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Mon 12 Jul 2010 04:00 AM

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In the driving seat

Hotel GMs reveal how they steer their staff to success.

In the driving seat
Cora Stuart, Media One Hotel.
In the driving seat
Paul Bridger, Premier Inn Dubai International Airport.
In the driving seat
The GM roundtable was held in the semi-private dining room at Chinese restaurant Hukama at The Address Downtown Dubai.
In the driving seat
Stephan Vanden Auweele, Aloft Abu Dhabi.
In the driving seat
Simeon Olle, The Address Downtown Dubai.
In the driving seat
Janet Fitzner, Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek.
In the driving seat
Henning Fries, Fairmont Bab Al Bahr.
In the driving seat
Peter Blackburn, Cristal Hotel, Abu Dhabi.


Hotel GMs reveal how they steer their staff to success.


What experiences and people have shaped the way you manage your hotel?


Cora Stuart: I definitely have some very strong mentors in my life, some that I always look to and I still contact to be able to understand their take on something. I'm a relatively young general manager but I had good role models, so I look to what they've done for me and how they've treated me and the people that I've worked with as examples of how I should proceed as well.


Aside from my mentors, I work a lot with Stephen Covey's Seven Habits [of Highly Effective Leaders] and that's a lot of what I do as well - I preach that to a lot of the people that I work with because I believe in balance in life and a lot of the mentors that I've worked with have managed to achieve balance in life, although I'm still aspiring to be as good as them.


Simeon Olle: I think as far as shaping our careers we all have mentors and there's always something positive to take out of every individual. There can be positives and things that are not so positive; what works for some leaders and managers, those skill sets can't necessarily apply to other personalities. So it's a matter of looking in the right places for that.


It does depend on each hotel. For example, The Address Downtown Dubai is quite time demanding because we have bars and restaurants and they are busy late into the night. Just by the nature of the make up of this hotel, or of any hotel if you have that strong food and beverage component, usually you find it goes a little bit later into the night.


Several of you are in fairly new roles; what are your priorities as a GM going into a different hotel?


Henning Fries: Of course, getting to know the key players and getting to know the employees is most important. That's what makes the product overall. Secondly, I think it is to get a grasp of what the key drivers of the business are. This is my first two weeks to get my head around what it's all about at Fairmont. Of course, understanding the brand is very important, companies have their own way of working and you need to find your way around that as well.


Peter Blackburn: Brand recognition is important and at Cristal Hotels we've managed to do that very successfully in such a short time.


Paul Bridger: I think clients here have high expectations because they are in Dubai, particularly holidaymakers, they come to Dubai and expect everything to be bigger, better, shinier, so we have upped the service. Premier Inn is very branded, we have 600 hotels, so you've got the same product here that you have in the UK - the difference I make is the service, so I really try and push the service.


Have any of you wanted to take a different approach with setting up your team?


CS: I have been able to do that twice actually, once at The Address, starting with a white piece of paper in my office with nothing and being able to flesh it out for the Address was an amazing experience, something you can never forget. Then doing it with Media One as well, a brand that nobody knew and then positioning it as a very hip, trendy hotel - to me that's what I enjoy. That really gets me on a high, when you can develop something and see it come to fruition and then come back and look at it and see how wonderful it looks and how successful it's become. To me, the best part of my life is being able to do that.


HF: [As GM] you are really setting the tone for the overall approach. I think that really it comes down to leadership style and the way things are being done - the culture that is created within the team has direct impact on how service is delivered. How people are made to feel when they are joining the team [impacts how] guests feel when they are eventually coming through the door and what they say about your brand and the experience that they have at the hotel when they are there.
Stephan Vandan Auweele: I think one thing we need to realise is that the environment in which we are working is not what it was 10 or 20 years ago. People have changed, customers have changed, the environment in which we operate has taken a dramatic shift. Since I joined the Aloft, my eyes have opened dramatically, we as hoteliers - at least I was - we pretty much focus on a  kind of customer or a kind of environment which doesn't exist anymore. The kinds of customers which [we will experience] in the next generation of travellers are not the ones from 20 years ago. They have other expectations; the world was very different 20 years ago. When you went on a plane you were wearing a suit if you were in business class, everything was a lot more formal, whereas today when you take a business class plane people will go in their jeans and some will even go in their pyjamas!


If you look at what a hotel traditionally was, it was for the rich and famous and heads of state, today it's more for travelling managers, and I think from being an exclusive and very utilitarian place, now hotels have to be a warm place, where you are away from home and you do business. It's from the staff that this change has to come, you don't have to speak anymore like the customers are from another planet - they are human beings as we are.


How has the role of the GM changed?


Paul Bridger: Even as a budget hotel we have everyone from the travelling salesman to the chief executive of the company, so we have to kind of change our service style.

Peter Blackburn:
You have to be focused on new technology, as well as environmental issues.


