Best Reception

For Cornelia Lackner of Hotel Intercontinental, A World-Wide Honour as a First for Vienna

Holidays matter. Time away and time shared is precious, and when we arrive, we expect everything to be perfect.

In the holiday of our dreams, we are met at the door by a liveried valet who takes our bags and ushers us effortlessly to the front desk where we are greeted by an attractive, smiling receptionist whose voice flows over us like massage oil, who has an answer to every question, a solution to every problem, who eases our every stress and never loses her temper.

Of course no experience could be quite that perfect. No receptionist could be quite that masterful, at least not in Vienna…

Or could she?

Lackner with El-Sharkawi at the ceremony | Photo: AICR

Cornelia Lackner of Vienna’s Hotel Intercontinental may just be that. Honoured as Receptionist of the Year 2006 by the AICR (Amicale Internationale des Chefs de réception et sous-directeurs de Grand Hotels), or better, International Association of Deputy Managers and Reception Heads of Luxury Hotels.

The award – first place nationally, second world-wide – is given after a day of intensive interviews, role plays and testing. Lackner’s award is the first ever won by an employee of an Austrian hotel.

We met on a Tuesday in July in the exclusive Intercontinental Lounge where Lackner is currently stationed.

Two young women, noticing my searching look, came over to welcome me. One of them was Mag. Britta Neuper, a tall, slender woman with the assured manner of a manager; as I found out later she is Marketing and Communications Manager of the Hotel Intercontinental. The other was younger, poised, calm and very alert, with long blonde hair and a quiet smile. This was Cornelia Lackner, only 22 years old, almost exactly my age.

We settled into a couple of comfortable chairs in a nearby conference room to talk about her job, life and the award.  If I had any questions about the company Intercontinental itself, Mag. Neuper would be available afterwards.

I began with the question I had been dying to ask: How does she ever make this difficult job look so easy?

She started to smile and answered with the calm voice that is surely part of her success.

“It’s experience, personality, a smile on your face, openness towards other people,” she said, as if reviewing a list she had thought about many times. “Attentiveness and friendliness are all important…” She paused. Then smiled.

“But the fun of doing a good job is the most important of all.”

I think of all the stresses and confusions of a hotel day and imagine it must be like preparing for battle every morning. Not really, she tells me openly. Just coming into the hotel in the morning gives her a rush of energy and motivates her to do her best.

But how did she end up here. Why a career in tourism? It was clear from her calm smile, that this was a question she had been asked a thousand times.

“From going on holiday myself, I decided I wanted to do this kind of work,” Lackner said.  She had always liked learning languages – she speaks English and French as well as German – loves working with people and with many different cultures, so she entered a two-year tourism school in Salzburg, studying all aspects of the hotel business, event management and city tourism.

She began working at the Intercontinental at 19, and has been there now for four years.

But she did not start as a receptionist, but worked her way up from a telephone operator, overcoming her fears and learning to work with guests.

So what’s the hard part? What about the tricky things, that happen in the course of an ordinary day, the ornery clients, the loud parties in the middle of the night in one of the hotel rooms, smashing glasses, kids who need to be cared about, the thousands of unanswered questions of guests….

Sitting across from me, Lackner started to laugh. “There are difficult clients everywhere,” she admitted, “but it becomes particularly difficult when a guest books a normal room and instead of two, comes with six children. Or a child comes into the lounge with his bicycle, expecting to ride it in the lounge.”

But with all these little things, she has coped with confidence. And, she assured me, these situations do not happen so often. I was disappointed; sadly, she had no secrets to reveal, no special revelations about society. I realised that her job was a lot more normal than I had expected.

And the contest? Your hotel needed to be a member of the AICR, and you a receptionist, there for a year or more with the ability to speak English. When Lackner was at the Radisson for the contest, she faced seven or eight other competitors. A short presentation, questions to answer and a role play, similar to the international contest in Tallinn which followed after the national round in Vienna.

“The in-house trainings are a good basis, practice for finding the best solutions to problems, that helped me to prepare for the contest.” But placing second in the international contest in Tallinn was a real surprise.

“I mean, I thought everything went well and even the third place would have been great, but when they said `Second place Austria: Cornelia Lackner’ I didn’t even hear it the first time. Then Hani El-Sharkawi the president of the AICR in Austria, told me ´It is you, go!`”

During the time of her trip to Estonia she made many new contacts and a fascinating trip to a country she didn’t know at all, with a weekend trip to the mountains and many traditional gifts. She came back “even more motivated than before!” Next year, she will be part of the jury the upcoming national contest in Vienna.

Coming back from Estonia with the award in her hands, she was relieved to feel that everyone honestly wished her well.

One day she found flowers waiting for her at the hotel, as a sign of the hotel’s pride in her success. In addition, the Intercontinental presented her with a trip to their partner hotel in Hong Kong.

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