In an exclusive interview with Epicure Vietnam, life-long hotelier Herbert Laubichler-Pichler reminisces highlights of his hospitality career spanning more than 50 years, working with the mega famous such as Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Arnie Schwarzenegger, Prince and Michael Jackson.
When Herbert started working at his parents’ guesthouse in his native Austria as a bellboy at 10 years of age, never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined the hospitality career that lay ahead and the people it would bring him into contact with.
Herbert always worked during the summer season when other kids went on holiday, first greeting the guests, then washing dishes, cleaning the floor and, by the time he was 16, helping with the heavy dishes. His family also had a farm and people would ask him: “Herbert what do you want to be? A hotelier or farmer?” He’d tell them he wanted to be a farmer. His father, however, decided he would be a hotelier and enrolled him into the Kleissman Tourism School Salzburg, where he studied hotel management and became a certified chef.
Born into a hotelier family, Herbert had no choice and couldn’t run away from the field. Yet he didn’t want to. He’s always felt so rewarded doing what he’s doing. It’s not like his father was a doctor and he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. He wanted to do this.
When Herbert started working at iconic Claridge’s in London’s Brook Street as head of control in 1986 he called his mother, exclaiming: “I’m working in a museum”. Steeped in history and regal grandeur, everywhere you look at Claridge’s is a sight to behold. Beautifully restored antiques. The finest silks crafted by royal weavers. Intricately hand-painted wall coverings and a treasure trove of priceless artworks. Wedgewood China. Referred to as the “second Buckingham palace”, whenever there was something truly special happening in town it was at Claridge’s. A who’s-who of royalty, aristocracy and entertainment including Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Audrey Hepburn, Alfred Hitchcock and Mick Jagger have stayed there. Claridge’s helped him understand the soul of the British people.
Speaking of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, Herbert was asked to work on his day off for the last King of Greece Constantine II’s 50th birthday celebrations that attracted royalty from across Europe. Needing all hands on deck, his boss Rudi Jagersbacher asked him to be the occasion’s head waiter due to his F&B background. Herbert agreed to help on the condition he’d be stationed in the Getty Room, the pink salon that he knew was Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s favourite spot at the hotel.
As so many royal families attended the event, it was tricky allocating the right suites to the right families as they all had their favourite Claridge’s suites and weren’t usually all at the hotel at the same time. Herbert remembers opening the door of his third-floor office and being struck by the fragrance of the flowers - festooning the ground-floor lobby, ballroom and adjacent rooms - emanating up the stairwell.
From the vantage point of a second-floor balcony, it was fascinating to watch the royals arrive and the hierarchies at play. Constantine II’s family lined up at the hotel’s entrance to greet the arrivals, and his children bowed to Queen Elizabeth before she bowed to Constantine II, who was in exile in England after a military coup in Greece. Meanwhile the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, crossed the lobby, making a beeline for a waiter of about 60 years of age who had worked at the hotel for about three decades. The king boasted to his friends: “This gentleman here, he’s known me since I was a teenager” and hugged the waiter as if he were family.
King Constantine II showed Queen Elizabeth around, and they walked to the area next to the stage and were deep in conversation for quite some time. Noticing there were no chairs nearby and anticipating she may be feeling tired, Herbert grabbed a chair, descended the stairwell to the hall and greeted her: “Your majesty, in case you are feeling a bit tired, here is your chair” and she thanked him and sat down. Herbert also couldn’t resist changing the ashtray in the presence of Prince Charles, as King Juan flirted with Princess Diana and Duchess of York Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson.
In all honesty, Herbert really had nothing to do with the evening’s operation; it was already so meticulously organised. ‘Put Herbert there, he’s tall and he looks like he’s in charge’. His thing was the chair and the ashtray!
Years later, in the late nineties and early noughties, when Herbert was the managing director and group general manager for six years at Schloss Fuschl, an imposing castle built in 1450 on the banks of serene Lake Fuschl, he met Prince Charles again. When they welcomed him to the hotel, he was charming. Herbert told him he had seen him many times at Claridge’s, including for King Constantine II’s 50th, and he responded: “We had a great party didn’t we?!”. Herbert shared the anecdote about helping his mother with the chair, and he laughed and said: “That’s so attentive of you to look after my mother”.
