When Philipp Knuepfer arrived at the Mandarin Oriental in the Back Bay, he did two things that were fairly radical for the luxury hotel chain. He set up his “office” in the lobby, next to the front door, amid the cushy sofas and chairs. And he brought along his two golden retrievers.
The marble lobby seemed a bit too corporate, somewhat intimidating, and maybe even a little uninviting. Knuepfer figured setting up shop there with his pooches would give the place a little charm and character. Plus, he wanted to show his staff that he was accessible. This was the first time in his 18 years with the Mandarin Oriental group that he established the lobby as his office, or that he brought his pets in to work.
It’s been nearly three years since Knuepfer arrived here from Washington, D.C., and the general manager doesn’t regret changing things up — even though he regularly gets asked for directions or dining reservations by guests who don’t realize he’s the boss. In fact, he considers those periodic requests to be one of the perks of his job.
Knuepfer took management inspiration from a childhood experience. He has worked for the Mandarin Oriental group for his entire hospitality career. But he drew inspiration for his approach to management from a childhood visit to the Sonnenalp hotel in Bavaria with his parents. He always saw the owners in the lobby, and liked how they interacted with the guests. Part of the deal: He meets guests for runs there at 6:30 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
The new office didn’t take much rearranging. He had a mahogany desk from the hotel’s function operations dragged to the lobby, and he needed to set up connections for his computer and his phone. He doesn’t have to worry about his documents piling up, because most of them are stored digitally. Plus, he’s a bit of a neat freak when it comes to his desk.
His employees end up getting extra exercise. Like any manager, Knuepfer sometimes needs a place for a private conversation. That can’t really happen in the lobby. So Knuepfer heads outside — an approach he picked up from a biography of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs. “I do most of my meetings walking,” Knuepfer says. “When I first came here, it was very unusual. A lot of my team members said, ‘What do you mean?’ [And] some say, ‘Can we please not do it in the winter?’ So we don’t do it year-round.”
His two goldens, Bonnie and Tara, are runners, too. They used to join him on his runs with guests, and for his marathon training sessions. Now, Bonnie, the older dog, usually stays behind while Tara heads out the door, although Bonnie still relishes long walks. Both of them are rescue dogs from Singapore, where Knuepfer once worked.
Allowing the dogs to range about the lobby was somewhat risky. Knuepfer says “98 percent” of the guests are happy about seeing Bonnie and Tara. (Some even ask to walk them, or invite them up to their rooms.) For the few who aren’t, the hotel staff quickly steps in to prevent any unwanted interactions. Good thing Mandarin Oriental chief executive James Riley is apparently a dog person. Knuepfer says: “When our CEO first came in and visited me, he walked in the door, and a minute later he was lying on the floor [with Bonnie and Tara].”
Job applicants might want to pay attention. Knuepfer says he’s fascinated by how effectively his dogs seem to be able to size up strangers. He pays close attention to how they react to people who are interviewing for jobs, and it becomes a factor in the hiring process. “I’ve had interviews where they react very funny and we have not hired them, because [the dogs] have good instincts.”
There is one sure way to get on the dogs’ good side. They perk up around bananas. It turns out the fruit is their favorite snack. When Knuepfer eats a banana after a morning run, the dogs sit and stare, waiting to munch away. “Goldens are notorious vacuums,” he says. “They eat everything.”