“Nobody wants a CRISIS, but we’ve got TO DEAL WITH ONE”
Roland Leisztner has lived in Prague since 1984 and was actively involved in the Velvet Revolution. Nominative determinism may have given him his intrinsic French charm, which would certainly derive from the French name his mother chose for him. He has enjoyed a diverse professional career in terms of both positions and fields. He has worked in travel and tourism, real estate and development, and senior company management. His name has been linked to brands such as Čedok and Club Méditerranée, as well as projects on Wenceslas Square, Na Příkopě and elsewhere in the Prague city centre.
Were I to describe Roland Leisztner using some combination of words, I might say “noble saviour”. Not only did he help to lift the Čedok travel agency out of its postrevolutionary crisis, but he also improved many buildings on Wenceslas Square, Na Příkopě Street and in other corners of Prague. He confesses that he had other buildings demolished in order to give space to new life. We discussed not just his career path, but also trends in property development, and how even Wenceslas Square can be beautiful. As Roland’s wife is the famous Czech artist Helena Kroftová-Leisztner, we also discussed art, and Roland was gallant enough to affirm the truth of the saying “cherchez la femme”. Enjoy this relaxed discussion in the spirit of summer.
Mr Leisztner: you’re a man of many professions which overlap into many fields. How did your career actually begin?
I began my career path in Čedok, where I was entrusted with running the Passive Tourism division – today we’d use the term “Outgoing”. I’d remind those who were around then that the travel agency market was then being crushed by Václav Fischer’s new travel agency. The Čedok team was highly demotivated, because it was rumoured that Čedok was about to go bankrupt. Within three years, we managed to completely transform our portfolio, improve our hotel categories and open up new destinations such as Eilat in Israel, Turkey, Greece, North Africa, South and Central America and Thailand. We began operating a double-decker bus to Spain. In three years, we had managed to increase sales tenfold keeping the same team, and the number of tourists increased sixfold from 15 000 to 90 000. It was an incredible period of growth and new opportunities. Replacement aircraft could be agreed upon over the weekend, with agreements being reached almost at the shake of a hand. Faxes were only just starting up, and I remember my colleague producing reports in the Telex department.
You went from Čedok to Club Med, where you were General Manager for the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. What was it like to represent the crème de la crème in travel and tourism, which was the first to offer all-inclusive holidays?
It felt great, hard to believe from today’s perspective. Our office was on Pařížská Street and I flew to Paris every month for meetings. Today it would all be taking place virtually. Once again, we managed to increase both traveller numbers and sales tenfold with the same colleagues. I was there when Gilbert Trigano was still manager and the main shareholders were the Agnelli family, who also happened to be founders and shareholders of Fiat cars. There was a family atmosphere in the company, with a large section of management at the time having worked up to their roles from being leading sports coaches, most commonly skiing or tennis. The company had also rapidly adapted to an expansive style of business. English was spoken at the meetings in Paris. I still consider Club Med’s active holiday concept to be a unique product. If anyone enjoys an active holiday linked to socialising and sport, then I’d highly recommend it. You can meet fascinating people from morning to evening while the best athletes in various disciplines, former world champions and Olympic medallists, will help you in your sport. Here in the Czech Republic, we’re rather reticent by nature, so it was a challenge to convince the market here of this type of holiday. However, once clients try it they generally do it again. Club Med today has Chinese owners, but its philosophy remains the same and investments go towards increasing the quality of its luxury resorts.
And now I’m interested in your path from travel and tourism to real estate…
Some Austrian friends contacted me because they didn’t know what to do with a particular building on Wenceslas Square. Our co-operation grew into another highly complicated project, becoming the Luxor building. In terms of construction, the building is highly complex. It has very deep foundations, and it takes up a long strip of land yet it has a very narrow front. And have you ever noticed the three towers? In the basement, you may be surprised by what appears to be the outline of tunnels.
During renovation, we had two options prepared. The first option was a project for a large software company, which would have meant closing the entire building. We implemented the second option, involving a combination of public and private premises. We managed to convince Bertelsmann from Germany and Euromedia from the Czech Republic, VD Konsorcium and Mr Sivek’s Euroagentur to come in. We opened up a 3000 m2 space, which was one of the largest shopping centres for books, culture and art in Europe, alongside an excellent hotel complex. Every time I pass by, I’m glad to see the place is alive and that I also managed to keep the arcade open. And using the side entrance, via a relatively small reception you arrive in the world of the three towers, the 101 rooms of the Ramada Hotel.
It seems that Wenceslas Square has endeared itself to you.
