I had the privileged opportunity to interview Matthias Winkler, the CEO of Sacher Hotels, located in both Vienna and Salzburg, Austria. Sacher Hotels are one of a handful of privately-owned and family run 5-star luxury hotels left in the world. Sacher exemplifies a tradition of excellence and heritage that is unrivaled, its doors opening in Vienna in 1876, the building directly across from the Vienna State Opera. Today, Sacher is at the cutting edge of modern luxury with its traditional history alongside it. Sacher is well known for its famous Original Sacher-Torte, a delicious chocolate cake with apricot filling that is renowned worldwide. Mr. Winkler generously allowed me to interview him for Rosy BVM and I am honored to share this interview and share the story of Sacher and why it’s world renowned.
Bianca: History is part of what makes this hotel different, and especially because it’s privately held and has a family run history. What does Sacher take most pride in?
Matthias: To us, the Gürtler and Winkler family, Sacher is home – and we are happy and proud to open our doors for every single guest, welcome him or her in, and make them also feel right at home. But our hotels, cafés and restaurants are not only part of our personal family history, they have been deeply rooted for generations within their cities’ economy, society, politics, art and culture. This gives our guests the kind of authenticity they are looking for – and leaves us incredibly proud.
Bianca: How long have you been CEO of Sacher? What do you enjoy most about your role?
Matthias: Formally I am CEO since 2014, emotionally much longer. As my wife and my brother in law own the company, being CEO is not only a “role” for me; it is an extremely important part of my life, of our family life. Everything we do and everything I am deciding is affecting a company – but our family too. Sometimes this keeps me up at night, thinking about various decisions one more time, but mostly this is what makes Sacher so unique in our business: we are one out of a very few 5-star luxury hotels, still owned and run by a family.
Bianca: In Vienna, the Sacher Hotel is the only privately owned 5-star hotel! There is clearly a commitment to excellence that is exhibited in that. What would you say is most important for privately run hotels to keep top of mind when creating memorable guest experiences?
Matthias: Excellence is one pillar carrying our philosophy – it is in our DNA. As an example every employee knows our guest’s names and recognizes them in the hotel, people highly appreciate the personal touch. Our set quality standards guarantee that we can keep our high level of excellence; they are monitored by internal and external checkers.
Since I am Sacher’s CEO, we are transforming the Sacher from customer-friendly to customer-centric and are now operating a digital transformation as well. We try to combine our heritage with today’s needs of our guests and clients. In times of increasing digitalization, we are considering what the room and hotel of the future might look like. For instance, every room already is equipped with a “suitepad” and the rooms can be locked with one’s smartphone easily. Excellence means to not stop moving forward and to stay at the cutting edge to surprise your guests again and again.
Bianca: The hotel has a long history… it has been open since 1876 and has quite storied walls. One of my favorite facts is that Romy Schneider stayed there when filming Sissi in 1955. There is also an incredibly long list of well known guests from Queen Elizabeth to Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly to President John F. Kennedy, to Emperor Franz Joseph! In 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono gave a press conference at the hotel. Are there any historical facts or stories that you enjoy telling guests most about?
Matthias: There are so many stories to tell about Sacher, you just named a couple of the most famous ones. One historical fact I keep being absolutely fascinated about is that at the turn of the century Sacher was one of the first privately run businesses provided with electricity! A great evidence that Sacher always used to be a first mover, which has not changed until today… Anna Sacher, the Grand Dame of the Hotel, would be called a marketing-genius nowadays.
Electricity was very uncommon back then and Anna Sacher of course was very proud of her innovation. So she asked the company Lobmayr (which still produces chandeliers for the Sacher until today) to fix the light bulbs downwards on the chandeliers – intending the light would not flicker upwards, as candlelight does. People passing by the hotel could not believe their eyes!
You still can marvel at the original chandeliers in our fine dining “Restaurant Grüne Bar” (Green Bar) in the Hotel Sacher Wien.
Bianca: The Original Sacher-Torte is arguably the best cake in the world… How much effort goes into its production? What about the cake’s history is most remarkable?