CS: I believe that what Stephan said is true, the customer has changed. Today's customer requires you to entertain them, it's not about just providing them a safe, comfortable, luxurious environment to stay in, but more ‘what can you do to entertain me now' and I think our role has changed in that we have to come up with something that makes a difference and attracts their attention. You have got to really stand out and be different and I think that's what our role is - looking for innovations in technology, service etc.


The other thing is I believe that people want us to be less formal, I totally agree that it's not about the formalities, but it's about the reality of what I want as a customer and how you understand that at my level. It's about logical service now.


HF: I think it's also strong determination of what the brand is all about. The key themes are brands - they differ not only across this table but across the entire industry - and the clearer we are as to what kind of market we are attracting and what it is that we need to do in order to take a top spot in that market, that is going to determine what that product is all about.


I agree with you that the uniqueness, the experience, needs to be tailored towards this customer that you are trying to approach.


Paul Bridger: Guests are also more socially responsible now so they care how you treat your staff, where you buy your light bulb from, how you wash your laundry, they want to know that as a business you are operating in a transparent way.


SO: If you ask me how has the role changed from when I was growing up, I think now it's definitely a more hands-on role. Gone are the days when you have a figurehead who is really there as a PR value, you need to really be hands-on, on the floor, getting involved in the operation and I think you really need to have the ability to be able to zoom in and zoom out from a business perspective. So look at details and then step back and have the ability to look at the big picture at the same time.


SVA: I think the basics have not changed, it's still about people, the thing is the people have changed. It's still about empathy towards your customers, your staff, your owners but the environment in which you operate has changed. A talent or a staff that you hired 20 yeas ago had different needs to somebody now. They are more international, they surf the web, they can find new jobs, so it's a lot more complex than 20 years ago when you hired somebody, he was a number and that's it. Now it's a constant engagement. Also with customers, the world is a lot more open, people communicate - if tomorrow there is a bad service in your hotel everybody knows. You're a lot more exposed, so the human interaction and the world in which we operate is a lot more demanding, things go faster, one bad service and the guy is tweeting you.


It's a new challenge and you have to manage these and whether you like it or you do not like it, you just have to work with it.
SO: There's nowhere for you to hide these days.


CS: That's why there is a lot more demand for integrity in what you say and what you do.


Janet Fitzner: With people development, there are also changes I think. Your employees are also more demanding, they want to have faster growth paths, and of course ,they can also be more selective.


HF: The entire industry is much more transparent on both sides, for internal and external customers, it has become so much more transparent and fast paced as well. I think particularly in this part of the world as a general manager you are taking on such additional responsibility for your employees. You're basically taking responsibility for every aspect [of staff wellbeing], from their transportation to their living accommodation, every aspect that touches their lives, and this is quite unique compared to other parts of the world where you have employees that work eight / nine hours and then it's not really your concern; here it is. It has a heavy impact on how well your employees are feeling about you as an employer, how it translates into the service that is delivered, so [the role of the GM] has greater scope here.


That is a very good point. What responsibility do you take in terms of maintaining staff wellbeing?


CS: I've had the opportunity in this hotel to do things a little differently from the traditional hotels in Dubai. We managed at the time when we were opening to get some really good housing, not your usual compound housing, but independent housing outside for our staff and I fought for that to make sure that we got them housing like any other part of the world where staff would live in a beautiful apartment.  They love it, I don't visit the apartments as much but I know for sure that they love it because I see them every single week. I have a group meeting with 10 staff every week...they love the fact they have the independence to live as they would in Singapore or Malaysia. So I think this is something that hopefully Dubai will change because I think we've set that [benchmark], we've set it up in Dubai. I'm starting with one hotel so it's been a lot easier for me to start that independence.


Paul Bridger: Staff accommodation is very important to the team and it reflects on how they behave day to day with your guests as well. I take a slightly different approach in that when I do go to visit the staff accommodation it's in a social way, in jeans and t-shirt, I'll watch the cricket team, rather than walk around with a clip board.


JF: For me of course I was coming to the Middle East for the first time, so this culture was all new, but one of my first actions of course was to understand my team of employees with 57 nationalities, which I never had before. It was very important for me to individually meet my employee groups and to hear the feedback and that was the fastest way I could get any information as to what they feel and what I can improve. I think that it is very important that they also see your efforts, that you take them seriously and that you try whatever you can do. Of course I would love to do much more but financial resources have to fit as well.


SVA: I think it's being honest and fair and keeping the discussion alive, like you say you cannot do everything, but if you explain it, rather than saying that's ‘how it is and shut up', I think these days are finished. But if you tell them, we cannot do this because it costs so much money, or we cannot do this because of the law or the owner or whatever; in reality I think if you explain it to people and they perceive it to be fair then it is easier to have them accept things. In Abu Dhabi, housing is problematic, so I have to say we can try to make it better, but if you want to house 300/400 people in Abu Dhabi you don't have 25,000 options - you have one, Mussafah!


CS: One of the biggest skills we need now is more collaboration rather than direction. I feel with my staff exactly as Stephan says, you have to get the buy-in. Let's stick together and figure it out together.


