Dr. Silke Seemann (58) is an entrepreneur, economist and researcher. She is the mother of two adults (Florian 35, Nana 32). The native German has been living in the Salzkammergut for almost 40 years and runs the Hallstatt Hideaway, a guesthouse with 5 private suites. At FH Salzburg she teaches Change & Knowledge Management and at the University of Innsbruck Organization & Processes. For almost 20 years, large companies such as Nestlé or Deutsche Bank have been working with a digital analytical tool that provides information on employees’ ideal working conditions. Apparently self-reflective employees are more motivated and capable of dealing with change. The motivator analysis is the basis for Silke Seemann’s approach in consulting and coaching. Being an expert she was invited by the Federal Ministry to help shape the digitization strategy of tourism and she hosted the Tourism Workshop at the Blockchain Summit of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The upcycling of small tourist businesses with a high degree of digitization and completely new organizational and leadership concepts are on the agenda for the coming years.
Hallstatt Hideaway looks like a boutique hotel embedded in the mountains and woods in the center of Hallstatt – please explain the concept of your guesthouse:
I offer five private suites, all of which are thematically adapted to the locality: wood, lake, forest, sky and salt. The concept is based on the approach that people who travel a lot for work seek private spaces during their spare time. Our international guests, most of whom come from the Far East, want to seclude themselves, not be overwhelmed with words or attention, but simply feel at home in the venue that they immediately occupy as theirs. Cumbersome explanations are superfluous and service should only be offered when they ask for it. Especially when it comes to foreign cultures, one has to deal very carefully with the topic, not everyone likes to be ‘lectured’. That’s why I’ve been working on a fully digitalized solution for more than a year now. To our guests we hand over an iPad that shows all the instructions and descriptions in the form of image and film material, so that they can simply settle on the sofa after the arrival and in peace inform themselves about everything. This polite restrained offer is highly appreciated by the guests. Additionally, we offer breakfast on request. Some suites are equipped with kitchenettes so you can fully self-cater – the guests do appreciate the privacy. My team is always available (also to light the fireplace at night) on call; we are eager to serve the guests exactly where and as they wish, but we do not impose ourselves on them.
Does it work the way you imagined it?
It actually does very well and we had a capacity utilization of 74% in the third year, with an upward trend. In our desired guest segment word is getting around that we offer something extraordinary and that we implement our strategy very stringently and strictly. Quality is our top priority. Digitalization with heart and soul is one of our recipes for success. All processes that can be digitized are digitized, which provides freedom for people and also jobs for people who would otherwise not be able to work in tourism. Bookings are done and processed exclusively digitally and we are completely cash-free and 100% transparent. Our first tax audit took exactly three days, was highly amical, there was no debriefing or additional payment. This is a great base for relaxed working. Also for the employees. Our guests, on the other hand, enjoy a really private experience. All relevant payment processes are completed prior to arrival.
You have not had any training in the hotel industry. How did you come up with the idea of implementing this project? What was thrill of rebuilding a historic building from 1740 and adapting it to a modern, contemporary hotel?
At that time, I was struggling for survival and I had no options for I almost stood with my back to the wall. Either rebuild the house and use it for tourism or live from social assistance. This made it easier for me to never give up, no matter how difficult the task was. Because Hallstatt is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, nothing can be changed or modernized. When you rebuild something, you must use the original materials and techniques, some dating back to the 18th century or earlier, which implies a huge financial, scientific and physical effort. But after making that decision, I did not care about the obstacles anymore. I have simply solved arising tasks. Of course I did not sleep well because I had so much in my head, but actually I did solve some of the problems while sleeping (laughs).
What is the most important thing to consider when you start such a project?
A good concept and a strategy – that’s half the battle. Everything that is thought out and well prepared can be implemented with sufficient flexibility. Especially when you’re not out of the industry, you are willing to learn, question and have the courage to do it differently than anyone else. That’s the resiliency of the career changers. Anyone who has learned stuff in the industry, does it as everybody else in this métier. We live in disruptive times, nothing will ever be the same again. The logics are changing and only those will succeed who have the courage to observe the new conditions from new perspectives and to link the findings with the familiar. I’ve done that excellently in the Hideaway. Now I’m risking everything I’ve built up for the next project. I would say that curiosity and courage are prerequisites, in-depth knowledge of economic logic is indispensable and the ability to think and act in a team is vital.
What have you had to learn over the last few years?
