Hotel owners and directors often have the privilege of attending industry conferences, allowing them to network and be exposed to new ideas, something not often extended to heads of departments – until now. Katherine Price had the opportunity to observe and take part in the first Iconic Luxury Hotels Head of Department Conference
“I get to go to conferences, but most of my heads of department don’t have that luxury, even though in many respects they’re more influential with regards to staff motivation and retention because they’re line managers.”
This was the thought that inspired Iconic Luxury Hotels executive director Andrew Stembridge to create a conference purely for his departmental heads while running with his dog Hamish last year.
On 24-25 February, 50 key managers from across the business, including chefs, events managers, HR directors, head housekeepers and financial controllers, descended on the 72-bedroom, five-red-AA-star Chewton Glen in New Milton, Hampshire. The hotel is one of four Iconic properties, along with Cliveden House in Taplow, Berkshire; 11 Cadogan Gardens in London; and the Lygon Arms in Broadway, Worcestershire.
What’s the story?
The Iconic Luxury Hotels inaugural Head of Department Conference, hosted by consultant Mary Jane Flanagan, kicked off with a cocktail reception at one of Chewton Glen’s treehouses, followed by a sit-down, five-course meal at the main property.
The theme of the evening was storytelling, with every delegate asked to submit a story, including the head chefs from each of the hotels. They were tasked with each designing a dish that was personal to them and told a story, whether it was about their love of foraging or a dish close to their heart.
The evening was peppered with stories ranging from snippets of sage advice (“always remember guests’ dogs’ names”) to tales of industry experiences both good and bad that had taught them vital lessons, and even two ghost stories. A final bedtime story rounded it all off before a strict midnight curfew to ensure the team was well-rested for the next day.
Excellence in all areas
AA senior hotel and restaurant inspector Paul Hackett launched the following morning by lifting the lid on what a red star from the guidebook organisation means and the inspection process.
Out of 8,000 properties the AA recognises, only 50 have been awarded the top five-red-star rating, which the organisation defines as “excellence in all areas”.
“Red stars do tell a story,” said Hackett, “and stories are more important now than they’ve ever been.”
He gave numerous examples to illustrate the difference between a star and a red star to show how to elevate hospitality above the norm, from initiative (Hackett mentioned a restaurant that offered him a towel after he arrived wet through from the rain) to anticipation (“if you can get there before a guest does, you exceed expectations”) – all of which will enable a hotel to stand out from the increasingly fierce competition.
Building resilience in the business
Delegates then heard from Katie Page, who spoke on resilience – something all hospitality workers will need more of in the years ahead. Now a sports psychologist, Page told her story of being diagnosed with an incurable virus that paralysed her when she was 19, her journey to walking again and the connection between the mind and the body.
She urged the departmental heads to make even more of a conscious effort to imagine best outcome scenarios and to communicate those visions clearly to their teams. “If you’ve got a big event coming up, you can sit down and paint this picture, like a dress rehearsal, and get your teams to do it,” she said.
As part of this, she told attendees to set ‘mini goals’ along the path to the ultimate goal, as without breaking it down, people forget to recognise the small successes on the way. “You have to recognise the stuff that’s going right, and give yourself and your teams positive feedback for that,” she said.
Everyone is a salesperson
After a stroll in the unseasonably warm sunshine to the Kitchen at Chewton for a leisurely lunch, consultant Melanie Cash took to the stage to further remind delegates that they all play a part in the guest experience and story – and therefore the commercial success of the business.
“All the touchpoints that we have with guests are more opportunities to surprise and delight them and make them want to return again and spend even more money,” she said.
She got the room to think about “turning over the stones” – finding out more about guests by asking them open-ended questions, and “connecting the dots” by sharing the information with their teams.
She described this use of open questions to build a rapport with guests as “a more consultative sales approach”. Cash said using this information (for example, suggesting a spa treatment to guests who have had a long or stressful journey to the hotel) will enhance the guest experience and make them feel they got even more than they paid for, even if they paid for more than they originally intended.
Your leadership shadow
Having hosted the two-day conference, it was fitting that the final speaker was Flanagan, who challenged Iconic’s heads of departments to think about the ‘leadership shadow’ they cast over their teams and the examples they are setting for them.
She defined a leadership shadow as the combination of four aspects: what you say, how you act, what you prioritise and how you measure.
“Inspired leaders have engaged employees, superior customer experience and sustained bottom-line profit,” she said. “Leadership is an action, not a position – it’s how you act on a daily basis and how you engage, build and grow your team.”
She grouped the conference into teams to think about what good leadership looks like. One example was “head up, not head down” management, where managers should look around their workplaces and greet staff while they walk through a property, rather than marching into an office with their eyes on the ground.
She took the delegates through writing their own personal action plans and, concluding the conference, Stembridge urged his heads of department to turn those written plans into actions and to share their intentions with others to hold them to account.
Leading by example, he committed to creating a ‘library’ of management books in the HR offices of each of the group’s hotels for staff to borrow.
“This conference could have very easily not happened – finding a day when we had space, pulling all of our managers out of all the hotels simultaneously,” he said. “But we said it was going to happen and it did. There’s a lot in that.”
“I had always made the effort to get to know my counterparts at the other properties, but this forum was so helpful in building on those existing relationships, and meeting so many new faces and personalities. I know that my team that attended feel appreciated and invested in, which will definitely help carry the positive learnings of the conference forward.”
Alex von Ulmenstein, food and beverage operations manager, Chewton Glen