With interior design and recycling in the job spec, it's clear that hoteliers now expect a lot more from their executive housekeepers than just keeping the property clean. Rosalind Mullen reports
Executive housekeepers in the UK's top hotels are shrugging off their Cinderella image, getting to grips with environmental issues and staff well-being, and increasingly being invited to sit round the management table.
Indeed, they've never been so accountable. Not only are they in charge of an army of room attendants and cleaners, they have to be handy with profit and loss accounts, paperwork, recruitment, human resources (HR), guest liaison, time-and-motion practices - and do the lot with fewer resources to boot.
So says Liz Smith-Mills, UK hotel consultant at cleaning product and services company Diversey. She works with housekeepers to find out what they need to improve standards, as well as driving the introduction of new systems.
"Housekeeping generates the highest revenue in the largest area and has the biggest team to manage. They come into contact with all departments on a daily basis and are the nerve-centre of the hotel - more so than even reception," says Smith-Mills.
There are certainly sound business reasons why executive housekeepers are being given their voice. For a start, guests are travelling more and bringing higher expectations with them. In these economically tight times, good housekeeping practices prolong the life of expensive hotel furnishings. In addition,a well-maintained hotel will attract more guests, keep the competition at bay and help cut down on guest complaints and refunds.
The commercial need for leading hotels to show they are environmentally aware has also helped to propel housekeepers centre stage. Most are now heavily involved in sourcing eco-friendly products and introducing energy-saving systems and recycling throughout the hotel.
"There is a high expectancy from guests in everything: toiletries, biodegradable loo rolls, pillows. People want allergy-free rooms so we have to source the correct sheets, duvets and under-blankets. A few years ago, that wasn't an issue," says Jean Roberts, deputy national chair of the UK Housekeepers Association and former head housekeeper at Hotel du Vin, Harrogate.
Perhaps one of the biggest impacts on the housekeeping department, however, has been the increase of health and safety regulations. Roberts says there are now countless requirements that she didn't have to think about when she started her career. Off the top of her head she lists trailing leads on vacuum cleaners, the use of filters to combat allergies to dust, introducing long-lasting light-bulbs and making regular bed-bug checks - even bringing in sniffer dogs. Similarly, guests nowadays demand compensation if they find, say, a stained sheet or a hole in a pillowcase, so the team need to have a good reject system in place when checking laundry.
Equally time-consuming is the need to keep records of all checks and actions in case of complaints. "There is now continual training in health and safety, right down to making sure staff know how broken glass should be picked up or how a shower curtain is put up. If you miss anything, you can get sued for not training them," says Roberts. "You have to get everything signed and sealed by the staff you have trained so if there is an accident you've covered yourself."
Man-management is a big part of the job, too. Room attendants are usually paid a basic wage and many workers are transient and foreign, so the onus is on head housekeepers to nurture and retain talent. They also have to make sure non-English speakers understand which chemicals and cloths are to be used where. Some head housekeepers even help their team to learn English - giving them a few relevant words or phrases to practise every day.
But it's not just the role of executive housekeepers that is changing. Instead of working up through the ranks, a growing number now enter from management training programmes or jobs. Needless to say, with hotel budgets squeezed, employers are only too keen to harness their organisational skills.
"The Cinderella stigma is being changed by people already out there," explains Smith-Mills. "And in some five-star hotels, head housekeepers are recognised as senior management."
Rohan Slabbert, general manager at Hotel du Vin, Henley-on-Thames, agrees: "Head housekeepers have a big team and have to be the strongest in man-management, so hotels have started to tap into that. As hotel budgets have changed, they have had to be more innovative."
For instance, at Hotel du Vin, head housekeepers are on the rota as duty managers, so they will welcome VIPs, handle guest complaints and establish if compensation is necessary.
"The head housekeeper role has become more sophisticated," says Slabbert. "They are now experts on computers, key players in the management team and more involved in dealing with guests. This is good as they tend to know what guests want. They are more involved in strategic planning."
So what will the future hold for head housekeepers? "I can't see us going back to the old days," says Slabbert. "We're starting to see them moving into rooms division manager roles, which were traditionally approached through front office. Housekeepers will start to feel more comfortable about moving up through the ranks to general manager, and as housekeepers recognise that there are great career prospects, this will, in turn, nurture good staff."
