Career focus: young hoteliers

07 June 2007
Career focus: young hoteliers

The position of general manager is the pinnacle of most hoteliers' careers, especially if the hotel in question is a top-of-the-market five-star property. To achieve this position while under the age of 35 is no mean feat, and the fact that it is not uncommon in the UK is a testament to the opportunities available to young people in the hospitality industry. Caterer speaks to five young managers of luxury properties, whose talent and hard work have seen them reach the top of their profession.

Marianne Clavé, 31
General manager, Firmdale Haymarket hotel, London
Age at first hotel management appointment: 29

It was by accident, says Marianne Clavé, that she started a career in the hospitality industry. Having graduated from Glasgow University with a degree in history and sociology, Clavé turned to the one thing she had really enjoyed: bar work.

Keen to discover what it would be like working in food and drink, she says she was lucky enough to land a job as assistant sommelier at the five-star One Devonshire Gardens hotel in Glasgow back in 1996 and found an affinity with the hospitality industry.

After taking a year out in 1997, she returned to work on One Devonshire's reception in 1998. From there, her rise was swift. In 1999 she became front-office manager and by 2000 was promoted to assistant general manager.

To what does she attribute this impressive career progression? "I hope it was because I showed the right attributes, worked hard and put the hours in," she says. "You have to be willing to try everything so you can speak about every department with conviction."

In 2002 she left Glasgow to become deputy general manager at the Pelham hotel in London's South Kensington, before moving down the road to another Firmdale hotel, Number Sixteen, to start her first role as general manager in 2004 at the age of 29.

What are the differences between being GM at a five-star compared with other hotels? "Detail, detail, detail," she says. "You have to look at every tiny aspect and make sure it is more than perfect. You have to exceed customer expectations."

In 2006 Clavé returned to the Pelham as general manager before becoming GM at the ultra-chic £32m Firmdale Haymarket hotel, which opened on 1 May.

The future, she says, will be a bit more settled than the past decade. "This is me for several years. It will be a good while before things settle down here, and there are lots of challenges beyond this. If I stay in London, it will be with Firmdale, but there are larger hotels I could test myself on. Maybe one day it might even be nice to go home to Glasgow."

The employer's view on why Clavé made it

Cary Wicks, operations director at Firmdale Hotels, says: "One-on-one Marianne is fantastic with her team. She's a great listener and manages them with a gentle approach and a steady hand. She went into Number Sixteen with a fresh eye and proved herself capable of moving on to larger hotels such as the Pelham and Haymarket. She's a great Firmdale person: attentive to detail, service-orientated, with a high quality of service. Marianne has proved that if someone has the enthusiasm and the motivation to succeed, then it doesn't matter how young they are."

Jason Harding, 35
General manager, the Lowry hotel, Manchester
Age at first hotel management appointment: 31

Of all the general managers on these pages or, arguably, in the country, Jason Harding's story is the most remarkable. He left school at 16 to join his uncle's carpentry business, but when work became scarce during the recession of the early 1990s, and with a heavy dose of serendipity, his aunt passed on a job advert for two resident carpenters at London's Hilton Park Lane hotel.

"The minute I walked into the building I fell in love with hotels," says Harding, after he and his uncle were given the job. "It was like a miniature city all under one roof."

As money was tight, the two also started working nights at the Café Royal near by. "As long as it is just hard work, then I'm fine," he says of the mentality that has permeated his career to date. "And the general manager just saw two people who really wanted to work."

A strong relationship with general manager David Pantin at the Café Royal led to full-time employment, during which time Harding became chief engineer.

From there he joined Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire as estates manager, before risking it all and moving his young family to Edinburgh to reunite with Pantin, who had become managing director at the Balmoral hotel. Starting as chief engineer, Harding made it clear to Pantin that he wanted to go as far as he could. "I was completely focused on being a GM," he says. "I didn't know how I was going to get there, but I wanted it."

By 2001 he had become rooms division manager, and after the drop-off in tourism following the 9/11 attacks the hotel manager's position was made redundant, meaning Pantin took control of the day-to-day running of the hotel, with Harding helping out considerably.