At first I would always say – I was allowed to learn! For me, the most wretched of all conceivable living conditions would be if I were not allowed to learn anymore. Regarding your question: flexibility! Even if the concept is completed, everything is perfectly done and you believe that nothing can go wrong, you are dealing with people and changing circumstances. Some hotel guests handle precious materials quite differently from us. Every now and then things get broken. Every year we have craftsmen in the house who work on the mainly handmade equipment. Everything in the house was specifically selected and I value the highest quality. It is painful when guests deliberately bend a floor lamp for several thousands of Euros. It is repaired or replaced but we might choose the cheaper model, because not all of our guests share our sense of quality. If I want that my hotel works perfectly, that every flask in the bathroom is positioned the way I want it to be, and that we only get top ratings, I have to be there every day and shake each guest’s hand in person. I cannot do that, because I still have so many other jobs and projects. So I have to pass on responsibilities and trust that my team will implement things rudimentarily, at least according to my credo. But I also need the humility to allow them to bring in their personal touch, even if it does not match my taste. People must be able to give meaning to what they do and they need to engage emotionally. This is the authenticity that the guest feels.
How do you lead your team?
Since I do not live here, it is important to me that I have employees who fulfill their duties independently and responsibly. I want the guests to be happy. Whether or not they do their job well, can be seen regarding to the feedback given to our house. Also, considering that there are guests who abuse their feedback power, feedback has a direct impact on the employees’ satisfaction. My job is to make sure that they are fine and that there is a good mood in the house so that everyone is committed and happy. Therefore, it is also important for my employees to have variety at work. In the future I will be offering different options – such as a new hotel or an alpine cottage – so they can decide what they would like to do, like writing invoices or doing the laundry. This way they are constantly learning something and have a feeling of success, which is essential. As a coach, I also think about what kind of activity meets their personality – how much contact does an extroverted person need to feel energized and how much distance does an introvert require to be comfortable? Accordingly, I have to offer variable environments. This way of working is purely enriching for everyone.
What do you find difficult in the hotel business in particular?
Nowadays everyone and everything is rated online and these reviews are important indicators for future bookings. In general, I think that’s good, feedback helps employees realistically assess their own performance. However, a one-sided evaluation is always only a subjective opinion of a guest, which can be affected by various factors. You do not always meet the individual expectations. In addition, we know that the satisfied guest usually does not give any rating. People tend to comment on something when they are dissatisfied. What the guest does not realize, however, is that a bad rating affects our ranking so badly that we need ten top marks to get back to where we were before that feedback. Often these bad evaluations are based on misunderstandings and lack of understanding of the basic requirements. If someone complains that we do not have a lift, I have to explain first that our house is a monument of international value and that due to the very strict regulations no elevator is allowed. The very fact that we are a UNESCO World Heritage Site actually accounts for the charm of the place. The paradox is that many guests came for that very reason. Social media can also play a role; Instagram shows heavily edited images that do not exist in reality. It can also be the wet and cold weather that is disturbing. For example, Asian girls are freezing easily, so when it is cold, you have to come up with hot water bottles, otherwise they would not feel comfortable and would surely comment it. But the weather is beyond our control (laughs). And cuddly hot water bottles as well as fluffy blankets are part of the basic equipment of each suite.
You say that Hallstatt as a jewel that it could be can only be maintained through smart tourism. How do you define such?
For me it is about an integrative tourism that maintains the town for the locals. For example, I would consider a kind of huckster shop, with a healthy offer in the form of food and drinks more meaningful than kebab stands and fast food. Hallstatt lacks healthy choices. If health-conscious locals or guests want a smoothie or fresh juice, they cannot get it. If regional products were offered in a shop, this would create a general added value for the tourists and the locals. Housewives could get fresh fruits and vegetables in small quantities or a freshly prepared stew of regional products as a lunch take-away. Unfortunately, the local council banned such a neighborhood shop.
