Olivier Harnisch talks about his extraordinary career in hospitality and gives advice to young graduates starting in the business.
Olivier Harnisch left school at 16 and decided to wait until he was old enough to join the army at 18. He signed up for five years, but actually only stayed for two months.
On the advice of a family member, he enrolled on a vocational course in hospitality at a Briançon technical college, and this was the starting point of his career. It was a “revelation” for him. With his new-found motivation, he obtained his CAP (professional certificate) and finished top of his class. “There were only five of us in the class, but it was my first ever success,” he smiles.
Armed with his new qualification, he decided to go to Nice. “I applied to Negresco and was hired as restaurant assistant; I stayed there for two years. It was good training and I really liked it.”
He then worked as a waiter in the French pavilion at Walt Disney World in Florida before becoming an air steward for Lufthansa. This passion for aviation eventually led him to obtain his American pilot’s licence.
However, he soon returned to the hotel business with a stint at TheSt. Regis in New York, which had just reopened following extensive renovation. “I started as chef de rang and then as assistant maître d’hôtel. It was my first experience of management. I realised then that it was time to go back “to school” in order to acquire new skills.” At 26, he left the world of work to study for a Masters in Hospitality in Berlin. Once again, he was top of his class.
Olivier Harnisch left for Indonesia to become Food and Beverage Manager, but he wasn’t done with education: he still felt that he had some learning to do, however, he now needed to also be working at the same time. So, he returned to Europe and became a night manager in a luxury hotel in Munich. It was a job that fitted perfectly around his university studies.
“From 1996 to 1998, I would work at night, study in the morning, and sleep in the afternoon. I wanted to go further: I wanted an MBA,” Olivier Harnisch explains.
He had gone from one extreme to the other: “I had no ambition when I was young and then when I started being successful, I started believing in myself and becoming very ambitious. It wasn’t always easy to explain that shift to friends and family in a way that they could understand.” As time went on, though, he was better able to balance his priorities.
He got his degree and at the age of 31 moved once more, this time to Algeria, to become Restaurant Director at the Sheraton, which was opening in Algiers. He then joined the Hilton group in 1999.
In 2001, he became General Manager of the Hilton in Madagascar. “I was married and had a little girl by then, and Madagascar was quiet, so it was perfect for us. The hotel was quite small so that gave me time to get acquainted with the role,” he says. However, two months after the arrival of the Harnisch family to the island, a political crisis meant that his wife and daughter had to return home. He stayed on without them, with just his team and very few clients for the next eight months. It proved to be an incredible learning experience: “You can’t learn from a book how to manage a hotel that has 10% occupancy.”
The situation eventually settled down and Olivier Harnisch stayed for another two years. After such an eventful posting, the Hilton group decided to send him somewhere quieter: Switzerland, where he was put in charge of the Hilton Hotel in Zurich. That’s not to say that they were giving him an easy ride: the hotel was struggling after the 2001 crisis. “I realised that there was an enormous potential there and I turned the situation around completely,” Olivier Harnisch says.
In 2006, after three very successful years, he became General Manager of two hotels, one of which needed a boost, and that is exactly what he provided.
Staying with the Hilton Worldwide group, he was appointed Vice-President for Northern and Central Europe in 2008. “When I became Vice-President, I lost many things that I loved so much in the hospitality business, such as seeing the clients and having a direct influence on their well-being, but this new role was a superb opportunity for me,” he says.
Five years later, he joined the Rezidor Hotel group as Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer. “Every move in my career has been a progress but also a big challenge. I have made mistakes but I have also learnt a lot as I was able to analyse those mistakes and then improve,” Olivier Harnisch reflects.
In 2017, he was appointed CEO of Emaar Hospitality, an Emaar Group subsidiary. Why work in hospitality today?
For me, it’s the most exciting industry around. I have worked in this business for 32 years and I have never thought of leaving it. It’s a dynamic environment which allows you to travel and be supported. It’s an industry which brings cultures together and gives you the opportunity to make people happy.
What would be your advice to young graduates?
- To develop your own leadership style and not copy others. Be true to your values whilst at the same time, know how to adapt your management skills to different situations. - To be passionate. Passion is paramount, and also you have to like people. - To learn from your mistakes. Those experiences are extremely important. I always try to be understanding of my colleagues’ mistakes if they are genuine. - The human factor remains paramount in hospitality and that will always make the difference. Technology, however advanced, does not impress for very long, but clients always remember a friendly face.
What is the guiding principle in your professional life?
“You can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions and be a business tomorrow.”
Anne-Laure Hecquet, Communication & International Development Manager Specialized in communication and recruitment, Anne-Laure participates, since January 2018, in the development of Journal des Palaces by being attentive to the specifics needs of the recruiters and partners whether it is in the implementation of events or custom-made tools or services. Anne-Laure also writes articles for the Career section.