James Fleming, winner of 2014’s Gold Service Scholarship, talks to Janet Harmer about how the scholarship has taken him from Champagne country to the Palace, and is now setting him on track to becoming a hotel general manager
Having the right attitude and personality is everything in the hospitality industry, and James Fleming is convinced that this, rather than superior technical skills, is what drove him to success in the 2014 Gold Service Scholarship.
“I think it was the way I interacted with the guests that won me the award,” he says. “I felt my actual service [during the final lunch at London’s Connaught hotel] was awful. All the other candidates had finished serving their teas and coffees and I was only just starting. However, I used a lot of my experience I’d learned at Le Manoir to understand the guest and react to finer details, such as picking up a dropped napkin and providing a cloche and clean cutlery for one lady who left the table. My personality helped me through.”
One year on, and with the newly appointed Gold Scholar now in place, 25-year-old Fleming is thrilled and enthusiastic to talk about what has been an exceptional year in the development of his career. Not only has he benefited from some (but not yet all) of his prizes as only
the second recipient of the scholarship, he has also secured a new job, gone on to win promotion and be named Newcomer of the Year by
his new employer, the five-red-AA-star, 214-bedroom Berkeley hotel in London.
But it was at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons that Fleming’s career in hospitality flourished, having switched from his original career path after graduating from the University of West England in Bristol with a degree in quantity surveying. “I’d worked at Brasserie Blanc in Bristol while studying,” he explained. “I really loved it and it made me realise how much I enjoyed looking after people and that I didn’t want a nine-to-five job.”
Brasserie Blanc led to a position as commis de rang in the restaurant at Le Manoir, where he stayed for two-and-a-half years before leaving just after winning the Gold Service Scholarship in February 2014. Reflecting on that period, Fleming is enormously grateful to the
encouragement given to him by Le Manoir managing director Philip Newman-Hall. “He will always be my original mentor, having seen
potential in me from the start,” he says.
Fleming’s move to the Berkeley hotel was backed 100% by Newman-Hall. “Philip told me that the best thing for my career would be
to move to London and spend some time working in one of the best hotels. Through his contact with Justin Pinchbeck [general manager]
and Sandeep Bhalla [operations manager] I had several interviews and landed a position as a guest relations associate.”
However, alongside being introduced to a whole new area of hospitality, Fleming also had to come to grips with the enormity of winning the Gold Service Scholarship and all the opportunities the award would bring. Fleming sat down with the judges and trustees of the scholarship, together with his mother and Newman-Hall, at a lunch at Coutts bank.
“It was absolutely phenomenal and overwhelming how everyone wanted to help me,” he says. While there were specific work experience
stints Fleming was set to undertake, everything was geared towards creating a programme that would further the development of his career and his leadership skills.
So far, he has undertaken education tours to Champagne with Champagne Malard and Bordeaux, courtesy of Le Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux; attended a Berry Bros & Rudd wine lecture at their cellars in St James’s; and taken part in two work placements with the Royal Household. Still to come is a one-week stage at the Mandarin Oriental in Paris.
For Fleming, a highlight was working at Windsor Castle, where he spent four days preparing for an Irish state banquet attended by 210 guests. “The attention to detail was phenomenal. Every piece of cutlery was minutely placed using tape measures and sticks,” he says.
“The whole experience taught me a great deal about working in a team and taking instruction at the very highest level – which has been hugely helpful in my current role. For instance, when we are preparing one of our top suites at the Berkeley for a guest who is paying a lot of money to stay with us, it is absolutely vital that our eye is on the details when making last-minute checks of the room.”
Even more mind-blowing for Fleming was his second period of work experience with the Royal Household, this time at a Buckingham
Palace garden party. He was designated to work as a footman alongside George Oates, a regular footman at the Palace and one of this
year’s finalists in the Gold Service Scholarship.
“Edward Griffiths [then deputy master of the Royal Household] told us he had a surprise and that he was going to introduce us to the
Queen. Initially, I was aghast and quite overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to say, but I needn’t have worried, as she asked me about Raymond Blanc and whether I spoke French! I told her that I was very grateful to be there.”
