Hotel manager Manfred Stallmajer in conversation on the outskirts of the city at Pichlmairs zum Herkner. The significance of design and tradition, his role as host and the fascination of old technology.
Michael Sicher: We are sitting here comfortably at Pichlmairs zum Herkner in "Neuwaldegg" [a part of the 17th district]. Why is this your favorite place?
Manfred Stallmajer: Here you are in the city and yet in the countryside. Surrounded by greenery. Just getting out by tram, arriving at this romantic final stop of the tramline 43, is a bit of summer in the middle of the city. And the great service at Pichlmaiers. There is just so much warmth here.
Michael Sicher: You are general manager of The Guesthouse Vienna at Führichgasse 10. What is important to you for your staff and the service of your guests?
Manfred Stallmajer: It is very important to me that my employees are not interchangeable. There are no predefined, standardized phrases. Employees do not have to pick up the phone with precisely predefined words or suggest daily recommendations to guests using ready-made phrases. The check-in is done individually too.
It is important to me that an employee is trained to do his or her job well. However, the way he or she does that has to be in harmony with his or her own nature. He or she has to feel good about it.
I tell my new employees that I do not care how they pick up the phone. It is only important to me that the caller knows he reached The Guesthouse Vienna. The same applies to the service in the restaurant, the brasserie and at the reception. Because when we employ people with character we are not interchangeable. We live in such a uniform time anyway, that this difference is very important. Thus, the employees have more fun at work. I want employees to enjoy coming to work and having fun and not only because they get money on the first of the month. That is certainly one of the reasons why employees stay with us for a very long time.
Michael Sicher: You are not "only" hotel manager, but see yourself as a host. What is your understanding as a host?
Manfred Stallmajer: The title hotel manager or general manager implies that it is someone who manages, leads. Of course I have to do that too. When I see myself as a host, I first see myself as a host to my employees. They really come first. And then of course our guests. I want to express that I want to set an example for our given environment. From the house, the furnishing, the quality, the concept to the atmosphere, how the employees deal with our guests. That's the most important thing. First, I want the employees to feel comfortable and enjoy their job. Then I do not need to worry whether they have a genuine, hearty smile or a fake one, because of a smiley sticker at the back of the service door. They should smile when they feel like smiling.
Michael Sicher: Is that something you value at your favorite place too?
Manfred Stallmajer: Yes, this warmth and so much personality. Just like the lovely details. Or the employee, who knows that I like my coffee with half milk and half cream, although she has served me only once. And the other details, like the nice flowers and beautiful vases, which are all very stylish.
If all this had been done with a third of the effort, it might be nice, but it would not have that soul. Of course, I like to spend my precious free time in places that are good for the heart and the soul.
Michael Sicher: In which other places do you find that too?
Manfred Stallmajer: I like being at the Steirerstöckl, which is very similar. And, although it is part of my job, in the evening I like to enjoy my private time at the Café Drechsler in the city. On weekends, when I'm out of town, in my beloved southern Burgenland.
Michael Sicher: What does a guest have to try in a coffee house when he comes to Vienna?
Manfred Stallmajer: The expectation is that you try the "melange" and the "apple strudel". But there are many guests who are expecting the "grant’lnden" [Vienease expression, somewhat like grumpy] coffee house waiter. This is something that no one has to experience anymore, but unfortunately is too often to be found.
The coffee houses in Vienna generally have a hard time because the expectations of a coffee house have changed a lot in recent years. Coffee houses that have a tradition of a hundred or even more years find it difficult to adapt to newly created concepts. But the Viennese coffee house is an institution that will not be lost in the end.
Michael Sicher: What does tradition mean to you?
Manfred Stallmajer: Preserving beautiful values, living tradition. Passing on beautiful values from former times to the next generations. For example a certain courtesy. Particularly in the hotel and gastronomy industry one can do very much in terms of the tradition of politeness, which is increasingly lost.
I recently become aware again that there is more often no respect, no courtesy and appreciation in everyday life. Instead of eye contact with another person, a look at the mobile phone is more important today. Values are lost here.
For me, part of the tradition is that you greet and help someone in the coat. That may be conservative for the current generation, but I think appreciation and courtesy are beautiful values. Exactly us in the hotel industry and gastronomy could live that. Unfortunately, concepts already go in the direction of paying somewhere at the cash desk and taking out the mineral water from the fridge by oneself.
We are losing more and more the connection to communication and appreciation. I find that sad.
Michael Sicher: Have you noticed an increasing fast-pace of guests in your years of hospitality experience? Has the travel behavior changed?
Manfred Stallmajer: Yes, because you always book at short notice which is promoted by all the service providers. On the one hand you will be rewarded if you book long in advance and will be punished if you book at very short notice. On the other hand, you can often book cheaper at short notice, if there are remaining rooms left. Thus we generate a certain fast pace, but also a certain incredibility.
In my opinion, people are more impelled because they are permanently available. Today, for example, in a hotel room with two guests, three to four mobile devices are logged in to the WLAN. That states something. People do not have that much time anymore.
In The Guesthouse Vienna we are, I think, an exception, because we have ninety percent private guests and hardly any business guests. I think it's very nice that these guests still take time for the city and are a bit more relaxed. But four devices are still logged in.
Michael Sicher: What do you take time for to balance for your job?
Manfred Stallmajer: For the cozy get-together and coming home. On weekends, when I can leave Vienna, it is my beloved southern Burgenland where I have a small "Kellerstöck’l" [a small building in wine-growing regions].
