Winner's profile: ICC Group, Birmingham

25 October 2007 by
Winner's profile: ICC Group, Birmingham

The deadline for the 2008 Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards, run in association with Corecruitment, is just days away. Emma Allen talks to 2007 category winner the ICC Group about the benefits of winning

One of the largest conference venues in the UK, the ICC Group, part of the NEC in Birmingham, is more like a small village than a traditional workplace. Stretching across 11 large halls, the site has 14 kitchens and employs 350 catering staff. Recent events include the British Small Animal Veterinary Association congress, which attracted more than 7,500 delegates. Annual turnover is just over £8.5m.

Despite the large scale of the operation, the ICC's philosophy remains firmly focused on its staff. This year the company won the individual unit category in Caterer‘s Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards. The judges described its HR policies as "innovative". Of particular note were the ICC's determined efforts to make it an inclusive and positive place to work for all employees. One example is the rolling-out of the appraisal system to all staff, meaning everyone from kitchen porters to food service assistants can have an annual one-to-one meeting with their manager.

According to catering operations manager Wesley Johnson, it's all about making people feel valued. "It's easy for casual staff to think ‘it's just a job' but we wanted to change that perception," he explains. "We also ask how happy staff are and what we could be doing better. So far it's really changed the culture and the mood." There are other benefits from a management point of view. "It's an opportunity to get honest feedback. Often these staff are on the front line so they know what works and what doesn't," Johnson says.

Commitment to training was also singled out by the judges. A dedicated learning and development team is on hand to identify training needs, and all staff receive job descriptions, inductions and ongoing development. External training, further education, secondments and job shadowing are encouraged, regardless of position.

"When you say we're investing in people it can sound a bit cheesy, but it's really about encouraging dedication and giving people the chance to be good at what they do," Johnson explains. That includes making sure staff are up to speed on every aspect of their day-to-day jobs. In kitchens, plasma screens offer visual guides to issues like health and safety or "refreshers" on specific equipment, while all front-of-house staff are entitled to "interaction training", which aims to improve communication such as body language and how to speak to customers.

Last year a leadership development course was introduced for senior managers, focusing on motivation skills, and this is now being rolled out to team leaders.

The company is also keen to identify and resolve gaps which might hold people back. Following a food hygiene course six months ago, it became obvious that some staff had difficulties with basic skills like reading. As a result, the ICC has since developed an adult education scheme, to be launched later this year, meaning all staff can take voluntary courses in subjects like writing, reading and maths.

Home-grown talent

"We've got the resources to help people," explains Johnson. "We'd always much rather recruit for attitude, rather than just skills, because we can give people those skills if necessary."

Training has another purpose - to nurture home-grown talent. Recruitment drives are run twice a year to prepare for the busiest seasons, but Johnson points out that it's not always easy to attract staff. "We're a unique venue and sometimes finding people with the right experience, particularly at management level, can be difficult," he admits. For that reason, he says, it's easier and more cost-effective to develop people in-house, rather than constantly trying to find new staff or pay recruitment fees for agency workers.

Retaining employees, on the other hand, is generally less of a problem. Turnover is impressively low at a well-below-average 15%. Several managers have been with the company for more than 10 years, and 20 of the casual staff have worked there since the ICC opened in 1991.

With new venues like the Liverpool Arena & Convention Centre opening in 2008, it's also important to keep innovating and moving forward. "The conference sector is very competitive and people naturally want to try new places so we need to make sure we're staying ahead," Johnson explains.

Earlier this year, for example, a new restaurant-style service was launched, allowing delegates to choose their meal at the table rather than pre-ordering. "No one else is doing it but it does put extra pressure on staff - especially when you're looking at 850 banqueting covers - so we need to be able to support that with proper training," Johnson says.

Continual efforts are made to improve quality across the business too. Last year, the company introduced the From Good to Great scheme, in which each member of staff, including the chief executive, has to commit to three promises of excellence relating to his or her job. For Johnson, it helps to reinforce the idea that everybody's contribution counts. "It's been very successful and it's made a big difference to internal morale," he says. "You run the risk that initiatives like this end up falling by the wayside but it's taken very seriously and everybody's bought into it."

The initiative also feeds into the company's incentive scheme, where targets are used as a means of driving performance as well as motivating teams. Client feedback on each event, from the sales process right down to the bar staff, goes towards department "scores". Results are fed back to teams on a monthly basis, with those meeting annual targets entered into a prize draw. Last year, a chef won a Peugeot 206, while other prizes up for grabs might include holidays and shopping vouchers.

A focus on internal communication means that as well as a monthly newsletter, a quarterly staff forum, led by the ICC's general manager Allan Boyle, also gives people the chance to raise issues. In return, management gains valuable feedback from the shop floor. Recently, the ICC invested in 3,000 new cups and porters were consulted beforehand as part of the buying process.

A social programme is on offer to all staff. One regular event is the annual Team ICC Day, which is open to all employees and offers an action-packed day of physical fun, competition and team-building.

Equally, work-life balance is taken seriously. Johnson says it's a culture promoted from the top, and hours are recorded, WTR regulations are adhered to and flexible working is available. Extended leave and sabbaticals are also considered, and all staff are eligible for lifestyle benefits such as discounts on shops including Specsavers, nursery vouchers and Fitness First gym memberships.

On winning the award, Johnson says the whole team was "delighted" and that recognition of the company's commitment to making the ICC a genuinely positive place to work has been very rewarding. But he stresses that it's not a finite process. "It's about continuing to improve and reinvest, not just for our customers' benefit but our staff too," he says.

How to enter best places to work

Do you run a successful business and treat your staff well? Then get your entry in for the Caterer and Hotelkeeper Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards 2008.

Go to and complete the application form.

2008 Award Categories

  • Hotel chains with one to 10 sites
  • Hotel chains with 11 or more sites
  • Restaurant or bar chains with one to 10 sites
  • Restaurant or bar chains with 11 or more sites
  • Contract catering companies
  • Public sector
  • Individual unit
  • Hospitality supplier company

Closing date for entries is 31 October. The winners will be announced at a glittering awards ceremony on 18 February 2008.

If you have any queries about the awards or how to enter, please contact Lisa Goold on 020 8652 4200, or e-mail

What the judges look for

An expert and fully independent judging panel has been selected for the Caterer and Hotelkeeper Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards 2008, run in association with Corecruitment.

The judges have experience in all areas of the hospitality industry and HR, and are drawn from leading trade and industry bodies and trade magazines. Judging will be carried out against specific criteria, which have been outlined in the entry details.

Judges will look for evidence of enthusiasm and fun, as well as benefits. Entrants should demonstrate their commitment to staff development, highlighting examples of creativity. What skills are developed? How integrated is the learning? What is the balance between internal and external training? Judges will also look at how much being a good place to work adds value to the business - through better service, quality, and customer understanding.

Businesses should show what they are doing above and beyond the legal HR requirements.

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