Some sites in a country go beyond the iconic, not just oozing style but forming part of history. Acquiring this status is far from easy but it is even harder to satisfy the expectations that people have of such a place. Running such a place must be an act of top anxiety but the Phoenicia Hotel’s GM makes everything seem easy as all moves like clockwork. The Executive meets up with Charles Azzopardi, the hotel’s affable head who tells us all about the hotel and its status and how he still manages to smile even when under unbelievable stress.
The Phoenicia is steeped in history with a pedigree going far beyond many of the new kids on the block. For decades, it was the only five-star hotel in Malta, housed the major dignitaries who came to Malta and was the scene of the most memorable state dinners and weddings. For a long time Malta’s tourism meant the Phoenicia. It had dignity and grace and was designed to complement the entrance to the capital city. Azzopardi is very aware of the responsibility that was passed on to him from his predecessors.
“It’s all thanks to teamwork,” Azzopardi tells me immediately. “I would be nothing if I didn’t have a great team behind me. The Phoenicia would be nothing too. And it isn’t just me and the team, it’s the owners too.”
But, I ask Azzopardi, aren’t the owners new and just a hedge fund which usually looks at the bottom line and purchases to sell for a profit? He looks at me as if I have just insulted his closest friend. “Not exactly new,” he tells me. The new owners are Scottish and, in the year they have owned the Phoenicia, have already shown a willingness to invest in the property. “If it wasn’t long-term they wouldn’t do that. They also own other hotels so they are definitely not in Malta just for the killing. They have a real love and commitment to the property and our aim and their aim is the same - to put the Phoenicia even more on the top rung of quality in Malta, even when compared to properties abroad.”
I ask Azzopardi if the hotel has changed its vision in any way to suit the owners—or if the position is the other way round. His answer is proof of how the new owners have taken on this commitment in a positive way—it seems both have changed their vision to accommodate the other. But the hotel has changed mainly to go up in their expectations and to seek even more value-plus guests.
The Phoenicia is La Grande Dame of Malta’s hotels and remains a true classic. It has remained beautiful and classy, with a style that never dies and never goes out of fashion. Designed in the 1920s it has a style that makes you feel seduced, relaxed, charmed. But its evergreen style has been nurtured carefully, it has constantly been upgraded not just to keep it vibrant and with full amenities and mod cons but also to remain a few pegs higher than the rest. It moves with the times but always respects its lineage, its style.
Talk of style leads into another area closely connected to La Grande Dame - culture. Walking around the hotel ballroom, you cannot help but be captivated by the art on display. The Edward Caruana Dinglis, which surely rank as some of Malta’s best ever scenes, if not the best, are some beautiful pieces there. The hotel has always hosted great names and now sponsors the Baroque Festival, the Arts Festival and the Jazz Festival. Working closely with Teatru Manoel, the hotel is also proactive in marketing these very important events in our cultural diary.
Insights derived from Charles’ experiences:
Charles Azzopardi believes that he and the Phoenicia are success stories because he has a good team behind him. Nothing works without a team in place.
According to Azzopardi the ethos of the hotel and that of the owners need to be in total synch for their mutual benefit. As long as quality and the vision remain of the highest standards, change to fit into the proper synergy is not just possible but fruitful.
Culture, and all that culture entails, is a great attraction and Azzopardi believes that by being part of cultural events the hotel can only benefit.
The history of the Phoenicia hotel is a grand one but, as Azzopardi explains, that history is no guarantee of today and tomorrow. One has to keep innovating, renovating and seeking new avenues to keep the hotel a reality in quality.
The more culture there is in Malta and especially in the capital city the more desirable Malta becomes as a destination.
The more quality hotels and restaurants there are around the hotel and beyond the more the hotel will improve. Quality begets quality and today both the local and foreign client is more discerning and knowledgeable.
“We are just a few paces away from a beautiful, exciting capital city,” Azzopardi enthuses. You can feel Azzopardi’s passion - it’s not just because he is the hotel’s GM but more because he believes in all he sees around. “Boutique hotels, restaurants, cafés, are constantly opening in the capital,” he tells me. According to him, this will make “Valletta even more vibrant and more people will come to visit the island and we will obviously - as we already do - gain from all this interest.”
Azzopardi emphasises the need for quality. He believes that it is the best driver for better service, greater demand and stronger value-for-money rates. He believes that what we introduce has to exude quality and be sustainable - better start small and make it grow into a big attraction. This is what the festivals have done and this is how it should all be done - slowly, surely and based on quality.
Business has changed and will continue to change. Till a few years ago the Phoenicia was the only hotel to house ambassadors who arrived to present their credentials to the President at his Palace in Valletta.
The business sector has changed completely. In the past nearly all major businesses had offices in Valletta and lunch breaks tended to be longer, more relaxed. Today offices have moved out of the capital and lunches are more businessy and quick. The hotel still caters for business lunches but in a different way.
One adapts and moves with the times - in F&B for example the hotel was the first to start the Sunday Lunch Buffet. Today it has scrapped it, as its size does not allow for dishing out food in the quantities now expected and the ethos of the hotel does not quite fit with it. Some operators tend to think that it is all a question of pricing and making the most of any situation.
The Phoenicia believes in quality and it stops there. Any trimming on quality is a non-starter, which is how reputations, both locally and internationally, are cherished, nurtured and admired. The amount of repeat guests is astonishing. Some have actually come back not just with their children but with their grandchildren.
The Phoenicia offers a unique case history of how one is born grand and can, with the right people and the right attitude, remain grand. It is hard to beat - truly a grand hotel in all its aspects.
Victor Calleja has been involved in publishing, marketing, and anything concerning the written word, for over thirty years. He is now a part-time but very opinionated journalist who delves deeply into a number of subjects.