In 2002 he moved down to the Lowry hotel in Manchester as resident manager, all the while making sure he learnt as much as possible. He went to Cornell University for management courses and to Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne for financial courses, financed by Rocco Forte Hotels.

In 2003 Rocco Forte Hotels bought Brown's hotel in London and, in June, Harding took over as hotel manager until the incoming general manager arrived. He describes the job as "the best move I ever made".

For five months he ran the hotel and oversaw the transfer of it from Raffles Hotels & Resorts to Rocco Forte. When the GM finally arrived to take over, Harding received a special visitor. "Rocco just walked into the hotel one day, sat me down, explained that there was a vacancy at the St David's Hotel & Spa in Cardiff and would I like to take over as GM," he says. "It took me half a second to say yes."

Some 12 years after joining the Hilton Park Lane as a carpenter, the 31-year-old Harding had been made general manager of a five-star hotel. And now, three-and-a-half years later, he has just returned to the Lowry as GM. With a remarkable story nowhere near completion, the future for him is centred on one aspect: "I just want to be the best GM I can and give something back."

The employer's view on why Harding made it

Moreno Occhiolini, managing director, hotel operations, Rocco Forte Hotels, says : "When I first met Jason he was a chief engineer at Café Royal. He was knowledgeable and thorough, and the more I got to know him the more I thought he had potential to go on and become a general manager. He's a mature, stable person, and he has the ability to motivate people and achieve success through a team, and that's a vital skill whether you are a carpenter, a chief engineer or a general manager. His rise through the ranks was remarkable, but you could see he had potential, and he always wanted to take it to the next level above where he was - and, doing that, you will eventually end up as GM."

Ross Grieve, 32
Hotel manager, Chester Grosvenor and Spa
Age at first hotel management appointment: 28

It's not a traditional route into hospitality, but Ross Grieve says that it was his time as a Boy Scout that fuelled his original desire to become a chef. "I used to prepare all the meals when I was scouting, and I enjoyed ensuring everyone was fed," he says.

While doing an NVQ in hospitality management at Fife College, he decided his future lay outside the kitchen. After qualifying with an HND in hospitality management, Grieve joined the Ritz in London as a food and beverage trainee. He stayed there for five years before moving on to the Westbury hotel in London as assistant F&B manager, then to the Clarence hotel in Dublin as F&B manager in 1999.

He moved abroad for a brief spell in 2000 as F&B manager, then deputy general manager, at the Cotton House hotel in the Caribbean island of Mustique.

With, by Grieve's own admission, his eyes fixed squarely on becoming a general manager, did he feel the traditional grooming of GMs in the F&B sector was effective? "You need a good grounding in food, and managing food also makes you think on your feet a lot more," he says. "I mean no disrespect to room managers, but at the end of the day they're just managing a box."

His return to England in 2003 was to the Chester Grosvenor and Spa, where he took over as hotel manager, aged 28.

The awards the hotel has picked up of late, including being named Independent Hotel of the Year at last year's Cateys, has added extra challenges to his job. "People now arrive with such high expectations and we have to meet them. It means being critical of everything we do and seeing if there is any possible way of improving it."

The employer's view on why Grieve made it

Jonathan Slater, general manager of the Chester Grosvenor and Spa, says: "When I first interviewed Ross he was at the Cotton House in the Caribbean. He flew over to meet me at another hotel and when he turned up was wearing sandles and shorts. But immediately I saw someone who was enthusiastic, keen and who had brilliant guest interactivity. Despite not being in his own hotel, he saw people who had been staying at the Cotton House earlier in their holiday and immediately carried on a rapport with them. I knew within three minutes he was the right person for the job, and four years down the line he's still here and we're still learning from each other."

Matthew Bell, 31
General manager, Seaham Hall hotel, County Durham
Age at first hotel management appointment: 30

According to Matthew Bell, opportunity rather than long-term objectives has so far carved out his career in hospitality. "I've been subject to a certain amount of fortune over the years, but essentially you make your own luck," he says.