By upcycling a mountain hotel in the neighboring village, we want to create a recreation area for the locals and finance it through international tourism. That’s a fair solution. As far as the protected buildings in Hallstatt are concerned, we will not be able to preserve them as they are now, because here even setting up a construction site costs a fortune. I showed with my house that it is possible to save properties for the next generations. I call it Shareosophy (sharing & philosophy). The philosophy of sharing can also be applied to shared responsibility. We share the beauty of this jewel of the Alps with our guests, ensuring that subsequent generations will be able to enjoy the magic of the particular architecture and location of the place. If my children want to enjoy their home, it is always at their disposal. Unfortunately, they cannot live here because there are no jobs for them. They live in Berlin and come during the holidays. The rest of the year the house belongs to our guests. It would be crumbling by now without the help of tourism. This is intelligent tourism. That way we preserve the substance for the those who come next. If we also had a variety of high-quality gastronomic offers, adequate quality in the street scenery and corresponding prices, Hallstatt would be a sustainable gem. Unfortunately, people count on souvenirs from China, kebaps and burgers. The main source of income are the public toilets. That’s where the turnover comes from. Due to this strategy, it is logical that quality guests and national tourists retreat to Bad Aussee and avoid Hallstatt. I find that very sad.
Many years ago you also worked in the film industry, including being an assistant to Bernd Eichinger. Additionally, you were married to an internationally successful cameraman for 34 years and both of your children work in the film biz. What have you adopted from this business and how does it differ from the hospitality industry?
What the film industry clearly uses and what the hotel industry/ gastronomy lacks is the fun factor. The mood among the film crews is usually cheerfully and everyone knows about its outstanding importance. Responsible people cast crew members autonomously within the individual areas – there is always a core team and this team decides who to work with, who to rely on and who it is fun to work with. Under high stress, everyone must be able to remain a top performer. The hotel industry lacks the essential sensitivity, but also the amount of interested parties. Many firms are still very patriarchal. Very often the bosses still have great difficulty letting go and switching to team decisions. At the same time there is a strict hierarchical order in the film biz, which, however, tilts at the beginning of the shooting and everyone meets at the same level. You have to be able to rely on each other and do not interfere with the competences of others. The hotel manager, on the other hand, does not hesitate to explain to his patisserie chef how to make the dessert, although apart from personal preference, he cannot bring any expertise. Employees consider this destructive. That’s why – when I was looking for staff for my guesthouse – I had the feeling that every person working in the hotel business wanted to be a hotel manager and nobody was keen on doing the ‘normal’ things. There is a clear lack of appreciation and respect.
Your job involves strategy, organization and structure, and how to successfully run a business. In your private life, do you also have a plan for everything?
I completed a doctorate in Form and Systems Theory. Therefore, I am aware that the principle of all order is based on chaos and that it seeks to turn into that state again. I live an ethically rooted approach and practice a tolerance of ambiguity and a robustness to surprises, which might seem like chaos to outsiders. Translated, this means that I try not to eliminate contradictions, but to endure their creative potential and to handle the unexpected well. Therefore, for me predictable things such as accounting and payment flows have to be digitized. We should leave the routines to machines in order to deal with beautiful and creative topics.
With a colleague I also research and report on the topic of Spuerdenken .This is what we call the interaction of keen intellect with deep feelings. It requires a high degree of vigilance and attention. Basically every judgment is outdated after three seconds, because the context changes. In Form Theory everything is nothing and only a differentiation defines something in a specific context. As soon as the context changes, the selection changes into something different. In this respect, there are no objective statements and something that I just connoted as ‘bad’ can be ‘good’ a few minutes later, under changed conditions. So no thing is to be evaluated in itself, it is always the thing in the temporally limited context. According to this perspective, you can hardly be angry – because it’s always about selected perspectives. People who long for uniqueness face those who live according to this theory with insecurity and fear. If someone is unpredictable, she/ he is considered exhausting. For my fellow human beings in Hallstatt my actions or logics are often incomprehensible. Also, sometimes I long for a stable world where I always know how to proceed. But we see in nature that only those who are ready to adapt to the changes are able to survive. I tend to see that I am as fluid as the times we live in. There is a continuum: Anything living is changing. In that sense, I am completely normal (laughs).
You developed a motivation tool with psychologists and psychometrics experts. What helps you if you feel unmotivated?
My motivation profile offers me several options: First, I can rely on companionship. That does always work. When I am in a team, together with partners, I am just much more into the topic. Then challenge, it must always be something that I feel I do not fully master. And I have to be active myself. I need intellectual activities, otherwise I get depressed. My brain needs something ambitious to do. When these three factors are triggered in my work context, I do not need money or other rewards, because in this case the work is intrinsically motivating.
What do you think about a healthy portion of failure? Is that something that people have to learn? How do you feel when you have to give up?
