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Caterersearch.com 100: the top five hoteliers

08 July 2010 by

The Caterersearch.com 100 - our list of the most influential people in hospitality - was published last week. Here, in association with Bisto, we look in detail at the biggest players in the hotels sector.
When investigating just what the UK's five most powerful hoteliers have in common, one might expect stints at the same operator or a background from a similar function. You might not expect to learn that two of the industry leaders voted for by the Caterersearch.com 100 expert panel shared a room at hotel school in Ireland.

But that's just what Travelodge executive chairman Grant Hearn and Whitbread managing director Patrick Dempsey did, at the beginning of two careers that have shared some remarkable parallels.

Hearn spent more than a decade with Trusthouse Forte, where his father, Dennis, was deputy chief executive in the early 1990s. In March 1995, he left to become operations director for Whitbread's Country Club Hotel Group, later renamed the Whitbread Hotel Company.

By the end of the year, he was promoted to chief operating officer after Whitbread bought Scotts Hotels and the Marriott franchise for the UK. In December 1996, he became the first managing director of Whitbread's rapidly growing budget hotel brand, Travel Inn (now Premier Inn).

Dempsey, meanwhile, was managing director of Forte Hotels UK for a period before joining Whitbread in 2004. Perhaps the two of them concocted the rapid growth of the budget hotel sector over a late night beer at the Shannon School of Hotel Management.

Public record does not note any well-known hotelier roommates for Guy Parsons, but he also spent time at Whitbread before joining Travelodge, which recently promoted him to chief executive propelling him in to the Caterersearch.com 100 top five, alongside Hearn.

But that's not to say that a stint at Forte, Travelodge or Whitbread is the only way of becoming an influential player in the hospitality industry.

EXPERIENCE

Andrew Cosslett, the leading hotelier in this year's list, and number two overall, had no hotel experience at all before joining InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) as chief executive in 2005, something he has in common with the other operators in the top five, Hilton's European head, Simon Vincent.

Cosslett was hired to head up IHG due to his extensive branding experience at firms such as Cadbury Schweppes as the group moved away from being an owner-operator to a management company, while Vincent - whose background was in finance and travel - was recruited by Hilton to handle the group's rapid expansion strategy.

Whether they are from or outside the industry, marketing nous is something that unites all five hoteliers, reflecting how important promoting the brand has become in the increasingly aggressive hotel market.

Hotel consultant Melvin Gold says: "All of the hoteliers are certainly marketing focused as it's very important. They can all be seen as marketing-oriented."

Of course, how the hoteliers approach marketing does differ. While Cosslett has spearheaded the ambitious £1b revamp of the Holiday Inn brand - managing to convince the hotel owners to invest the vast majority of the cash - Travelodge and Premier Inn have been engaged in a PR battle over really who does offer the cheapest rooms. The price war reached such intense levels that Travelodge formally complained to the Advertising Standards Authority over Premier Inn's price claims last year.

There is no question that Hearn and Parsons' approach to marketing at Travelodge has influenced Dempsey to - at least partly - shake off Whitbread's staid image, although as a listed company it will always be perceived as "corporate", according to Gold.

"Travelodge has gone for the young upstart approach, a sometimes quirky PR-led approach," he says "Whitbread would be seen as more corporate, less quirky and focused on operations."

Hilton is certainly a more corporate proposition than Travelodge or Premier Inn, but Simon Vincent has also focused on marketing to help the group trade out of the downturn.

Speaking to ehotelier.com last year, he said: "We're looking at our individual segments and putting together attractive propositions for each of them: whether it is meetings, leisure, transit or business. We've been quite price competitive on some of our shoulder products, particularly the weekend leisure product, but the last thing we want to do is discount midweek bookings."

Marketing nous aside, what truly unites the top five hoteliers is leadership, believes Gold. "They are all strong business leaders in the sector," he says. "Leadership is the common theme - they are leaders, not managers, of their organisations and the industry more widely."

This is a point picked up by Stephen Broome, hospitality director at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "They are all driven guys," he says. "They are tenacious, hard working, self confident, self motivated, have personal leadership skills, are sometimes outspoken, think laterally and can communicate effectively."

Anyone trying to emulate the likes of Cosslett and Hearn would be well advised to study their leadership style. They both stress that listening is vital - something Fabio Capello might have learned in recent weeks.

