After 37 years working abroad, Philip Barnes returned to the UK in 2016 as managing director of the Savoy and regional vice-president for Fairmont. He tells Janet Harmer how he has shaken up the culture of the five-red-AA-star, 267-bedroom hotel for the benefit of guests and staff alike
How is the Savoy performing at the moment?
We are having the best year since the hotel reopened in 2010 following a £220m, three-year refurbishment. We've had a phenomenal first seven months, outperforming in every month over all previous records. I put that down to a very clear strategy around what our needs are, solid sales and marketing and communication teams, and a strong focus on the guest and colleague experience. If colleagues are having a great time, guests will have a great time. It is not rocket science, but it is all about people.
Since early 2016, we've moved up 50 places to number 18 out of 1,131 hotels in London on TripAdvisor. How have we accomplished this? We hire the best people we possibly can – selecting around one person from every 10 who apply for a job. We put everyone through a very thorough orientation programme, a training programme, and then trust them to do the job they've got to do.
Of course, things sometimes go wrong, and when they do, we want colleagues to take the initiative. For instance, if breakfast is late being delivered to a room, I don't want the person taking the breakfast to the guest to call a supervisor or manager; I want them to say they will replace the breakfast or not charge the guest for it. If you trust your team, they will deliver at the top of their game every time.
The Savoy has undergone something of a shift in culture and positioning over the past two years by moving away from a formal service approach. Why was it necessary for the 130-year-old hotel to change?
When I arrived here nearly three years ago, I was told that 50% of guests come from North America. So I started to consider what it is that North Americans look for when they stay with us. They like to use your name, they like to have a conversation with you, they like to understand you better. How do you facilitate that? In North America everyone wears a name tag, but I was told that people don't do that in London hotels. Therefore, part of the process has to be about introducing ourselves to the guests when interacting with them. So: "Good morning, my name is Philip, I'm going to be taking care of breakfast for you this morning." That immediately breaks down barriers; it is not informal, it is not relaxed service, it is about adding some warmth and friendliness and some personality. It began there, in conjunction with my main mantra: don't let the guest leave unhappy.
It is also about the need to create experiences within a luxury environment. Luxury today is not defined by china, glass, silverware; it is defined by experiences, which we encourage the team to create. And we recognise the enthusiasm and passion shown by colleagues in this way via a wonderful inhouse tool called LifeWorks.
Debra Patterson, our quality executive, also talks about guest feedback at our monthly quality colleague meetings and highlights examples of brilliant things being done. Sometimes they are on a tiny scale and sometimes they are significant. The important thing is that colleagues know they are in a position to create the experience for guests.
So colleagues at the Savoy are encouraged to show their personality?
Absolutely. One of the things we did 18 months ago was change our grooming policy. Previously, when it came to facial hair and visible tattoos, the policy was very strict. What that meant was that we were struggling to hire some really good people. Find me a culinary guy who doesn't have a visible tattoo. It is like finding a needle in a haystack. When we told colleagues that we were going to relax the policy, they saw it as an opportunity to allow their personality to come to the forefront. This has translated to a change in the service culture.
Facial hair is allowed as long as it is properly grown and groomed. Initially, every guy in the place tried a beard and then worked out it was quite hard to groom – it is amazing how many disappeared within six months!
Regarding visible tattoos, we had a complaint from one guest, but we can't allow one guest to dictate our grooming policy. There was nothing offensive about this tattoo, it was a lovely little tattoo. That is the world in which we live. If our look at our guests, they come with tattoos, facial hair, you name it. We've got to be realistic about the world.
How do colleagues express their personality?
About a year ago I was walking through here [the Thames Foyer] and there was a group of ladies all dressed up having afternoon tea, and they and the young man who was taking care of them were all in hysterics. They were having a great time, and I thought, we are winning, because that is what people want.
Another example is Rosaria in Kaspar's [the Savoy's seafood restaurant]. She was our front of house colleague of the year last year and has an amazing ability to create a relationship with guests and have fun with them or stand back if there is a business meeting taking place. She creates an experience according to the guest's needs.
What else are you doing to attract staff?
Three years ago we struggled to recruit. Now the calibre of candidate we get through the door has dramatically improved because we have established a reputation in the marketplace for doing different things. It is not what we say about ourselves what matters, it is what other people are saying about us – I think you would be foolish if you don't realise that.
Flexible working hours are one way we have changed things. At the end of last year we brought in Sally Webster as a director of talent and culture on the basis that we needed a significant cultural shift in what we do and how we do it. I told her that I wanted to think differently from other London hotels.
Working from home is not something we can offer in every position, but if it is a job that enables colleagues to do so and we have the right technology in place, why wouldn't we let them? People who work from home, generally speaking, put in longer hours and work harder because they are in a more relaxed and comfortable environment.
We struggled a lot more with recruitment in 2017 and 2018 than in 2019. But there are certain areas that are still challenging – culinary is definitely one, housekeeping is another. However, overall, our vacancy rate has dropped significantly as our reputation has changed.
One of the colleagues told me the other day that she is very lucky to be working at the Savoy. I asked why. She said because she is able to work from home once in a while. She is a mum and has a little boy – she wants to balance her life out. Creating the environment that people want to be in enhances your reputation.
