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October 19, 2011

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A hotelier with heart, soul

AT one time Peter Herweck thought he would work aboard a cruise ship and see the world. And he has indeed seen the world, but it's been at the helm of many a hotel. Michael van Zyl reports.

You must be legendary if a German folk band, all the way from Bavaria, sings a song in your honor at the Oktoberfest in Shanghai.

For 10 days each year at the end of September, just a little earlier than in Germany, the beer-fueled feast draws Chinese and expat brew lovers together in a glorious "Cheers!" that defies cultural boundaries.

Although the German festival dates back to 1810, Shanghai's oldest authentic Oktoberfest version can be traced back to the man in the song, who 14 years ago took a personal gamble to bring Bavaria to this city.

Peter Herweck is that man and the song is called "Peter aus Shanghai" ("Peter from Shanghai") - a modified version from the original "Anton aus Tirol."

"I received a negative answer from my owner representative, so I said if the festival made a loss they could take it from my salary. This made them realize that I was serious," says Herweck who at the time worked as general manager of Yangtze New World Hotel (now rebranded as the Renaissance Shanghai Yangtze Hotel).

When Herweck's gamble paid off and the fest proved a success, the hotel's owner representative turned to him and asked: "Can't we hold this every month?"

At the time the event also drew attention to the sociable hotelier and soon well-placed German expats asked him to organize a Cologne Carnival and company events around the first Formula One race in Shanghai in 2004. Perhaps the quirkiest event he organized was the "Kohl und Pinkel" tour.

Kohl und Pinkel is the special meal served in the northern part of Germany during the winter season and the tour is a typical winter excursion in that region. Kohl means "cabbage" and pinkel means "sausage."

"The sausage is 90 percent fat, it's terrible, so you need to be somewhat drunk to eat it," says Herweck. "For this festival it's important to drink a lot of schnapps, then you walk for 10km and do funny games, like passing a cucumber between your legs to the next person. The fastest person can get a schnapps."

Like many expats who bring their wealth of experience - and culture - to Shanghai, Herweck had a long and colorful career before arriving in the city with his family in 1995.

"As I was finishing high school I talked with my father about what job I should do and he asked 'Why don't you learn to be a waiter, board a ship and see the world'?"

That made sense at the time and he did an apprenticeship in wine and food, then a second apprenticeship in hotel administration. By then the ship was forgotten.

His climb to the top - through various European cities including Frankfurt, Hamburg, London, Paris, Mannheim, Berlin, Bremen and Amsterdam - literally started from working as a doorman.

"This business makes you; from the moment you open a door as a bellboy or give a letter to someone on a silver tray ... you learn that it's the little things, the finer details, which make a hotel great," says Herweck.

His journey to the East started in Hong Kong as rooms division manager for New World Hotels. After four years with the company he was offered a general manager position in Shanghai.

"When we came here, Shanghai was different. Opposite the Bund only the base pillars of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower were standing and Huaihai Road was just one big construction site," he recalls. "Now Pudong has developed into the top financial center in China - if not the world. Just talking about it gives me goose bumps."

Back then his goal was simple: get his two-year contract extended and then head to nicer hotels in Manila or Bangkok.

Shanghai crept into his whole family's hearts and he went on to spend seven years here, while also serving as chairman of the Associations of International Hoteliers in Shanghai (now renamed International Branded Hotels Shanghai) from 1998 to 2000.

"What I'm most proud of is my contribution to Shanghai's hotel industry. In 1995 the city had only a few hotels, and I had one of them. One of the first things that drew my immediate attention was that some people was still spitting in our lobby ashtrays. Though years before there were campaigns of '7 Don't's,' most people learned to adhere to it, some still ignored it. I did not speak Chinese, but I tried to educate them to refrain from doing so," he recalls.

In 2002 Herweck moved to the New World Hotel Group and was tasked with opening the Mayfair Hotel Shanghai (now New World Shanghai Hotel) - the largest hotel in town at that time - and at the end of 2007 he served as vice president of operations for Howard Johnson Hotels International China.

By 2008 he was looking for a new challenge.

"After spending 17 years in Hong Kong and Shanghai, I was a little bit tired of being in the same area for such a long time," he says.

For the next three years Herweck helped create and build up the retail subsidiary of a German company in Brazil.

"Knowing Brazil quite a bit through many holidays there with my wife Sandra, who is a Brazilian national, we always wanted to retire there. After three years living in and experiencing Brazil, we recognized it might not be our favorite anymore.

"However, Shanghai always remained in the blood of the whole family," he says.

In April this year he was back in Shanghai as general manager of the Golden Tulip Hotels. Many will still remember him as the father of the Shanghai Oktoberfest, but Herweck is quick to point out that this time he has a new goal.

"Now the Oktoberfest belongs to the Renaissance Shanghai Yangtze Hotel, they have continued and developed it well. For me there will be other things. First I have to put both feet on the ground and concentrate on a lot of training and upcoming renovations," he says.

For now he is counting the days to December when his whole family will reunite again in Shanghai before his two children - who have now finished high school - plan to start university.

"Shanghai is the place to be, not only for hospitality, but many aspects of life," Herweck says. "Although my kids were born in Hong Kong, they grew up in Shanghai and I can now say my kids were born in China. Thinking about our time here in Shanghai gives us such a good memory and as a family we can say we had the greatest time in our lives in Shanghai."

Peter Herweck

Nationality: German
Age: 56
Profession: Hotelier

Self description: I'm a hotelier "mit leib und seele" (with heart and soul). I am simple and good-humored, determined and a creative innovator.

Favorite place: The garden of Xijiao State Guest House, only topped by being at home with my family.

Strangest sight: The view of the Bund - you can see the past and future divided only by the Huangpu River. It's very surreal knowing what the area looked like in the early 1990s.

Worst experience: I have tried very hard, but there's nothing worth remembering.

Motto for life: To be myself and to listen to other people.

How to improve Shanghai: The traffic has improved a lot, however, obeying the rules would make an even bigger impact.

Advice to newcomers: Respect, and do your best to learn and understand the culture of our hosts.


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