For the GMs of three U.K. independent hotels, the experience of starting at the bottom and rising through the ranks has helped to inform their decisions and keep them connected to their staffs and guests.
LONDON—One started as a wannabe chef; another wanted nothing more than to be a waiter; and the third started out baking and selling cakes.
They ended up running three of the United Kingdom’s most celebrated independent hotels, all of which are privately owned.
“I wanted to be a chef but was bawled out by the chef-lecturer, so with my BTEC Higher National Diploma (qualification), I went to the operations side,” said Anthony Cox, GM of Danesfield House Hotel & Spa in Marlow-on-Thames, Buckinghamshire, during a panel titled “The GM speaks” at last week’s Boutique Lifestyle Hotel Summit.
Angela Ellis, GM of The Zetter and The Zetter Townhouse, both in the heart of London, told a similar story about how she got into the hospitality business: “There were no vacancies in waitressing, so, much to the dismay of my parents, I started cleaning rooms. Eighteen months ago, I got the amazing opportunity to become GM. I have found the best way to learn is to be thrown into deep water.”
Ben Maybury, hotel manager of Lime Wood, a property in Lyndhurst in The New Forest, said after peddling pastries he did stints in restaurants, kitchens and cocktail bars.
“I started at 14, a chef at 16. … I worked with some fabulous people,” he said.
Panel moderator Robin Sheppard, chairman of Bespoke Hotels, said he also worked his way up to become GM at Bodysgallen Hall & Spa in Llandudno, Wales.
“Traditionally in the U.K., our GMs have come up either through rooms or F&B,” he said.
How long that trend might last concerned those on the stage.
“A GM? It’s meet-and-greet, its revenue management, its sometimes chasing horses, and younger people do not thrive on that,” Maybury said. “They want coaching and guidance.”
“‘General’ is the word you need to be,” Cox said, adding that one of this main guides to excellence is fellow hotelier Kit Chapman’s “An Innkeeper’s Diary,” which was published in 1999.
Tech in back of house, a smile in the front
Hospitality is another keyword, panelists said, although that is no longer as plain and simple as it once was.
“With tech being so prevalent, personal touches are so much more magnified now,” Cox said. “There is no management by email.”
Maybury said that one regular guest has a running joke, ordering a glass of port regardless of what time he arrives. “It is things like that that keeps us on our toes,” he said.
Cox added that investment in back-of-house technology allows more time in front of the desk with guests.
“We are a labor-heavy business, so if we streamline operations behind the scenes, we can plow more money in front of house. Yes, it adds another slew of costs, but on the flip side is that there are savings to be had, too,” he said.
“But we are not a commodity. We’re selling an experience in a luxury country hotel,” he added.
Finessing the future
After decades of collected experience, the panelist GMs are not resting on their laurels.
For Ellis, the goal now is to grow her hotel’s food-and-beverage operations, which might be a daunting prospect given that the hotel’s owners started off as restaurateurs.
“We have been awarded ‘new best cocktail bar in the world,’ and with four hotels just down the road, there’s huge competition,” she said.
The bar of choice is not the only competitive arena.
Staff hiring and retention is one of the biggest headwinds, according to Maybury, who said ongoing training is vital.
“We have three sessions of training every month, perhaps on inspiring leadership, maybe first-aid, and I spend much time reassuring our foreign staff,” he added.
Cox said everyone should know more about the pipeline of talent available after the 8 June general election in the U.K.