Bar Kantoor interior - ©Arjen Veldt

What I wish I knew: being an outsider can be the most valuable perspective of all

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Marco Lemmers is the CEO and Co-Founder of Conscious Hotels, a sustainable hotel group based in Amsterdam, Netherlands. He left a successful career in financial services to enter the unknown world of hospitality in the pursuit of a role with more passion and connection - here’s what he learned along the way

I reached the age of 35 and realized I was fed up with the financial services industry. I had a great career, learned a lot, had just been offered my first CFO role in the Caribbean - and I said no. I lacked the passion or connection with the product and felt there could be more to motivate me.

At that same point my business partner and friend, Sam Cohen, had an investor from Israel who wanted to buy hotels in Amsterdam - and that’s how I started in the hospitality business. I call it a nice accident.

I started as a consultant, and the industry was great. For me, hospitality is all about building beautiful hotspots where people get together to connect, enjoy nice food and drinks, new experiences. So, I’d really ended up in the right business - but I wasn’t a good consultant. You needed to take distance from your work and that usually happened with an invoice, but I struggled with this and often felt like I could do better. And if you think you can do better, don’t just talk about it, do it.

Be true to your beliefs

The first pillar we built Conscious Hotels on was the eco belief. I’d always lived in a sustainable way, but 12 years ago when my wife was pregnant it really got me thinking about whether my daughter would have a bright and green future. If we don’t change our behavior we will ruin the planet, but that message alone won’t drive the change if it’s just the hardcore belief of 1% of the world’s population. You need to do the right stuff but let people feel that guilty pleasures can also be done in a sustainable way.

Next, we wanted to deliver the message in an attractive, funky, fun way - that’s why we say eco-sexy. Choosing to stay somewhere sustainable is a principled choice, but a lot of guests just like our design. Everything we consume has an impact on the planet and we should just be influencing consumer choices so they don’t even need to think about the impact. And if they can learn about sustainability from the stay that’s ideal.

Lastly, we say eco-sexy - big smiles. When I moved from the financial services industry, it really surprised me that the hotel business could be quite formal and top-down. I wanted to offer people freedom, ownership, entrepreneurship. We invest in our team but also have fun together and create a special culture. When I am an old guy looking back on my legacy, it won’t be my bank account but the difference I made on a person’s career that I’ll stand by.

Being in partnership with Sam means we determine where we invest and we’re ok with a slightly lower margin if we can believe in what we offer. It’s a gift to do the stuff you love and be really close to who you are. That’s sometimes difficult but I need to feel authenticity, a connection - if that’s broken I need to mend it quickly.

Be brave and defy convention

In 2009 there were still a lot of traditional agents faxing reservations and we had a rough start at Vondelpark in Amsterdam, with silly credit lines and low prices. We moved in a different direction and by 2010 we became one of the early adopters of 100% OTA distribution. It worked well for us, particularly with reservation efficiencies and cash flow.

We learned a lot in that time. Looking back, I probably hired too many people from a traditional hotel background - today we have a 50/50 mix of hotel industry and other perspectives bringing fresh practices. It was also difficult to make any changes in the beginning - people were used to doing things in a certain way, which perhaps held back innovation.

Not coming from a traditional hospitality background, I had a fresh view - and I hope I will keep that mindset so that I can more easily challenge our ways of working. I still see a lot of hotels with receptionists stuck behind a screen but for us, technology is there to enable better connections with our guests - helping with processes like fast check-in so we only spend 20 seconds sorting a room key and the rest of the time helping a guest find a nice restaurant for their dinner. That adds value.

We’re driving real change in Dutch hospitality with pilot programs and leading innovation, but doing the same across every aspect of the business isn’t always viable. So, when it comes to the likes of new technologies, we want to be an early adopter and do things differently - which so far has worked well for us. If everyone goes to the left, I will go to the right, because that’s a more interesting area. Sometimes I find out there was a reason the crowds didn’t go there but usually if it’s off the beaten track you can make more of a difference. It’s often a more challenging path and often you have to tread back, but I find that more interesting.


Click 2019
Get inspired at Click. 2020

Earlier this year, Marco Lemmer spoke at Click. 2019, sharing his insights on sustainable travel and what hotels can do to further eco-conscious initiatives. Stay tuned for updates on the thought leaders who will be sharing their perspectives at next years event.

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Hero image: Conscious Hotels, Bar Kantoor, credit to Arjen Veldt
  • Expecting guests to solely buy into a serious guiding principle won’t land the message - an attractive and fun delivery is key
  • Staying true to your belief pillars helps maintain authenticity and drive, sometimes sacrificing high margins for a higher purpose
  • Tradition and convention are not always the right path to follow, being an early adopter can often be the best route forward
  • Maintaining an outsider’s perspective helped Lemmers embed an adaptive approach to business and commit to continual challenge