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Best Places to Work in Hospitality 2009: No rest for the double winner

06 November 2008 by

Malmaison and Hotel du Vin may have won back-to-back Caterer and Hotelkeeper Best Places to Work in Hospitality awards, but the group isn't about to sit on its laurels. Emma Allen reports

The ever-present skills shortage and the need to promote hospitality as a promising career option means that, these days, it's as important for employers to set high standards as it is for jobseekers to display a sparkling cv.

That's where Caterer‘s Best Places to Work In Hospitality Awards, sponsored by Blue Arrow, come in. Now in their third year and open for entries for 2009, the awards are all about showcasing the top employers in the industry by highlighting innovative working practices, publicly rewarding those that set the bar high and celebrating everything that is good about working in the sector.

In this year's awards, the judging panel praised the overall quality of entries across all categories, but flying the flag for outstanding achievement was Malmaison and Hotel du Vin which scooped two awards - the UK hotels with eleven or more sites category and the prestigious "winner of winners" Platinum Award.

Staff commitment

Judges were particularly impressed by the group's hard work over the past year and its commitment to staff. Earning high praise for "making a real impact on the industry", the group was described as being "extremely energetic". Initiatives introduced this year alone included extending online appraisals to all 1,900 employees, a new chef qualification and a self-development training academy.

In turn, being hailed as a benchmark-setting organisation has brought tangible business benefits, according to Sean Wheeler, group director of people and development. Not only does it generate valuable PR coverage and send out a positive message about the organisation's values to both staff and customers, it also gives a hefty advantage over the competition when recruiting new talent.

So far the group has received more than 200 applications to its graduate training scheme - up 100% on the previous year - and its dedicated careers website, which advertises its Best Places win, is getting more than 7,000 hits a month.

"It's amazing. We've had very good feedback internally and new recruits are aware that we've won which, at a local employer level, is very important to us," Wheeler says. "As a growing brand, being able to attract new people is crucial."

So what exactly was it that made Malmaison and Hotel du Vin stand out among the entries, and what particularly appealed to the judges?

Among the many initiatives highlighted, one key area was the group's focus on internal communications. Two years ago, a group-wide employee survey showed that this was one area where staff wanted to see improvement, so since then the group has made efforts to implement a number of key measures.

"Talent Toolbox", the group's online appraisal system, for example, has been rolled out to every member of staff over the past year. Employees are now able to give feedback on the company and the hotel they work in, and to say what they would like to see improved. In turn, this information gets filtered through to personal development plans and training goals, which staff are encouraged to set themselves.

Every hotel has a staff council that meets regularly to generate feedback and ideas, an internal newsletter is sent to every member of staff, and birthday lunches with general managers are a regular fixture. New "Ask the CEO" sessions, where group chief executive Robert Cook visits each hotel three times a year to talk to employees, are working particularly well.

Removing bureaucracy

For Wheeler, it's all about removing layers of bureaucracy within a growing organisation. "In the past, we found that things got announced to hotel managers but weren't getting passed on. By being more visible, we want staff to feel included and to have the confidence to ask us anything," he says.

Training and development also plays a key role across the group. All new staff are given a full induction and starter pack, and "How We're Doing" - another new scheme - aims to make sure that new recruits feel engaged after their first month in the job by checking that inductions have been carried out properly and that they have a mentor in place.

Another challenge is supporting the group's opening schedule. Three new Hotel du Vin properties are opening in Poole, Dorset, Newcastle upon Tyne and Edinburgh later this year, and a new Malmaison Aberdeen will come online this month.

For that reason, particular emphasis is placed on training and ongoing development. Training and educational opportunities exist at all levels, from e-learning courses in English and food hygiene to Wine & Spirit Education Trust qualifications for sommeliers and bar staff, as well as business coaching for general managers and the executive team.

One recently launched tool to support training objectives is the online Academy, which gives every supervisor, assistant and manager 24-hour access to their own self-development programme, which includes online courses in management and leadership skills.

The chef apprenticeship scheme, introduced last year, has already proved successful, with 40 chefs at commis and chef de partie level taking part. This year, the scheme has been linked to the external AAA qualification, focusing on back-to-basics cooking and requiring chefs to take a practical exam. A specific sous chef programme, developed to train up the group's next generation of head chefs, covers areas such as leadership and financial planning.

Close links with suppliers mean that product training is delivered both on- and off-site, while regular supplier-funded trips are used to educate teams and reward good performance. Support is also offered for entering awards such as Caterer‘s Acorn Scholarships, while the group's recent "ultimate cook-off" competition saw the winning chef from Hotel du Vin Cambridge win a stage with Angela Hartnett.

One area that has been given particular attention over the past 12 months is housekeeping, which Wheeler describes as "probably the most unloved department but one of the most important".

