It all dates back to 1999, when Lutz Hesse and Christian Andresen launched the 157-room hotel. Then called The Madison, it immediately became a popular meeting point for visitors wanting a taste of the German capital's brand-new mini-city: Potsdamer Platz's eighteen buildings were just finished, and mere steps away from the Berlin Philharmonic, the Brandenburg Gate, and several of the city's best museums, such as the New National Gallery.
White walls, blonde wood, huge windows and closets, muted colors: The Mandala is a purist's dream. What's amazing is that even though the hotel is nearly thirteen years old, it doesn't show any signs of age, which tends to surprise guests. (Andresen is famous for noting slight scuffs on the walls as he quickly walks through the halls, scanning his domain, and having them immediately repaired.) The owners take pride in maintaining what they have, and take their time making changes. The Mandala was at the right place at the right time early on, but the spirit of the owners is what has kept it going for so long. Quality, trust, and making sure everything is perfect? "It is what we do," says Hesse, smiling.
Lutz Hesse and Christian Andresen knew early on what they wanted to do with their lives. Hesse tells the story of how his parents invited large groups of people to their house in Chur, Switzerland, where he had to help his mother serve the guests. The family also traveled extensively. Both of these experiences primed the young man for an epiphany at age 18 when he took a school field-trip to the École hôtelière de Lausanne, in Switzerland, one of the world's most esteemed hospitality management programs: he knew he'd found his calling.
Andresen grew up on Sylt—a North Sea island famous for its dunes that well-heeled Hamburgers consider a kind of Hamptons—and realized as a boy that the only place where he could constantly be surrounded by „nice people, nice things, and good food and drink“ would be a hotel. He studied hotel management in Hamburg, Germany. The two men (now both 47) met each other in Hamburg, where they worked together from 1994 to 1996, each recognizing in the other a kindred quest for excellence. In 1997, they opened an 80-room serviced-apartments hotel on Friedrichstraße, in the heart of former East Berlin. In the late 1990s, the newly united Berlin was definitely bohemian-cool, but it wasn't exactly the place to be for investors or even for people who needed creature comforts.
In the central and eastern districts, good restaurants were rare, and even shopping was difficult. A smattering of older hotels in the western part of the city dominated the upscale market. Even in the mid-1990’s, the first big office buildings erected on Friedrichstrasse remained empty a little too long.
"Then, when we told people we were opening a hotel on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin," says Hesse, "They said, 'You're crazy! Berlin?'" No one wanted to be here. "But despite (or perhaps because of) this sentiment, the hotel was an instant hit. Big companies were making their moves, too. At about the same time, in 1997, Daimler was building its mini-city on Potsdamer Platz, then the world's largest construction site, and had started erecting a residential building. By the time the fifth floor was complete, the company realized that it might better serve as a hotel, and contacted Hesse and Andresen. "They read about our first property and came to us, saying, 'Let's make serviced apartments'," remembers Hesse, speaking with words as carefully considered as his hotel rooms. "We had owners at that time who were in the real estate business, so we just did it. We knew we wouldn't get a second chance."
Hesse conceptualized the sleek interior design himself, with an eye toward high quality and longevity. Details like gold Bisazza tiles in the public spaces, dramatic single-flower accents, and good books on the shelves in the rooms are his. Most guestrooms have extra-large storage and work areas, allowing for long-term stays. How can a hotel that opened in the 1990s not look dated? Hesse explains, "This chair was designed 3o years ago, and it'll still be good years from now," he says, pointing to a classic armchair in the Restaurant FACIL. "Colors and fabrics are important. Even things like vases. We invest in high quality products; the big hotel chains don't. Our hotel looks good today, but it'll also be good ten years from now."
Indeed, this attention to detail and to perfecting "the little things" is ingrained throughout the hotel. The oversize vases in Facil, for example, are lit, making the bamboo surrounding the dining area's glass atrium glow in soft light. Facil, itself, and the lounge, Qiu, were added in 2001, a few years after the hotel opened; they were positioned as luxurious and special, and were meant to attract locals as well as guests. The strategy has worked well—Facil has long been ranked one of Berlin's best dining experiences and was awarded its first Michelin Star in 2003 - the second followed in 2013.
“We knew we had to do the rest the same way: the lounge, the lobby, the spa, the penthouse. We improve things step by step“ (the extensive rooftop ONO spa, was added much later in 2008 and is a sanctuary in white). The hotel's lasting popularity might be a testament to this slow burn, considering that Berlin's hospitality world has exploded in the past five years: the city already has more hotel beds than New York.
Indeed, the hotel is so committed to sustainable excellence that it has adopted European Quality Standards methods to optimize operations and keep on the very top of its game. Working with corporate optimization programs like EFQM, they have frequent employee training programs and evaluations—something common in the corporate world but unusual in the hospitality business. Only one other hotel in Germany works with these methods. "It's a long-term thing," says Andresen. “You can't just do it for two or three years. Excellence has to be in the minds of the employees, not just a list of tasks to complete.“