Once – in the course of a consultancy – I declared a project a failure. Everyone was shocked and said that I could not opt out. I could. It was also on medical advice, because I had just survived the third pneumonia. Work can make you sick if essentials are not addressed or if we must continue to act against our personal values. I was too much into the project and arrived at a dead end. After the decision, I recovered suddenly. Also, failure is always a question of reasoning. If you are very intelligent, you have an argument right away why it was not a failure. Without reflecting, we still imply linear processes. The question of failure is a question from a linear world – but we do not live in such a world anymore. Therefore, there are no wrong decisions per se. Have I failed? No. It did not work this way – so I have to do it differently. What we actually need today is robustness to surprises. That can be trained. I learned that for example in the course of my marriage. My husband has never prepared me or has given me an advance warning regarding anything (laughs). Either he was in front of the door or not. Life in the film industry is unpredictable. That’s why I chose this industry as an empirical environment for my dissertation ten years ago – as a scenario for the work of the future, which today, with volatility and precariat, has already become a reality with many uncertainties for many people.
You were divorced after 34 years of marriage. Do you consider this a failure?
No, I do not, even if my ex-husband likes to look at it that way. I did not want to get a divorce but in the end he won. It felt terribly bad afterwards and I actually went through hell. For the family woman in me died with this divorce and I realized that I would never be her again. I have always wanted children and a family – I had completed merged in this role. Now, five years later, I feel better than ever and know that I am following an exciting path within my new roles. I do not consider it a failure because we were married for 34 years and have two wonderful children. Sure, the process of divorce was humiliating, hurtful, hell. I had the ambition that two adults should be intellectually able to find a peaceful way to a solution rather than spend five years in court. I was really embarrassed that we did not succeed. Today I am smarter and have great respect for the intensity of the emotions. This is what counts.
You also deal with the topic of ‘learning’. What do you think about it?
Almost everything that is taught at school today, can be done in a better way by machines. Memorizing, repeating, calculating, writing – computers are great at that. They already learn routines much faster than humans. We need to help our children to develop their deeply human qualities, like to feel themselves and to connect this feeling with the intellect. Our children need emotional closeness, good access to the internet, interesting conversations with people and a lot of life practice. Not a mediocre person trying to explain how the world works. I invited my children from an early age on to reflect on everything they do. We will all have to discover the future together. For me teachers are rather accompanying coaches and do not teach. My children were always allowed to help and if they decided to do something, such as washing a plate, then they had to do it well, so that we could actually put the plate back into the cupboard. Otherwise, it makes no sense. If they contribute in a meaningful way, they are proud of it and this strengthen their self-efficacy. Learning by doing – no adult is excluded from this. Every year I do something new myself: Three years ago I got my hunting license, last year I started with golf, now dancing and singing is on the program. In addition, I am currently learning gastronomy. So much will change within the next few years and nobody can imagine how incredibly fast it will happen. I find that fascinating. It is also a matter of survival. I can let it stress me or accept it enthusiastically. My generation is still struggling with the claim to know and be able to do everything. That is not possible. There is a lot that we cannot do. When you get older, it’s a trap to just do what you’re good at. Life becomes increasingly narrowed, you retreat and no longer have room to develop. That’s why it’s so important to constantly train something new. We will not be able to control, steer, lead or manage anything. We will skillfully ride the wave of change. I always have the image of me as a granny with waving silver hair on a surfboard riding the wave of change. That really helps if I again feel that I do not understand my life.
They have always been super active. Do you ever contemplate about age?
Actually, all the time. When I coached a 65-year-old entrepreneur in Zurich three years ago,
She told me that after an operation, when she was walking to her customer with crutches, she suddenly became airborne. Although she worked on a highly up-to-date subject area, everyone was surprised that she wanted to work at her age. Suddenly she was struggling to get new assignments. I realized that you have to start extremely early – probably as a woman rather than a man – to find a playground that will not send you off the pitch. As a trainer my clients can send me off the game, but if I own the playing field it’s not that easy. Even if I am the crazy old woman who still sits at her hotel bar at 90, no single guest can decide whether or not I’m allowed to work. As long as the overall offer is attractive and the crew has fun, even the old woman in the background may still play!
Because I constantly learn and train new things, implement new projects and integrate new technologies, I feel both privately and professionally successful. Actually, it’s rather unusual for me, as a woman of 58, to be selected to link tourism and blockchain in a workshop. Yet, I think it’s exciting and of course I’ve gotten young support, because I think it takes the productive tension between young and old. It corresponds to my personality. There are many who use Blockchain as a buzzword and do not understand the potential of this new technology. For me, it is great to be able to stand on this threshold and to witness how the logic of our lives will be fundamentally redefined.