I am a techie and love old technology. At the weekend I enjoy rides in my classic cars. Whereby I do not drive arount pointlessly with my partner. It is then simply the vehicle you use for covering a distance and shopping. That way it is a pleasure and the car is not just a means to an end. That's my balance. Nature, southern Burgenland, my classic cars and a bit of sport.
Michael Sicher: Good and beautiful design is important to you. What does it mean for you?
Manfred Stallmajer: I would like to respond with a quote from Terence Conran: "Good and beautiful design will certainly make life more beautiful and livable." It's all about coherence, sustainability and the basic atmosphere of well being that radiates through good design and good architecture. Design must not be a means to an end. Terence Conran is right about this because people are frustrated when they live in cheap and ugly dwellings designed exclusively for the purpose of having small spaces, synthetic windows and synthetic interior doors. Beautiful design contributes to the well being.
Michael Sicher: You have not compromised on the design of your accessible amenities in The Guesthouse Vienna. What is your approach to accessibility?
Manfred Stallmajer: People with disabilities just need accessibility. For that very reason there is no justification here to build purely functional. These people should also have an aspiration to design and architecture.
They have a reason to stay with us and not elsewhere. Also, if they have seen images on our website or read the history of our house, they will probably be interested in this design, concept and architecture. I want the design, architecture, and furnishings of the accessible room to be the same. It has to be built so that this beauty then becomes accessible.
Michael Sicher: Another reason is certainly the excellent breakfast.
Manfred Stallmajer: You can really have breakfast all day with us, because we do not offer buffet breakfast, but the whole breakfast is served.
I am a late riser myself, especially on vacation. It stresses me to stay in hotels, where at ten o'clock breakfast is closed. If you enjoy a good meal the night before, then have a bottle of wine on a balmy summer evening, maybe two by two, and have a cozy evening, then ten o'clock may be tight. One arrives 15 minutes before the end of breakfast, not everything is available anymore and the staff is grumpy because now another guest wants breakfast. That's why I said we do it differently by serving breakfast. It does not matter if you prepare eggs, butter, marmalade, biscuits, etc. at nine o'clock in the morning or at four o'clock in the afternoon. We have triggered something by communicating this. Breakfast from 6:30 to 23:00? That made people curious. This allowed us to transport part of our core message of the Brasserie very well. Namely, that we bake the bread and pastries in our own bakery by ourselves. That happened by accident and was not thought that way. In retrospect, it was a great plug to communicate the other things that were important to us.
Michael Sicher: If you're a private host, what should your guests definitely see?
Manfred Stallmajer: They should definitely take a walk through Vienna's city center. Because it is almost unique with its small, narrow streets and an almost complete, beautiful, old structure for a European capital and city. Even if it meets all clichés, you have to see Schönbrunn Palace and the Hofburg. That's just part of it. The Hofburg is after all one of the largest castles in Europe, which were used as a residence. That's imposing and something we can be proud of.
In addition, they should ride a tram to "Neuwaldegg" [a part of the 17th district] or "Nussdorf" [a part of the 19th district], deliberately not to "Grinzing" [another a part of the 19th district], where the "Heurigen" [taverns selling homegrown wine] are. Vienna is one of the few European capitals where wine is growing; and not a bad one at all. This feeling and this culture of the "Heurigen bliss" are very special. When you do these things, you take a lot of Vienna with you.
Michael Sicher: Where are you going on vacation?
Manfred Stallmajer: To southern Burgenland and to eastern Styria, my homeland. And with pleasure to the Styrian Salzkammergut, which is simply beautiful with its mountains and lakes.
When I go to the sea, I'm the Nordic guy. I like to go to the Baltic Sea for a few days in the winter regularly. Everyone asks: "What do you do by the sea in the winter?" You can do very much there. First, there is a placid peace and second, there is mostly snow at this time, lots of snow. You can cross-country skiing right on the beach. Ten meters from the cross-country ski track there are the surf and the water. On the islands of Rügen and Usedom, the architecture is closing in again. I like driving in areas with beautiful village and urban structures. The resort architecture there benefits the eyes and the soul very well. Back then, people already knew why they gave those sophisticated health spas, they used to be, seaside resorts with such a beautiful architecture. They already knew back then that good architecture is beneficial to life.
Michael Sicher: Do you have a personal tip of architecture in Vienna?
I can not think of a specific building. But when walking in the 7th and 8th district, there are many one- or two-story houses from the Biedermeier period. If the front doors are open, you can see incredibly beautiful backyards with "Pawlatschen" [arcades].
A building that fascinates me, but unfortunately is not publicly accessible, is the former central post office building or imperial and royal Telegraph office on the Börseplatz. In two performances of Alma Mahler by Paulus Manker I had the opportunity to see the building from the inside. The building is great because it was a functional building so beautifully built where the switchboard girls transferred telephone calls. With state rooms, large and impressive rooms with ceiling paintings. What fascinates me is that in the Monarchy it was one of the first air-conditioned buildings. The air conditioning worked great and very simple. Nearby there is a main line of the Viennese high spring water pipe and there was an air well in the park. There air was sucked in, which went through an underground tunnel channel. The cold high spring water, which in the summer has only 10 to 12 degrees Celsius, floated like through a large car radiator. Behind it there was a slow-moving fan that cooled the air and pushed it through the tunnel into the building. In the house itself were various air ducts through which this cool air flowed. Thus, even at hot temperatures, the building was able to gently cool resources to 25 to 26 degrees Celsius. And that back then. This combination of architecture and simple technology fascinates me.
That's why I love driving classic cars. I always call that analog car driving. I still decide when I turn on the wiper and not the computer sensor.
Manfred Stallmajer and Michael Sicher on July 21, 2016 at Pichlmairs Herkner, 1170 Wien, Dornbacher Straße 123.