Pieter Ham: An inspiring leader in a magnificent setting

Paul Griep, Director of Alumni and Industry Relations at Hotelschool The Hague, had the opportunity to interview Pieter Ham, General Manager of Guarda Golf Hotel & Residences. Paul asked Pieter about his Hotelschool The Hague experience, and what he is working on nowadays. How is his experience as General Manager at this luxurious property in Crans-Montana? Keep reading to find out.

Paul: This setting in Crans-Montana is truly magnificent Pieter. Do you feel lucky to be the General Manager of this property?

Pieter: I certainly do. It was a unique opportunity and I grabbed it. I have worked and travelled in quite a number of countries, and I am in the unique position that I have followed my wife, who is active in the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. Switzerland was the next stop and, with my experience and through the right connections, I was offered this challenge.

Paul: Of all the places in Switzerland, this destination is certainly not a bad choice.

Pieter: With approximately 300 days of sunshine a year and beautiful skiing and golfing opportunities, Crans is a little piece of heaven in Switzerland. The property itself is one of a kind with views over the golf course and valley, offering the ultimate luxury experience in the mountains. Next to the luxurious rooms and suites we offer exclusive dining options, a luxurious spa, and even a private ski butler.

Paul: I’ve seen some “interesting” cars driving around town. Why is Crans-Montana such a luxurious place?

Pieter: Crans is “hot” right now among the so-called UHNWI (Ultra High Net Worth Individuals). This part of Switzerland is interesting for tax purposes, thus we benefit from this accordingly. Many guests arrive by private jet in Sion, where we pick them up to welcome them at the hotel. Helicopters are unfortunately not allowed in Crans, but they can land a few hundred meters lower, where we can pick up our guests.

Paul: How do you cater to this segment of ultra-luxury?

Pieter: It is really important to remain humble. Often, these guests just want to be heard and of course, feel very special. This means that special requests are quite common and go above and beyond what is considered “normal”. In a way, I am practicing “stakeholder management” with either the guests and/or the owners.

Paul: Do the qualities required as part of your wife’s job help you with “stakeholder management”?

Pieter: Most certainly; I have learned and continuously learn a lot from her in that respect. This is not a property owned by institutional investors, but by a passionate private owner. This means they are involved in different ways at times and I fully understand this. At the end of the day, they have invested a lot of money in the property that they are so passionate about. It is a process of give and take, while keeping the guest in central place.

Paul: You mentioned you go above and beyond with your guests. How do you do this?

Pieter: Personalisation is key here, and I actually do 50% of that work. You engage with your guests, get to know them, and it takes time for them to trust you. There is a certain level of shallowness and, sometimes, loneliness in luxury. For example, once you know that a guest likes San Pellegrino, you obviously make sure that this is readily available in the room; and of course, this counts for many more items. Often, I act as a “primus inter pares”; when I see that it is busy in the lobby and a guest is waiting for transport to the ski-slopes, I just grab my own car and take them. It is all about just “doing” and giving the right example.

Paul: How do you keep both feet on the ground being surrounded by all that luxury? Also in relation to your kids?

Pieter: I believe it is important to do this and I explain this to my kids as well. I am not part of that luxury segment; I work for them and it is important to sometimes mention this. This does not mean that we cannot enjoy this life while being here.

Paul: What is the strangest request you have ever had?

Pieter: Someone wanted two Christmas trees and a real rabbit in the room… The guest was actually not pleased with the color of the rabbit when I asked him during his stay.

Paul: You have been here for a little over half a year now. What is the biggest change you have implemented?

Pieter: The main thing I implemented is more structure; this is something I learned from my previous positions. I analysed the Profit & Loss Statement and had some valuable discussions with the owner regarding that. It is one of the reasons why they decided to hire me; I convinced them that certain processes could be operated more efficiently. Change is difficult for some, but we have been able to increase EBITDA by the double digits.

Paul: What else do you bring to the table to lead this property?

Pieter: I had worked in a property of “Leading Hotels of the World” before and somehow that does give you an advantage. I also believe that hard work, as we were taught at Hotelschool The Hague, truly aids to the career; people respect you for this.

Paul: So, do you feel that Hotelschool The Hague helped you accomplish all of this?

Pieter: Absolutely! It wasn’t always easy at Hotelschool. Not being Dutch, I did not understand the Student Association “thing” and that upset me; but at the end of the day it also made me stronger. The practical placement was actually defining, as this was the time I realised I wanted to become a General Manager. I worked in St. Barts in a luxury resort; this was a truly valuable and important experience. Arnoud van Delft visited me during my career and complimented me, but also “pushed” me a bit to continue the path I took. To this day I highly appreciate this, as it did help me reach my goals.

Paul: Do you have an advice to all students that are still studying at Hotelschool The Hague?

Pieter: I am not entirely sure if I am in the right position to give advice. However, if there are some students out there who have similar dreams and ambitions… As you mentioned, Arnoud van Delft and Martine Vissers came to visit me in Nanjing, the old capital of China, in 2005. I was at the Hilton and two others were there from the Sheraton, Natasha van Gils and Linda van Bielder. I guess we worked hard and partied harder. It felt like we were the only foreigners in town, other than our GM’s. The moments we shared matter for life. Arnoud came with the very wise words: “If you don’t like your job one day, one week or even a few weeks… that’s ok. Grind and you will get there. But if it’s a pain for a month or more, please do find yourself a new challenge." The respect I have had and have for him is big. The man knows his “Pappenheimers”, to use one of my favorite Dutch sayings. He has seen them come and go and is not afraid to share. Above all, I remember him as generous, which is a great virtue. Also, let me not forget Martine who has placed me in both St. Barts and in Nanjing. Later, we had the opportunity to reconnect when I was GM in Amsterdam. Can someone message Arnoud that I would love to see him here in Crans? So, the advice is to not be too concerned about what others think and follow your passion.

Paul: How will the world of luxury look like in the future?

Pieter: It is certainly promising; the growth of China is tremendous and Europe is stable in that respect. There’s room for a lot more.

Paul: Would you consider going back to China at some point?

Pieter: Possibly, yes. We had a great time there. Right now, I really focus on the success of this great hotel and then we will see. It will be interesting to see whether my wife will make the next move whereby I follow, or perhaps this time it will be the other way around…

Paul: Thank you very much for this inspiring and fun talk Pieter!

Pieter: Thank you and thanks for taking the effort to come by. Please say hi to everyone at Hotelschool The Hague.