Ten take-aways from an (almost) grizzled hotelier

Maturity brings acceptance of one’s flaws. Although this flaw is something I am not proud of, it is something I must constantly work on: my (sometimes) arrogant approach to authority. Seems to be something engrained in my make-up, or perhaps inherited in my DNA. I am (too often) guilty of only seeking my own advice and believing my own propaganda. The result is occasionally a little macabre, so I must honestly admit that I don’t have a ‘mentor’ as so many others do, as there are few people whom I look up to.

But all is not lost. In fact, I was chuffed with myself recently when asked what I have learnt from colleagues, bosses or ‘mentors’ during the course of my hospitality career. So this got me thinking. And here they are: the 10 best pieces of advice, observations and principles I have not only learned, but occasionally ‘hijacked’ during my career in hotels.

  1. Show your face
    Going back to the beginning of my career in hotels, way back to my Heerengracht days, I noted one stand-out thing which has stuck with me, serving me well over the years: managers in the lobby; managers in the restaurant; managers in the passage. Managers everywhere. If they weren’t entertaining, they were checking guests in or sending them on their way in the lift. They were mingling with guests, introducing themselves, quietly discovering likes and dislikes, sourcing feedback. What I have noted recently, however, is an unwillingness in the South African hotel management space to be a ‘lobby manager’. General Managers have been led to believe (or have re-designed their purpose) that ‘good’ administration means sitting in operational meetings or pouring over documentation, which then outweighs walking around and just ‘mingling’. Naturally there should be a balance, but we must never discount the significance of being out of the office, visible, aware of the goings on at the hotel.
  2. Manage by walking around (manage by mingling – strolling)
    ​This one is an extension of number one, something I learnt from Michael MacBain, a seasoned hotelier with whom I worked in the 1990’s at The Park Hyatt Hotel, a top five-star hotel in Johannesburg. If he was not physically behind the concierge desk, he would be checking in guests, developing relationships, inviting guests for coffee. It was not even unusual to find him in the rooms checking vacant guest-ready rooms. MacBain was an incredible manager, totally on top of things because he ‘managed by walking around’.
  3. Own the client
    This one is something much easier said than done and nearly impossible in the modern world of hotel reservations. Third party booking portals and OTAs are making ‘owning the client’ seriously difficult, so we must also appreciate the enormity and value of these inventory outlets. But owning the client should be top on a hoteliers’ marketing agenda.
    At BON, we’ve spent a substantial portion of our marketing time, budget and effort directly on the guest – a ‘BON relationship’, we call it, growing through our loyalty programme, a programme which is doing significantly well in Nigeria and thus has become a serious drive of direct marketing techniques. Customers are growing in awareness that booking directly leads to a myriad of benefits, offering the best value-for-money.
  4. Profitable standards
    I fear I may be prolonging the issue of profitable standards, but I cannot stress just how important this is to successful hotel management. Arthur Gillis planted this gem, and in fact, ignoring this rule landed me in a financial corner during our hotel start-up phase. Profitable standards! You can’t have one without the other: there’s no ‘profitable’ without the standards, and no adherence to ‘standards’ that won’t be profitable. This has been a game-changer in our business. We have taken this concept and refined it; we’ve instigated programmes to support the profitable side of our business and programmes to ensure that our standards support those profits – and vice versa.
  5. When guests are around, you need to be around too
    This one came from Bryan Mulliner, a Protea Hotels legend, who left my jaw dropping when he handed over his property to me and pronounced: “Guy, remember the secret to success. When the guests are around, you need to be around”. Now this is a tricky one. If like me you are a family man, this can be a huge problem for any manager, especially if managing a resort or leisure hotel. This visibility is something that I have tried to do, a balance I have sought, in a tug of war sort of manner, but there are certainly ways to achieve this fine balance. General Manager visibility is important.
  6. The guest isn’t always right
    As hoteliers, we have this drummed into our heads: “the guest is always right”. What rubbish! The guest is absolutely not always right, but the guest is always… well…your guest.
    Until such time as I heard these words uttered by Arthur Gillis, I would always react to a guest complaint by eating humble pie and piling on the apologies and freebies. But experience will certainly make you realise that some people, even guests, have ulterior motives, and that you do in fact meet those people who are fishing for a guilt-ridden complimentary offer. So, take complaints seriously, without a doubt, but do investigate to check all sides of the story fairly.
  7. Use my name, use it all the time
    This one comes from guests I have served over the years. First of all, as a person working in the service industry, I quickly realised it was important to not only know the names of your guests, but to also use their names, all the time. The ubiquitous ‘sir’ is definitely not good enough, especially for a regular or returning guest.

    The best hotel groups worldwide have a strict policy for profiling guests: know who they are; know what they look like; know who their kids are. And even more, know their favourite drink; know if they are vegetarian; know their favourite room; and without a doubt, know how they prefer their coffee. This type of profiling, this intimate knowledge, makes all the difference to a guest.
  8. Mind the gap
    Research has proven that people genuinely experience ‘time to wait’ occurs five times as slowly when put on hold on a telephone and while waiting for a waiter, to be served. And this perception is even further exaggerated when people are waiting for their food to arrive. Our job as hosts, whether hotel general managers or part-time food servers, is to recognise that this ‘time warp’ is real for our guests, and therefore it is our job to fill the time. Entertainment, delicious breads, amuse-bouche, kind chatter: whatever the filler may be, do not let time linger.
  9. Give a man some space
    The biggest gift you can give any corporate traveller is a clear desk for working. And you will further delight your guests if they are able to plug in their laptops and phones without any clear and present danger.
    There’s this reliable anomaly in the hotel industry called ‘amenity creep’. It started off with a hotel placing only a brief welcome letter in a room, or a pleasant ‘thank you’, beautiful touches of perhaps 15 years ago. Then came tent cards with branded info, and soon a promotional flyer was added, and then a notice for where to put your towel. Then came menus, shampoos and how-to-do’s. And suddenly, we wiped our tired eyes in our hotel rooms and all we saw was…well…clutter.
    While I admit that much of this ‘stuff’ does serve a purpose, please Mr. Manager, keep my desk clear.
  10. Learn how to spell
    I’ve saved this one for last, because this lesson comes from my father, Otto.
    I am absolutely pedantic about spelling. While I initially assumed that this was passed down to me by my eloquent mother, there was one day, many years ago, while I was presenting a proposal (to whom or for what, I have no actual recollections) the striking memory I do have is this: I asked my father to have a look through the document. He did, with pleasure. And I was, to be honest, expecting some sort of praise. And true as bob, I had spelt the word accommodation wrong! I was mortified when my father admonished in disgust “how in the world can you spell the word accommodation wrong? You’re in the business of accommodation!”From that day on, spell check became my new best friend!

So there you have it: a lifetime of invaluable lessons from inside hotels. Let the teacher keep teaching.​

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