The general manager turned housekeeper
Lesley Skelt, head housekeeper, Coworth Park, Ascot, Berkshire
In 2009, Lesley Skelt gave up her role as general manager of Hotel du Vin, Poole, and transferred her skills into the housekeeping department at the Dorchester Collection's latest jewel, Coworth Park.
It was an unusual move, because even by her own admission, housekeeping is often seen as one of the least high-profile departments. In the brave new world of head housekeeping, however, her experience in running a hotel is crucial to fulfilling her remit at the 70-bedroom de luxe property.
"Being head of a department as large as housekeeping at a luxury hotel like Coworth Park is a similar role in many ways to being general manager at another type of hotel. I have an understanding of how the whole hotel works and how best housekeeping can support other departments and take into account financial aspects, including budgets and payroll."
Ironically, Skelt started her career in housekeeping and later drew on her organisational, people management and motivational skills when she became a GM.
What attracted her to make the move back into housekeeping was the opportunity to work for the Dorchester Collection on an opening that was attracting a lot of excitement, and in a role that played on her background strengths.
Aside from the basic everyday cleaning of the rooms, she and her team have to tackle a number of additional tasks on a daily basis. These include:
â- Providing uniforms for all departments - setting grooming standards, issuing, repair, alterations, cleaning and working with the uniform company on fabrics and style.
â- Guest laundry and dry-cleaning.
â- Purchasing linen for all departments.
â- Liaising with the florist for all areas of the hotel.
â- Departmental training.
â- Staff welfare.
â- Overseeing refurbishment.
Skelt's customer-facing experience is particularly invaluable in her new role. "Housekeeping never used to be recognised as having an impact on guest engagement and was often forgotten or ignored," she says. "Nowadays, however, it is acknowledged as a key touch-point between hotel and guest, especially here where rooms are laid out across the 240-acre estate similar to a resort."
Arguably, it is the guests who are forcing hotel management to value their housekeeping staff - not least in a hotel where room rates can hit £845 a night. As Skelt points out: "Greater research has been done on guest feedback, highlighting areas that guests themselves value and how this impacts on their stay and the likelihood that they will return. We have to ensure that our job is done to perfection to satisfy the guest's expectations."
No wonder, then, that head housekeepers are increasingly involved in management decisions. As Skelt says: "One reason why this role carries such weight is because the housekeeping department is often the largest in terms of personnel, and requires a significant amount of training and motivational activities to be successful."
THE HOUSEKEEPER COME INTERIOR DESIGN ASSISTANT
Anna Brown, executive housekeeper, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Great Milton, Oxfordshire
When Anna Brown started in the housekeeping department at Le Manoir, she hadn't envisaged that some 12 yeas later her job would involve supporting chef-patron Raymond Blanc in the niceties of interior design. But that's exactly how her role has evolved.
It is little known that Blanc is as closely involved in the design of the bedrooms as he is with the development of the gardens and the creation of the menus at Le Manoir. He is immersed in the minutiae of the details of the design, from the way a beam of light shines to the hanging of paintings and the thousands of other details which go to make up the look of the hotel.
"Each room is built like a magnificent dish, representing a journey and a discovery of their own," explains Blanc. "They are all inspired by my different travels, artists I admire and books I have read. My design ideas are all about intelligence, not about cleverness or following fashion."
Brown supports Blanc as he designs each room, doing all the footwork in finding the furniture and fabrics he specifies.
"My housekeeping background means I look for what will wear well and be practical, but it has to be high-quality and beautiful," she says. Raymond likes suede, silk, leather. He has expensive tastes."
Arabesque was the first suite she was involved with, working with Blanc as he designed the space. It took 11 months until Blanc was satisfied.
The result is a striking, slick design with mirrored and dark glass, Italian furniture and delicate objets d'art - but like Le Manoir's all-white Blanc de Blanc suite, it must be a housekeeper's nightmare.
Yes, it's difficult to keep clean," admits Brown, "but I can say to him that a glass table will get dirty and he doesn't think of the practical side. With the white room we accommodated what he wanted and worked around it."
