If he did politics, he would have been chosen in a leading role position! How do I know?! First of all, because I ran to him in the front parking of the InterContinental Hotel and, if I didn’t know he was the General Manager of this hotel, he would pass as a guest or maybe even as an old friend of the people working here. He has a smart style, not to fancy but neither too casual. He just has that perfect sense of harmony when it comes to a friendly approach and the professional credibility. I just took more than an hour of his time, sometimes wondering if my curiosity had any consequence because, only by talking to him, I understood that he is not only the manager of this hotel but also the soul of the team. And it’s not very often that a general manager gives so much from his working time without looking at the watch! After the interview, he led me all the way down to those 21st floors. The elevator stopped to a random floor. The doors opened and a bellboy appeared. He was standing in front of us and smiled to my companion but then, observing that I was there as a journalist, he hesitated to enter the elevator. “Hello, George, how are you today?”, asked the CEOGENERAL MANAGER, inviting him to join us. And than it clicked: this man, besides knowing the names of the people working at this hotel, also cares about them. Plus – he sings like a megastar and he loves Romania! Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Lior Bebera, the General Manager of InterContinental Hotel in Bucharest and the person that holds in his hands one of the most important symbols of Bucharest!
– You worked in seven countries on three continents. This sounds really like a very interesting story, right from the beginning! I know that you decided to work in Hospitality when you were very young, at 16 years old. In that very first moment, have you thought about what shall follow this decision, how your life will be? Have you ever thought about becoming the General Manager of an important hotel or you just wanted to travel?
I think the thought was there, definitely, because before choosing the Hospitality and committing to travel around, I was still in school, in an internship. In Germany there are these kind of internships in school, in the 8th or 9th grade – they are what you call ”practică”, some training programs for a month, in any industry you want. I’ve chosen to do this internship at the Marriott hotel in Frankfurt. I have to say that it was not the dream job; I have started my hospitality journey working as a steward, cleaning all the toilets in the public areas and helping at the restaurant. First of all, I have to say that I totally understood why we had to do this – because, one day, you might be a supervisor and if you don’t know how to do all this work, how can you tell the others if they did it right or wrong?! Besides this, I also observed how the hotel functions, how it is managed. I’ve learned a lot from the front-line but also from my superiors from that time, while observing what the management was doing. I was looking at the General Manager, as well, how he was walking around, doing things. I imagined myself doing these things in the future.
– But does your family have a tradition in Hospitality?
Not at all! I mean… they have a „tradition” in travelling, because, eight or nine generations back, my family was living in Spain. After the Spanish Inquisition, they were spread through the world and they ended up in Georgia. Then, in order to provide a better life to their kids and family, people in my family have decided to move along. First, they moved to Israel, where my father got a very good job and then he was offered two jobs – one, to go to the United States and the other, to go to Germany. They decided for Germany, because this country was known, in the ’80s, for a very strong educational system and for being a country where you got a lot of subventions. Education was free, not like in Israel, where you had to spend thousands of dollars every year just to buy books. But no, hospitality was not one of their directions, because they prepared all of us – we are three brothers and a sister – to study Law or Medicine. I was kind of the black sheep in the family because I decided not to follow their recommendations. I mean they didn’t like what I was doing when I was 16, cleaning toilets and do the cantine chores. So, no, it was not planned by my family and it was definitely nothing about this in my family tradition!
– You told me that you observed everybody – from the very first employee, to the GM. But did you also pay attention to the clients? Do you like observing people, finding out their stories, maybe asking them about the hotel? Everybody who enters the hotel, enters in an particular universe…
I think this was the first reason why I decided to go to this industry: because it is all about people! It is all about the people in this industry – be them in the team or the guests, where else can you be more powerful than being in a position of managing a company or an industry of humanity like the one in hotels?! Hospitality is all about creating great memories, magical moments, surprises, the wow-effect for the guests. This is something which I love to do! At the moment, on a small scale but maybe in the future in a much, in a much larger scale! I think that every industry should really put the focus on people! Even if they are your own employees or the guests. Because, at the end of the day, this is what makes every company successful.
– Do you think that the passion of a General Manager working in a two-star hotel is the same with the one of a General Manager working in a five-star hotel?
