Global experience propels hotelier to Willard InterContinental GM spot

The 200-year-old Willard InterContinental Washington, D.C., has a renovation in its future.

Becoming the GM of a historic hotel is always an exciting accomplishment for a manager—but when that hotel is heading toward its second century and it’s a manager’s first property in the U.S., it's worthy of attention. Markus Platzer, who has spent nearly three decades overseeing properties around the world, was tapped to lead the 200-year-old Willard InterContinental Washington, D.C. in August.

A Love of Travel

Growing up in Austria, Platzer traveled around the country with his father, who was a salesman. “I discovered this wish to see more and explore more,” he said. During summer vacations, he sought jobs abroad, and ultimately earned bachelor's degrees in international tourism and hotel management at Austria’s Tourism School Bad Gleichenberg and business & commerce at Handelsakademie Feldbach.

After earning his degrees, he said, he was “always thinking, ‘out, out, out!” The best way to do that, he decided, was to work with an international hotel company, and he spent four years at Hilton properties—two years in Munich, and then two years in Vienna.

Looking to broaden his horizons and explore different cultures, Platzer set his sights on the Middle East and moved to Abu Dhabi, joining InterContinental Hotels Group—the company with which he has spent his career ever since. At the time, he said, hardly anyone was aware of the United Arab Emirates as a destination. “In the 1990s, I felt like a pioneer, putting these destinations on the map,” he said. Ultimately, Platzer became the regional manager—travel trade development for the UAE, working from IHG's hotel in Dubai.

After a brief return to Europe in the early aughts, Platzer set his sights on learning about yet another new region, and spent seven years in Bangkok overseeing four hotels in the country. From there, he became area general manager in Japan, based at the InterContinental Tokyo. “Japan was always on the top of my wish list to discover,” he said. “It was a very interesting time to learn about the culture, the people, the food and the history.”

Coming to America

After four years in Japan, Platzer learned of a unique opportunity—managing the Willard InterContinental Washington, D.C., a city fixture and popular hangout spot for politicos since the 1840s.

Managing a historic hotel in the nation’s capital gave Platzer a “tremendous opportunity to set foot in new culture,” he said. “You have to learn from scratch.” Working at the Willard means living in a state of a constant discovering, Platzer said, which is what makes the property so important. “That’s what I like. It’s not a status quo. You stand in the lobby and the guests are from Asia, Europe—and you start realizing how important your knowledge and your background are.” If the hotel’s guest list is global, the staff keeps pace, with 37 nationalities represented. Platzer’s time in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, therefore, helps him connect both to guests and team members. “My colleagues want to hear my stories,” he said.

While the hotel may have a remarkable history to recommend it, Platzer is not content to let it rest on any laurels. “You cannot only live off 200 years of history,” he said. “It’s wonderful to have a beautiful building with an amazing team, but don’t forget we’re working in the hospitality industry, a very fast-paced industry. There are always new requirements, new people, and what they are requesting now is very different from what they wanted 20, 30, 40 years ago.”

With that in mind, Platzer is eyeing a renovation in the coming years—“to go into the more modern but yet conservative look, and certainly enhance services; to take it—in a nutshell—in  a new direction.”  

Platzer's Advice

"Discover the world, its cultures, its sense, its peoples. The earlier you can, the better. If you can move to Asia, South America, the Middle East, Europe—it doesn’t matter—it will help to expand your horizon.

My biggest challenge was a political crisis in Thailand. I had to evacuate all my guests and close the hotel for five weeks in 2010 because of political riots.

The crisis taught me to stay calm. Leaders in any crisis have to stay calm to make the best decision. It is interesting how one adapts to a crisis and how you see people’s sense of survival and the sense of helping. I think the energy is there as long as you feel there is a purpose, because there’s another life you can save, another person you can help."  

Secrets to Success

Look and listen. It’s never too late to look and listen and then make your opinion. We have this urge to talk without really understanding what is happening, so listen and observe before you make any comments. Don’t be afraid to be silent. I learned that in Asia. Silence doesn’t mean that you don’t know anything. Listen and observe before you make any comments.

Be willing to change. It is never too late to adjust. If you don’t change, then change will take over and we will have to change you. You have to adapt to change.

Show mutual respect. There’s nothing worse than not respecting each other. You can share your knowledge. If you have experts, don’t be afraid that people will steal your signal. Share the knowledge because that’s how we make sure the next generation is also passionate. And don’t be afraid of making mistakes. I encourage people to make mistakes. It gives them empowerment.