So impressed was the Palace that Fleming was given the opportunity to apply for a position as a part-time footman, a role that he has just been appointed to. “It will involve two to three state banquets a year, and will be a fantastic opportunity to keep involved with food
and beverage at the very highest level.”
Fleming will undertake his work alongside his newly promoted position as guest relations executive at the Berkeley. “I absolutely love the role. Coming to the Berkeley has enabled me to find out more about the hotel side of the business by initially spending some time with housekeeping and on reception. I also hope to gain a better understanding of the financial side through an accountancy course, which
will be sponsored by the Maybourne Hotel Group [the hotel’s owner].”
Fleming works in a five-strong guest relations team. “If a VIP is due to arrive and take over four suites just as I’m going off duty, I will
stay on and make sure the guest has everything they need before I go. It’s about taking responsibility and I’m willing and happy to do that.”
Fleming’s role is all about ensuring that VIPs and regular guests (a regular is deemed to be one who has stayed at least 30 times) have
everything they need when they arrive. “This might mean ensuring the guest’s favourite water, chocolates or magazines are in their room, preparing a personal cocktail tray, or liaising with the concierge. It’s all about making the Berkeley feel like their home.”
For one guest, Fleming arranged 70 balloons to be delivered to their bedroom at 6am on a Sunday along with a cake, while for another he secured a special Hermès ashtray.
Personalising the service is particularly important when children come to stay. “For example, if a family have gone out to watch the
Paddington movie, we make sure that the CD of the soundtrack to the film is in their room. It makes everyone happy and I love that.”
Fleming’s enthusiasm for his job is infectious. Anyone who has been lucky enough to experience his service skills will know that he
clearly enjoys what he does through an instinctive ability to look after and relate to people in a totally natural way. And after having switched from a very different career path, he is certain that he has made the right choice.
“The essence of good service is about anticipating a guest’s needs before they even know what they want, and I think that is something
that suits my personality,” he says. “I was very happy at Le Manoir and I’m now loving life here at the Berkeley, being developed in my career by Justin and Joanne Bursford [director of guest relations].”
Long term, Fleming hopes to continue progressing through the Berkeley and then to seek a role abroad for two to three years, possibly in New York or Hong Kong. “I really love guest relations, but I might move to a managerial role in reception at some point.”
But his ultimate ambition is to return to London and become general manager at one of the city’s top hotels. Watch this space.
James has embraced his mentoring opportunities and has grown in confidence. He displays an air of maturity beyond his years. He has communicated constantly with the trustees and his fellow finalists and is a great ambassador for the scholarship. He will continue to develop in the industry and he is a young man who has confirmed every reason why he was worthy of winning. If his experience helps him develop his potential, then we are achieving what we set out to do with the Gold Service Scholarship.
Edward Griffith, chairman of the judges and trustee of the Gold Service Scholarship, executive director of WSH and chairman of Searcy Tansley & Co and Portico
We are delighted to have James as part of our team here at the Berkeley. James has shown great dedication to his role and is immensely popular with our guests and his colleagues. His recent promotion to guest relations executive is very well-deserved and he is already rising successfully to the challenge. I look forward to seeing great things from James as he continues to develop in his career.
Justin Pinchbeck, general manager, Berkeley hotel, London
When James joined Le Manoir it was very obvious that this was a young man with a caring heart and personality who would go far. He has great intelligence combined with an ability to engage and empathise with any guest. I think of James as another one of those stars of the future and look forward not only to seeing his career develop into a more senior management role, but also to working together with him again one day. Winning the Gold Scholarship was one further step along what will be a great career path.
Philip Newman-Hall, director/general manager, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Oxfordshire
James Fleming’s CV
• 2014-present Guest relations associate, progressing to guest relations executive, Berkeley hotel, London
• 2011-2014 Commis de rang, progressing to chef de rang, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Great Milton, Oxfordshire
• 2009-2011 Part-time head waiter and barman, Brasserie Blanc, Bristol
• 2008-2011 BSc quantity surveying and commercial management, University of the West of England, Bristol