Živorad Vasić, of course, is a perfect host. After arriving for the interview, which was scheduled at noon, sharp, the Reminder team and I enjoyed a perfect cappuccino, served by perhaps the most amiable girl on the planet, all in the gorgeous bar of Crowne Plaza, while sports superstars – guests of the hotel – casually walked about. Soon, we were seated at Vasić’s office, and the conversation could begin.
What is it that you like about Serbia? Primarily as a businessman, but also from the view point of a young man who moved across the ocean at the most delicate time in his life, searching for top-quality knowledge and later built a career in the US, only to return to Serbia, believing in its potential.
The decision to come back to Serbia was an emotional decision for me, not a business one. I wanted to be with my family. I applied for job positions from the US for a long time, but the interviews seemed quite unprofessional. When I finally came for an interview at Delta Real Estate, for the first time I had the feeling that I was in a large, professional company that approached its human resources matters in line with the highest global standards. So I decided to come back and give it a go. Simply put, I love Belgrade and Serbia. Belgrade has its shortcomings in terms of business, but it offers so much. I take pride in the fact that since 2008, when I started working in the hotel business in Delta, we have made an enormous impact on the hotel business in Serbia, changing it completely. Belgrade is now a capital of the region, with the most foreign hotels and a very rich offer in the hotel business. We keep moving forward, when compared to the cities like Zagreb, Ljubljana…
Speaking about the hotel business climate in Serbia, what do you see as the greatest challenge at the moment?
Back in the day, Hyatt literally had a monopoly and kept its prices too high, so no one else could make a profit. In addition, air fare was quite expensive and there were no low cost airlines. A lot has changed in Belgrade since, truly, so we no longer have these problems. In my opinion, Air Serbia is the greatest achievement of this Government so far. It turned Belgrade into a hub, which now receives a far greater number of visitors. On the other hand, the increase in domestic and foreign tourists comes with its own challenges. The majority come to Belgrade – occasionally they visit Kopaonik or Zlatibor. Other parts of Serbia are still not frequently visited by foreign tourists, perhaps because the infrastructure is not sufficiently developed. There are no roads and foreign visitors don’t like to spend too much time getting to a place they would perhaps like to see.
We see announcements for new foreign hotels opening. After everything you’ve just listed has been resolved in the last ten years, what are your predictions for future development of the hotel offer in Belgrade and the hotel business?
There’s nothing else we can do for the hotel business in Belgrade until we have resolved the issue of the congress centre. No serious city in Europe would have this many hotels without, at the same time, having a congress centre. We have airlines, we have powerful hotels, wonderful night life and the best restaurants. So, we have everything foreigners like. There’s also cultural offerings. But without a congress centre, we cannot organize a congress for two to five thousand guests. One of the reasons why Crowne Plaza is enjoying such phenomenal success lies in our 13 congress halls, with two new ones in construction. With 15 congress halls we will be leaders in congress tourism. However, it is still every hotel for itself. If we had a congress centre we could bid, send in our joint offers, which would mean several thousand foreign visitors coming for a few nights’ stay, filling the capacities of 5 or 6 hotels. When I discussed this with the previous administration, they were not so understanding, but the administration in power is. We were very interested in investing into Sava Centar at one point. This space simply requires a serious investment to turn it into a state-of-the-art congress centre. It would transform Belgrade into a definite leader in the region, giving us uncontested access to all congresses and other significant events. I am glad to see there is so much more understanding for this issue now. The administration needs to realize what sort of potential is contained in it.
What is your business philosophy and what is the businessphilosophy of the Crowne Plaza Hotel? What lead to such success?
We have 220 employees who are satisfied and happy with their working conditions. They eat the tastiest food, get a day off for their birthdays, we have employee of the month and of the quarter, they get awards… All our staff see this company as their home. We have created a synergy, which makes me a happy manager. If this model were to spread all over Serbia, this country would be a far better place.
How is Crowne Plaza ranked within the Intercontinental Group?
We’re still first. We are first in service, room scent, check-in process, staff satisfaction… The Intercontinental Group has this scoring table and we keep working on getting better. Competitive spirit is a good thing, it does us good.
photo: Rastko Surdić
Speaking about the investments in the region, you can be proud of Intercontinental in Ljubljana – you promised the citizens of Ljubljana a monumental building, which was delivered. What are your plans when it comes to further investments in the region?
We checked in our first guests in Intercontinental in Ljubljana on 24 August and we truly are very proud. This is the first 5-star hotel in town and the first foreign brand, in addition to being the tallest building in Ljubljana. What’s even more important, in 18 months we transformed an empty and unused space into a truly fascinating hotel. The investment was 45 million Euros, so we now have a luxury hotel with 165 rooms, comprising a Michelin restaurant at the top floor with a magnificent view of Slovenia, a spa centre with a swimming pool, Turkish bath, a large Jacuzzi, sauna, massage rooms, an enormous gym with a divine view… It is truly a spectacle, a luxury to be seen and experienced. We are sorry, of course, that we didn’t get to open Intercontinental Belgrade first. We hope that it will come to that too. We purchased the land, but are still waiting for permits. We would like it if the building in Ljubljana helped move things along in Belgrade. We think that an Intercontinental in Belgrade would be a good thing, not just for us but for the city too, for the workers, civil engineering industry and finally, for these 200 new jobs we would open. As for the plans, next year we start construction of the Indigo Hotel in Knez Mihailova. This is an Intercontinental Group brand. It will be a very charming 4-star boutique hotel with 55 rooms. In addition, we are now negotiating for a fantastic location in Zagreb, where we would also like to build an Intercontinental, just like in Ljubljana. Our goal is to encompass Ljubljana, Zagreb and Belgrade, where we now have the Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, Indigo and we are hoping for the Intercontinental as well.
Which of the cultural offerings would you recommend to those coming to Belgrade from abroad for the first time?
Belgrade is a unique city with a diverse offer. First of all, I think Skadarlija is a must-see, not just because of its restaurants and live music. There is a lot of history in the oldest street in Belgrade. We have a fantastic guide who manages to show all of Belgrade to our foreign guests in three hours. His tour starts from St. Sava Temple, going to Skadarlija, then Kalemegdan and finally to Avala. This tour is excellent for those that only have one day for sightseeing. If we are discussing a two-day visit, I recommend the river tour, with a guide. The famous captain Pera has four boats to let, so either alone or in a group, you can see the entire Belgrade from the river in one impressive tour. As for restaurants, I think we are ahead of the field in this matter and that we can happily compete with the majority of cities in the world. There are no big brands, but we offer a gastronomic experience that can match almost all worldrenowned restaurants. On the other hand, ethno-tourism is developing well and is an experience unto itself. Naturally, as hosts, we have things to brag about. I love this city very much and I am happy when I am in it. I’m glad to see the fascination on the faces of its guests.
autor: Miljana Nešković