HF: From the management side, it's much more transparent. You are sharing much more with your employees, your constituency, because they are such a vital part in achieving some of those objectives you have. The more you are transparent about the pressures on your business, the more chance you have that everyone is putting in the same role. I think that's a big change from going back a few years when there was a real disconnect between the people who have to achieve all those objectives and how it actually translated into real business.


What are you current priorities as GM?


Peter Blackburn: Our main priority is the brand recognition, service is another priority; we are highly focused on service, and also F&B. We are a dry hotel, so we go that extra mile on the quality of the food and are a little bit higher on the food costs. We have regular team briefings every fortnight but it's more of a relaxation, it's done casually and we address these issues and service quality and lots of training too.
HF: We are about six months on the market, we are full on business, but there are still some things to be done around the building. The brand name Fairmont is known but it's not necessarily known for the Abu Dhabi market so introducing this and making sure that all the market segments start understanding what our product is all about, and of course, that relates into the business. That's really the key priority for me at the moment.


JF: As a well established hotel, but with increasing competition around me, the main target is to keep our customer satisfaction and service so that we don't lose the service standards we have set and which we are well known for, and we have loyal client bases that we have to focus on keeping. Of course, we have to look more at what is challenging right now - the food and beverage situation - so we can adapt a little bit to the changed market trends and the price sensitivities and we are looking  now at changing some menu concepts in some of the restaurants. We are also grabbing new sales opportunities and we are [working] to keep the profitability.


SO: The hotel was well opened, I think the positioning of this hotel and the brand is good, the company has done very well in getting brand recognition to people in Dubai. Commercially I think the hotel is in good shape and is doing well and I think that we're relatively successful commercially, so for us it's really about the customer engagement. My focus is customer engagement and service delivery and that's really the main priority currently.


SVA: We started one and half years ago and meanwhile there are 41 Alofts open, we're opening another 15 this year, plus there's another 16/17 in construction, so we are definitely getting this lifestyle message out, trying to differentiate ourselves from the traditional brands and get the message out to the next generation of travellers. This is something a little more funky and hip than my grandfather's hotel. I don't say that everybody is going to shift tomorrow but there is going to be change and we see change already in the last few years.


A lot of hotels want to be everything for everyone and we don't want to do that, that's what our customers say, ‘don't try to be everything for everyone, just give us a product that we want'. You really have to target your customers more. A lot of hotels are trying to attract the sheikh, budget travellers, the old, the young. It's very difficult; it's like trying to sell the same shoe to the mother, the grandmother and the daughter.

Paul Bridger:
Priorities for me are about demonstrating to people that they no longer have to spend AED 1000-1500 to get a clean, comfortable room and great service, and the way we're doing that is through making sure our team really deliver for our guest, so we are training the team, developing the team, motivating the team.


CS: The hotel has been open six months. Being an independent brand that does not have any other hotels around, my priority right now is to cement the recognition of the hotel within Dubai and we're starting to look at how we can reach the international market through our personality [to communicate] that Dubai has something really different to offer right now in this hotel and we're looking at creating some really fun experiences for after the summer. We're sitting down now to figure out how we can take it to the next level in terms of this concept of entertaining our customers.


How would you sum up your attitude as a leader?


SO: I think for me it's walking the walk and being hands on, being on the front line with the team and acting really as a team leader should act. We talked earlier about the demands of this industry, particularly when you have extensive food and beverage offerings and the hours involved, at the end of the day you just can't do it as an individual, you have to surround yourself with as competent a team as you can find, and that's the only way really that you will get success. I don't think that it's really driven through any one individual but through everybody in the team performing and contributing.


HF: We are a people business so you have to have passion for people as well as a passion for the business, and I really would sum it up in that if you bring that passion to the team, and to the operation and to the hotel, then that really is going to translate in results.


JF: You have to be passionate in the hotel industry anyway and then it depends on your team being behind you and doing it together with the team. I cannot do it alone. You have to get the team with you and all go in one direction and then of course you try to keep the motivation up to get the fighting spirit.


Paul Bridger: I think it's leading from the front, talking to your guests because your guests and your team will give you all the answers you need about your business; you don't need to look at your P&Ls. They are the ones who will tell you how your business is doing.


SVA: I think our industry is a very particular business because it is the only industry where you have to start from the bottom or very low and you can work your way up. I think there are very little industries that have kind of similar career paths. It is a very tough school actually and I think that really shapes you. The school is natural elimination so the people that are not working hard enough or performing enough get kicked out by the system over the years, because they don't have the passion, they don't have the character, they don't have the charisma. The system is basically shaping itself and leaving only the people with the right passion and the right attitude because it takes you five, 10, 20 years to get through the system. You very seldom see someone dropped in from another industry and told you are going to be general manager of this hotel because you have an MBA from Oxford.


JF: It's dependent on the people, you have to be the mother, you have to be the psychologist, you have to be whatever is required - I think that makes the difference.


What are your views on the issues raised? Send them to: louise.oakley@itp.com


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