Lessons learned at Iconic Luxury Hotels' leadership conference 2023

24 November 2023 by

Delegates at Iconic Luxury Hotels' leadership conference learned from those at the top of their game, from sports psychologists to Royal Marines

A beach litter pick and a lesson in the art of improvisation were just some of the activities on offer during Iconic Luxury Hotels' fifth leadership conference. The 72-bedroom, five-red-AA-star Chewton Glen hotel and spa in New Milton, Hampshire, an Iconic Luxury Hotel, hosted 36 hours of interactive workshops, keynote speeches and fine dining for the hotel group's 60 heads of department, ranging from front of house to facilities.

Two new London properties, the Mayfair Townhouse and the recently opened Chelsea Townhouse, have been added to the Iconic portfolio since the first conference took place in 2019. With six hotels in total, including Chewton Glen, Cliveden House in Taplow, the Lygon Arms in the Cotswolds, and 11 Cadogan Gardens in London, executive director Andrew Stembridge felt it was only right that managers from across the business have the opportunity to talk to each other, especially considering they face similar challenges.

"Maybe next time they've got a problem, they can phone that guy [they met at the conference] because they're friendly with him," he says. "I was very conscious that, year-on -year, we ask more from all of our managers and their jobs are becoming more complicated by the day. As a head of department, you've clearly got your area but you need to have an understanding of what needs to be done [across the whole business]. The great example now is chefs with their own social media accounts. They're now part of the marketing team; they promote themselves."

Although Iconic Luxury Hotels runs an internal leadership programme that has resulted in 20% of its existing staff becoming heads of department and actively encourages individuals to take on management courses, Stembridge wanted to offer even more opportunities for growth. He needed "something to inspire them, reward them and motivate them", and that was how the annual leadership conference began. Here are some key takeaways from the event.

Jamil Qureshi: "Act as if"

The first-ever official golf psychologist to the European Ryder Cup team spoke to delegates about the power of "acting as if". He had introduced this technique to a golfer who was ranked 50th in the world and wanted to become world number one. Qureshi explains: "[You think] what would I be doing if I was the best at doing this job? Then you act how you can see yourself become it."

He suggests this thinking can also be used to spark brainstorming sessions in the workplace. If people are struggling with finding inspiration, they should turn to "gamification". He adds: "Get a whiteboard, grab 20 people from the sales team and tell them to imagine we are three times more expensive. How will you sell now? Think about the parameters you can move – a bigger budget or a bit of regulation that doesn't exist. It could get people to think more creatively and they could diverge in conversation."

Qureshi adds that businesses should stop trying to fix their weaknesses and instead consider enhancing the positives: "The route to greater success is to do something a little bit more. Success is about turning up the volume on what you are already good at."

Jason Fox: "Hot debrief"

The former UK special operations team leader who spent 20 years conducting counterterrorism and hostage rescue missions, spoke to delegates about resilience. Jason Fox, or Foxy, as he is known on television shows such as Channel 4's SAS: Who Dares Wins, recalled the rescue of a New York Times journalist in northern Afghanistan on 9 September 2009 to illustrate how he dealt with highly stressful situations.

Despite intensely distressing situations, including the death of a team member, he persevered through the assignment. He was able to do this first by "giving myself a proverbial slap round the face, reminding myself that I had survived and done courses that made me capable of leading", and secondly by "looking down the line of the ditch at the guys I'm responsible for". He continues: "I love the blokes, but whether I like them doesn't matter. And that is what got me out of that ditch."

Fox says each mission ends with a "hot debrief", where every person talks about everything they did and why. "We do it whether we fail or succeed, and that information goes into an after-action report. The training departments read that and the lessons we learn we input into the other squadrons."

Simon Maguire: "Stay positive"

Simon Maguire, the former managing director of Luxury Family Hotels, spoke openly about his journey of recovery from alcoholism and painkiller addiction. He urged delegates to regularly set goals and try to surpass them through a combination of building habits, having a positive mindset, and developing a ‘tribe' of people who support you.

He found his own passion in training for the world's toughest single-day endurance race, Ironman.

"There's nothing wrong with failure. It's having the energy to go again, and that mindset piece helps with that. You've got to try and stay positive," he says.

Delegate feedback

Ruby Bailey Knight, head of people and culture at Cliveden House, describes her third conference as "inspiring", particularly in terms of its focus on sustainability, wellbeing, leadership and goal-setting. "One of the biggest takeaways is the networking opportunity. I know more people every time I come to these events. It's great that Iconic puts it on for us. It makes you feel really valued as a leader in the business and teaches you skills and I've loved it."

Craige Liquorish, front of house manager at 11 Cadogan Gardens and the Chelsea Townhouse, was pleased to see consolidation of certain topics between the two conferences he has attended. "One thing that's good is the continued focus on sustainability. [General manager of Whatley Manor in Malmesbury,] Sue Williams did a big piece on sustainability last year so it's good to see that Iconic have kept that up with this year's talk from the Sustainability Group. It's not just a one-off thing for us; it's clearly an objective for the company. Through these leadership conferences, it gives us the confidence to implement it in our hotels."

Terrance Nicholas Denis, bar and lounge manager at Chewton Glen, adds: "It's my first conference since I started in November last year. I've been in hospitality quite a while – 17 or 18 years – but this conference was nice to get a few more ideas on how things actually work and how you can help develop yourself and your team."

Rescue stranded assets

Stembridge was keen to accelerate Iconic Luxury Hotels' sustainability agenda with an interactive talk from Michael Penrose and Alexandra Smith, co-founders of the Sustainability Group. The pair warned against stranded assets, where businesses realise recently refurbished infrastructure is actually due to become obsolete by law in five to 10 years.

Smith also challenged the perception that "sustainability is less" when it comes to luxury. She says: "Sometimes sustainability is just a different point of view and a different way of doing things. People are willing to spend a bit more if it means they can see their spending money turned into sustainable value."

She adds that although it is hard to keep track of what guests are doing in their rooms, effective communication can encourage people to make climate-conscious choices during their stay. "Sometimes it takes a little bit more planning and creativity, but that actually often ends in better opportunities."

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