You have a very impressive CV that might intimidate people. Is there anything you cannot do or that you are really bad at?
Of course (laughs) a lot! I just cannot remember anything. If someone tells me his phone number, it’s impossible for me to remember it even for a fraction of a second. I have to write everything down. I am a very haptic person, I immediately find places in books, but I am grateful that I have learned to read and find things digitally. Copy & Paste saves my life. My brain is no computer. I also cannot do chess and I do not understand soccer either. I am even forbidden to even watch football matches because I constantly ask unqualified questions. Cooking overwhelms me in complexity – so I cannot really do it. I have no emotional relationship to the preparation of food, actually to prepare elaborate dishes I consider a horrible task. In these terms, I am pragmatic and prefer raw food. Blender and smoothies were invented for me! If I have to cook for a man, that totally stresses me out. When I once wanted to prepare spaghetti with tomato sauce for a friend in Vienna, it almost took me to the edge of madness. I love restaurants and I love good food. I love the sensual experience of eating but I’m overwhelmed with the production.
Let’s say you go on vacation – where are you going and what kind of hotel are you looking for?
I go on vacation twice a year with my daughter. Once we go on a healing fast to Berchtesgaden. In addition, I do spiritual fasting with silence. The clarifying purification of body and mind give the soul room again. In a very complex and interesting life, you need planned rest periods. Generally, I get up very early. I love the silence in the morning. I sleep little and my body needs a reset. Fasting ensures that I do not even come near burnouts. If I want to maintain the high level of intellectual achievement in a variety of topics, I need timeouts for my body and soul at all levels. Last year, my daughter and I spent an additional four days on Santorini (Greece). Normally I travel out of season, do not want more than three hours of flying time and no big leaps in time, besides peace and good quality are important to me: best food, best wines, best accommodations. I can shut down my system immediately. The key to success and high performance is the ability to relax in everyday life in any environment – several times a day! Meditation is a good way to do so.
If you had to describe yourself in 3 words, which ones are those?
Courageous, loving, curious.
What is your goal for this year?
I am in the middle of planning the upcycling of a typical mountain hotel. We want to open this summer. Thus, we provide for the locals a place of excursions and offer the international guests exactly what they are looking for in Austria: warmth and friendliness! We offer fifteen individually furnished rooms with partly stunning views of the Hallstaetter Glacier and Lake Hallstatt. From there, you can do romantic hiking tours just sit on the mountain and enjoy the silence. It is a challenge in many ways, because we want to preserve the building, which dates back to the 70s. Guests from all over the world come to Austria because they are looking for the authentic experience: the nature and the small-scale structures. Within a team of courageous experts we work on the conception, develop a strategy and orient ourselves in the implementation of the overall idea. Each room will have its own personality just like the Hideaway. It would be a dream if we managed to get the council to build a tower on the old concrete base, which is still from the ski lift, to serve as a co-working space and a learning area, in the shape of a round 360 ° glazed room. In training, we are increasingly working with circular topics and, in addition, round rooms would be an inspiring supplement. In round rooms, thinking can easily change direction!
In this house we also rethink the hotel industry. Hosts, who devote themselves intensively to the needs and wishes of the guests, also know what to do with a cleaning rag or an iron. In order for these employees to be free of routine work, standard processes are digitized. We do not need a reception anymore. Filling out forms, checking credit cards and signing as a welcome ritual will be replaced by a smile and a relaxing cup of tea while taking a deep breath in front of the mountain. The guests already feel at home before they arrive. Your mobile devices function as directories, door openers and environmental experts. People can return to the interpersonal. Often, our international guests do already live that way in their everyday lives, especially those from Asia. There will be a lot of work for us in the coming months and years. We again focus on essentials things: the arrival, the nature, feel themselves and others, being together!
If you could have a superpower, which one would that be?
Singing. I would like to use the full power of the organ. We are actually a collection of hollow bodies and when we sing, we resonate with our surroundings. Singing is a superpower that needs no language, as the opera shows us.
Which woman would you like to interview?
Maria Theresa. My house was built by her, or rather for her hunting and forest superintendent. It was completed in 1740, the year she took over her business. She must have been an incredibly interesting and strong personality. When she took over the affairs of state, no one believed that a woman was capable of doing so. It’s amazing what she achieved.