We're also working with Gordon Ramsay's organisation [operator of the Savoy Grill], which we did not have a close relationship with before. We liaise with them on a variety of different things, including culinary development, so that we can create an environment where our culinary team gets the benefit of what they do, and vice versa.
How do you divide your time between being the Savoy managing director and the Fairmont regional vice-president?
The Savoy is the majority of my focus – it is a pretty big beast. I also oversee the Sofitel St James and the Fairmont St Andrews, and I have great general managers in both. We have ongoing communications, but I trust them – they are the experts in their field, I don't need to sit on their shoulders.
My regional role also includes looking after Raffles London, which is now starting to take up some time. We are yet to appoint a general manager. That will probably take place at the end of 2020 in preparation for the hotel's opening in late 2021 or early 2022. There will be 11 F&B outlets, and we are currently working on what the different concepts will be.
Several other luxury hotels are set to open in London over the coming years, including a Waldorf Astoria, Peninsula and second Rosewood. Is there space for all these hotels?
London has very strong demand consistently. It is probably one of the most exciting cities in the world. The new inventory will get taken up, which will inevitably require everyone who already exists in the marketplace to up their game. Those who do will compete, those who don't will fall off the side of the road. A lot will depend on how successfully the new hotels open.
I always think new product is good for lifting everybody. Sometimes I've seen hotels which are tired and don't receive investment but have GMs with the ability to motivate and energise the team – as a result, they are great hotels. Conversely, there are hotels that are sparkling in every respect but which have no soul and where the team are not engaged. There are an awful lot of things to mark out success, but the team, to a great extent, define it.
How has your 37 years of working overseas helped you as a hotelier?
People may come from different cultures, but what I learnt over the whole time I was away is that they are the same all over the world – everyone responds to warmth, integrity, humour.
We've got 70 different nationalities working at the Savoy, with 75% made up of millennials. We're a united nations here. No matter where guests come from – the Middle East, Asia or North America – they all want a little bit of home wherever they go. That plays a big part in influencing my thinking in understanding that the guests want an experience with which they are comfortable. What I try to bring to the table is a focus on what the guests want and supporting colleagues in achieving that.
How would you sum up the 2019 Savoy offer?
We are respectful of the past, but we are also looking to the future. What César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier [the Savoy's first manager and chef de cuisine respectively] were doing 130 years ago was dramatically different from anything else being done in London at the time. It's always been a hotel that had innovation and acted differently to ensure people enjoyed themselves. Everyone talks about the Savoy being the first hotel with electricity and a lift, but it was also the first that allowed ladies to dine together alone.
However, when you move forward to the 1960s, the hotel had moved backwards – ladies wearing pant suits were not allowed in! It was only when Lady Chichester got in front of the Queen in pants did the Savoy decide it was OK for ladies to wear pant suits.
I want to go back to where we were with Ritz and Escoffier, but I want it in today's world. For instance, we've introduced music into the Thames Foyer every night. We've had the likes of the winners of the Montreux Jazz Festival and young soul singer Judi Jackson here. It is bringing life into the hotel, turning it into a destination. It is no longer a place where previously you might have felt intimidated to walk through the door.
The image of the Savoy is changing, something we have worked on by positioning ourselves differently through our social media channels, with colleagues – not me – at the forefront, showing Tony on the door and Shaun the head butler interacting with guests. The YouTube video of James Corden at the Savoy has been viewed nearly four million times, which has resulted in calls from travel agents in North America. I wish I could take credit for it, but that is down to the director of marketing communications Emma Parfitt. We were shown taking care of the guests while also having a personality and sense of humour.
In my first few weeks here, the idea that anyone was having fun was alien. No one was having fun, and fun is an important component of what we do because we spend an awful lot of time at work. You will be seeing this a lot more in the not too distant future, while continuing to be respectful of our heritage.
Career to date
After studying hotel management at Greater Brighton Metropolitan College, Philip Barnes was appointed to his first position as trainee manager at the Copthorne hotel in Copthorne, West Sussex, in 1973.
Two years later, he moved to London as front office manager at the Central City hotel, before moving on to become reception manager at the Heathrow hotel.
A 12-month stint as front officer manager at the Whitehall hotel in Chicago gave Barnes a taste for working overseas. Following a short spell back in London, he returned to the US in 1981 as resident manager at the Tremont hotel in Chicago – the start of an unbroken 35 years of working overseas.
After spending the 1980s working in New York, Toronto and then Houston, where he was appointed to his first general manager role in 1988 at the Inn on the Park, Barnes moved to Singapore in 1992 as general manager of the Shangri-La hotel.
There was a three-year posting in Australia and New Zealand from 1995 to 1998 with the Regent Auckland, and then Stamford Hotels & Resorts in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, before he returned to North America, joining Fairmont Hotels in Vancouver. He has since remained with Fairmont in a variety of roles, including four years from 2007 to 2011 in the Middle East. His final overseas posting before joining the Savoy in November 2016 was as vice-president, Pacific Northwest, and general manager of Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver.
Savoy fact file
The Strand, London, WC2R 0EZ
020 7836 4343
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: Fairmont, as part of Fairmont Raffles Holding International, which was acquired by Accor in 2016
Managing director: Philip Barnes
Executive chef: Fabrice Lasnon
Food and beverage: Kaspar's at the Savoy, Thames Foyer, Simpson's in the Strand, Savoy Grill, American bar, Beaufort bar, Knight's bar
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