In my family, we were not so fancy when we were kids. We didn’t travel to five-star hotels… We really had average possibilities, so we stayed in two-star hotels. One day, my brother made a comment to my father: “I thought we were going to a five-star hotel! This is not nice and we are supposed to stay here two weeks! What shall we do here?!”. My father took him to the window – it was evening -, he opened the curtains and said: “Look up! Do yo see how many stars you have here? This worths more than a five-star hotel!”. So, it’s not about the stars, it’s not about the luxury, it’s about what it has to offer, about the memories you will create. I remember those holidays much more than I remember the many luxury hotels that I visited in the last ten years!
– A hotel is the first and last impression for a tourist. The one that last about a country… This is why I consider them very important… Have you ever felt in love with a country because of a hotel?
I think that every hotel should represent its city and country. I take it even to the next stage: I think that we can actually manage our own “city” here, inside. I see myself as a city mayor. A hotel is like a city and it’s all about how you actually connect with the city, it’s all about values, traditions, culture. This is something we have to embrace even if we bring here foreigners, for example, to work. The foreigners fully embrace the experience: they take Romanian classes, we familiarize them with the city’s attractions and history as part of the on-boarding program. They become part of our team, of our city; integration is important!
– When did you first think about Romania as a place to live in and work for? I’m asking this because I’m almost sure that at 16 years old you couldn’t imagine working in Romania!
You would be surprised! We had Romanian friends in Germany… My parents were very close friends to a Romanian family of doctors. They used to come to our house at least once a week at that time, when I was a kid. They used to tell us a lot of stories about Romania. They used to tell us a lot of stories about this hotel, too – the InterContinental Bucharest, the only luxury hotel in Romania at that time, with a unique restaurant on the 21st floor, a very popular place to be. And they showed us pictures. So, at that time, obviously, how could I think… I was eleven-twelve years old… But, maybe, this also inspired me a little. They were super nice people, we are still in touch with them. As a matter of fact I met their daughter for a coffee, a few weeks ago. So, there was a connection, even though I’ve never been to Romania at that time… or in Bucharest… Through the stories, I felt very homey…
– Do you think that destiny brought you to Romania?
Honestly, I think that everything that happens in life, happens for a reason. If I am talking to you today passionately about something and it happens one day, I would not be surprised that we actually met and spoke about it! And it happened to me not once or twice, it happened very often – I can count dozens of situations where, after few years, it clicked!
– Because you are a champion regarding the numbers in the hotel situation that you succeeded to accomplish in your first here as a General Manager, I think about that “Olympic situation”: you stepped up from middle management to top management, in London, on the occasion of the Olympic games. What did your parents say then? Because they were the ones that were worried, in the beginning of your career about you getting stuck in the kitchen or the laundry…
Well, finally enough, after my parents followed a little bit my career, my family was much more optimistic than I was about me becoming a senior manager! Because I knew how birocratic the processes are and I knew how long does it it take… I knew that you have to at the right time in the right place. It’s very difficult and the competition is huge! I was working at the InterContinental Tel Aviv at that time, before I was announced to go to London – we had something like 800 employees there… we had like 120 mid-management colleagues, very competitive, everybody wanted to show how great he was… And, at the end of the day, as you said before, things happen for a reason. And, when I came to Tel Aviv, they said: “Oh, you left Germany to come to Tel Aviv, are you crazy?!” I was like: “Just for two or three years and then I’ll move on!”. They made fun of me: “Yes, that’s what we all said when we came here!”. I answered: “Listen, I don’t know what you all said, but I’m not going to be here more than three years”. Two weeks before my third year arrived, I went online just to see what jobs the company had to offer and there was one position, only one position opened for a senior manager role and this was a secondment for the Olympics and Paralympics project. This became vacant, because one of the colleagues who was supposed to have this job did not receive the visa. I applied and, within 72 hours, I had already four or five interviews because it was all so urgent. Two weeks later, I was in London! The funniest thing about this is that I did not actually realized what I signed up for! So when I arrived there, I was the Assistant Food & Beverage Manager. We were eleven colleagues who were chosen out of two thousand colleagues worldwide. The others were all General Managers and hotel managers already and I was the most… junior colleague who joined. So everybody was in charge with one accommodation block in the Athletes Village, like in the hotels. For me it seemed overwhelming, in the beginning, but then, when I aligned myself to the others, and we spoke and planned everything, it was ok. I can say that we actually got along very well and everything worked quite well.
