Meet Fred Smits, the GM at the New Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace

Located in the Avlabari district, the historical center of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace, a wonderful five-star hotel operated by Marriott International that attracts clients from around the world, recently welcomed a new General Manager, Mr. Fred Smits.

The hospitality industry is one of the fastest developing sectors in Georgia, and the Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace can be considered one of the pioneers in the sector, among the first to introduce modern Western standards in Georgia, as the date of its launch, 1991, coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The hotel has recently been reopened after a revitalization and rebranding, seeing the addition of the brand recognition of excellence ‘Grand’ to the title of the hotel and meaning that the Georgian branch of Sheraton is now included on the list of most outstanding hotels in the world.

GEORGIA TODAY sat down with Mr. Smits to discover his views regarding the Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace and his upcoming project as the new head of the hotel.

The host welcomed us on the spacious rooftop terrace of the hotel on the 10th floor, overlooking on the stunning landscapes of an extraordinary synthesis of authentic Georgian construction merged with elements of contemporary architecture. The ambience was nothing short of spectacular.

First of all, we ask Fred about the legacy of his predecessor.

“It‘s always difficult to speak about the people who came before you, especially those who worked in your place,” he starts. “But if you enter the hotel for the first time, without knowing its history and without knowing anything about Georgia, you don’t feel that it has been open for just two months. So, what does that tell you? It tells you that things have been put in place, things are moving in the right direction and yes, the hotel has a history, but at the same time it’s a new hotel,” he tells us, noting that the Georgian branch of Sheraton was closed for four years and that certain difficulties naturally arise while opening or re-opening a hotel.

“Even though opening a hotel is incredibly difficult, when you work here, explore the environ thoroughly and communicate with the staff members, it becomes obvious that the work done is definitely great and has brought fruitful outcomes. When you walk into any hotel in this city and compare it with Sheraton, the difference is felt from the first moment, as our hotel is more modern and nicer, in my opinion,” Smits tells us with a smile.

We ask him about the recent renovation.

“I wasn’t here to see the process of the revival of the hotel. However, as a result of some impressive works, it is now represented on a bigger scale in the very best way. Shifts were made in branding, logo, as well as wording. Some were skeptical about these changes, but they are vital for the future generations striving for development and progress. What is most important is that the principles and values are same but are presented in a more modernized way.”

We ask the GM why he decided to come and work in Georgia.

“I’ve been working for the company for 19 years, with nine years in the Western brand and seven years for Sheraton. From 2007 to 2013, I worked at Sheraton Amsterdam, and though the branding and the wording changed during that time, the principles of our brand have stayed the same. Sheraton is still about bringing things together, representing a gathering place and offering guests a warm environment,” he says.

“In our jobs, we never know where and when we’ll have to travel. In the hospitality industry, you work somewhere well-aware of the fact that you will have to leave for another destination within several years,” he notes, going on to recall his personal experience in this case. “I worked five years in Abu Dhabi but realized I wanted to seek new opportunities away from the Middle East. Having worked in this region and taking into account the fact that my wife is from the region, Georgia and Azerbaijan were among my top priorities. And I can say I got lucky.”

He tells us that the fact a lot of people are interested in Georgia also played a significant role in terms of decision-making.

“I was working in the Hyatt Baku back in 1998, the only 5-star hotel in Azerbaijan at the time. Even then we knew there was a similar hotel doing the same thing here in Georgia – Sheraton.”

Smits says that traveling for the first time and moving away from friends, family and your homeland is very difficult, but once the first decision is made, the next move is easier.

“It’s just vital not to forget that you are a guest in the country,” he says.

The views of a person with decades of experience in the hospitality industry are interesting with regards Georgia’s tourism potential, so that was our next topic.

“There are not many go-to destinations for short-breaks. Georgia is one among those countries which perfectly suit short-term holidays and cater to all types of travelers. Direct flights from Dubai twice a day are of paramount importance in terms of boosting tourism from the Middle East, particularly from Dubai,” he says, going on to suggest that even though Georgia is a popular destination, it is not well-known worldwide and its potential is not used to the full. “More people need to come to Georgia and discover how modern the country is; they need to explore the wonderful mélange of history and modernity,” he claims.

We ask the new General Manager about his management strategies and how he plans to develop the Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace and raise the bar on a global scale. He seems to have interesting approaches in this respect.

“We definitely have a certain way we want to manage the hotel. I don’t like having to tell people what to do all day; I like people to offer their own ideas and initiatives to which I can agree or point them in a certain direction. If I need to lead, I’m ready to do so, but I believe people must take responsibility for their own work. If someone asks me a question, 9 times out of 10, I’ll give a question back, so they seek to find the answer themselves.”

Corporate Social Responsibility is of great importance today, and the Georgian Sheraton is no exception to the trend. For a number of years, it has been carrying out social projects and we ask Smits about the further involvement of the hotel in this case.

“I firmly believe that you should take responsibility everywhere you go. In Sheraton in particular, I was interested if we could get Green Key certification [green environmentally-friendly operation of the hotel], and found out that we could, but the concept is not so well understood as yet, so we will work in this direction while continuing to operate with an energy saving system. Along with that, I believe that helping the community is vital. As a hotel, we can organize events for disabled children or visits to homes for the elderly,” he suggests.

The hospitality industry is ever-changing, with an incredibly high level of rivalry. We asked Smits about the approaches he intends to use to offer the latest trends of the sector to clientele. In this case, the interviewee applied his ‘management strategy’ and answered the question with a question:

“What do most people expect from a hotel and what is the most important facility at the hotel?” he asks. “The bedroom,” he says. “The modern details are all well-and-good, but sometimes they also serve as a source of irritation. I may seem a little old-fashioned, but I often have to ‘fight’ with light switches. Yes, it is a detail, but it’s an important one. There are some basic requirements that have to be met to satisfy customers, including security, the cleanness of rooms and the way they are met at the reception. But there are other features that are of vital significance. I think it is a ‘must’ that all electronics work well. Simplicity is sometimes more important than modernity.”

We next ask the new General Manger how he expects to ensure the financial success of the hotel.

“To succeed financially, the hotel needs to be full. We not only offer rooms as accommodation, we have other products on site, including restaurants, banking facilities and the lobby bar. In case of the latter, I want it to have that special signature that makes people in Tbilisi want to come and spend time there,” he says, adding “I know after you triumph, others will start copying you, but whatever you do should be new and of high-quality.”

He also states that prior to planning major projects, it is necessary to ensure that everything already happening is being done right. “Doing everything at the same time is impossible,” he says.

As the final question, we asked him to share his views about the potential of the Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace to become a ‘business card’ of the company globally.

“Honestly, I can say that with the quality-based strategies and immaculate services offered to customers, the Georgian branch of Sheraton has already established itself as a business card of the company. It is present on almost every kind of promotional material and it can certainly compete with the branches of Singapore and Tokyo. Sheraton Tbilisi is definitely on the loop of the company because of its high potential,” stated Smits.

By Ketevan Kvaratskheliya

30 May 2019 20:47