Thies Sponholz & the art of luxury hospitality
The Fontenay – Thies Sponholz & the art of luxury hospitality
»The wonderful thing about this world is that it is a little different everywhere and always special in its own way.«
When and why was it obvious to you that you would go into the hotel industry?
My parents tell me that I let it be known quite early on as a child that I wanted to go into the gastronomy or hotel business.
The reason for this was the head waiter Walter, who welcomed us to our regular hotel every year during the skiing holidays. No matter when and where we were in the hotel, he was always there. Especially for us children. Always friendly and always on the go with his inimitable Austrian charm.
I can still imagine him today in his own Porsche with the particularly casual, slightly longer hair. That’s how I wanted to be, and that’s how it stayed.
Which stations on your professional path have shaped you the most?
I did my training as a restaurant specialist in a hotel on the Baltic Sea at Timmendorfer Strand. It was run by a couple who owned the hotel and who were very clear in encouraging but also very clear in demanding performance and initiative.
I was lucky as I was able to get to know the great variety of gastronomy and hotel business in a compact and good manner in this wonderful house right at the beginning.
A good starting point to continue my journey in my next stop at the Suvretta House in St. Moritz. A traditional hotel, also family-owned, which was also run by a couple in my time. People with an entrepreneurial spirit that I certainly wouldn’t have met in a hotel group of the classical type.
What did the first steps look like for you in St. Moritz?
At the Suvretta House I started in service. At the end of my first season, they asked me if I would like to start a trainee programme, which was a great opportunity for me.
Along the way, I got to experience St. Moritz in the early 90s, which enriched my life with many unique anecdotes (laughs). It was also very special to be there on site in the off-season, when you could gently turn the hotel inside out for the next season in all its facets.
Was the invitation to the trainee programme a surprising twist of fate or also the result of your own ambitions at the time?
I had clearly defined my goals for myself from the beginning. I wanted to work in Switzerland, France and the USA in order to become a hotel manager by the age of 35 at the latest which I managed to do earlier than planned in Baden-Baden.
Fortunately, this path to my goal was paved for me bit by bit, also thanks to my father. He was always a sparring partner for me and a gentle challenger at eye level, who set impulses without pressure and was a role model. Also, in terms of understanding luxury.
It was always about consciously enjoying moments. For example, when we arrived at a hotel on holiday, we didn’t unpack hectically right away. Instead, we always went to the bar first to celebrate the start of the holiday together as a family over a drink.
How should one imagine your time at the legendary Hotel Negresco in Nice?
I did my job interview from a phone box in Eckernförde during my time in the German armed forces and got the job. I actually lived on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice and therefore had a wonderfully short way to work.
The individual characters in the team, its history and of course the top-class guests who came to the Cannes Film Festival or the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo, be it Sophia Loren, Pelé or Herbert von Karajan, left their mark on me. Looking back, I am really very grateful for this time in this special place.
Going to the US after the European traditional houses was certainly a completely different experience again …
Yes, it was a completely different world. Both at the Sheraton in Palo Alto and at the Hilton in downtown San Francisco. At the time I was there, the Sheraton was owned by one of the richest Chinese people in San Francisco, so it was a particularly challenging combination of cultural demands. Nevertheless,
I had a great time there and learned the balancing act between tight efficiency and motivation to go the extra mile. Again and again, it was about winning people over and taking them with you. You yourself act as a role model and should not lack the important acceptance and respect in working together.
By the way: can empathy be learned?
That’s difficult. For my part, I got 90 percent of what makes me from home. The remaining 10 percent I learned on my stations in the world. The wonderful thing about this world is that it is a little different everywhere and always special in its own way. When you finally manage to adapt the best of the different regions and cultures for yourself, then the circle closes.
Let’s talk about The Fontenay. You were a hotel director without a hotel for the first three years of your job and played a decisive role in the construction of the hotel. Is your personal relationship with this house very special because you know almost every screw?
After the first seven years, it is still a priceless asset that I was able to help shape this hotel from the very beginning together with Mrs. and Mr. Kühne (editorial note: the owner). We didn’t carry out the realisation in theory, but literally took every detail in our hands, experienced it, understood it and only then decided. That does something completely different to you and your own relationship to this special place.
What are you particularly proud of at The Fontenay?
Of course, we are all collectively proud of the architecture and the entire house, which has now proved very successful. Personally, however, I am particularly proud that the core team has been on board unchanged from day one until today.
From the laundry room to the concierge lounge, from the chef to the head of marketing. That makes me very happy, and our regular guests also appreciate that.
Do you have a favourite spot in the hotel?
Oh, there are so many! One of my all-time-favourites is the sun terrace on the sixth floor in the spa area with a great view over the Alster and the city, which is spectacular at any time of the day. It’s a great place to start, pass or end the day, whatever you feel like.
Ideally, a hotel like The Fontenay is a stage and also an ambassador for its city. Is that also your aspiration?
Every hotel in this category is first of all an ambassador for its city. What do I sell when I travel for business? First of all, Hamburg! We all want as many good guests as possible to come to this wonderfully green and watery city.
Over the years, Hamburg has become much more cosmopolitan than one might sometimes admit in one’s own city. Be it through the Elbphilharmonie or also to a certain extent through our presence on the Außenalster.
And the short distances in our city, from elegant Harvestehude to the trendy Schanze or the harbour, make discovering extremely easy. At the same time, Hamburg has also become a hub for guests wanting to discover the North Sea and Baltic Sea in summer. The city’s versatility speaks for itself.
What do you look for most when you are a guest in a luxury hotel?
Believe me, despite my position, it is still something special for me to be allowed and able to stay in hotels of the highest quality. Therefore, I always first see the wonderful experience itself. But of course, there are differences and of course you see many little things immediately that other guests might only notice at second glance.
You see and notice whether the fruit is actually cut fresh every day, whether the coffee comes from the hand filter or the fully automatic machine. You can see whether and how the bed linen has been ironed and how proactively the bathrobe has been folded.
Ultimately, the sum of the opportunities taken advantage of in the details, alongside the people in the service, makes the decisive difference.
What do you think of the “New Luxury” concept with a stronger focus on mindfulness and sustainability? Do you experience an increasing need for such aspects among your guests?
Absolutely! New Luxury stands for appreciation per se. It starts with addressing our guests adequately, but it is also about having enough space for oneself and one’s privacy. It’s about arriving in an uncomplicated way and finding peace for yourself when needed. And exactly as you are and as you feel at the moment. These are important aspects of luxury in its modern form, which we take into account.
What’s in store for the future of The Fontenay?
One milestone is certainly the further development of our gourmet restaurant “Lakeside”. We have one star, but we don’t want to rest on it. Rather, in the not-too-distant future, we also want to welcome guests who appreciate the leap to the next level.
This is one of many aspects we are working on to establish ourselves permanently as the market leader in northern Germany.