Harbour Hotels is rising fathoms above the competition by investing heavily in its innovative staff training programmes. Chris Gamm reports
How do you overcome the challenge of struggling to recruit and retain brilliant staff, coupled with the ambition to deliver brand consistency across an expanding portfolio of properties?
Few would take the step of investing £250,000 to build an academy to train front of house staff and apprentice chefs. But that's exactly what Harbour Hotels, a group of 16 sites across the south of England, unveiled in December 2018.
Harbour Hotels was created in 2003 when chairman Nicolas Roach bought the Avonmouth hotel in Christchurch, Dorset. By the time Mike Warren joined as managing director in January 2014, the group had grown to five hotels and one wedding venue. Seven more hotels and another wedding venue quickly followed, including, most recently, Brighton, Southampton and the group's first London property in Richmond. Two ex-Richardson Hotels in Fowey and Padstow were snapped up last year, with the former receiving its Harbour makeover in January and the latter in March.
s rapid growth has been enabled by the building of Harbour House, the group's head office, a stone's throw from the original Christchurch site, in August 2017.
The first floor of Harbour House is occupied by central reservations, marketing, revenue management, maintenance, finance and construction divisions. A central production and purchasing kitchen occupies half of the ground floor. But the Academy kitchen and restaurant, in the remaining space downstairs, is the real jewel in the crown.
"We've decided to put our money where our mouth is and lead by example," says Warren. "We want to ensure as a business that we realise the true potential of our team and give them the opportunity to develop for their own good and the wider business."
The Harbour Academy comprises two parts. Firstly, the Chef Academy, which currently has 14 young chefs at various stages of their level two commis apprenticeships. Secondly, the Restaurant Academy, launching on 1 April, which will develop the skills of Harbour's 600 F&B staff through a mix of on-site and e-learning.
"We want to make sure our people are given the opportunity based on their potential and ability and not on the traditional long climb to the top," says Warren. "It's accelerated promotion for talented candidates."
The man largely responsible for delivering this is Simon Maguire, who joined Harbour as regional general manager overseeing six properties in July 2016, but now additionally heads up the group's people development function.
"I'm really excited about it," he says. "Bringing people here to the Academy and them feeling really invested in is a big step for us.
The people function Maguire heads up comprises two HR managers - one focusing on recruitment and the other a specialist in the Flow online training platform - and two specialist trainers - academy chef trainer Sarah King and group F&B trainer Katrina Stalker.
Not being from an HR background, Maguire sought the counsel of two mentors before embarking on such a major project. One was the HR director of retailer the White Company, the other the e-learning manager for Caffè Nero. As a group that trains 7,500 employees across 770 sites, predominantly through technology, the things he learned from the latter clearly struck a chord.
"At Caffè Nero, it's a simple system," says Maguire. "You join as a trainee barista, move through each position up to store manager, then you have three routes: head office, excellence training or a regional role. I found it really interesting that they'd created a learning journey and that's what I wanted to do. When someone starts on day one, they know exactly the training that's laid out for them.
"I have a key goal. From 1 January 2020, we will be able to fill any position above entry level internally, or certainly give our team the opportunity first, because we have the talent, the training they've had is good enough and they're able to step up. That creates quite an exciting culture."
The Chef Academy
Despite only opening its doors in December, the Harbour Chef Academy has been in operation since January 2018 when Sarah King joined the business to head it.
King, a former chef with experience at the Michelin-starred Café Gray in New York and Le Royal Méridien resort in Dubai, left the kitchen full-time in 2007 to move into chef recruitment. However, she always had a passion to develop chefs and for many years worked with schools to inspire students to explore flavours and textures from a young age, while simultaneously developing plans to launch a chef academy. Then, the stars aligned and she found Harbour Hotels, which had an ambition that matched her own.
"My goal is to start producing chefs who actually have the skills and talent to help the industry be more sustainable," says King. "When I joined, it was a blank canvas. I had a vision of what I wanted to create and they employed me to develop it. I wrote the induction and put the plan together using the People 1st programme and manipulated it to make it 10 times better."
The 14 students spend four days a week working as commis in one of the group's restaurants and one day in the Academy kitchen. This includes a mix of theoretical and practical work, plus six workshops, including game, offal, pastry, bread and fish. In addition, the students go on six field trips to build their supply chain knowledge, to Spitalfields and Billingsgate markets, Brixham, a master butcher, a chocolatier and a pÁ¢tisserie.
"They hadn't previously recognised the commitment and effort delivered within the supply chain," says King. "That knowledge is important to grow these guys into future head chefs, so they can bring another team along."
