General Manager of the Radisson Blu Grand Hotel in Sofia Deborah Haines: Bulgarian Capital Is Hidden Gem

Interview |Author: Ivan Dikov | May 5, 2010, Wednesday // 17:06|  views

Deborah Haines, General Manager of the Radisson Blu Grand Hotel in Sofia. Photo by Assya Filipova

Interview of (Sofia News Agency) with Deborah Haines, General Manager of the Radisson Blu Grand Hotel in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.

Haines has been part of the management of a Radisson Blu Hotel in Durham, the United Kingdom. She assumed her position at the Radission Blu Grand Hotel in Sofia effective February 16, 2010, replacing the outgoing General Manager, Fernando Gruenberg Stern, who took over the management of opening a new property for The Rezidor Hotel Group in Mozambique’s capital Maputo.


What was your first reaction when you learned you were appointed to run the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bulgaria?

I went straight to Google to find out, first, where Bulgaria was; second, what was Sofia; and third, what did the hotel look like. This is literally what I did after I got the phone call.

What did you know about Bulgaria before coming here?

Nothing. I had heard of the hotel through the company but I knew nothing about Bulgaria.

Now that you have been here for two months, how have you and your family adjusted to life in Sofia? How would you characterize this change for you?

It is a big change to come from the UK to Sofia or to any overseas appointment. It doesn’t matter where you go, it is very, very different. I think the UK is a unique place in the world, I don’t think it’s the other way around. I think it’s the British that are unique, not all good, some of it is bad.

How we have adapted? I think I have adapted the best, without a doubt. I came, did my job, and just accepted everything for what it was. My daughter has found it a challenge. She is 14 so she’s come in the middle of the academic year.

She’s come from a state school to an international school, and she’s changed countries. So for her it was huge. She seems to take it very well, she’s got friends now from totally different countries to what she ever had.

I came first, went back to the UK and picked up my daughter, brought her back, she started school, and then my husband came three weeks after me. He’s found it the hardest, very, very hard. He is fine now but he found it very difficult. He didn’t realize how much he loved the UK, what we call a “home bird.” He really did struggle.

Just regular things that we take for granted. We can’t get a UK newspaper here on a daily basis. Just silly little things. But for you, you have your own home comforts, we have our home comforts and it was losing those that was hard.

My dad was in the Royal Air Force, so I traveled around a lot, and my daughter’s moved around a lot in the UK so we’ve probably adapted easier but my husband hadn’t done as much moving in the UK so I think he found it difficult from that point of view.

What is the most striking thing for you in Bulgaria? Did you feel like you were moving from one corner of Europe to another?

No, it didn’t feel like going from one corner of Europe to another. It felt like coming from an island to a mainland, which it is if you look at it geographically. But that’s how it felt even mentally.

As far as my first impression is concerned – there are two things that I remember and will always remember. The first is the friendliness of the people, and that still remains, and the second thing is the architecture - as you come from the airport to the city of Sofia.

It is so different. It is beautiful in the center of Sofia, and you can see the history of Sofia as you come from the airport. It tells you a tale of what it was like before the freedom of Sofia.

It does tell you that, and that’s quite obvious. From my husband’s point of view as well. He has found some of that hard to accept – we have good bits and bad bits in the UK, that goes without saying but it is obvious here – you can see what the country has gone through when it went through that transition.

It is not something you read in a book, you can physically see it. Because the buildings are still there, and you can see what was behind those buildings.

If you just stop to look for a minute, you’ll see a building which is huge, and in its own right it reflects how I see, as somebody from the outside, a communist country. You can see behind the broken glass what probably was there because it is not gone, it is still there.

The changes that Bulgaria has gone through as a country are still very apparent. I arrive at an international airport, I see modern, new buildings, some built quite recently. I go through a business park that is quite modern, I see many billboards.

But then I see these other buildings, and an aircraft, and I can appreciate but not fully understand how it must have been. I remember my car journey from the airport to the hotel because of that, it really made an impression on me, big time.

A lot of Bulgaria’s major social events happen at the Radisson Blu Hotel. Bulgarians have this idea of their country as a European “backwater”. Having already witnessed some of the social life of the Bulgarian capital, how would you describe it? Is it about as rich as anywhere else or does it seem like a provincial, faraway place where you don’t get much high profile action?

Potentially, we will get high-profile action, to use your words. Where is it at the moment? It is nearly there. It’s on the cusp of a wave, to put it that way.

People back in the UK ask me what Sofia is like. I call it a hidden gem. It is somewhere that is tucked away but people haven’t realized it yet, and they haven’t then appreciated its potential.

I don’t think that people in Bulgaria have fully appreciated its potential yet. But as somebody coming in, I can say that it’s just waiting to be discovered. You can see the amount of growth that’s coming.

There are the embassies and other venues so you’ve got international exposure there but you can see the potential with the development of all the business parks.

Indeed, things have slowed down just like they have everywhere in the world, and that’s obvious. But if the investment continues and if all those hotel brands – be it the Sheraton, be it the Hilton, be it the Radisson, whichever one of us it is – if we continue to bring international guests into Sofia, it will continue the growth for Sofia as well. That will give us the potential that will then become the reality. We need to become more international.

You’ve been at the Radisson Blu in Sofia for two months now, your predecessor had been here for five years. What was the most important tip or a piece of advice that he gave you?

Enjoy it. And that’s what I said to the person that took over from me back in the UK. Enjoy it – it can be the city, it can be the hotel, it can be the staff, it can be the guests, but enjoy it. Whatever you do, make sure you get the best out of it.

So it wasn’t anything Bulgaria-specific?

No, because I think it is important that you come here with a blank canvas. Don’t come with a preconception, because as soon as you do, you’re not seeing it for what it is. We all see things differently.

It’s interesting how I saw the hotel when I came in, and how the guys who have been here for 4-5 years saw the hotel. Because they don’t do outside-in, they are doing inside-out, and every now and again you need to walk out the front door and look at it outside-in.

What is your personal philosophy or approach to running a five-star hotel?

Regarding the running of any hotel, and not just stardom, any business, doesn’t matter which business you are in, my philosophy is basically what is called a “triangle of excellence”.

The triangle of excellence consists of my staff, my guests, and the person who runs the hotel. If you can get that triangle to connect, you’ve got a perfect business. So it has to be a triangle of excellence.

How would you characterize the competition among the five-star hotels in Sofia? Do you think it is very rigorous? Do you have a specific strategy in competing with the others?

My strategy is to be transparent. We’ve all got exactly the same goal – which is to be successful, and to take Sofia with us as a destination. Competition is good, healthy, and very, very important.

The more international exposure we can give Sofia, the more international visitors we will get, both business and leisure.

I think it is important that we all get that brand recognition, that we work together indirectly and directly to bring Sofia where it should be – on the top of the map as a destination to which people should come.

As far as I am concerned, my competition is healthy competition, and my only strategy is to be totally transparent and to be seen as number one.

Since you are at the beginning of your term here, at the hotel, in Bulgaria, in Sofia, how would you sum up your expectations? Do you have anything that you are looking forward to in particular?

The only expectation that I have for the time that I am here is to make this hotel number one, and to grow and develop as many of the team as I can.

I am one of the 97% of general managers that have been grown within our company so that means that I have been a departmental head, and I have been allowed to grow and develop. I think that there are some people here that are ready to grow into being general managers.

I would like to leave a memory that people will remember that we went from X to Y in what is still an economic tribulation, or whatever word you want to use, and to take us back to being number one.

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Tags: Deborah Haines, manager, Radisson Blu Grand Hotel, Radisson Hotel


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