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Photo credit: Sander Baks

Serbia’s capital recently welcomed a new upscale addition to its old town. Hilton Belgrade, a new-build seven-storey 242 room hotel, offers travellers world-renowned Hilton hospitality in a prime location in Belgrade and in close proximity to major sights.

Hilton Belgrade, the first new-build hotel in Belgrade for several decades, also offers 656 square metres of meeting space, including a ballroom for up to 500 guests. In an exclusive interview, we talked to the hotel’s general manager, Nicolaas Houwert, about Hilton Belgrade, its business offer, its contribution to Belgrade’s meetings industry, as well as about Belgrade’s hospitality, lifestyle and scene that make it an increasingly popular leisure and business destination.

WORKING IN A COMPETELY NEW HOTEL IS QUITE A REWARDING EXPERIENCE.

Q: Before coming to Belgrade, you used to manage the Hilton Paris Orly Airport which was opened in 1965 and was one of the first international hotels in Europe. Now you are managing a hotel that has just been opened. How would you compare these two experiences?

The best thing about working for Hilton in different countries is that you have to mold yourself each time to fit the needs of each unique property. Hilton Paris Orly Airport was a well-established hotel with more than 50 years of tradition and a tenured management team. For me the biggest learning curve was to understand French labor law, as well as managing a team that had worked together for a long time. My focus was to bring new energy to the hotel team members and to challenge them to perform better in order to exceed guest expectations and create the best experience possible. We succeeded quite well in this, even though the product was not the newest; we grew market share and exceeded guest satisfaction levels and financial targets.

Working in a completely new hotel is quite a rewarding experience. Hilton Belgrade is a stunning design hotel and finished with the latest technology. Small details in the room will make the guest experience even more personalized, from special USB chargers for international devices to bluetooth compatible radios to play music directly from your phone. Also, in a new environment the procedures need to be adapted in order to be specific to the hotel and market-a sort of pioneering which requires an entrepreneurial approach.

Q: What are the greatest challenges in regards to that?

Opening a hotel is all about recruiting talented professionals, not so much on the basis of experience – but more on individual personalities. I have to compliment the team we work with in Belgrade, as I found candidates to be willing to work, dedicated and enthusiastic to learn new things. It is therefore a pleasure to open a hotel in Serbia.

The best thing about working for Hilton in different countries is that you have to mold yourself each time to fit the needs of each unique property.

Photo credit: Hilton Belgrade

Q: How were you involved in the process of the hotel’s development?

I was the first to arrive from Hilton and all recruitment of the operational team started with one laptop, a mobile phone and a small office space. The construction of the hotel was managed by the onsite project team of the investment company, supported by project managers from Hilton. My involvement was focused on setting up the office, start the recruitment and making the hotel ready for the grand opening.

Q: Hilton Belgrade is the first newly-opened hotel in Belgrade in decades. How will it contribute to Belgrade’s position as a destination?

Belgrade has great potential for business tourism. When we consider the Nikola Tesla Airport, which has an increasing number of passengers every year, and I do not want to be modest, I am sure that Hilton Belgrade will bring new business tourists to the city because there is a shortage of accommodation capacities in Belgrade. I think that when Hilton opens its doors, there will be space for developing some other segments of business and economic change, so I am really optimistic when it comes to all this.

Opening a hotel is all about recruiting talented professionals, not so much on the basis of experience – but more on individual personalities.

Q: There will be 242 rooms and suites, rooftop bar & dining overlooking Old Town, spa treatment rooms, sauna and fitness centre, and even executive lounge. The level of offered luxury seems to be perfectly fitting the demands of business guests. Was  that the aim?

Certainly, because Hilton Belgrade offers many advantages to both business and leisure travelers. Due to our excellent location in the heart of Belgrade, in proximity of the National Assembly, numerous embassies and international organizations, we anticipate to welcome both individuals and group travelers. The hotel offers various facilities to accommodate the needs and interests of all types of guests.

Q: The hotel will also have 656 sq.m. of meeting space including a ballroom for up to 500 guests. What are your predictions or expectations in regards to the meetings industry in relation to hotel?

Hilton Belgrade has big expectations when it comes to the congress niche. We cater to our business guests by offering 11 meeting rooms, with natural daylight and can welcome up to 500 delegates. One special feature is Oasis, our urban garden in the heart of the hotel. This secluded area is adjacent to the Tsar Dusan ballroom, and will be the perfect venue for open-air coffee breaks, lunches, cocktails and private events. We have seen a big interest for wedding ceremonies as the setup is unique for Belgrade.

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Photo credit: Hilton Belgrade

Our hotel will fulfill the Hilton standard, but the design and interior of the hotel will exceed expectations.

Q: The hotel is located in the Old Town and its location within historical surroundings makes it a prime location in Belgrade. How, do you think, will that contribute to the congress offer?

I am convinced the location of the hotel is perfect for congresses. Our hotel will fulfill the Hilton standard, but the design and interior of the hotel will exceed expectations. Not only is the city center in walking distance, also the accessibility and ease of parking in the underground parking will play an important role. Having meeting rooms with high ceilings and natural daylight, will make convening even more more enjoyable.

Q: You are a foreigner, or a new-comer, to Belgrade, and at the same time you are a business professional. What would you, from your own personal and business experience recommend to business guests in regards to Belgrade as a destination?

I felt at home quite quickly and love the buzz the Old Town of Belgrade offers. On my first weekends I explored Kalemegdan, I discovered Skardarlija and really adored the outside dining at Beton Hala. St. Sava Temple is within a quick walk of the hotel and is stunning both during the daytime and at night. Belgrade has enough to offer and keeps surprising us as we explore the city in more detail.

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Photo credit: Hilton Belgrade

Hilton Belgrade will bring new business tourists to the city.

Q: How do you find Belgrade?

I love Belgrade and the Serbian people are very hospitable. I really like the dining scene in “Beton Hala” and enjoy spending time with my family in Kosutnjak and Ada Lake on weekends. Although Belgrade is a large city, I quickly felt at home due to the warmth of the people and the fact that everyone speaks English well and makes us feel welcome.

Q: Any favourite restaurant so far? And what do you think about ćevapčići?

My favourite place is definitively SkyLounge, which is our own rooftop overlooking entire Belgrade! The chef is from Thailand and on the menu are Pan-Asian dishes and prime cuts of meat that are a culinary discovery in itself.

I am always trying cevapcici anywhere I go, I am amazed by the variations of taste and flavours of the different side dishes that are served with it.

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