Sally Beck, general manager of Royal Lancaster London, has been named the 2019 Hotelier of the Year, sponsored by Casna Group. Janet Harmer learns more about an operator who is passionately focused on inspiring her team to run the capital's happiest hotel
It is just before 8.30am on an October morning when I arrive at the Royal Lancaster London hotel on the northern fringe of Hyde Park to spend the day with Sally Beck, the property's general manager and newly appointed Hotelier of the Year.
As Beck greets me in the swish new lobby, the surroundings are the first indication that the property has recently come through an £85m renovation. While the change has resulted in the transformation of the hotel from a somewhat tired mid-market business into a much-improved property that is now enjoying a boost in revenue, room rate and occupancy, it has also resulted in a dramatic improvement in the working culture, with Beck setting out to create "the happiest hotel in London" – more of which later.
We head to the executive office where, over a cup of tea, Beck explains that her working day had started an hour and a half earlier. Usually, she catches the 6.13am train from near her home in Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, to Marylebone, where she jumps on her bike to cycle one mile to the Royal Lancaster. A quick change from the wardrobe of clothes in her office and she is ready to start her working day by 7.30am.
But this morning, she woke up in the hotel, having stayed overnight following problems with the train on her return journey home. Staying in was fortuitous, as it enabled Beck to be in the hotel earlier than usual to start at 7am for the first of three meetings to be held throughout the day for team leaders. Beck introduces the gatherings, held every two to three months, to enable all supervisory staff to be able to share their feelings about their roles in an honest and open forum. I will join the second team leaders' meeting later in the morning.
"Normally, I start the day by meeting with the night manager to discuss any overnight issues and then take a walk throughout the hotel, visit the loading bay and kitchen, go into breakfast service, say good morning to staff," Beck explains. "I need to see what is going on and chat to as many people as I can; it is important to break down barriers."
Approaching 9am, it is time to move on to the second meeting of the day – the daily gathering of representatives from each department to bring everyone up to date on the hotel's current performance. Today's meeting is led by guest relations manager Doreen Soltan, who outlines the overnight occupancy of 91.2%, with guests paying an average room rate of £247. A reported 191 guests are due to check in today, taking the occupancy rate up to 96.4%.
The other attendees take their turn to outline how each department is performing – food and beverage, events, sales, housekeeping, revenue management and kitchen. Everyone shares in the good news from revenue centre manager Mafalda Vieira Leandro that her department picked up £85,000 of business yesterday, taking the hotel within £90,000 of the target to increase gross operating profit target by 50% for the current financial year at the end of October.
Having stayed in the hotel last night, Beck is able to share some niggling housekeeping issues with the team: the vanity box in her room was empty and the hand-held shower had a small leak. However, she was pleased "to see so little plastic in the room now, but we can still do better with milk and biscuits".
A clearly inclusive team are left with Beck's final message: "Make the guests happy".
Back in her office by 9.30am, Beck sets about signing greeting cards for arriving guests, ensuring each one is personal and appropriate. VIP guests today include members of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, who are based at the hotel for the gastronomic society's four-day celebration for its 60th anniversary.
Beck likes to do what she can to keep close to guests – no mean feat in a 411-bedroom hotel – and holds a cocktail party every Wednesday evening to meet as many of the in-house residents as possible.
As she continues signing, Beck explains that she runs the hotel as an inverted hierarchy. "I'm at the bottom with layers of staff above me – the strategy team made up of 13 senior divisional heads of department, 30 managers, 90 team leaders and the rest of the 465 staff on the frontline.
"Together with the strategy team I put together the goals for the hotel, while the managers implement, support and drive the vision, with the frontline staff delivering and developing the decisions. Traditionally, the general manager directs how things would be done. My approach is more consultative by bringing the staff into the decision-making process. It requires the managers to be more humble; it can take longer and is sometimes more difficult, but it ensures the result is so much better."
Beck says her inclusive and encouraging style of management is one that works well with millennials, the 22- to 37-year-olds who make up a big chunk of the business. "They want to be involved and have their ideas considered – they don't respond well to a ‘do this, don't do that' culture."
Beck's approach appears to played a considerable role in creating a happier and more enjoyable working environment, as indicated by the achievement of a 25% staff turnover, compared to the industry standard of around 35%.
En route to the second team leaders' meeting of the day, we chat to several members of staff, with Beck taking a genuine and warm interest in everyone she greets. The happy culture we have just been talking about, combined with a genuine fondness for the general manager, is very much in evidence. More than once I hear the words: "she is a special lady" and "she is not just our boss, she is a friend".
