Franck Arnold on why he fell for London's grande-dame, the Savoy

21 October 2020 by

Franck Arnold's appointment as managing director of the Savoy could not have come at a more difficult time, with unprecedented low occupancies and a vastly reduced workforce. However, he tells Janet Harmer that taking up the mantle of the property was an opportunity he could not miss.

When the Savoy comes calling, it is hard to say no. Certainly that is the belief of Franck Arnold, who has recently taken over the running of the iconic, luxury hotel overlooking London's River Thames.

In June, three months into the Covid-19 crisis, Arnold was in Canada, where he had spent the previous four-and-a-half years as general manager of the 263-bedroom Ritz-Carlton in Toronto. "I was driving when I was called by a head-hunter in London about what he described as an extraordinary opportunity," explains the French-born hotelier. "My response was lukewarm at first, as I was very happy where I was. I certainly wasn't looking to move. But when I was told that the hotel was the Savoy, I put my foot on the brake and pulled the car over."

Three months later, Arnold was installed at the helm of the Savoy – Accor's flagship hotel in the UK – as managing director and regional vice-president, stepping into the shoes of Philip Barnes, who has taken on an internal move with the Fairmont brand as general manager of the soon-to-open Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles and regional vice-president, Southern California.

For an international recruitment, the speed of the appointment – involving a total of 11 virtual interviews – was unusually swift.

Arnold arrived in London on 6 September. The move was his return to the UK, after he left in 2016 following a four-and-a-half year stint as general manager of Rocco Forte's Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh.

The Savoy
The Savoy

Earlier in his career he had worked in London as a management trainee on a fast-track programme with InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), initially at the Portman hotel (relaunching as the Nobu Hotel London Portman Square on 9 November) and then the Hyde Park property. He remained with the group for 13 years (see CV, below).

After spending his first week within his new role working from home, Arnold arrived at the five-red-AA-star, 267-bedroom Savoy to meet his team for the first time on 21 September, the same day that the Savoy Grill, overseen by Gordon Ramsay, reopened for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Three days later, the hotel started serving afternoon tea in the Thames Foyer and cocktails in the Beaufort bar. Room bookings have been taken since 1 October, but Kaspar's restaurant, the American bar and Simpson's in the Strand remain closed.

Pandemic panic

"It is the first time in my career that I have opened two hotels in the space of one month," says Arnold, referring to the fact that he had just overseen the reopening of the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto prior to his departure.

"In both Toronto and London, there is an appetite to live again. Those who decide to come out and enjoy our services are doing so consciously and with the aim of enjoying themselves; to enjoy refined, luxury services and to indulge."

Arnold says that for hoteliers all over the world, the pandemic is a game changer. "We are in uncharted territory. I was working in New York after 9/11 and conditions were very tough. But after a few months, business started coming back, as it did after the Gulf War. Never in the history of hospitality, even during the world wars, have occupancies dropped to the levels we are experiencing now, and with such an uncertain future.

Never in the history of hospitality, even during the world wars, have occupancies dropped to the levels we are experiencing now

"We can try to anticipate what might happen, but when we do, a new event happens that affects our decision-making process. We are now having to show so much flexibility, responsiveness and adaptability, while still delivering high-end, luxury hospitality."

A major challenge on reopening the Savoy was reaching an agreement on the relaunch date. "In order to reopen, the hotel had to commit to a minimum level of high-end service and put together a plan that would be sustainable, ensure the right people were reactivated after furlough and provide sufficient revenue to justify the opening.

We are now having to show so much flexibility, responsiveness and adaptability, while still delivering high-end, luxury hospitality

"When the decision was taken [in August] there was some optimism. There were fewer Covid cases and more leisure guests travelling. The hotel did not know that two weeks later there would be the start of a second wave."

From early on in the pandemic it became clear that there would have to be a drastic reduction in the Savoy's team of 600 employees, which includes 100 casual and agency staff. While steps had been put in place by Arnold's predecessor Barnes to undertake a dramatic overhaul of the people culture at the hotel more than a year ago, once lockdown happened, it was obvious that an even more significant reorganisation needed to take place (see below).

While Arnold was not involved in making the very tough decisions regarding the workforce, which has been reduced to 200, he fully embraces the culture he now oversees and praises his colleagues for the sensitive and transparent way they handled the changes.

