Seagulls are flying outside the window of our eighth-floor hotel room. Nothing unusual in that, normally, but this is a Mövenpick hotel and this particular bird has a special place in the history of the chain.
The story goes like this. More than 60 years ago the late Ueli Prager, the founder of Mövenpick, and a friend were strolling the shores of Lake Zurich. Prager had been searching for a name for his new restaurant concept, a simple idea to serve the highest quality food at affordable prices in the fastest possible time.
As he considered possibilities, a seagull (or “möwe” in German) swooped down and skilfully picked up food mid-flight. Prager felt that this one elegant movement encapsulated everything he was working towards, and Mövenpick was born.
It was the right idea at the right time. His first restaurant, Claridenhof, opened in Zurich in July 1948 offering – unconventionally for Swiss restaurants – food such as sandwiches and grilled meat with fresh salad. The concept of simple dishes to be ordered à la carte, instead of set menus, was the first of many innovations, and two years later his second restaurant in Zurich was open.
New dishes such as the curry-based “Riz Casimir” were added (spicy food was new to Switzerland), fine wine was served by the glass (rather than by the bottle as tradition dictated), and great emphasis was placed on employee training (something unheard of outside of America at the time).
Prager had an insatiable appetite for innovation. In 1957 he visited the United States for the first time, and was impressed by the efficiency and speed of many restaurants in New York. Their menus may have been limited, but their commitment to a high turnover of quality food served by highly trained staff was inspirational.
When he returned to Europe, Prager launched his own Swiss version, the Silberkugel snack outlets, in 1962. Two years later he was managing more than 600 employees. By 1965 he was able to expand beyond Switzerland, opening his first restaurant in Germany. By 1968 Prager was taking advantage of the new Swiss motorway network, serving a rising generation of hungry car travellers.
When he turned his attention to hotels, he capitalised on the company’s reputation for quality food, affordability, staff training and innovation. After the construction of the Jolie Ville Motor Inn in Adliswil, near Zurich, in 1966, the Mövenpick hotel group was launched in 1973 with the opening of two hotels in Zurich, one near the airport and the other in Regensdorf municipality.
At the time airport hotels were considered unnecessary but for Prager they were an overlooked opportunity. As an innovator his favourite quote was from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “I’d rather be the first man here than the second man in Rome.”
It was a mantra that extended to his first foray into Egypt. When Prager met the country’s minister for tourism and was invited to open a hotel near the Pyramids, he seized the opportunity. The Mövenpick Hotel Jolie Ville in Cairo was unveiled in 1976, the entrepreneur’s first hotel outside Europe, which was soon followed by others in Luxor, Heliopolis and the Red Sea – a destination previously ignored by hoteliers.
In 1976, Prager became one of the first hospitality pioneers to test the concept of management contracts. It was a success and his global reach expanded dramatically. Soon he had restaurants in North America and Canada, and by 1986 he had opened the Mövenpick Hotel Beijing.
The expansion of the company into luxury cruisers on the Nile was a natural extension and in 1991 the HS Radamis set off on her maiden voyage under the Mövenpick flag between Aswan and Luxor. Today there are eight Mövenpick cruisers operating on the Nile and Lake Nasser.
In 1992, Prager sold his majority holding to Baron August von Finck, of Munich. The legacy for innovation continued and 1996 saw the company’s first opening in Jordan with the Mövenpick Resort Petra, the first of now five hotels in the country. By 2001 the first Mövenpick hotels appeared along the northern coast of Africa with openings in Tunisia and Morocco, and two years later a new concept of “pilgrim hotels” was added with the launch of the Mövenpick Hotel Madinah. In 2003 the company’s first hotels in the UAE, Turkey and Kuwait opened for business.
By 2005 the company had launched hotels in Tanzania and Mauritius, and Asian expansion had become irresistible. Following successful openings in Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts unveiled its first Indian property in Bangalore in 2011.
The company has no plans for hotels in Hungary but travelling expatriates and Hungarians will find them in Germany, Switzerland, France, Netherlands and Turkey in Europe. Its other core markets are Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Since its founding in 1973, Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts has become an international upscale hotel management company with over 16,000 staff members. It is represented in 24 countries with 82 hotels, resorts and Nile cruisers in operation. Around 20 properties are planned or under construction, including in Chiang Mai (Thailand), Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) and Marrakech (Morocco).
The company counts among the 50 leading hotel groups in the world. Its Swiss heritage incorporates traditional Swiss values, such as quality, reliability and care with a personal touch for almost six million guests annually.
“We aren’t doing anything extraordinary,” Ueli Prager was fond of saying. “We are simply successful because we are doing quite normal things in an extraordinary manner.”
(NB: Seagulls can be found near the sea and lakes alike, as they don’t discriminate between saltwater and freshwater bodies. Prager saw his at Lake Zurich. The Budapest Times was ensconsed for two nights in the Mövenpick Hotel in Casablanca, Morocco, on the Atlantic Ocean coast. On the roof of the 16-floor building is an indoor/outdoor bar with swimming pool, giant TV and beach umbrellas, from where we look down on the urban sprawl of 4.2 million people while choosing our drinks.)