Breaking Travel News interview: Ralph Radtke, general manager, Çırağan Palace Kempinski, Istanbul

Breaking Travel News interview: Ralph Radtke, general manager, Çırağan Palace Kempinski, Istanbul

Ralph Radtke is not a man short of confidence.

During our hour-long chat at Çırağan Palace Kempinski in Istanbul he compares himself, favourably, to British wartime leader Winston Churchill, and declares he could have been chancellor of Germany had that been his ambition.

But such a larger than life charter is the perfect leader for a property such as Çırağan Palace – perhaps the most famous hotel in all of Turkey.

With a history stretching back centuries, it is an icon in its own right, and a jewel in the Kempinski portfolio.

“Çırağan Palace Kempinski is the most known hotel in Turkey, it has a place in the history of the country,” explains Radtke.

“Three sultans lived here, and their stories are intertwined by the hotel – their affairs, intrigues, it was all here.

“This is a hotel with a turnover of US$100 million a year, it is not a small place, we have a team of 800 or more – we are not a small chateau where the manager cooks in the kitchen!”

Now in position for more than seven years, an unusually long tenure at this rarefied level of the hospitality sector, Radtke had in fact been trying to leave the industry before his appointment.

“I quit the hotel business, after a long time with Accor, where I was senior vice president for Sofitel in northern, central and eastern Europe, Turkey and Israel,” he tells me over coffee.

“I was there, managing a portfolio of 15 hotels with a total turnover of €150 million, from 2007 until the summer of 2011, but I travelled too much.

“It was a great deal of work and I could not sleep in my bed when I came home – I said to my wife, ‘we have to change the bed’.

“But I realised, I missed the Sofitel bed, I was so used to it, that I preferred it to my own home - this is when I knew I had to change.

“I took some time out, but visited Istanbul with my wife, who is Turkish, and we stayed here at Çırağan Palace Kempinski – we took a suite.

“In August that year, the president of Kempinski contacted me and tried to convince me to join the hotel.

“I said, no, I am not interested – but my wife convinced me, and I started in October 2011 – so I was unable to quit the business.”

It took a hotel of the stature of Çırağan Palace to change his mind.

The only Ottoman imperial palace on the Bosphorus that once hosted sultans, the location has a heritage that dates to the 17th century.

The building had different formations until the 19th century, including a waterside summer villa and a marble palace.

In 1871, sultan Abdülaziz redesigned the palace with famous architects of the Balyan family, veterans of palace design in the Ottoman Empire.

For the construction of the palace, the finest marbles, porphyries, mother-of-pearl and other valuable materials were brought from all over the world.

In 1909, Çırağan Palace was selected as the site for a significant meeting of the Turkish parliament, and shortly after the conclusion of the meeting, the palace interiors were destroyed by a fire.

From 1930 on, the Besiktas Football Team even used the garden of the palace as their football stadium.

The building stayed unkempt after the fire, and finally in 1991, after a complete restoration and with the addition of a modern hotel building including elegant rooms, restaurants and meeting venues, the property reopened.

Since its opening, Çırağan Palace continues to be a symbol of luxury.

“Here in Istanbul we have two Four Seasons, Raffles, Fairmont, St. Regis and Shangri-La as well as a Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula under construction,” explains Radtke.

“But we are strong, Çırağan Palace is a brand in its own right, outside of Kempinski, we could open a Çırağan Palace in New York or in London or wherever – when I say I am from the Çırağan Palace, people know the hotel.”

With its 313 rooms, including 20 suites in the hotel and 11 in the historical palace, the hotel reflects a harmonious blend of the heritage, haute couture service and Turkish hospitality.

During their time at the hotel, guests can enjoy a rich variety of restaurants and feel themselves in an oasis in the city centre.

There are also extensive leisure facilities including an infinity pool, sumptuous spa and verdant gardens.

For those really looking to celebrate, Çırağan Palace Kempinski also offers the Sultans’ Dinner.

Drawing on the history of the property, and framed by antique candelabras, jardinière, 19th century carafes and an imperial silver coffee set, it offers a rich banquet of royal delicacies.

Flamboyant flowers, laced plates, cutleries, napkins, glasses, and the special embroidered uniforms of the staff complete the experience.

But, with Turkey currently undergoing a period of political turmoil, it has not all been plain sailing for Radtke and his team.

“It is not the easiest time for sure, the Turkish lira is falling, so that is a problem – but also living in Turkey, for the local people, is getting more expensive, this builds pressure.

“We gave a five per cent salary increase to our staff, to recognise their contribution, and we will look again in January – without our team we would be nowhere.

“But the exchange rate has made the destination more attractive, so that helps us.”

He adds: “What is more important though, are travel warnings, with the United States issuing warnings, it means travellers cannot get insurance, so they do not come.

“The Americans are an important market for us, followed by the UK and then Germany, but this is changing, under political pressure.

“We have seen, over time, more Middle Eastern guests: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain have all grown for us.

“But we have a good balance, we seek not to put all our eggs in one basket.

“We have also been developing the Indian, Chinese and South American markets, a process that has been going on for a number of years, to prepare for this, a long-term project.”

Since its opening, Çırağan Palace Kempinski has been the only hotel in Istanbul reachable in three ways - by limousine, yacht or helicopter - and has seen countless eminent figures come through its doors, including government delegates, royal families and celebrities.

It has also been recognised as the best in the business, with voters at the World Travel Awards honouring the hotel with the prize for World’s Leading Heritage Hotel for the past three years.

“Awards are always nice, it is first of all recognition for the team here, a motivation for them to continue what they are doing,” adds Radtke.

“On the other side, it is security for the guests, who know they are getting the best.

“We promote the awards, although not in an aggressive way; we want to share our happiness with guests.

“These awards are for all of Turkey, the hotel is so well known, these titles are good for the country.

“Çırağan Palace is a timeless place, and these awards recognise this.”

On a personal note, Radtke, who turns 66 at the end of the year, has officially retired in Germany.

But, a man of boundless energy, he appears to have some years left in him yet in a job he clearly relishes.

“These iconic hotels, people want to see the general manager, to share the stories of the place, they want the staff to stay in place, so they can remember them and know their preferences,” he explains.

“It is part of my job, people want to see you, we are like actors – when I come to work it is like a theatre play, the hotel is my stage.

“In the evening, when I go home, the curtain closes, and the play is over.”

With a man as compelling as Radtke in place, there are likely to be a few more dramatic scenes at the palace before this show comes to a close.

More Information

Located on the shores of the magnificent Bosphorus, facing the Asian continent and overlooking the ancient city, Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul offers the glamour of a genuine Ottoman palace in a city where east meets west, Europe meets Asia and history meets the contemporary.

Find out more on the official website.

Chris O’Toole