As the owners of The Circus we would like to use this space to give you an idea of ourselves, our philosophy of hospitality, and how it has developed. The five of us all work in the company on a daily basis. There are no silent partners or outside investors, which is a crucial starting point for all that follows because it is this fact that allows us to run our business with autonomy and responsibility. Autonomy, because we can make decisions based on what is best – for ourselves, our staff, our guests and our surroundings – and responsibility because we are directly connected with our guests. To our mind, the breaking of the connection between the “supplier” and the “customer” in all different types of business, the gap between producer and consumer, has created an absence of responsibility that is one of the evils of the modern economy.
As you will hopefully understand as we explain our philosophy in more detail, this autonomy of action and sense of responsibility for the activities carried out in our name, is based upon a feeling of respect: respect for the desires of people who stay with us, respect for the individuality of our staff, and respect for our partners, our neighbours, and the wider society of which we are part.
At its core, The Circus philosophy is a simple one: to welcome travellers to our city in a way that we would like be welcomed when we travel ourselves. Travel at its best is a social activity, a form of communication that should benefit both the host and the visitor through the building of new relationships, of sharing experiences and of exposure to difference. The inspiration for the very first Circus Hostel back in 1997 was travelling, and in journeys both before and since we have stayed in any number of hostels, hotels, pensions and guesthouses, experiences both good and bad that shaped our philosophy of what it means to be a stranger in unfamiliar surroundings, and what the very best of hospitality can mean when it becomes an integral part of the travel experience.
Before we go on to talk about how our experiences both travelling and in the day-to-day running of the different Circus houses has shaped our philosophy of hospitality, we would like to share a few thoughts on the tourism industry in general.
Travel for leisure developed in the period between the end of the 19th Century and the Second World War, and the hotels of this era – catering for the hyper-rich “winners” of industrialisation – were built to reflect an idea of aristocratic luxury that seeped into every aspect of the business, from the architecture of the building to the furniture in the rooms, from the uniforms of the staff to the style of service offered to the guests.
In the post-war period, as tourism opened up to the middle classes, the model continued to be the standard, the blueprint if you like for how a hotel should be run. This is why to this day, when you stay in a traditional two- or three-star establishment, you will see echoes of the traditions. What should be recognised, however, is that these traditions that became industry standards developed in a very different time to the one in which we now live.
When we began with The Circus Hostel, and continued with The Circus Hotel and The Circus Apartments, we very consciously developed an approach to hospitality that in many cases meant a complete rejection of these traditions. What was done before is not what matters. What matters is that we developed a concept based on the realities of the 21st Century, of what is important to ourselves as individuals and our guests, taking into account the impact we might have on our surroundings and the wider society.
“Because that is how it is always been done,” is not a persuasive answer to the question “why is it you do what you do?”
In the end it is because none of the five shareholders nor any of the management team at The Circus have any formal educational training or qualifications in the field of tourism or hospitality. We have always been free to find our own solutions to the smallest of details, and make our own mistakes to be sure, but ultimately approaching a business so set in its ways without any of the baggage of a century of accumulated “wisdom” has been one of the key reasons for The Circus’s continued success.
Across the three houses The Circus can provide shelter for 440 guests in a range of accommodation from dormitory beds to boutique apartments, via private rooms and junior suites. A range of options for a range of desires and needs. But what holds it all together? What common thread binds the hostel, the hotel and the apartments together?
First of all we would say that we take a value-based approach to hospitality. Ultimately what the guests are paying for, if they choose for example an apartment over a dorm bed, is a certain amount of space, or facilities such as separate living and sleeping rooms or a fully-fitted kitchen. But what remains consistent to both these travellers is the quality-oriented commitment to service and the social interaction that we believe is central to a positive travelling experience. All three of our houses are places that we have built to ensure a warm welcome in a comfortable and clean environment, where people can choose the level of space, privacy and facilities to meet their individual needs, but where service and hospitality are not defined by their age or the amount of money in their pockets.
