Changing The Guard At The Hilton, Athenee Palace Bucharest

The hotel industry often employs the unseen expatriates in our midst…

Every country in Europe has expatriates working in the hotel industry but often without realizing this fact. These are the people working at all levels in hotels across all functions. In a recent stay in London Bucharest Expat stayed in a hotel and failed to encounter any staff member of British origin. The lovely people behind reception were French and Italian, the barman was Kenyan and the housekeeping staff were Polish. We didn’t quite make it to breakfast… Whilst this cannot admittedly be seen as an exhaustive survey the signs were both clear and a reflection of the situation in many hotels across Europe and much wider.
At a management level in hotels it is common for staff to be regularly moved around from country to country to gain a broad based experience of cultural differences. But whilst in many industries having a foreigner in charge of a business is cause for comment, this is entirely normal in the hotel industry. But this trend often goes much deeper across many functions within a hotel, as seen so clearly in London. The key difference is that for most people, working outside their native country is seen as a major event but in the hotel trade it’s business as usual, whatever the level. This distinguishes the employees within the hotel trade as uniquely flexible in terms of location, and long may this last.
With this distinction in mind, Bucharest Expat managed to catch up with the old and the new managers of the Bucharest Hilton, known to many as the Athenee Palace. Friederich Niemann has recently left Romania for his home country of Germany to open the new Waldorf Astoria in Berlin. He has handed the baton onto Canadian Linda Griffin. We managed to persuade both of them to answer a few questions about their experiences and expectations which we can now share with you.

Friederich Nieman

Why so long in Romania (five years)?
Romania got to me and I have thoroughly enjoyed living and working here (except a few of those challenges we all know about very well…). In my industry one usually stays a undetermined period of three to five years in one destination, but being in such a great place like Bucharest and managing such an exceptional hotel like the Athenee Palace Hilton, my company really needed to come forward with a truly exciting opportunity to drag me away from here. Opening the new Waldorf Astoria Berlin, was such an opportunity, though my heart and mind are still very often in Bucharest.
What is your lasting impression of Romania?
A lot! A great country with huge potential and great people; unfortunately poorly managed with a negative and unreal international image. Would I go back? Yes!
Best memory?
The amazingly beautiful and breathtaking vistas from Pestera (Jud. Bran) over Transylvania’s rolling hills glistening in a solid green towards the high rising Bucegi mountain range as a backdrop.
Worst memory?
The ignorance of some political decision makers over Romania’s real problems and their lack of interest in finding sustainable solutions.
What would you change about Bucharest if at all possible?
The list is too long…
Biggest challenge that you had in Bucharest?
Making a cab driver understand that it is his responsibility to carry change and not his clients.
Biggest challenge that you left for Linda?
Perhaps you want to ask Linda to answer this question.
Your overall impression of Hilton Bucharest compared to other hotels in Bucharest.
A great hotel with a tremendous history and legacy unique in the local market; combined with the Hilton brand and service levels for sure the leading hotel on the Balkan peninsula, which can be barely met by any other hotel in the market.
Favourite Romanian food, and why?
Fresh, red, juicy tomatoes from the market.
Least favourite food, and why?
Mititei!! How on earth can people enjoy smelling, eating and digesting that, whilst one could have so many other meat dishes beautifully cooked to perfection???
What do you miss most?
In Bucharest I missed most good dark bread made from strong sour dough! Now away from Bucharest I truly miss my friends, the neighbourhood in Dorobanti, a mild summer evening with close friends in Carturesti’s gradina Verona and hiking trips across the Carpathians and and and…

Linda Griffin

What inspired you to choose Romania?
I would not necessarily call it an inspiration so much as a great job opportunity.  The Athenee Palace Hilton is a beautiful hotel, with character, elegance and a great personality – if you were to personify it, and that attracted me to the position.  Romania is a new EU country, making it an interesting business environment – I did not honestly know how interesting until I arrived here! Finally, I do not know anyone who has not enjoyed living and working here, which is always a good measure.  So, I decided to go for it!
What is your first impression of Romania?
I guess, I can only give impressions of Romanian based on my impressions Bucharest, as I have only been as far as Sinaia which was teaser for the beautiful mountains I have yet to venture to. However, my initial impressions are of a city that is in the process of trying to transform itself, yet it is somehow stuck due to the economic and political challenges it faces. There is a need for people to try and take on a positive / optimistic attitude if this is to be achieved – where people feel that they can do something about the issues.
Biggest challenge that you have faced so far in Bucharest?
Well, personally – it is getting used to the roundabouts and the aggressive driving and I say this as a person who has driven for years in both Turkey and Greece!  From a professional perspective, it has been about ensuring a smooth and successful launch of the Café Athenee and lobby re-opening.
Biggest challenge that Frieder left for you?
The renovation completion… as mentioned above and trying to step into his shoes – his footprint is huge and he left it all over the city!
From your first impressions, what would you change about Bucharest if it was possible?
I love the number of parks in the sector 1 and that people use them; this makes living in a city a pleasure – unfortunately no one is aware of this aspect of the city until they visit Bucharest… The impressions people leave here with after a weekend are completely different than those they arrived with. I would change the parking habits, the drivers and the stray dogs. I’m sorry that this is not too original but these are simple things which are mentioned everywhere and give the city a bad reputation and make life unnecessarily challenging.
Favourite Romanian food, and why?
I have not had the opportunity to try too many Romanian dishes but I can say I have enjoyed the Stuffed peppers and mititei.
Least favourite Romanian food, and why?
I am not a big fan of  ciorba de burta.
Do you plan to visit other parts of Romania, and (assuming that the answer is yes) which places are on your short list?
The short list is pretty long: one of the benefits of living in a country is having the chance to experience it, so here you go. Sibiu, Maramures, Timisoara and Cluj (so far) and, of course, the Delta and Moldova will feature as well.
The changes at the Athenee Palace are not just at a management level. The revitalised lobby area is more welcoming and elegant than ever and the new Café Athenee is quite the place to be seen. The floor may make you feel like a chess piece (but definitely not a pawn!) but very quickly grows on you, and the menu is an exercise in temptation. With the Radisson so close, let battle commence!