By Francine Silverman
Paul van Wijk is a third generation hotel executive. Grandparents on both sides, parents, brothers, nephews and children were or are in the hotel business. His maternal grandfather was a founder of the hotel school in The Hague attended by his father and nephew.
van Wijk (pronounced Wike) is a native of Maastricht, Netherlands, which gained prominence in December, 1991 as site of the 12-nation summit conference for signing a charter of European unity. This past January, van Wijk became general manager of the historic Warwick Hotel in New York City, his first stint in America. His wife arrived this summer and their two college age children are in school in England.
Unlike other members of his family, van Wijk refused to go to hotel school after high school as his father wished. He chose to enroll in the University of Louvain in Belgium instead. His father, proprietor of the Hotel Du Casque in Maastricht, "said `go to hotel school.' I said `no.' I wanted to study economics. It was the start of the big hotel chains."
That determination was evident early on, according to his younger brother, Maarten, general manager of the 241-room Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that Paul and his twin brother were the second youngest of five, "He was the leader of all of us," says Maarten. He is six years younger than Paul, who will be 50 on Dec. 18. "He was always the gourmet. He delegated what needed to be done. His nickname was `The Baron.'"
Paul van Wijk, who stands 6'6", realized his dream shortly after leaving college, as a management trainee at the Amsterdam Hilton. That was 1971, and for the next nine years he moved from one Hilton hotel to another, in London, Brussels, Kuwait City and Dusseldorf, where his primary duties were food and beverage and personnel and training. In 1980, he left Hilton to join the Four Seasons Hotel in London as executive assistant manager. Just 2-1/2 years later, he became general manager at the Sandton Sun Hotel in Johannesburg (now Intercontinental Hotel), considered the most prestigious hotel on the South African continent. "They made me an offer which I couldn't refuse," he says. "It fulfilled my dream in a way."
Along with overseeing a staff of 820, 350 rooms, five restaurants, two bars and a nightclub, van Wijk ran several winning promotions - some benefiting charities. One was part of a book club luncheon, asking contestants for the first two chapters of a book on any subject, to tie in with the restaurant's library decor. There were three winners out of 30 entries, capped off by a huge gala. For the Easter holiday, art and elementary schools, artists and the general public were asked to create an unusual egg, for a top prize of $2000. Eggs began rolling into van Wijk's office - along with ants - and "the second week a big truck load arrived with 4000 entries from all over the country," he recalls, laughing. Sotheby's selected 150 items for auction, garnering $100,000. Some of his ideas, like the book club luncheon and a monthly antique fair, are still operating. The while-you-eat boxing matches ended last year after a 10-year run. For these creative endeavors, van Wijk received the General Manager of the Year Award, 1985-86.
The Warwick has an Old World ambience - doorman and all - although many of the furnishings are contemporary. The guest rooms are among the largest in the city, while the lobby and elevators are small, designed for a private and residential feel.
Traditionally, the Warwick was a secret retreat, starting with William Randolph Hearst, who built the 36-story tower with a specially designed floor for his mistress, actress Marion Davies. The Beatles checked in on their first New York City tour and Cary Grant kept a two bedroom suite with a wrap-around terrace (Suite #2706) for two years. The self-contained lobby was ideal for keeping would-be gawkers away. It was not a hotel open to promotions or, as van Wijk points out, to inquiring reporters.
His presence has changed all that. He's hired a public relations consultant, Debra Cooper, and plans to continue with the gimmicks. "We have to bring in some fun in this business," he says. For now, he's only thinking Christmas. With Cooper's help, he's devised "Sanity Savers" for holiday shoppers now through December 24. For the convenience of hotel guests and patrons of the hotel's Randolph's Lounge, Kate's Paperie (of lower Broadway) has a desk in the lobby for wrapping packages (for a fee) while the guest has the option of relaxing with a 55-minute lunch in the restaurant. Guest shoppers are also provided with catalogues from which to choose items and Kate's will fax order forms and handle deliveries. "We think this is going to be a crazy four weeks," was the manager's prediction.
