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Best Places to Work – Red Carnation Hotels: Placing faith in people

24 November 2009 by
Best Places to Work – Red Carnation Hotels: Placing faith in people

When the recession began to bite, Red Carnation Hotels made it clear that it would be retaining all its staff, and proved its commitment by spending £150,000 on training. Daniel Thomas reports on how its investment in people has paid off.

Red Carnation has 13 properties around the world, including London's Chesterfield Mayfair hotel. It aims to create an atmosphere where its employees feel that anything is possible

At the beginning of 2009, as the hospitality industry was getting to grips with the fact that the UK economy was in recession, staff at Red Carnation Hotels were given public assurances by the company owner, the Tollman family, that there would be no redundancies.

Moreover, rather than cutting back on staff development, Red Carnation decided to fight the slowdown by investing £150,000 in training this year.

This commitment to employees was just one of the reasons that Red Carnation walked away with Caterer and Hotelkeeper's Best Places to Work in Hospitality award for hotels with 11 or more sites.

For Liz McGivern, director of human resources at Red Carnation - which runs 13 properties across the globe, including the Chesterfield Mayfair in London and the Summer Lodge Country House in Dorset - the award was a significant milestone in the company's ongoing work to become an employer of choice.

She attributes the success primarily to the management listening to employees and devising benefits and initiatives that are important to them.

"We work hard to create an atmosphere in our hotels where people feel that anything is possible and that we are going to help them fulfil their potential," she says.

"What came across in the [employee] surveys was that people recognised this and that it was important. If your employees know you listen and take heed they are automatically going to feel valued and appreciated."


Training at Red Carnation is not about sitting in a classroom. For example, staff are encouraged to take part in the company's Trading Places/In Your Shoes scheme, which involves spending one day working in another department.

Participants so far have included a general manager changing into chef's whites for Shrove Tuesday to cook pancakes for staff and guests, a vice-president of marketing working as a concierge, a vice-president of sales trying his hand at being a doorman and managing director Jonathan Raggett spending a morning as a breakfast chef.

Keeping employees engaged in this way has a real impact on the business, with staff turnover currently at a respectable 29% and, perhaps more significantly, succession planning becoming highly effective.


There are many examples of people who have risen through the ranks, notably Summer Lodge's Eric Zwiebel, recently voted the fourth best sommelier in the world, who started out as a glass washer and polisher. Zwiebel's case reflects the training ethos at Red Carnation - he is given time off to study, train and attend competitions, benefiting the business, as well as the sommelier on a personal level.

In May, a People 1st survey of 1,300 hospitality firms revealed that more than half were planning to cut training spend in response to the recession, but this was never on the agenda for Red Carnation, says McGivern.

"We haven't really changed much of what we do as most of it is run internally and our owners are against redundancy," she says. "So no cutbacks - in fact, an increase in the amount of training and development we offer.

"Some of the courses this year have been about the recession and what that means to the business. Individuals have been encouraged to upsell to guests in an intelligent way, offering superb value for money."

Many of the employees who provided comments towards the award entry (see box) referred to the "family atmosphere" at Red Carnation, something that the owners and management team strive to achieve, McGivern says.

"The third generation of the owner's family is now working for the hotels, which is very exciting and sends out a clear message that they are true hoteliers and are in it for the long term," she explains.

"Our ‘staff appreciation party' typifies how the owner Beatrice Tollman's approach is personal and caring. She gives out awards for great work and addresses everyone each year, but also talks to and gets the ideas of us all as individuals."

McGivern is quick to stress that winning the award doesn't mean Red Carnation is going to rest on its laurels when it comes to staff development.

"We will keep listening to the people who work for Red Carnation Hotels and will change as we need to," she says.

"I still want us to remain an employer of choice and I know that doesn't happen without hard work from all those in senior positions. We also need to keep getting involved with wider initiatives - for example, attracting people to the industry."


This year, for the first time, Caterer invited employees of the nominated companies to say why their employer was a Best Place to Work in Hospitality. Here's what the Red Carnation staff had to say:

  • "Every single staff member is shown that they are valued. The company also invests a lot in staff benefits, training and development. I can only conclude that this is the best organisation I have worked for."
  • "Working for Red Carnation is like being within a large family. The attention to detail in communicating to staff and the benefits we receive are better than any other hotel I have worked in during my 20 years in the industry."
  • "Our owners [Stanley and Beatrice Tollman] are very much involved in the day-to-day running of the business. They know us by name, and thank us time and time again for our efforts. They are very much an inspiration to all their employees."
  • "The owners of the company have made it very clear that they will not be making huge redundancies and that the company is in a strong position - that is what counts given these current times."
  • "The training and development is second to none and what is fantastic is that the majority of managers are home-grown, which helps those just starting out to realise what can be achieved."


Improving the skills and ability of your team members is the ideal business investment, not just in their future with you as their employer, but with their careers in the long term.

"But they'll just leave" is often the cry. The reality is that employees are more likely to stay with an employer for longer if they believe they really care about their development.

But remember - learning can take many forms beyond a sometimes expensive classroom course. Create the opportunity for your team to capture, comprehend and learn from a range of activities - from observing colleagues in different roles through to being on-job mentored.

The result is as effective and the business will see a measurable improvement on retention.

View the full list of winners in Caterer's Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards 2009 >>

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