people. I am of the opinion that circularity is a crucial component of our mission and that we need to ensure that business is conducted in a responsible and safe manner so that future generations will be able to see and benefit from the planet Earth in the same way that we are today.

As opposed to common beliefs, the luxury guests are also enthusiasts of sustainability. For instance, I noticed that the guests that we welcome at Mayakoba embrace and accept all of our sustainability-related concepts such as being plastic-free, promoting and taking care of the surrounding environment or working towards being carbon neutral. Since storytelling represents a considerable part of providing an outstanding customer experience, I think that sustainability must be incorporated into it and by doing so, it can be presented and promoted in a manner that attracts the customer. Furthermore, sustainability can have a greatly beneficial impact on the profitability of an operation, making it even more appealing.

What is your best memory of Hotelschool The Hague?

Thinking of HTH triggers many fun and unforgettable moments that I shared with people that are still my friends to this day. The people that I met during my time at Hotelschool The Hague added value to my journey, from the guest speakers to lecturers. Everyone had their contribution to who I am today.

As per usual, we wanted to find out more about Robert-Jan, so we asked our set of quickfire questions. This is what we learned about this professional hotelier:

What is your favourite book?

That would be The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch.

Which three records would you take with you on a deserted island?

Sign O' the times by Prince, Best of Charles Aznavour and a compilation of opera music!

What is the last movie that you saw?

I started to be fond of Netflix and the last series that I saw was The Crown.

Are you a morning person or a night owl?

I was definitely a night owl in my twenties but that has gradually changed and to my surprise, I became a morning person.

Could you name something on your bucket list?

I want to visit South Africa and Argentina!

What is your favourite part about living in Playa del Carmen?

I love the fact that the presence of nature is visible and the variety of provinces that are easily accessible from here.

What is your favourite part about living in The Netherlands?

Amsterdam is the greatest connection that I have with The Netherlands. It represents my past, family and career!

What is your advice for students graduating in 2021?

Firstly, live your life to the fullest! Secondly, set up targets for yourself and live up to them! Even though your end goal might seem discouragingly far, keep looking up at it and through effort, you will start to get closer and closer to achieving it. Work hard until you see your dreams becoming reality!