After deciding that a degree in hospitality would limit his options, he instead studied politics and international relations, working part-time in restaurants and pubs during holidays. After graduating in 1998, and in the knowledge that his degree was by no means vocational, he did a year's diploma in food and wine and followed it with various cheffing jobs in London.

Scanning the industry for companies he felt would match his own ideas, he saw that the Great Eastern hotel in London was opening and advertising for graduate managers. "The design of the hotel and the fact that it was in the city was hugely attractive," he says. "And the chance to do an opening was brilliant."

After 18 months on the graduate scheme, covering back of house, restaurant and events, Bell took on the role of manager of the Aurora bar at the Great Eastern, covering its launch. From there, he moved on to manage the events team before deciding that, after four years, it was time to get other experience.

After speaking with the owners of the Samling hotel in the Lake District, he was offered a position as deputy hotel manager at one of the property's sister hotels, Seaham Hall in County Durham.

All this time, though, his mind was on the next challenge rather than a long-term goal. "I never had a burning desire to become a general manager," he says. "My focus was always on the challenge in hand rather than the position. The reason I joined Seaham Hall was to gain rooms experience, and then later challenges followed."

Within two years he was promoted to hotel manager, and in 2006, at the age of 30, he became general manager as hotel and spa operations were centralised under one leadership.

Although he admits that one day he would like to be able to pursue his own vision at a property of his own, rather than work to someone else's, he is still, despite his meteoric rise, taking his career one hurdle at a time. "The fact that I read politics at university rather than having had an industry training maybe means I'm less steeped in the hierarchy of hotels," he says. "And, as a result, I'm not focused on a long-term objective."

The employer's view on why Bell made it

Debrah Dhugga, chief executive of Seaham Hall owner Tom's Companies, says: "Matthew likes to enjoy himself with his team, which is essential so as to get to know them. He takes them out informally once a quarter, and they all check up on competitors together to see what they could be improving. I remember when I met him he was a young guy who was keen, enthusiastic, with a firm mindset. He needed to come out of his box slightly with one or two aspects of his management and he has done that very well. He knows this isn't a nine-to-five industry, and his passion carries him through. Being a general manager is a lifestyle, not a job, and he has always had that understanding."

Michael Voigt, 38
Hotel manager, Dukes hotel, London
Age at first hotel management appointment: 37

Michael Voigt makes no attempt to hide his ambition within the hospitality industry. "I knew from day one that I wanted to be a general manager," he says.

German by birth, Voigt studied in his home country before moving to England in 1989. His first job was in the accounts department at the Berkeley hotel, London, before he again moved countries, this time to work on reception in the Hôtel Le Bristol in Paris.

With the target of becoming a GM still firmly in his sights, he decided that the management side of his CV was lacking, so he completed a master's degree in hospitality.

As Voigt hoped, he received his first management position shortly after completing this, joining the Savoy hotel in London as guest relations manager. From there he was invited to join the Connaught by then general manager Duncan Palmer, and joined in 1997 as front office manager.

After five years at the Connaught, mentor Palmer moved on, and Campbell Gray Hotels came calling. "It was a completely different type of concept from the traditional Connaught, but I went to meet Simon Hirst [general manager of the One Aldwych hotel] and he had such drive and enthusiasm that I thought, if everyone here is like that, I would do very well," he says.

He joined as rooms division manager at One Aldwych in 2002, was promoted to rooms division director in April 2004 and, by December 2006, was offered the position of hotel manager at Campbell Gray's Dukes hotel. His focus now is centred entirely on the hotel's £5m refurbishment.

His advice to young members of the hospitality industry is that people, not purse strings, make a career. "Find an organisation you feel comfortable in. Don't just be flattered by the headhunters and accept the extra money make sure the place fits with your own beliefs."

The employer's view on why Voigt made it

Gordon Campbell Gray, managing director, Campbell Gray Hotels, says: "Renovating a hotel and staying open is hard at the best of times, but Michael has kept all the guests so engaged and excited, and made them feel such a part of what is going on in the hotel, that we haven't had one complaint about the noise. He is a natural hotelier and is so focused on the guest. It's brilliant to have somebody we already consider such a safe pair of hands within our company."

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