LEADERSHIP

Asked by the Sunday Times what he had learned about leadership, Hearn said that while you have to be capable of taking tough decisions, "being a bastard for the sake of it doesn't really work".

"I have always tried to build a sense of trust with staff, which means being open and honest and at times direct. I never ask someone to do something that I am not prepared to do myself," he said. "It's important to show people a vision of what we are trying to achieve and what their role is."

Cosslett, meanwhile, has maintained a reputation for being down to earth, despite being at the helm of the largest hotel operator in the world by room numbers. He is admired both for his straight-talking - like Hearn - and readiness to drag his team off to the nearest pub.

Remaining grounded is a key skill for any leader, according to Manchester-born Cosslett. "My first job was selling ice-cream in Liverpool in winter, so that taught me a lot about life, and I've never forgotten it," he told Caterer last year. "I know what it means to get these nonsensical memos from the centre when you're out on the front line. Money is tight for most people, and you can't lose sight of that. You have to remember the basics of how hard people work. You need to spend time out there living, knowing, and seeing that."

Cosslett believes that there's a lot of perceived wisdom in most industries that hasn't been challenged for years. "The trick in business is not to care too much," he told the New York Times. "Because if you care too much, you won't ask questions and you won't challenge because you'll care too much about your position and what someone's thinking about you."

BUSINESS TIPS FROM THE TOP FIVE

1.Andrew Cosslett (InterContinental Hotels Group),Caterer, February 2009 "Business is serious - you're working with other people's money. But there's a way of doing things in a lighter way. You have to stay confident and cheerful."

2. Grant Hearn (Travelodge),Caterer, July 2009 "Good businesses find and satisfy their markets. Those in the mushy middle will lose out. What bits of the market are available to you? What is it that makes you appealing to researchers? And how do you get that message out to that chosen market? At the minimum I would join a consortium, but I'd probably take a franchise."

3.Patrick Dempsey (Whitbread),Air and Business Travel News, August 2009 "I think you will see budget continue to expand in the UK. But, a budget hotel that has substandard accommodation, with chintzy wallpaper and broken beds - businesses that have not invested in their products and have charged higher prices in better times - I think we will see a lot of those businesses get in trouble. Perhaps that's a good thing."

4. Simon Vincent (Hilton), ehotelier.com, April 2009 "Different segments need different things. A lot of business travellers are less motivated about rate. For instance, for them it's about guaranteed rooms, guaranteed rewards, familiar surroundings, the service and so on. We're trying to be flexible on each of the customer segments but we're not going to use rate as a blunt tool."

5.Guy Parsons (Travelodge), Marketing, January 2006 "We are the EasyJet of the hotel world and are adopting the business strategies of both airlines and retailers. All rooms have the basics, but you pay for what you get. For example, we have taken out the trouser presses. Why have them when nobody uses them?"

HOW WE COMPILE THE LIST

Nominees in each of these five categories were judged by panels of industry experts.

To begin with, candidates had to meet these qualifying criteria: the personality should be based mainly in the UK, and their power and influence should be primarily in the UK market.

Shortlisted candidates were awarded marks for each of five criteria, which were then averaged out to give an overall ranking in the Caterersearch.com 100.

First consideration was the scale and scope of the operation headed by the nominees. But size isn't everything, and candidates were next judged on the power and influence they exert in the industry and the respect they command among their peers. We asked whether they were shapers of policy, leaders in their field, or inspiring and nurturing the next generation of movers and shakers.

The judges then examined whether the candidates had a proven record of financial success and whether this was reflected in the eyes of their peers and the outside world. The candidates' reputation for innovation was next, as the judges examined to what degree they were setting standards others wanted to copy and whether their ideas would remain in fashion.

Longevity was the fifth and final hurdle for the candidates as the panellists considered whether they - and their creations - would stand the test of time.

View the full Caterersearch.com 100 list for 2010 >>

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[The top five chefs >>](http://www.caterersearch.com/Articles/2010/07/30/334627/caterersearch.com-100-the-top-five-chefs.htm)

[The top five pub executives >>](http://www.caterersearch.com/Articles/2010/08/10/334611/caterersearch.com-100-the-top-five-pub-executives.htm)

[The top five contract caterers >>

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