The Savoy
The Savoy

"It has been very difficult, but it was a necessity in order to be able to continue operating. The approach was very considered and consensual. Everyone was given a chance and everyone understood that there had to be a reduction in staff numbers.

"We believe we have the strongest, most prepared workforce to deliver the best possible service at the Savoy. The staff now have to be flexible and nimble to do things they had not done in the past, as we no longer have the luxury of having a bellman, doorman, valet and concierge all working in their individual roles. It is a necessity as the revenue we anticipate for this year is possibly going to be one-third of what it used to be."

We believe we have the strongest, most prepared workforce to deliver the best possible service at the Savoy

Breaking the mould

With the Savoy's guests now primarily coming from a domestic leisure market, whereas pre-Covid around 65% of business came from overseas, the hotel is working hard at putting together a creative series of packages to attract people. Arnold explains that it is an extension of the approach the Savoy has adopted throughout its 131-year history, such as being the first to introduce fixed-price menus or allowing women to dine alone without a man present.

"We need to continue to break the mould of traditional hospitality, while at the same time respecting and cherishing what we have done in the past," he says. "We are going to have to be a little more adventurous, become more relevant."

One of the first new initiatives is the Suite Dining Experience, comprising a five-course dinner with two glasses of Champagne for £150 per head in one of the Savoy's one-bedroom suites, available for both residents and non-residents. "We envisage it as a couples' retreat, but we could also serve up to six people as long as the rules allow," says Arnold. "It is going to be a proper dining experience, not in-room dining, so we will have to limit the numbers to three suites each evening." One-bedroom suites cost £2,444 for an overnight stay.

Other services to be offered in the hotel's suites include afternoon tea with personal butler service and a cocktail butler who will be able to mix drinks to order after 10pm. "If guests can't go to the bar, we will bring the bar to you."

Beaufort Bar
Beaufort Bar

Also under consideration is a ‘Savoy at home' service, where the hotel's butlers and chefs will be available to hire for small gatherings. "If the environment continues to be restricted, to be able to conduct our normal business, the Savoy will come to your door."

Arnold assures that none of the new products will be introduced without being fully tested and unless they can respect all necessary sanitary measures and social distancing.

He cannot be sure when Kaspar's, the American Bar and Simpson's will reopen, but suggests that there may be an opportunity to temporarily relaunch them on a pop-up basis during the festive season. "However, to think we can reopen them on an ongoing basis at the moment and sustain them financially for the next year is ludicrous. We have to be realistic."

Despite so many Covid rules and restrictions being in place, Arnold is confident that the Savoy team will still be able to offer guests and customers a warm and friendly welcome. "It is more difficult to create a rapport with guests from behind a mask, but we are training staff to slightly elevate the level of their voice and articulate better so what they are saying is not muffled.

The Savoy
The Savoy

"There is generally less hand movement naturally in Britain when people speak, compared to France or Italy. Staff now use hand and arm gestures to welcome guests to the hotel and when communicating with them. They are also reading the emotional cues of guests and reacting to the change in the shape of the eyes to a smile."

While the food and beverage options that have opened at the hotel are reporting strong business, the occupancy mirrors that of the London luxury market, with low double digits mid-week, rising to around 20% at the weekend. October rates, which start at £568 plus VAT during the week and £610 at weekends, provide a 20% discount on bar rate and no cancellation fee up to 72 hours prior to arrival. The hotel believes there is no long-term value in reducing rates, with clients saying that they believe a drop in rates could mean a reduction in service.

The Savoy
The Savoy

The scaling down of the Savoy's usual busy operation, comprising seven restaurants and bars and extensive events business, has effectively reduced the hotel to a luxury boutique operation for the foreseeable future. Arnold expects that the hotel's creative and imaginative response to the changing environment will remain in place for some time.

"I don't see an improvement until next year and even then it will not be a return to normal. At the moment there is minimal aircraft in the sky. Only when I hear airplane noise again will I be happy."