“NOWADAYS, IN A VERY COMPETITIVE ENVIRONMENT, WHAT IS MORE IMPORTANT IS RECOGNISING, IDENTIFYING TALENT, BEHAVIOUR AND THE POTENTIAL IN PEOPLE”
– Do you fell that you’ve always had the best job for your age? Because I know that this huge step in your career – the London moment – came when you were 30 years old… So you were quite young!…
On one side I say that you shouldn’t measure anyone by age, but on the other side I do understand my superiors, back in time… When I was 21, I was already a Front Office Manager. I did the job for one year and a half and then I wanted to do the next step. People answered me that I was still young, they recommended me to wait a couple of years for the next step. And I did not accept this. I didn’t accept this answer because it limited me only because of my age. Years passed and I better understood topics as unemployment, crises, relationship failures… All these bad things that happen in life, actually make you stronger and you understand that it is sometimes about maturity, as well! Giving someone the responsibilities of being in charge with people who are much older that they can be that person’s parents, requires a certain maturity. Empathy. And certain management and leadership skills which you just cannot have at 21-22 years old. On the other hand, of course it is unfair to create a stigma for someone, if you see a huge potential. This is something that I am really trying to eliminate as much as possible, dealing with colleagues nowadays: if I see that there is a huge potential, I will give them the job! And if it requires some development sessions, they will get the job, they will understand by themselves that they need some developments and then we will do this while they’re in the position. I will not tell someone to do first those… many things in order to be promoted. Nowadays, in a very competitive environment, what is more important is recognizing, identifying talent, behavior and the potential in people. When I was a student, there was the luxury of having hundreds of applications for one position. This luxury is not there anymore! Today we are fighting to hire good people. You have an interview today, you call the candidates three days later and they would tell you that they are sorry and they already signed somewhere else. They couldn’t wait three days… At that time, I waited six-seven weeks just for an answer, to see if I am accepted or not for the interview. So, we live different times now. This is why, also in our industry, we have to quickly adapt to the environment and have a different approach about hiring in 2019 than the one back to 1999 when I started to work in hospitality.
“I DON’T THINK THAT MY HOME IS IN A SUITCASE BECAUSE I COULD ALSO TRAVEL WITHOUT! I AM A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD”
– I guess that you’ve always had this mentality of travelling around. Do you still have it?
I think it’s a virus. A travelling virus. It’s really like this: you are in a place for two-three years and then your inner voice starts to wonder what’s next.
– But this means that every time you have to change your life completely.
I did this already eight times.
– And you still consider to do this?!…
Yes, why not?! Because I still believe that there is a lot to see and discover in this world! People are asking me sometimes: “Where is your home?”.
– In a suitcase, probably!
No! It’s very difficult to say! I don’t think that my home is in a suitcase because I could also travel without it! I really think that my house is where my heart is, where my brain is at this moment. And I can adapt to any location. I’m a citizen of the world!
– But where are now your heart and your brain?
I think in German, I’m feeling Romanian now, and in business wisdom I think I’m very Israeli. When it comes to strategy and planning, I’m very German but when acting, at the moment, I think I’m becoming more and more Romanian, very adaptive and innovative in finding solutions. I learn from every destination, I adapt something from everywhere. I was honored to work in some great locations, where I have learned a lot. Sometimes, it happens that you don’t like so much the location but the experience becomes very challenging – emotionally and physically exhausting and, in the end, you realize that you take so much with you because those destinations are the ones from where you really learn and grow. When you are not happy about everything, you grow the most!
– Do you speak Romanian?
I do understand quite a lot already and if the person in front of me doesn’t speak any other language, I actually manage to communicate a few sentences in Romanian.
– The best word in Romanian? Your favorite?
The best word?! Oh, wow!
– For example, mine is “DOR”, which means to miss someone or something, but Romanian is the only language in which this noun has this meaning… The others are verbs – I miss you, tu me manques, te extraño, mi manchi…
Oh, really? So that’s my favorite word, also.
