Name: Marc Skvorc
Marc Skvorc has worked in hotels everywhere from Hawaii to Washington, DC. After revolutionising Klaus K he is now running Finland’s most famous hotel, Kämp.
AMERICAN Marc Skvorc has seen much of the world. He has lived and worked everywhere from Saudi Arabia to New York, from London to Florida. But it was in a hotel school in Strasbourg, France where he met his Finnish wife-to-be Mia. After working in hotels across America they moved to Finland. Here Marc transformed the Klaus K hotel, turning it into the country’s first design hotel. But his road didn’t stop there and now he is leading Kämp, the most prestigious hotel in Finland.
You seem to have a very geographically diverse background.
Yes, my father was in the military for most of my childhood, so we lived wherever he was stationed. I was born in Germany, but we left soon after my birth. We lived in lots of places, like Ethiopia and South Korea. In my teens we were in Monterey, California, and I still consider that as a type of hometown area for me. My father left the military and moved to Saudi Arabia, but I stayed in California to go to boarding school. In a way it was like a preparatory school for my post-student life: I cooked a lot, went out to eat a lot, learned how to do my own laundry and things like that.
When I finished high school I went to a small, private business school in downtown L.A, studying to be a public accountant. But that wasn’t working out, so after about six months I visited my parents in Saudi Arabia. There I realised I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do yet.
For a while I worked for an Irish company there in Saudi Arabia doing some basic data entry. In Saudi Arabia all the expatriates had their own compounds. These areas might be for particular companies or nationalities, like the British compound or the American compound, and I got invited to get-togethers at these places after work.
Once I was invited to a party by this American who spoke eight or nine languages and who was a spokesperson for the Saudi military. Here I was, at 18 years old, sitting next to this balding, dignified, elderly German gentleman. The host came to me and said, “I’d like to introduce you to your neighbour. This is the president of Chase Bank.” I was exposed to some really interesting people.
So did meeting all these new people help you decide what to do with your life?
No, not directly. I still didn’t know what to do. I ended up leaving Saudi Arabia to visit my brother in Alaska, and after that I went back to California. I worked there for a while, saved some money and decided to go travel and try to figure out what to do. I started with an aunt in Berlin and later went to Munich to visit a cousin. That was great. I drove his Porsche – the first time I ever drove a Porsche – and visited Oktoberfest.
Suddenly I received a letter from a girl I had met in Saudi Arabia who lived in London. I visited her in London and found a job baking bread in this little deli. The environment was exactly like a sitcom with all these diverse, wacky characters. I was this long-haired 18 or 19-year-old American kid. There was a Nigerian and a Jamaican. Mustafa was Moroccan who made the sandwiches and charmed all the little old ladies who came in. The store manager was very British. He spoke in this Cockney British accent which was so strong that he was impossible to understand. It was so much fun and we were all so happy.
Eventually I left London and later returned to California. Mom and Dad sat me down to have a serious conversation. ‘What are you going to do?’ they asked. ‘We’ll support you, but we need to figure this out.’
I remembered a friend in London who was going to hotel school and got out the brochure he had given me. I thought the school was located where I was born in Heidelberg, Germany and applied with this eloquent letter about returning to my roots. They accepted me but told me that the campus for the hotel school was actually in Strasbourg, France.
So you got into the hospitality industry in a very roundabout way.
It was actually very natural. Remember, we moved around so much that I felt comfortable in hotels. I have very strong memories of being in various hotels in various countries all over the world. I would run off to play and my parents would realise they had lost me. They would usually find me talking to the hotel staff or getting fed by the cooks in the kitchen. I was at home in hotels.
Also, the parents of a good friend of mine owned a hotel in Los Angeles. They told me that whatever happens in the economy or politics, someone will always need a hotel room. Of course, what kind of hotel room they need and how often they travel will depend upon a lot of things, but the core idea is that people will always need hotel rooms. I’m not risk averse – far from it – but I thought that this was a really solid industry. This was a defendable business, and something I was very comfortable with.
What was the hotel school in Strasbourg like?
It was in a beautiful chateau. The school had about 90 students, four of which were Americans and ten of which were Finns. I was surprised that there were so many Finns there.
I rented a house outside of the school with a couple of friends. One day I was sitting out in the front lawn and saw a car go by. The driver was a girl with blond hair. This was Mia. I eventually met her and something clicked right away. We both liked to go out to eat and so we made up all these excuses to go out to restaurants. All of our friends were saying, ‘Enough with the excuses already! We know why you are together all the time.’ We fell in love and had a dream that someday we would run a hotel together.
After the school in Strasbourg we continued our education in Rhode Island. We got really good jobs working in Pebble Beach for a while, but then I got a job in Maui, Hawaii. Mia went to Pepperdine, California to get her MBA. Later we ended up going to New York City, to Palm Beach in Florida, to Washington, DC. I went back to New York City to work with the W Hotels. It was in January 2004 that we moved here and started our own hotel company.
So you moved to Finland in the winter? What were your first thoughts of Finland?
Well, we had visited here a few times previously, but we didn’t come very often during the winter. Family in Finland liked to come and visit us for Christmas holidays, which makes sense when you realise the places we were living!