The team leaders' meetings are an opportunity for Beck to find out what she can do to make life easier for the staff. "I will sit back and listen as my number two, Alex Henskens [hotel manager, who joined the Royal Lancaster a year ago], chairs the meeting. It is about providing an environment in which the team feel safe – you then gain trust and they will speak."
After all the attendees introduce themselves and tell the meeting how they are feeling, a number of issues are raised – a request for extra sets of uniform and duvets, a problem with the service lift, and the time and attendance machine not always working. A discussion on empowerment ensues, highlighting that it is something some staff are still getting to grips with. Once the understanding is in place, the results are positive, with one team member explaining that she is now more confident. Beck tells the meeting: "We want you to feel empowered to fix any problem with guests. If you need help, we'll be there to support you." Later Beck explains that she generally doesn't give her opinion on a subject until the end of a meeting. "It makes it easier for the team to voice their views and own a suggestion to a problem – even if I take the final decision on it."
Lunch follows in the staff canteen, where Beck will eat most days. Again, it is an opportunity to stay close to staff and gauge their opinions. It is also important for Beck to find out what guests are thinking too – hence her next port of call: tea with a Middle Eastern princess, one of the hotel's several long-stay guests.
Then it is on to an AA post-audit workshop at 2pm. The Royal Lancaster is assessed on a quarterly basis by the AA to ensure consistency in delivery of service: the most recent inspection achieved a 96% score. While this equates to five stars, the hotel is not officially rated on the AA's platforms in order to ensure that it retains business from pharmaceutical groups and some companies in the banking sector, which generally eschew properties that rate higher than four stars. However, the inspections enable the team to ensure consistently high levels of service are maintained.
The end of the day
The final part of the day is taken up with a budget meeting, an interview for a key position at the hotel and the final team leaders' meeting, before Beck jumps back on her bike at 6.30pm to return to Marylebone station and the train back to Buckinghamshire. She aims to have dinner with the family (husband Brian, better known as Corky, and teenage daughters, Tess, 17, and Kate, 15) as often as she can.
Beck recognises that her achievement as general manager of one of London's largest and busiest central London hotels has only been possible as result of being backed by a supportive family and the flexibility she was allowed for working a shorter week at the Landmark hotel when her children were younger. Since Beck was appointed general manager, Tess and Kate have been paid for sharing the household chores of cooking and laundry.
"I have been able to make this a success because I have shared the parenting of our daughters 50:50 with my husband since they were little," she says. "The only way we are going to see more women in senior roles is by encouraging shared parenting. Unfortunately, it seems that men are still not comfortable asking their employers for more flexibility. As a result, women are compromised.
"I have no doubt that women can be successful general managers, but if they choose to have a family, they need to be able to share the responsibility for bringing up children with their partners. It is something I'm very open to here at the hotel, but the men are not asking. For instance, I have not had one request for shared paternity leave since the law changed."
An inclusive, encouraging, kind and flexible approach, combined with a solid business background as a sales and marketing leader, Beck is clearly a general manager who understands how to get the best out of her team. A truly fitting winner of this year's Hotelier of the Year award.
View from the staff
"Sally is the most cheerful person to work for – her glass is always half-full. She really does know nearly every member of staff by name. At the end of the day, she is the one who has to make decisions, but she is good at asking everyone for their opinions. Sally is a great networker and charms the guests. It there is a problem, she is great at smoothing over the cracks."
Nicky Westcombe, executive office assistant
"I was first introduced to Sally's inverted management structure at my job interview, when I was interviewed by the F&B operations manager and F&B office manager, as well as by Sally, Alex, Emma Brierley [HR director] and Gareth Bush [director of events]. It helped me understand how team members are involved in the decision-making process. It is very refreshing and sets the Royal Lancaster apart from other hotels. From the time I arrived I felt empowered and encouraged to participate in decisions."
Simon Seis, food and beverage director
"This is the first place I've worked where the staff don't run away when they see the general manager or hotel manager approaching. We are appreciated for what we do."
Emilian Papuc, service event manager
What the Hotelier of the Year judges say
"Sally Beck will be an inspirational ambassador for the UK hospitality industry at a time when the industry is facing a huge staffing challenge due to the uncertainty of Brexit.
"Her leadership skills, team engagement and ability to manage change placed the Royal Lancaster in The Sunday Times' 100 Best Companies to Work For lists in 2018 and 2019.
"The hotel offers structured career paths, employs 31 apprentices and focuses on staff welfare: the key ingredients to help recruitment, retention and continuous improvement in standards."