– Great, we share a favorite word!
Dor… Ok. You don’t want hear how it sounds in Hebrew!
– Oh, I do!
“I miss you”?! אני מתגעגע אלייך – ah-NEE mit-gah-ah-GEH-ah eh-LAH-yikh
– How many languages do you speak?
Fluent?! Six. Romanian will be my…
Seventh and a half!
– Imagine you have a photo album in front of you. Pick one memory, from the best ones, and share it!
The first picture that comes to my mind is in the Olympics. We had our very own restaurant facility. And when I’m talking about restaurant facility I am talking about the largest restaurant in the world, with 55.000 seats. There were, I think, 150 different kind of restaurants. As the residential leaders of the village, we had acces also to the athletes area. I saw myself once staying in line with Usain Bolt, Kobe Bryant and really top-top superstars, sharing chicken nuggets together. Interesting and fun, because, at the end of the day, it just goes down that we are all humans! It’s about how you can inspire others, but being down to earth, and being natural and being human. And those values are coming from home. And thankfully, my parents did a great job to make me understand that it is about your personality that will make you successful.
“MY 70-20-10 RULE”
– I must admit that I’ve imagined you locked in your office, in a top-floor in this hotel, an office with a breathtaking view of Bucharest and almost never getting down from there. Today, before this interview, I saw you leading a guest in the front parking. If I didn’t know it was you, I could imagine yourself as a guest… or a person like anybody else.
It’s how I want to be seen.
– How much time do you spend in your office and how much getting around in this hotel?
It depends. Generally, I have a clear rule that 70% of the time I am not in my office. I am operational – I am with my people, I am with my team, I am around, everywhere. Also meeting guests… 20% meetings and 10% administration. This is my 70-20-10 rule! Of course I have exceptions – when I have the budget process, which is two or three weeks, when I close myself in the office, together with the numbers and I call people in. But, generally, the day by day operation should be like this: you should spend 70% of your time with people – with your guests, with your colleagues, with potential partners, with people who want to interview you.
– Let’s go back to the time when you first came to Bucharest. The very first impression?
I loved it! You know what?! I committed to the job before coming here.
– That’s… impressive!
Yes. So, how the whole thing started: our vice-president of operations was in Malta, at that time. I had a one-to-one meeting with him, like every senior manager had 10-15 minutes, and he told me that he has a very interesting and challenging opportunity. I was listening because I’ve always been sent to challenging destinations. He told me he has an open position of General Manager at the InterContinental Bucharest. But it was not a very popular choice. There were difficulties with the owning company, the investments and authorities, so I came to prove that the level of performance in this hotel is the one that counts more for all the stakeholders involved. So, from the moment I came in, I made everybody’s life miserable because I gave people many things to do in order to prove to my superiors and to the brand board and to IHG that this property deserves its name. They worked so hard in the first six months, like probably they never did before.
– You were the bad guy?
No. I just gave the team a lot of tasks, and they were overwhelmed and they probably did not understand why… I had the answer but I did not want to share it with anyone. I focused very much on working on the reputation of the hotel and having a lot of meetings with companies, CEOs, general managers and also improving the relationship with the owning company. It was really a collective success and after six months, we were the best performing hotel in Europe. And, you know, after that year was over, I shared with the team the great success. This is what we wanted to achieve, and we did it!
– I am sure that the majority of the Romanians would say a big thank you for doing this, as InterContinental Hotel is one of the all-time most famous brands in Bucharest. It’s a symbol, being not only a popular meeting point in the capital city of Romania, but also one of the tallest buildings in the city. The building itself it’s old…
50 years old. It is a landmark! There are so many stories…
– As far as I know, the building was finished in 1971 . There is a legend about Cyrus Eaton Junior coming to Bucharest in the ’60. He couldn’t fine a proper hotel for his taste, so he decided that a five stars hotel would be welcomed in Bucharest. Also, I know that this first five-star hotel was the second hotel built in a communist country, after the one in Zagreb. Is this true?