All 14 students are currently studying for their level two commis chef apprenticeships, with two - Jessica Michell and Alex Burgess - due to graduate in March before moving onto the level three chef de partie programme.
"I have visions to do far more. The great thing about the apprentice programme is you can develop right the way up to head chef and beyond. It's about how far these chefs want to go and what we can offer their career."
King is recruiting for four more apprentices - two in Richmond, one in Brighton and one in Guildford - and has set the target of 34 in total by the end of the year as the current crop graduate to level three and a new group of commis come on board.
"The programme is in-depth and demands a lot of them quite early in their careers," she says. "Now we understand how to gain the best from them, we are able to retain them and continue to nurture their passion and enthusiasm. At the end of the day, we all enter this industry for the same reason. At Harbour, we work hard to keep their passion alive."
The Restaurant Academy
Housed alongside the Academy kitchen, the Restaurant Academy features a dummy bar (pictured left), coffee area and restaurant set-up. As with the Chef Academy, much of the development will take place back on the employee's day-to-day site. Unlike the Chef Academy however, this side will develop a significant volume of staff members.
Two programmes will launch simultaneously on 1 April. An introduction to food and beverage course is for the 600 existing F&B staff and all new recruits, with 250 forecast to join the business in 2019 alone. The advanced F&B course is for all those looking to develop their skills and gain a second qualification endorsed by the Institute of Hospitality.
"We're aiming to get 300 employees through the advanced course in 2019," says Maguire. "It's a big goal, but we'll achieve it."
Ahead of the April launch, 17 nominated Harbour Masters - one per property and generally waiters and supervisors - will be put through a 'train a trainer' course. They will then act as training ambassadors back on-site and spend around a day per week supporting their colleagues through the introduction programme.
The Harbour Masters will be supported by Katrina Stalker, who joined Harbour from Côte Restaurants in January 2019, managed centrally through a customised version of Flow.
"It will be a Harbour app called the Dock," says Stalker. "We love a boat pun. It will be a one-stop-shop, everything from your library, courses, training, compliance and a news feed so you can communicate with your team.
"Our aim is that, from the minute they start with us, they have the best onboarding experience, the best introduction to the company and will really see what Harbour's about: our core brands and the ethos behind our guest and team experience.
"The plan is to deliver a certain level of consistency across the group. The different brands might have very different bars and restaurants, but ultimately it's the same product. We want to get the consistency of the brand across."
Unsurprisingly, for a group as ambitious as Harbour, the Academy isn't stopping at chefs and F&B staff: "The next stage we want to get to in 2020, once we've rolled this one out successfully, is housekeeping, with a fully laid-out bedroom, then reception and so on, up to spa therapists," says Maguire.
Technology is ensuring the business is also focusing on training in the most important areas. "We're aligning it with what matters most to guests," says Warren. "A new CRM programme, Revinate, pulls together all the social media feedback and tells us what customers are thinking. In the negative feedback, they're not saying the table wasn't set properly, the lighting wasn't right or the chair was wobbly. It's about how they feel and that's going to be driven by the staff member's interaction with the guests. It sounds so simple, but it's so important. Many businesses can lose sight of it. We're trying to prioritise it. That's the backbone of what the Academy is."
Meet the apprentices
Alex Burgess, apprentice commis chef, HarBar on 6th, Southampton
"I joined in July from the Holiday Inn in Eastleigh. I wanted to get a more rounded skillset as I felt that what I knew was quite basic.
"In the six months I've been here, I've learned more than I did in the previous two years. I like my workplace and the training days are great. We've done a game workshop, a fish workshop, and we've made pizza and bread.
"My dream role is to work in the pastry section in a nice restaurant. I like how you can be so creative and have time in the day to experiment with different garnishes and be able to put your own spin on a dessert. I like the freedom to be able to put your passion into it."
Jessica Michell, apprentice commis chef, the Jetty, Southampton
"Before I joined in January I was working in a little café in Milford-on- Sea, serving coffee, not knowing what I wanted to do with my career.
"I love challenging myself. I push myself to do lots of things, including competitions. I did HIT's Apprentice Masterchef, which I really enjoyed. If you'd told me a year ago I'd be entering competitions, I'd say 'no, no, no'. I've learned so much in the last year and pushed myself so much. That's really where I want my career to take me.
"I'd love to be a head chef in my own restaurant in the future. A little forest bistro, quite rural, quite natural."
The Restaurant Academy modules
Introduction to food and beverage modules Seven units for all F&B staff, to be completed online and taking approximately half a day each:
•Lunch and dinner
Advanced food and beverage modules Five one-day courses taking place at the Restaurant Academy:
•Silver service training
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