Yes. Another premises I dealt with was Wenceslas Square 3, today known as the Diamant Building. This building in Socialist Brutalist style was literally falling apart. I proposed its demolition and the construction of a new building. We were lucky that we got city councillors, architects, all the neighbours and the public to support demolition. Now amongst other businesses the wellknown WorkLounge co-working centre is based there. The original hotel project fell through with the mortgage crisis in 2008, and we had to wait two or three years before we managed to push through the subsequent project with Carl Gradl to final approval for use.
Most Prague residents don’t like Wenceslas Square. Could this be changed?
I trust that if the planned changes on the basis of the most recent urban development plan can be implemented fast and to a high quality, then people will enjoy the square again. Within three years, we can have a real boulevard here to rival any in the world. This will also involve a change in the approach of building owners and tenants. I must confess, however, that I am not a supporter of the return of the tramline along the square, but that’s a matter of opinion.
Can you reveal anything else about the stories and background of the renovation of other buildings in the centre of Prague?
I could also mention the Na Příkopě 23-27 buildings, i.e. from the Myslbek arcade to Česká spořitelna. I was thinking about how best to exploit its market potential while also maintaining the variability of the internal space. I tried applying a new concept to the stores based on how Lego construction sets work. Each store can link either to the basement or the first floor, and depending on the current sales situation can thus reduce or enlarge its premises. Some brands have been there from the beginning, such as Salamander, Banco Casino and the TGI Fridays restaurant. Considering the level of rent and other rather demanding conditions, as well as the turning of economic cycles, it is true that there are very few companies which have been there for over 20 years.
How do you approach development? Have you got a clear vision from the outset?
I think I’ve been lucky with my investors and partners. It’s a wonderful feeling to have a building available to you and also a free hand to change it, develop it, renovate it. So then I try to create a project which can be profitable and viable. With our team of multiple professions and many specialists, we breathe new life and new energy into buildings.
I get the same warm feeling when I successfully complete the sale of a building or company and the vendor and purchaser are looking forward to the future.
At the current time, besides the planned changes to Wenceslas Square and the Savarin project, I like the Penta Florentinum project – if Zaha Hadid’s building around the train station can be completed then it’ll represent another highquality modern neighbourhood preserving unique historical features in the city centre.
What are your future plans, and how do you perceive the future of development in the context of the pandemic and the economic downturn?
I’m currently planning a project in Braník. Other activities will depend on the economic situation; right now there is reduced funding for hotel and administrative projects within a one-year to two-year horizon. I think both our style of work and our style of living is going to change. Many companies have already implemented working from home, and we can now anticipate the transformation of administrative premises into premises for long-term home rental. In America, it is common that you can live long-term in a hotel. You’ve got all the services you need, and premises are available with variability and options for linking spaces up. In the event of a crisis, a hotel can respond immediately, moving from shorter-term rent to longer-term. In regard to office premises, it is possible that we will move away from large open offices to smaller offices for three to four people, which workers divided into teams can make use of while maintaining all hygiene recommendations, including for future risks other than COVID.
Your wife is the renowned Czech artist, Helena Kroftová-Leisztner. To what extent does her art influence your work?
Very significantly. She has led me to take a greater and more focused look at the aesthetic side of things. I pay attention to the harmony of colours, the creative and economic use of space and corners, and work with light. I prefer large airy spaces and light colours. Sometimes I go against the latest trends, and even during times when grey and earth tones were all the rage I continued to prefer lighter shades, cream and ivory colours, despite architects’ ideas. When I plan spaces, I always take time to think about whether she would like them. And I have also been able to enjoy the opportunity, if not the privilege, to be surrounded by her beautiful paintings and pictures in my private life too.
Our interview implies you haven’t been overly taxed by the pandemic.
Crises accompany us our whole lives – the tragic events in September 2001, the Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004, the 2008 financial crisis and many more regional and sectoral crises.
I’ve been lucky that we have always found the willpower and strength, and we always endeavour to lift ourselves up again, to continue, not give up, to help each other. But sometimes we change direction, making a fundamental change to our approaches on our journey.
Look at the young generation: they have different interests and they no longer want to own something in principle. Let’s get ready for the change in homes, in travel and in culture. Suddenly, modest formats are rising: meeting artists in gardens, halls with limited capacity offering an entirely different experience. In companies, most people are now working partially from home, shared car fleets are growing, travel is becoming experience travel, and user comfort demand is increasing in all areas. Personal and family values are taking priority over work and income. Five years ago, I warned that it was no longer possible to plan for a continuous 5-10 % growth in production, in sales, in profit, in consumption, automatically every year like clockwork. It is far better to focus on sustainable development with long-term prospects. Just like we do for buildings and development.
By Linda Štucbartová