This is one of the departures from the traditional model of tourism, the idea that service and social interaction is defined by status or wealth. This is not how we communicate with people in our private lives, and we have no intention of perpetuating these structures in our business either. Travel should be a social activity, a place where people come together on equal terms. Sometimes they want to meet other travellers – which is why we have guests who consciously choose to stay in dorm even though they could afford a private room. It is why the social spaces – the lounges, cafés, restaurant and bar – are so important to the atmosphere. But it also has an impact on the relationship between the staff and the guests, which again takes us back to a deliberate rejection of what has gone before.
At The Circus we believe first and foremost that guests and hosts should come together on an equal level in communication that is based on mutual respect. This starts with a rejection of the “Master-Servant” approach to hospitality born out of the aristocratic origins of the hotel business that we talked about before and which is completely out of step with the realities of modern society.
At the same time, we recognise that as locals and hosts we have a responsibility that comes with being “at home” in a situation that for some guests – away from home and in a strange country – may be overwhelming. It is crucial therefore that we do everything to empower our guests by sharing the knowledge and the experiences we have, or by helping them with whatever it is that they might need. This also means taking an individual response to each person that stands before us at the reception or in the bar, and a respect for people as individuals that means there cannot be any scripts or tailor-made communicational models from which we can work.
This part of our philosophy is of crucial importance when it comes to choosing our staff members. Education and qualifications are of little importance – skills can be trained – but what is crucial, fundamental even, is that the people we have in the hostel, the hotel or the apartments are warm and open, people who are interested in others and enjoy the communication that comes with a job like this. We choose staff members who come to work with the feeling of excitement that once again they will spend their working day meeting people from around the world, making friends through curiosity and interest rather than hiding behind a barrier of fear of the stranger. To be hospitable you have to love people. This is the most important qualification you need.
Sometimes you hear a phrase like this one from people doing a whirlwind tour of Europe. It is bad enough that you might not be sure of where you are because of a packed itinerary; how do you make sense of it all when every hotel you stay in belongs to an international chain and once you enter the front doors there is no connection to the outside world other than the postcards in the stand or the name of the conference suite down the hall?
Connection to place, both Berlin and our immediate surroundings, is extremely important to us. When we selected our locations for first our hostels, and then later the hotel and the apartments, we were concerned to place ourselves in a position that offered a direct link to the heart of the city to allow our guests to feel part of Berlin life for the time that they are with us. This connection to the city is also reflected in the design of the three houses, such as through the use of Berlin-based designers and artists to bring the creative spirit of the city into the spaces.
We also encourage our guests to make use of the neighbourhood facilities, such as the local swimming pools and fitness studios, rather than build such facilities into our structures. That hotels offer such facilities is again a reflection of tradition, as this idea of what a hotel should contain developed during a time when the local surroundings could not necessarily meet the needs of the traveller. This is no longer the case, and anyway, we do not believe that people want to travel to another city and then shut themselves off from their surroundings.
A connection to our surroundings also means a sense of respect and responsibility for them. An important part of our philosophy is that of “sustainability”, by which we mean by recognising the impact – both positive and negative – of what we are doing. Elsewhere on the company page you can read in more detail about our specific sustainability policies across the three houses, but fundamentally what we understand by the term is that of responsibility; for our colleagues and staff, for our guests, our neighbourhood, and the wider society.
This brings us once more to the subject of traditional hospitality and how our approach is different. Think of the features of classic hotelery, such as over-stocked breakfast buffets, minibars and air-conditioning units burning electricity 24 hours a day, the laundry costs involved in the daily changing of towels and bedsheets… These are things that people have come to expect and think of as normal, but we would ask: why should this be the case? By concentrating on what we feel as important, by minimising waste and finding a sense of “worth” more in the personal and social elements of our approach rather than a traditional understanding of “luxury”, we believe that we can offer our guests the highest standard of facilities and service whilst maintaining a price structure that is both fair and which offers good value.