Many people dream of dropping everything and starting a new life somewhere different. Rebecca Schönheit did it. She traded a law career and the familiarity of her home in Berlin for a tiny island in the Wadden Sea. That’s where she and her husband decided to start over as directors of a small hotel — with dreams of getting it up to Tablet standards.
This is part two of her story. Click here to read part one.
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“A few hours in the office and then off to the beach.” That was how my husband and I envisioned our daily life on Langeoog. The reality, of course, has been much different. Three months in — three months since I wrote part one of this story for Tablet — and we’re still trying to understand how our hotel works. In fact, it was only when sitting down to write part two that I realized so much time had already passed. After all, our idea was that on Langeoog we would live a slower, more relaxed life, especially since we’d be sharing the single job of hotel manager.
What we’ve learned in those three months is that a hotel is not just about providing rooms with beds for overnight stays, and the kitchen isn’t just about preparing meals on a regular basis. It’s about rosters, channel managers, and New Year’s Eve celebrations. It’s about closing times, mattress firmness levels, and COVID-19 permits.
But one thing at a time.
Because we’re new to the hotel industry, we started from scratch on a lot of issues. On the one hand, this is refreshing, because we approach topics without prejudice. On the other, it’s incredibly frustrating when you can’t figure out something as fundamental as program your room inventory lives on. Thankfully, we have with us a motivated and experienced staff, from housekeeping, to building services, to reception, and everything in between. Unimpressed by all of our suggestions, successes, and failures, our employees work with joy and cordiality so that the hotel business can continue to run without any big shocks.
In a simple example of our naivety, we came up with the great — and, we thought, painless — idea to put electric kettles in every room so that the guests could make themselves tea or coffee. Our staff then pointed out the various consequences that would have to be taken into account, like how the kettles would be cleaned, how they would be purchased and serviced, any possible safety issues, and how compatible they would be with our electricity network. A quick win turned into a serious project. And that’s just for something simple like the addition of tea kettles. You can imagine how complicated things got when we started discussing our ideas for room renovations.
We are also slowly beginning to understand why so many hotels hire someone to deal with channel managers, the software that makes your rooms available in real-time on hotel booking sites throughout the internet. The principle is easy in itself — if the settings are correct. One small error, however, can cause massive headaches, and it can suddenly be impossible, for example, to book a child in addition to adults, or for the double room price to be calculated for fewer than three guests. People spend their entire careers learning to master channel managers. We now know why.
Slowly we are seeing land in sight, though, and gaining a great respect for all the small hotels that are also making a go of it more or less without help. As is so often the case in the leisure sector, what seems effortless to the guest means a lot of hard work behind the scenes. That applies to the preparation of group excursions and the making available of bicycles, just as it does to room cleaning or the menu, in which we try to use regional, organic ingredients to create sustainable meals that aren’t too expensive for the guests.
With few exceptions, the best part of our new job is interacting with guests. We aim to provide them with a refuge of happiness and relaxation, and most of the time that is accomplished by little things like writing cards for wedding anniversaries or birthdays, giving newlyweds a bottle of sparkling wine, recommending our favorite local pubs, or breaking down the advantages of the different ice cream parlors on the island. But we have had guest encounters that are quite a bit more memorable. One day an elderly guest stood in front of me and wanted me to inject him with his insulin — he just couldn’t do it himself. Fortunately one of our employees is a nurse and was able to take over the case. Another guest had knotted her hair so badly in a brush while blow-drying that it could not be unraveled. With a lot of patience (and oil) we finally managed to solve the problem. The range of issues we must handle, from large to small, has been interesting, to say the least.
Compared to my previous life as a lawyer in Berlin, it’s refreshingly easy to solve a problem on the spot — when there’s no complicated legal issue to be clarified, when it’s just another pillow or the transport of a suitcase to the train station. Then again, it’s frustrating to be responsible for absolutely everything: for the coachman’s bad mood during an outing, or for the rainy weather, or for the clothing of one guest that is not considered adequate by another. It’s not always easy for me to be patient, especially since I know what a privilege it is to be on a vacation at all. But it’s especially difficult to manage the balancing act of making all guests happy at the same time: you cannot accommodate dog owners and allergy sufferers, or a primary-school class and a silent retreat that yearns for both inner and outer peace.
Outside of work, we’ve managed to forge some new friendships, meeting people through fun hobbies (shanty choir) and leisure activities (walks with alpacas). These new friends aren’t the only residents who know us, though. In both local newspapers there have already been articles about the “newcomers from the capital,” accompanied by large color pictures. So now everybody in the village knows who we are and what we look like. It can be quite peculiar to be greeted on the street by someone who knows you even though you don’t know them, or to notice that information about yourself makes its way across the island without your help. Since we’re used to Berlin’s big-city anonymity, the intimacy and immediacy is new territory, and makes it all the more important to have a place of retreat where we can be ourselves without having to think about how we appear.
For that I’m grateful that we’re making a lot of progress with our apartment, which doesn’t resemble a construction site as much as it did in the summer when we first moved in. It’s getting colder in the North Sea, and as the garden becomes a less attractive place to hang out, one of our rooms — the bedroom — is nearly finished. We’re just waiting for the delivery of a new bed that’s been held up due to the coronavirus (what else, right?). I’ll spare you the details about doing things DIY on a car-less island, but let’s just say that everything becomes a bit more difficult when you can’t just drive to a hardware or furniture store.
After three months, the first conclusion we’ve drawn is that the hotel business is no walk in the park. The work is hard, the competition is intense, and the guests are demanding. Nevertheless, there are many moments each and every day that make all of this worthwhile. Small encounters here and there, in-depth conversations with actual strangers, employees who rise above themselves, and feelings of triumph over seemingly insoluble problems.
So we keep on going and we keep one thing in mind: there is no bad weather, only the wrong clothes. We apply this principle to our work as we look forward to the next three months, the winter, and the new year, hoping that COVID-19 won’t thwart our efforts and that we can continue to keep our hotel open.
Rebecca Schönheit is the German writer and editor for Tablet Hotels. She previously wrote about getting married in the chaos of COVID-19. To read about all of her adventures as a first-time hotel director in Langeoog, click here.