Yes. InterContinental Bucharest was the first international luxury hotel in Romania. At that time the hotel company was not InterContinental Hotels Group, but Inter-Continental Corporation, owned by PanAm Airlines. Once the hotel was opened the first PanAm flight landed to Bucharest and we were the first hotel in Eastern Europe hosting the PanAm crew. I think it was 1972 or 1973 when they stayed in this hotel.
– Because the InterContinental didn’t suffer any loss at the earthquake in 1977, I grew up with the legend that the foundation, the structure of this hotel is on some bearings, some wheels in order to move along in case of an earthquake. Is this also true?
I haven’t seen any wheels, maybe they are hidden even further down to where I went but something I can tell you is that this hotel was built with the best materials, with top-class architects.
– Still… almost 50 years ago…
But in that time, the materials that were used were a million times better that the materials that are used today. Today is all about building fast and making a lot of money using cheap materials. Because today people don’t care anymore about quality. Here, at InterContinental, we are safe. There are pictures! We just discovered some albums as well with pictures taken after the year 1977 – yes there were damages, but they were minor considering the tragedy that the earthquake made to some other buildings. That means that solid concrete has been used, solid materials. We are continuously upgrading. All the pillars are consolidated using new methods like fiberglass that offer stability. Safety is a must!
“THE PAVAROTTI SHOWER”
– I told you two legends that I knew about this hotel. Tell me one story that I don’t know!
There is another story about Ronda Ballroom – that it was used as a cinema hall in the ’70s by very high influence people. If you go down, behind this beautiful painting that is on the wall, you still see the original screen, the cinema screen that was there in 1973-1974. All the contracts and agreements between the Romanian state and other states were signed here. Another great story is the Pavarotti story. Luciano Pavarotti stayed in the Imperial Suite and, because he had some problems fitting in into the bath-tub the hotel created overnight a walking shower for him. The walking shower of that time was temporary but now it is fully integrated and we call it The Pavarotti Shower. Also, Pavarotti forgot his jewelry in the safe box… There are some incredible stories here… So many royal families who visited the hotel… This hotel is a landmark. It is a legend!
– Do you live here, inside the hotel?
I used to live in the hotel, the first couple of months when I came here, but now I live in another place, not far away.
– You are very good as a GM, everybody knows this!
I don’t know. Am I? Good to know.
– At least, this is what the numbers and the people you work with say about you. What else can you do good in life? I mean… do you have a life outside this hotel?
Of course I have a lot of hobbies. I like to sing! I used to have a band when I was younger. I did so many things when I was younger! I was in a musical band, I was in a basketball team, I played soccer, I had so many hobbies! But now I’m trying to move all of this in the spare time I have now. I have an average of 12-13 hours every day dealing with my capacity as a general manager which is not only managing the property, but also about managing relationships. For example, I went to play squash for the first time in my life, a couple of months ago and now I will go to play golf – never played golf before… But it’s a part of my job! Deep inside, I think I still have my hobbies. If my old friends called me to go and play basketball, I would go even if, after ten minutes, I might die because I’m out of the physical condition. But there are things that I still enjoy doing. Singing is a big passion of mine! I used to write songs… This was my spiritual area where I could put my feelings down.
– I saw a recording with you singing for the employees here.
I sometimes sing for them. For example, on every 8th of March.
“IF ALL THE GOOD ROMANIAN PROFFESIONALS WOULD COME BACK, YOU WOULDN’T NEED US, FOREIGNERS, ANYMORE!”
– Because we were talking about the fact that this hotel is a symbol of Bucharest… Let’s imagine you are in charge with this city. What would you do in order to preserve the traditions and to make this city a competitive touristic destination?
There are so many things that come up in my mind now! First of all, Bucharest is a beautiful city! Let’s start with this! It is very diverse. Romania is a destination, as well! There are not too many countries where you can really have it all! And when I say “all” is about the fact that if you come to Bucharest you already feel that you are in a capital city, you have all the entertainment factors that a human can need, in this city – parks, malls, shopping facility, entertaining facilities, you can go out to nice restaurants, to nice bars and clubs. Really… everything that one would need in this world! But then you can also have plenty of opportunities to go and discover the natural and the historical part of Romania! You are like two hours away from the mountains or from the seaside. There are so different cultural embracement in every city! I’ve been to Sibiu, Brașov, Sinaia… Now I’m going to Cluj! It’s so diverse everything here and it is a shame that it is still like a hidden jam in Europe! Of course we have a lot of people coming – we have 30% of the tourists coming to Romania from Israel. They figured out very fast that this is a good destination for them. I had a meeting a couple of days ago with a country manager of Booking.com and they told us that tourism is increasing.