"Everyone always focuses on food and beverage, but housekeeping has a big impact," he explains. "We wanted to tackle motivation levels and inconsistencies across different hotels, but in a fun way."

Housekeeping olympics

To achieve this, the group has introduced its new "Housekeeping Olympics", bringing together competing teams from individual properties who carry out timed tasks such as making up rooms. The winning team, announced at the national final in Birmingham, scooped a £2,000 prize and a two-night stay in London, including a housekeeping training session at Claridge's.

Both brands have also worked hard to improve work-life balance, with opportunities for part-time work and flexible hours available in each hotel. Improved planning and multiskilling teams allow rotas to be more flexible - Wheeler says that the target for chefs is a 45-hour working week, with two consecutive days off. Women now make up more than 33% of general managers, compared with just 14% last year.

So far, all the initiatives appear to be working. Most appointments are made from within, and at management level, 80% are home grown.

For Wheeler, this is partly down to the group demonstrating a clear career structure. "We make it clear to staff that if you work hard, you don't have to wait years to climb up the ladder. If you're ready, we'll promote you," he says.

On winning the award, Wheeler says that recognition of the company's commitment to its staff has been very rewarding and has given people "a real sense of pride". But he stresses that the group isn't about to sit on its laurels.

"It's great to win Best Places, and something like this really makes a difference, but we're not perfect. We've still got work to do, particularly making sure that we give people the best start, improve our retention and give staff real confidence to do their jobs," he says.

Malmaison and Hotel du Vin staff give feedback on the company and their hotel

2009 award categories

  • Hotel chains with one to 10 sites
  • Hotel chains with 11 or more sites
  • Restaurant or bar chains with one to 10 sites
  • Restaurant or bar chains with 11 or more sites
  • Contract catering companies
  • Individual unit
  • Hospitality supplier company

New for 2009

  • Innovation in Recruitment and Retention Award
  • Employee Engagement Award
  • Excellence in Training Award
  • Reward and Recognition Award

You must submit the registration form before 31 March 2009 to qualify for entering into the awards and for the research process to begin. The winners will be announced at an awards ceremony in London. If you have any queries about the awards, please call Lisa Goold on 020 8652 3656, e-mail lisa.goold@rbi.co.uk or go to www.caterersearch.com/bestplaces.

In-house training leads to top jobs

"It's a £10m toy Robert Cook, managing director of Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, knows he has given us. But these guys are full of enthusiasm and want to progress in the industry," says Andrew Creese, general manager of the new Hotel du Vin in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Creese is referring to the company's brave decision to fill all nine management roles under the general manager at the new Tyneside hotel with alumni fresh from the company graduate scheme. From reception manager through to bistro manager, head of housekeeping and deputy general manager, all the senior hotel positions will be filled from company graduates.

It's symbolic of a company that has won a Caterer Best Places to Work award two years in a row now, that the hotel chain should place such belief in inexperienced hands. And it's a move that Creese is confident will pay off. "All these guys want to succeed in the industry and they see this as a huge challenge, and one they will put all their energies into," he says.

Each of the graduates have worked their way through the management roles in a Malmaison or Hotel du Vin site over the past year as part of the scheme, and are ready for the challenges of a full-time position. It's a brave move by the company, surely? "Yes, but the team I have now are almost stretching above the teams I've had in the past they're so eager," Creese says.

"They're all trained, eager, academically bright and very switched on. I'm basically looking after nine people who want to become general managers in the near future. It's my role to bring them all on then find them deputy general manager positions in other sites."

It's the first new opening Creese has overseen as general manager and the first for any of his graduate managers, but with plenty of support from head office, the 42-bedroom hotel has so far run smoothly since it opened in late September. Will it continue to be a steep learning curve for the nine first-timers? "Every day there's a fresh challenge for them. Be it dealing with a member of staff or a new customer, every day will be a school day."

How to enter

Do you insist upon impeccable employment practices in your business? Then why not get greater recognition? Entries are now being sought for the 2009 Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards, sponsored by Blue Arrow.

Once again, we'll be asking you to tell us what you do to achieve a positive working environment, but the 2009 awards will also be part-judged by the most knowledgeable panel of experts ever - your employees. By involving your teams in the assessment process, we'll be able to offer you an in-depth employee opinion report on your company and its sector, allowing you to benchmark yourself against other hospitality employers.

In addition to our usual core awards recognising the best employers in the restaurant, hotel and contract catering spheres, this year we are introducing four new awards focusing on specific elements of employment best practice.

To enter the 2009 Caterer and Hotelkeeper Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards, sponsored by Blue Arrow, go to www.caterersearch.com/bestplaces and submit the registration form.

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