With over 20 years’ experience working in and managing Michelin-starred restaurants and five-star hotels around the world, Luxury Hospitality's operations manager Erik Smit is passionate about service and the finer things in life. At LH, he is instrumental in building the business with its founder Peter Vogel, teaching and perfecting the technical skills of superyacht crew to take the guest experience to the next level.
Both a wine and cigar connoisseur, Erik has also worked closely with some of the best sommeliers in the business. Here he discusses his path to LH, his passion for a great cigar and why the human heart is key in high-end hospitality.
Can you tell about your early career and how you got involved with the superyacht industry?
I had worked with Michelin-starred restaurants and five-star hotels for 20 years and then I felt it was time for a change. I started my own consultancy looking for short term projects where I could utilise all the skills I had gained over the years. One example was delivering training in bar and restaurant management for a training company based in Amsterdam and it was through them, about three years ago, that I came into contact with Peter and started doing some work with him and Luxury Hospitality.
We noticed immediately that we have the same passion for hospitality, and through Talent Dynamics we discovered that we complement each other in our skill sets. The collaboration went so well that my job title changed to operations manager in 2019.
You have worked in a number of top restaurants and hotels – is there one that stands out the most in terms of preparing you for your role as a trainer?
It would have to be Zwethheul, near Rotterdam, which was the first Michelin-starred restaurant I managed. When I started I was introduced into a strong team who were adept at dividing up the various tasks according to each person’s passion.
However, no one was focusing on cigars, so I looked into it and that’s where I discovered my passion. It was also with this team that I developed my skill to motivate people, to dive deeper into the things they loved doing and encourage them to share their knowledge with the team.
LH is rapidly expanding so how has your role at LH progressed over the past three years?
When I first joined, I was taken on a journey to master the LH way of delivering training, an holistic approach focusing on an individuals strengths and team fit. A few months later I was given the opportunity to reach out to clients and discuss their needs and, more recently, this has progressed to more strategic involvement alongside Peter.
In my role as operations manager I take more of an overview of all aspects of the business. Peter involves me in every management step he takes and vice versa, and we divide the jobs that come in according to our profiles.
Having run your own consultancy, do you ever miss being your own boss?
In fact, I still am! LH works with independent consultants who collaborate, and I am one of them. As my role within LH advanced in such a natural way, I still feel like I am my own boss, doing the things I like doing, the way I like to do them.
I sometimes find it quite challenging to identify new directions in which to develop our business. However that’s one of the reasons I like working with creative people like Peter because they complement the talents I lack. Once we have a plan, I like to execute, looking at things from all angles and finding the right way to deliver solutions for our clients.
Where in the world do you deliver training?
We operate worldwide, but predominantly in areas where there are a lot of superyachts. Depending on the season we are more present in the Med or in the Caribbean, however personally I've had a lot of trips to the US in the past year.
With the current lockdown in many countries, we've also seen increased demand for online training, so we've made several courses available online to help crew come out of this stronger and ready for their next challenge.
What has most surprised you about working with superyachts?
The quality of the materials used in the interiors! I have seen the most exquisite fabrics, marbles and service utensils you can imagine. Sometimes this is challenging for interior crew as they are highly sensitive to maintain.
Does the standard of service on board vary widely between yachts?
It does, firstly because of the different nationalities of the owners and guests. Secondly, everybody has different personal preferences. These are the most important reasons why all of our onboard training is bespoke, catering to the needs of the individual yacht. It is great to work within these boundaries, and still find ways to help the crew go above and beyond.
I'd say standards overall are rising. More and more, crew understand that delivering top service can be something to devote your life to, as a long tern career.
You're an expert in cigars and wine – what inspired your passion?
I have been working with wines and cigars for over 20 years. The limitless range of flavours and the fact that there are so many different wines in the world each year means I am constantly learning to keep up with new trends and developments. During my years working in exclusive restaurants, I always worked very closely with the sommeliers, learning from their expertise to create food and wine pairings. It’s something I’m very passionate about.
To develop my cigar knowledge, I was lucky to be mentored by the owner of a very well-stocked cigar shop in Delft. For four years we would meet every Wednesday between lunch and dinner service and smoke a different cigar every time!
Which wine is your personal favourite?
That is such a hard question to answer, as it depends on location, food and time of day! If I were to pick one region, I would go for the Montrachet area in Burgundy. In vineyards in Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Batard-Montrachet they produce white wines from the Chardonnay grape that are very complex and layered with different flavours. They are best enjoyed round 14 degrees and on their own.
What are the main characteristics of a really good cigar?
I absolutely love cigars made by the Padron family in Esteli, Nicaragua. They use tobacco from their own fields that has been stored for up to 15 years before blending them to perfection. Because of this ageing, the flavours deepen, delivering tastes that you can’t find in any other brand.
A great cigar is well-structured and blended in such a way that you can savour different flavours in the different stages of smoking. They also need to be kept at the right humidity between rolling and smoking to keep the cigar alive.
Are you noticing any trends in high-end hospitality, either globally or in particular regions?
In general, we are seeing that service is becoming more personal in all industries, even in high-end hospitality which makes me very happy. Service is becoming less formal, warmer, and more from the heart.
Who has inspired you most in your career so far?
At the start of my career, I worked in a five-star hotel in Amsterdam. The head bartender at the time, Joop Velida, became my mentor, teaching me how to fully focus on guests’ wellbeing and how to ‘read’ guests to be able to give them what they want, before they even know or ask for it.
If you had to define what makes good hospitality great hospitality, what would you say?
Truly great hospitality is only possible when you have made sure that everyone you work with is knowledgeable and comfortable with what they have to do, and how they should be doing that. Only then can everyone fully focus on the guests’ needs with total respect. This is how the best teams get into 'flow' and deliver excellence.
What’s your motto?
Don’t waste your energy on things you can’t change. Focus on everything else and try to improve those things where you see a possibility.