Matthias: We have an historical accident to thank for the success story of our Original Sacher-Torte: One day in 1832 the court of Prince Metternich wanted a dessert to be created for discerning guests. It just so happened that the chef de cuisine was ill at the time and 16-year-old apprentice Franz Sacher filled in for him. The young man created a wonderful cake that left nothing to be desired. This night marked the birth of the Original Sacher-Torte – and until today, the recipe of our Original Sacher-Torte never changed. It has been passed down from generation to generation and kept securely locked away in a safe. Today only the family, the head pastry chef and Reiner Heilmann, General Manager of the Manufactory and the Hotel Sacher Wien, do know the original recipe. Since 1832, the Original Sacher-Torte is made per hand, approximately 360,000 Original Sacher-Tortes, many different Original Sacher Products and nearly 1 Million Original Sacher Würfel are manufactured per year.
Bianca: The Sacher Hotel in Vienna is known for being a luxury property, what has brought Sacher to its place in the contemporary luxury market? What does ‘modern luxury’ for Sacher look like? Do you think there are particular components for this?
Matthias: Modern luxury at Sacher means enjoying all the benefits of modern life in one of the world’s most traditional hotels! That may sound contradictory at first, however, the two Sacher hotels in Vienna and Salzburg show that historical ambience and modern comfort can be united into a harmonious whole. At the end of the day, luxury is not only about marble, historic wooden panels or crystal chandeliers – real luxury is always connected to people. My first question to future employees: do you love guests, do you love being their host? And yes, we all do: we love our guests. And we want to make everybody’s dream come true. That’s the main reason why we are doing what we are doing.
Bianca: Since COVID-19 has dramatically affected all of our lives, and it’s rather unclear what is to come in the future for so many countries and industries overall… Do you have any thoughts about how Sacher will survive this crisis given its historic standing?
Matthias: More than ninety percent of our guests come from abroad – the crisis in fact hits us hard. We do know from former crises, e.g. 9/11 or the world financial crisis in 2008, that the international travel industry needs time to recover. We truly hope the freedom of travel will be given again soon. Nevertheless, we keep our heads up high: though we do not know how long it will take to end the crisis, we know, that it will end! We are putting all of our efforts in the preparation for this “Day 1.” Unlike other firms, we at Sacher are moving closer together during a crisis. We are a family business, and it is important to us that our employees remain part of the Sacher family. We are doing everything we can to make it work! It’s only as a team that we can prepare for the moment when we celebrate life together in a happy and healthy way once more, and are able to welcome our beloved guest from all over the world back at Sacher soon.
Bianca: This is a family business, what do you think will make it stay a family business? What is best about this remaining a family business?
Matthias: As a family business our goal is not only to look at our quarterly review, but to conduct our business keeping in mind the next generation. We are always saying that we don’t own the Sacher, but the next generation does. So we try to do our business in favor of them!
Bianca: A Sacher hotel employee won a championship for hotel service. Clearly, the training is exceptional at Sacher. What makes the training so exceptional?
Matthias: Sacher’s 22-year-old receptionist Nikola Farkas recently was awarded by the AICR (“Amicale Internationale des Sous Directeurs et Chefs de Réception des Grand Hôtels,” also known as the “International Association for Deputy Managers and Front Office Managers of Luxury Hotels”) with the “David Campbell Trophy” that honors the best receptionists in the world. As the first Austrian winner, Nikola now may call himself the “International Receptionist of the Year.” That makes us very proud! Personalities like Nikola are exceptionally valuable – not just for Sacher, but for the entire hotel industry.
Nikola’s success did not come by accident; he was well prepared for his competition by his team leaders for months. To get the best out of every employee at Sacher, we founded our “Sacher School of Excellence” a couple of years ago. There we are offering all employees a comprehensive range of training and further education courses based on the principle of “Educate – Inspire – Empower.” More than 70 different courses and training sessions are available every year – from apprentices to managers.
Bianca: To me, the tradition of Sacher is charming and keeping it up seems most desirable. You are clearly well qualified to maintain the tradition of the institution and bring Sacher to its place in contemporary luxury, what are you most passionate about for maintaining its tradition?
Matthias: Sacher’s roots reach deep down to monarchy, we are aware to conserve this unique heritage. Nevertheless, tradition to me does not mean worshiping the ashes, but passing on the fire – a principle we have been living since 1832! Digitalization helps us, to keep the fire burning: Of course computers cannot provide an excellent service a human being can. But going more digital helps us to prepare ourselves, and helps us to better understand our guests’ needs. I am sure that modern technology doesn’t come at the cost of our cherished history. Indeed, it supports us as we head towards an exciting future.