Early in his career, van Wijk helped open a hotel and refurbish another - areas he finds exciting. Before coming to America, van Wijk was general manager at the Royal Windsor in Brussels, a five star hotel. The Warwick in New York is four stars. Asked his response to this, he says, "Am I sad? I have to upgrade this hotel." He notes that $15 million has already been spent for new sprinklers, wiring and fixtures. Still to come is renovation of eight floors, new meeting rooms and offices, and a new color scheme for the lobby. In addition, a fitness club is opening in January that will be free to guests. It will be small but modern, says van Wijk. "That is what a guest wants. Modern machines, good lighting, and good air." He's also upgrading the lunch menu in the hotel restaurant. "This is a very good four star product," he states."We are not the Four Seasons or the St. Regis. They are not in our price category and we don't feel we want to compete with them." The Warwick's occupancy rate is 82%, a point higher than the city average.
van Wijk came to New York at the behest of his Paris-based employer, Warwick International Hotels, which has 29 properties in such diverse locations as Paris, San Francisco and Fiji. The Warwick was its first. "When my boss asked me about coming to New York, I thought it was an excellent move," says van Wijk. "After eight years, having seen the kids through school, New York was very exciting." Asked his reaction to managing a hotel in Manhattan as opposed to Europe, he says, "It's very fast, crazy. It's very nice to be here." Brussels is easy, he adds, citing an apt quotation: "Brussels is like a hot bath. It's easy to get in but hard to get out."
The Warwick was built in 1926 for $5 million. Hearst held the rights to dozens of lots in Manhattan, including Sixth Avenue and 54th Street, where he also helped his friend Florenz Ziegfield build the Ziegfield Theatre across the street. (The building was demolished in 1967, to be replaced in 1969 by the Ziegfield cinema).
From its inception, the Warwick was reserved for the elite - private apartments and suites for Hearst's Hollywood friends. Today it has a large corporate clientele, 60 percent of them American. The other 40 percent can count on assistance from a multi-lingual staff. van Wijk is fluent in four languages and some front desk employees speak several tongues. Because of his connections, foreign dignitaries have frequented the Warwick, including the prime ministers of Fiji and Belgium. "I think he will play a big role in putting this hotel on the map," says brother Maarten. In the United States for 15 years, Maarten is delighted that Paul is finally here and relatively close by. "If we had to manage together in the same property, I think we would complement each other," he notes. "I am more into food and beverage, he is more sales and marketing and public relations inclined. I am more operator and he is more into the finer things, details."
That's not to say that van Wijk has not changed staff training. For the first time, a training company will give regular seminars and a member of the restaurant staff will be present. He also hired the hotel's first director of human resources and an executive assistant manager to help oversee the staff.
van Wijk feels it's important to discuss with staff the best ways to serve the client. He likes to compare what was done in the past to how best to perform in the future. This might be how to serve coffee in the bar or how to answer the telephone. He says that involving the staff in decisions helps them feel part of the process rather than targets of criticism. Otherwise, "People get confused - they think you are after them," he says. "At the end of October I called a staff meeting. I talked for half an hour, showing them what changes we were going to do." Among them are new uniforms for the reception staff and bellmen, new china and silverware for room service, and treats for return guests.
In keeping with his public persona, van Wijk has already made an impression
in the wider community of hotels. Although Rick Amato, vice president of
the Hotel Association of the City of New York, only recently met the manager,
he says van Wijk "appears to be very knowledgeable." What's more, like
his predecessors, "he wants to be very active with our association (of
138 members) - which is what we like."
|In the heart of Manhattan close to Rockefeller Center, fifth Avenue
shopping, museums, Broadway theatres, Central Park, and the City's business
and financial districts.
This grand hotel offers a choice of 352 rooms and 72 suites newly furnished in exquisite taste and style that recalls its glorious past. All with marble bathrooms. The "Ciao Europa" offers delicious excursion into the best European cuisines. The "Warwick Bar" is popular amongst New Yorkers. A Fitness Center is situated two blocks away. The 6 newly renovated conference rooms and salons can accommodate up 300 people for seminars and banquets.
Francine Silverman is a New York City-based freelance writer, specializing in profiles and travel. Email: FSilver767@aol.com
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