Fortunately, Brown has a strong housekeeping department and nine room attendants to keep the rooms pristine. Each maid cleans just five bedrooms each morning because they each take so long, while Brown uses her well-honed attention to detail to asses each room and decide what needs to be replaced - from wallpaper to furniture and furnishings - to ensure standards at the world-famous hotel are maintained.
An added pressure is that Brown has to source natural products in line with Le Manoir's eco-friendly ethos - take, for instance, the wallpaper made from a type of banana plant fibre.
"My vision was to create a restaurant, hotel and gardens in complete harmony," says Blanc. "I now believe I am close to achieving this."
Jude Gallacher, executive housekeeper, the Headland hotel, Newquay, Cornwall
The astonishing array of duties in Jude Gallacher's job-spec confirm the increasing importance of housekeeping, not just in five-star hotels, but four-star properties, too.
"Housekeeping has changed enormously in the past 15 years," she points out. "Now an executive housekeeper is a financial controller, HR expert, trainer, interior designer and an ambassador for the hotel."
Besides the four-star, 96-bedroom hotel, there are 40 five-star cottages under the responsibility of her 25-strong housekeeping team, as well as front-of-house cleaners and turndown staff. Guests tend to be families who return every year. All the rooms and cottages are dog-friendly so there is an added pressure on the team.
To meet the needs of increasingly demanding guests, the hotel has spent £18m in the past seven years on refurbishment, and the development of a spa and the housekeeping team is regarded as key to maximising this investment. Gallacher has, therefore, been included in the decision-making process to ensure that the practicalities are taken into account. This includes giving advice on how a room design might impact on the length of time it takes to clean it to a high standard, or on choosing fabrics and carpets that are durable.
As a result, her department has much more ownership of the rooms and Gallacher is often found discussing maintenance and decorating issues with the directors as well as attending meetings on strategy.
"Guests want a lot more. It used to be all about the food, but now it's about the bedrooms," she says. "They expect the wow factor - nice linen, good decor and sparkling bathrooms."
Gallacher, who scooped the 2011 Housekeeper of the Year Hotel Catey, reiterates that people development is an important aspect of the modern head housekeeper's remit. A high proportion of her team speak little English and, as a result, she has assumed the role of welfare officer, working with HR to ensure the right paperwork is in place, helping them to enroll on English courses and even giving basic English lessons herself.
"This is no longer a back-of-house role; the team are encouraged to talk to guests and always have a smile on their face," she says.
Keep your hotel tip-top with these tips from top housekeepers
â- Build a loyal team to support you and improve staff retention by making your team feel welcome and adopting a listening manner
â- Nurture the support of the directors and fellow managers
â- Ensure your team understand the hotel ethics
â- Teach your non-English speaking staff a few relevant phrases every day so they can communicate with guests and with you
â- Make sure they can read instructions regarding cleaning fluids and chemicals
â- Colour is a universal language, so use colour-coded cleaning cloths. You can also use toiletries with different coloured lids so staff can easily see if they have left two bottles of conditioner but no shampoo
â- Teamwork is important. Get your staff to pin photos of themselves in non-work clothes on a board with their interests written underneath and it will help you to understand more about them and each other
â- Encourage your team to talk to guests
â- Use the buddy system to integrate and help train new staff
â- Consider using professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn, to share tips, seek advice and learn about the latest developments
â- Keep a log of every time you train your staff in how to do a chore safely and efficiently, and make sure they sign it
â- Offer guests a gauze bag to take home half-used soaps if these can't be recycled
â- Make sure you always have the right products to do the job
â- To prolong the life of fabrics, always use the appropriate cleaning products and the right cloth to care for upholstery
â- Get a guests' eye view. For instance, sit on the loo and check the areas behind the doors are clean; walk into the shower and look around; lie in the bath and look up at the cornicing
â- Be prepared for last-minute requests - for instance, hatpins, flowers, special bedding, a running machine or yoga mats
â- Carry a magic sponge with you - this will remove nearly all marks
â- Always do a final check after cleaning a room. The last thing you will notice is the first thing the guest sees
The guest-editor says
The housekeeping operation is often an undervalued department in our industry. The work that housekeepers do can make the world of difference as to whether the guest has the best possible stay or not. We should applaud the exceptional contribution they make.