– I’ve noticed that many important minds that help Romania, are not Romanian. Many are foreigners. Do you, guys, think about our best more efficient than us?
I’m here for two and a half years now and I think that I’m coming with a completely different energy than somebody local. Maybe from justified reasons, maybe because many Romanians are already fed up. Maybe they already lost their trust in the politics. Because they saw it happened one, twice, three times, four times… I met so many Romanians abroad, in the last two years. Wherever I went… Recently, I was in Dubai, at the Four Seasons and the restaurant manager – Loredana was her name – was Romanian. A lovely girl… I mean so professional. And she’s been there already for seven or eight years. I asked her: “How about coming back?”. She burst out laughing. She said: “I would never come back unless they’re changing all the politics and everything is going to be like it should be in an European country”. You know… it’s a pity, it’s a shame because there are so many good people outside, in Germany, in UK, in Spain. I know so many Romanians in managing positions! If they would all come back one day, imagine the level of expertise and proficiency, how it would go up and how it would increase the whole approach of all companies. You wouldn’t need us, foreigners, any more! I always see myself being somebody who has a mission, I am a guest here in Romania and I am trying to do as much as I can. And not only as the manager of this hotel, but I am also a board member of the Hotel Federation Industry in Romania – we are helping a lot of businesses to grow and develop in the country. I am bringing people who I know they are investors, just to invest money in Romania because this is what this country needs, as well.
– Because you said you are a guest in Romania… We wouldn’t want you to leave – that’s definitely clear -, but if you will have to, what is that one object that you will have in your suitcase from Romania? You cannot take with you everything that you’ve gathered here, but what would you pick to take with you to the next destination?
That’s a very good question. I think I would take the framed picture of my team, with all the signatures on it and the InterContinental picture in the back. But it wouldn’t be about something material, there is something that I will take with me in another way. There is a lot to take! I have a lot of memories, impressions, successful stories! The stories! I would definitely take the stories with me! This is what it is about, in the end! These things are priceless… When I will come back here one day, as a guest, and I will see a fully refurbished hotel, a hotel that is the number one in the market… This will mean something!
– What room would you choose, as a guest?
I’m not so picky about rooms. I don’t need a special suite! Our rooms are all beautiful, with balcony and amazing views! It’s not about standard or deluxe or suite… they are all nice!
– I just took an hour from the schedule of the GM of the InterContinental Hotel in Bucharest. How much does it value in a business situation? If you are not working for one hour, what’s the loss in money?
There is no loss – I think it’s about the value of this conversation. I think it’s a huge value attached to it and I can continue for the next three hours!
– Thank you so much, but I will have my final question: now, when you go around this hotel, do you see an intern, a young man of 16 years old, cleaning the toilets in the public area, or washing dishes or maybe working in the laundry, which has the potential that Lior Bebera had when you were his age?
Things have changed! Three months ago I was holding a speech at the American-Romanian University in order to inspire people to join the hospitality industry. The questions they asked just proved once more that our world has changed. Today they all talk about money, it’s all about salary, it’s all about “What position will I have? When will I be promoted?” – and that person did not even start to work yet. So, the priority setting is something completely different. I was lying if I didn’t say that there are individuals who are still interested to grow, but I think the interest of the majority is somewhere else. Of course, it’ s a vibrant world. Twenty years ago, we did not have the smartphones, Facebook and all the other millions of apps that you have today. It’s different. The question about what shall you do in your life was a major part of your life. Today, there are so many things you can do in your life, that you don’t actually want to do anything. So, it is very confusing. But, again, it all starts again if the parents took more control of the education of their kids, if they supported and guided them and their dreams, it would all be better. This is what I am trying to do here, as well – not only being a general manager but I also want to be a friend, a mentor, a coach or something even more – a brother, a father. Just to make sure that those kids have a brighter future!