I love Finland. This is home. It was seven years ago when I broke the record for the longest time living in one place, and I’m still here. There are so many good things about living in Finland, like the quality of life, the amount of holidays and the environment for our children – the grade school is only a 150-metre walk from our house. And Finland is in a great position geographically. I think I put 25 new stamps in my passport my first year here because it is so easy to travel around Europe from here. In America you can’t do a spur-of-the-moment trip to Italy, but you can do that here.
But the main reason you and Mia came to Finland was to develop the Klaus K hotel. What relationship did Mia have with the hotel?
Mia’s family owns a company that owns the real estate where Klaus K is located. The company was established in 1867, so it was in operation long before that building was even there. My mother-in-law ran it when it was called the Klaus Kurki for about a year back in the late 1970s. But besides that none of our family members were involved in the hotel business.
We started the company, got some partners, and set about turning the Klaus K into a design hotel. This was a brainchild of myself and a former partner. It was one of the best decisions we made to team up with local people who had experience with hotels. This was the biggest thing I’ve ever done.
What is a design hotel?
The hotel had been a very good, basic hotel for business travellers, but I saw a lack in the market. We have the traditional luxury hotel Kämp and we have good quality mainstream hotels, but there was nothing in between. On one side we had Kämp, which is something special. It is more than just a hotel. On the other side we had these hotels which were good but not memorable.
My experience was that there is an opportunity, a niche in the market. We came up with an idea for a new brand in a new category, something which would blend the other styles. We didn’t want a cookie-cutter hotel the same as everything else, but instead something with contemporary luxury.
We took inspiration from the Kalevala. It is not a theme: you won’t walk into the hotel and see a label saying it is a Kalevala hotel. It isn’t a museum, either. The Ateneum does a much better job presenting that. Instead, we took inspiration from something very Finnish and which meant a great deal to Finnish arts and society. Nobody had really done it in our business. We saw an opportunity to celebrate something so meaningful to Finnish culture.
We are very happy with the results. I am so proud of what we have accomplished. We have developed so much loyalty with guests who keep coming back. We get more and more positive comments. The team is very loyal, too. They have a young spirit and are still building up the hotel. When I moved to Kämp late in May Mia stayed at Klaus K. She is still running it.
Tell us about joining Klaus K with the Kämp Group.
It was very gratifying to sell a brand which someone else thought was valuable. We sold the business and then invested in the new owner, the Kämp Group. We did the press release one day at noon and later that afternoon I came to Kämp with the CEO to be introduced to the staff. The next morning I came to Kämp to work.
Joining Klaus K with the Kämp Group means that we can do what we did with Klaus K on a bigger scale. We can bring together these different brands – Klaus K, Kämp and GLO hotels – and be the leader in the market when it comes to the luxury hotel business. We are in a unique position.
It feels great. It feels better than I could ever have expected. I am super proud of the idea I am general manager of Finland’s most famous hotel. I feel very privileged and I take it very seriously. It means a lot to me. It is hard to find the best thing about my job. If I keep it selfish it is that I have this privilege to run this hotel. I have an opportunity to do what I think I do so very well – I’m not perfect by any means, but this is what I live and breathe for. I understand luxury. I understand traditional luxury, as well as modern and contemporary luxury. This is a dream fit.
What is the worst thing about your job?
Worst thing? I don’t look at things like that. There are opportunities everywhere.
How’s the business environment? Particularly, how is the Russian tourist market?
The Swedes, English and Americans don’t necessarily come here for luxury. The Russians, however, are coming here for the luxury. We are still getting Russian tourists, but it is less than before. Something severe can happen any day which could change everything. The situation with Ukraine has affected travel here, but so far people are still coming. To tell you the truth I am more bullish about this. This is not the end of the world.
How do Finns perform in a business where service is so important?
In the hotel business there is a need for people to be multitalented. They need to be able to handle multiple things at the same time and have multiple skills. Given the education level in Finland, I find that in general people can do that. If they have the enthusiasm and right attitude it goes the right way. I don’t like to generalise, but Finns are typically seen as not forthcoming or outspoken. In hospitality, one needs to be more forthcoming so your guests know what you are thinking. Finns need to acknowledge this and act upon it. We need to manage it.
What’s next for you?
That is so funny. I spent two years developing the Klaus K hotel. That day I got it open the very first question I got was, ‘Well, now what are you going to do?’ I have a lot of work to do here in Kämp. I want to grow this business to what it can become. In Kämp Group our intention is to expand. We will develop and/or purchase other hotels in the very near future.
We just renovated the sixth and seventh floors of Klaus K. They used to be offices, but we turned them into hotel rooms. Completing these new Sky Loft rooms in Klaus K was like, in a way, having another child. I’ve been working on that for two years and they are open now. They are simply beautiful. I love the feeling of that first second when I take someone in to see the Sky Loft rooms. They stand there a second and the first thing out of them is usually a sigh or gasp. 90 per cent of the time, the first thing they say is ‘Wow!’ When I hear that I feel so good. Building Klaus K and then coming to Kämp, well, this is a dream come true.
Text David J. Cord, image Tomas Whitehouse