Only when I hear airplane noise again will I be happy

Franck Arnold's CV

2020-to date Managing director and regional vice-president, the Savoy, London

2016-2020 General manager, the Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, Canada

2011-2016 General manager, the Balmoral, Edinburgh

2005-2011 Managing director, the Jefferson, Washington DC, the US

2004-2005 Hotel manager, Four Seasons, Chicago, the US

1991-2004 Various roles for InterContinental Hotels Group, including hotel manager, InterContinental New York Barclay (2002-2004)

The Savoy fact file

The Strand, London WC2R 0EZ

020 7836 4343

www.thesavoylondon.com

Owner Breezeroad, the holding company of the Savoy, is 59% owned by Kingdom Holding Company (the ultimate majority principal shareholder is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Abdulaziz al Saud) and 41% by Qatar Investment Authority

Operator Accor, under the Fairmont Hotels & Resorts brand

Managing director Franck Arnold

Executive chef Fabrice Lasnon

Food and beverage (open) Savoy Grill, Thames Foyer, Beaufort bar

Food and beverage (yet to reopen) Kaspar's at the Savoy, Simpson's in the Strand, American bar

Bedrooms 267 (including 67 suites)

Turnover (2018) £61.3m

Occupancy (2018) 68%

Revpar (2018) £326

source: Companies House

A culture change in people and roles

Sally Webster was appointed by Philip Barnes to the new role of director of talent and culture at the Savoy nearly two years ago to reorganise the business from a people perspective. She could never just imagined just how extreme that reorganisation would eventually be.

Sally Webster, the Savoy
Sally Webster, the Savoy

Prior to Covid-19, Barnes' wish, to create a workforce that was more empowered and free to express individual personality, had already been put in place.

"The Savoy was embroiled in tradition," explains Webster. "We wanted to modernise the way we worked, which would create a better experience for guests."

We wanted to modernise the way we worked, which would ultimately create a better experience for guests

During lockdown it became apparent that substantial costs needed to be taken out of the business. "We thought how we could do this from an aspirational and sustainable point of view," says Webster. "We needed to move colleagues around in a more fluid way and broaden job profiles as business levels moved up and down."

A range of new job titles were introduced. Where there had once been bartenders, hosts and servers, there are now ‘food and beverage insiders'. Guest executives now exist in place of receptionists, guest relations, butlers and concierges.

Staff retain their knowledge in one area, but also develop the ability to multitask.

"Following training, the new roles have provided people with a new range of skills so that they have variety and can move around, resulting in a more seamless guest experience. It is easier to develop an emotional connection with a guest if just one member of staff is involved in the guest's journey," Webster says.

Staff were fully involved in creating the new job profiles, with the hotel's new vision – "placing extraordinary people at the heart of memories made and stories told" – central to every role.

Additionally, levels of management have been stripped out, which Webster says added complexity and slowed down the decision-making process. "Executives are now more hands-on and closer to the action."

When it came to deciding who was going to stay, Webster says that rather than just consider competency and attendance, the hotel also looked at who had the potential to move the business forward. "It is about driving a high-performance culture by providing really clear lines of expectation," she explains. "We want to inspire the team to aspire for excellence. Such a culture is not just about telling people how amazing they are; there needs to be honesty."

Webster stresses that staff were kept informed of how the selection criteria had been worked out, with everyone undergoing a selection assessment by two senior leaders before being interviewed.

Once a decision had been made, all those who didn't make it received a face-to-face call.

"It was important we looked everyone in the eye and gave them feedback. We are continuing to support those who have lost their jobs through a Facebook group where we post jobs throughout other parts of the Accor group. We will keep the conversation going as, when business picks up, we will likely be calling on them again."

The new Savoy culture has seen the traditional mantra "reports to" replaced by "inspired and reported by", highlighting the inverted pyramid management structure now in place.

The "skills/qualities" section of each job title has been replaced by "how you will be extraordinary" and lists 10 attributes that apply to everyone in the role.

Webster credits Barnes with creating the vision to transform the Savoy's people culture prior to Covid-19 and highlights the role played by Jan-Peer Lehfeldt, the hotel's new executive assistant manager of food and beverage, who arrived in March from the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club, a Fairmont property in Bermuda.

"Jan's north American experience brought some healthy disruption to traditional thinking," she says. "It was really important in those early stages to create alignment in our approach across the executive team – once we had developed the new operating model we all stayed true to the principles. Now is the perfect time to hand the baton over to Franck – his level of enthusiasm matches ours."

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