Harry Murray, chairman, Lucknam Park hotel and spa, Colerne, Wiltshire, and 1986 Hotelier of the Year
"A great example of a modern hotelier who runs a fabulous hotel and leads her team from the front. Sally will inspire many to follow in her footsteps."
Andrew McKenzie, managing director, Vineyard Group, and 2008 Hotelier of the Year
"Sally is an outstanding hotelier and runs a large, first-class hotel in central London. I admire her energy, enthusiasm and desire to always do her very best.
"In addition to supporting her team to develop, she also works tirelessly to attract people to our industry by showcasing all that it has to offer. In the challenging year(s) ahead of attracting more British talent to join hospitality, I can think of no better person to make this happen than this year's new Hotelier of the Year."
Jonathan Raggett, managing director, Red Carnation Hotels, and 2009 Hotelier of the Year
"Sally has set an exceptionally high bar in terms of her influence on young people and engagement with the wider industry. If this isn't impressive enough, she has achieved this while successfully transforming her own hotel, both physically and culturally."
Andrew Stembridge, executive director, Iconic Luxury Hotels, and 2010 Hotelier of the Year
"Sally is a true hotelier, with the needs of both guests and team members foremost in her mind every moment of the day. Her enthusiasm for our industry and the development of others is to be admired."
Stuart Johnson, managing director, Brown's hotel, London, and 2012 Hotelier of the Year
"Sally is a hugely charismatic and inspirational hotelier who has risen to the top of the hotel world through a difficult path. She is perfectly equipped to head into the challenging times ahead."
Craig Bancroft, managing director, Northcote, Langho, Lancashire, and 2016 Hotelier of the Year
"Sally is a true industry ambassador and beacon of the industry who truly values people. She has established a fabulous culture and quality offer all the way through her property."
Sue Williams, general manager, Whatley Manor, Malmesbury, Wiltshire, and 2017 Hotelier of the Year
Sally Beck – career to date
Sally Beck's route to the general manager position she has held at the 411-bedroom Royal Lancaster London since 2013 can be traced back to a childhood growing up in a string of hospitality venues.
Beck was born in a Somerset pub, and her family moved to another pub in Lincolnshire when she was 18 months old, and then to the Berkeley hotel in Scunthorpe when she was nine. "I didn't live in a house until I was 16, when we took over a restaurant," she says.
It was perhaps inevitable that a course in hospitality at what is now Grimsby Institute would be the path to Beck's first full-time job as trainee manager with De Vere Hotels at the Dormy hotel in Bournemouth. Her career then moved into a long stint in hotel sales and marketing, initially with De Vere, before joining Clipper Hotels, the Great Western Royal (now the Hilton London Paddington), and then as sales and marketing director at the Conrad Chelsea Harbour hotel in 1992.
Three years later, Beck moved to the Royal Garden hotel in the same role as part of the reopening team following an extensive refurbishment of the property. Responsible for bringing guests from the entertainment and sports sectors back into the business, she successfully secured bookings from football teams involved in Euro 1996.
After a spell travelling with her husband and a stint working for foodservice business Aramark, Beck was appointed sales and marketing director at the five-red-AA-star, 300-bedroom Landmark London. She remained in the position for 11 years – during which time she was awarded a Master Innholders' scholarship to study on a business leaders executive development programme at Cranfield University – before moving to sister hotel the Royal Lancaster as hotel manager in November 2012.
After a few weeks at the Royal Lancaster, the then general manager Stephen Kyjak-Lane handed in his notice and Beck found herself as acting general manager. Six months later she put herself forward for the role – and was successful.
Beck's appointment turned out to be inspired. Her background helped carry the hotel through the challenging refurbishment, enabling it to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017 in style, and she is set now to reach a targeted turnover of £50m by 2021, up from the current figure of nearly £40m.
The creation of a happy team has always been Beck's priority, the result of which she believes will lead to happy guests and owners. This has culminated in the Royal Lancaster being named in the top 100 of The Sunday Times' Best Companies To Work For list every year for the past four years, while Beck herself was named Manager of the Year at the 2019 Catey Awards for re-energising and inspiring her workforce.
What the sponsor says
"We are extremely proud to sponsor the Hotelier of the Year award as it highlights the excellent work taking place in today's hospitality industry.
"Being successful at this level takes a huge amount of hard work, 24-hour commitment and a total dedication to exceeding excellence. These are standards and ethics that we share at Casna. And that's one of the reasons why we are so delighted to see our colleagues reap the rewards of their hard work and to take their place as a real inspiration to others.
"The Hotelier of the Year award is an accolade of the highest honour that we are delighted to be associated with."
Nick Appell, managing director, Casna Group
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In