Not long after they welcomed him, Prince Charles asked them to check his suite as he thought someone had accidentally left their jackets in the wardrobe. They had to reassure him they had thoroughly checked the suite before his arrival and that the quintessential Austrian janker jackets - leather hosen jackets with deer buttons - were there on purpose. He was free to wear them. Marianne, Princess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn was behind a well-known Austrian clothes boutique and had hoped Prince Charles would don the jackets in a potential publicity boon. He didn’t. Instead, he went down to Lake Fuschl and, surrounded by his bodyguards, painted.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was a regular at Schloss Fuschl. Herbert first met Arnie when he launched Planet Hollywood with Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone in Oberhausen in 1997 and he stayed at Breidenbacher Hof Düsseldorf, where Herbert was the executive assistant manager. The then GM of Breidenbacher Hof Düsseldorf Welf Ebeling said: “Herbert, you’re Austrian, you welcome him.” Herbert did just that and Arnie was very warm and casual. However, Herbert made a silly mistake. He gave Arnie the hotel’s VIP leatherbound guest book, featuring the autographs of many royals and celebrities including Luciano Pavarotti in filter pen on thick paper, upside down. When people are looking through the book and get to Arnie’s page, they look a bit puzzled before they turn the book upside-down and realise it’s him. They must think he mixed things up. Herbert made him look bad, even though he didn’t mean to. He was charming and generous to his friends. Herbert remembers he hosted a dinner at the hotel and gave genuine thanks to those who had helped him get to America and make a name for himself. Yet he was also shrewd, aware of the competition and ruthless if he perceived someone as trying to undeservedly ride his coattails.
Schloss Fuschl was one of Arnie’s then wife Maria Shriver’s favourite hotels and they stayed often. Sitting on the terrace with wine, beer and snaps, he said to him: “Don’t call me Mr Schwarzenegger, call me Arnie”. At a later stage he asked: “Herbert, do you think I can buy this hotel? I like it so much”. When he stayed the following year, he asked the same question. Herbert was secretly hoping he would be his boss, as he’s very intelligent, a super guy. The hotel’s owner said he would like to sell all the hotels in the one portfolio together, so it didn’t work out in the end.
One year Arnie was frustrated. Someone at the airport had tipped off the paparazzi. He didn’t want to disembark the plane. They would have lost a lot of revenue had he not come to their hotel. When Arnie, his wife and children arrived, they gave them welcome back gifts; nicely wrapped T-shirts with a logo on the breast of deer antlers and the name of their hotel Schloss Fuschl embroidered underneath. He liked his T-shirt so much he wore it as he came down to the lobby. Herbert warned against him wearing the T-shirt outside the hotel that day: “Arnie, now that you’re wearing the T-shirt, everyone will know where you’re staying in Slazberg”. Herbert said for him not to blame him if there were paparazzi on our doorstep. He shrugged off his concerns and ventured forth donning the T-shirt despite the previous incident at the airport. Unlike the jackets with Prince Charles, the gifts for Arnie and his family weren’t a publicity bid!
There have been so many memorable moments peppering Herbert’s time in hospitality. Trying to heat Prince’s suite at Breidenbacher Hof Düsseldorf but not being able to get the suite warm enough due to overwhelming the electricity circuit with too many strong heaters. Looking into Michael Jackson’s eyes in the elevator at the Kempinski Hotel Frankfurt Gravenbruch, after taking him, his father Joseph Jackson and his bodyguards from his Presidential Suite. He was so painfully shy he immediately looked away. Herbert also later helped MJ and his security entourage get back into the hotel after his concert, despite the huge crowd of fans amassed outside; Herbert was literally running for his life out the front of MJ’s car, directing his driver where to park the car inside the hotel.
Herbert wishes he had taken photos but people just didn’t do it then. Yet it all remains perfectly intact in his mind’s eye. He sometimes wonders what his 10-year-old bellboy self, set on being a farmer, would have made of all of this. No doubt he’d be excited for what the future had in store in what must be the most exciting field that can take you anywhere in the world.