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Michael Gray – An interview with the Hotelier of the Year winner

13 December 2007 by
Michael Gray – An interview with the Hotelier of the Year winner

Michael Gray is described by his peers as a "consummate hotelier" and a "tireless ambassador" for the hospitality industry, and most agree that recognition as 2007 Hotelier of the Year, sponsored by Louis Jadot, is long overdue. Rosalind Mullen reports

I had never met Michael Gray before. Waiting in the bustling, sleek, cosmopolitan reception of his five-star hotel, the Hyatt Regency London - the Churchill, I was expecting this year's Hotelier of the Year to be as cool and grand as my surroundings. I couldn't have been more wrong. Gray may appear as smart as the hotel of which he is general manager, but his welcome is warm and down-to-earth. As we walk to the lift, a regular guest stops him for a chat and his natural response confirms the impression that he could make anybody, anywhere feel at ease.

Watch Michael Gray telling Caterersearch what winning the Hotelier of the Year Award means to him here

Which is just as well, as that is one of the qualities Gray believes a good hotelier - not least a Hotelier of the Year - has in spades. "My role is to set the tone. A hotelier should be able to go into any building and create spirit," he says.

The judges for this year's accolade would also highlight that Gray has managed to balance this very personal approach to running hotels with a public role in representing industry needs - but more of that later. At the core, Gray believes it's not the glitz, glamour and gimmicks that make a hotel work it's giving a warm welcome, a friendly, efficient service and providing what the guests want. Gray achieves this by recognising the importance of his staff and leading by example. "It's all about the software - your staff," he explains. "You're only as good as the friendliness of your staff."

To this end, he has embraced an open management style. "As the years go on, I've learnt that there's nothing wrong in saying you want to have fun in the job. It doesn't undermine respect, but it's not rocket science - if the staff are happy, the guests will get happy."

The importance Gray places on guest welfare means he is out on the floor more than most general managers - but not as much as he'd like. Needless to say, the administration duties of an international 445-bedroom hotel in one of the world's most competitive cities require him to produce monthly reports and business plans to drive the hotel forward. "I can spend the day answering e-mails as they click in, but I can actually do better in 20 minutes out in the lobby," he says.

This is refreshing. Here's a hotelier with a blue-chip career under his belt, who hasn't lost sight of what being a good host is all about. Gray started in London at Claridge's - then owned by the Savoy Group - and in 1974 moved on to Carlton Towers - owned by Lex - rising to resident manager in 1982. By 1985, he was looking further afield, joining Hyatt Regency Singapore as manager that year. The next five years were spent abroad, tackling challenges such as opening the 249-bedroom Hyatt Hotel Canberra and then becoming general manager of the 550-bedroom Grand Hyatt Melbourne. He returned to London in 1990 as general manager of Carlton Tower - by then managed by Hyatt - and in 2004 he relaunched the Churchill InterContinental as a Hyatt hotel and oversaw the multimillion-pound renovation programme that has made it a £30m-a-year turnover hotel with 75% occupancy.

For Gray, the advantage of working for Hyatt is that it has international clout - operating 735 hotels worldwide - but at the end of the day he answers to one family: the Pritzkers. He loves to point out that the room attendants are only 10 layers away from the Pritzker family. "It sums up how close-knit we are," he says.

Gray has had free rein to manage his hotel, stamp his individuality on it and fulfil his aim to make it work in the local community. Which brings us back to staff. "We're a London hotel so the staff need to interact with both international and London guests. For instance, we have banquets for Londoners so the staff need to understand their service and atmosphere needs, too. We're careful to employ team members who think and feel the same way."

Sensitive times

It's a credit to Gray that since Hyatt took over the hotel in 2004, he has succeeded through communication and careful management in keeping most of the inherited staff. "Takeovers are sensitive times for staff. You have to work with them to build confidence and trust, then move forward," he explains.

He also inherited a celebrity chef, Giorgio Locatelli, who runs one of the hotel's two restaurants, Locanda Locatelli. Gray accepts that today's hotels need to outsource restaurants, particularly in a city with as many vibrant restaurants as London. "It's a new philosophy, but there's a mutual benefit," he says. "Hoteliers don't make great restaurateurs. They run the business differently. A hotelier throws everything chichi at it, but a good restaurateur can do well with paper tablecloths."

Gray is not afraid of the challenge. To complement Locanda, Gray revitalised the hotel's 130-seat Montagu restaurant and made it a successful neighbourhood eaterie, with an open kitchen serving everything from salt beef sandwiches at lunch to three-course dinners. A throwaway comment - "I've yet to read anywhere that Locanda Locatelli is in the Churchill usually it says ‘Seymour Street'" - hints at his motive.

Clearly, Gray has the energy to tackle all sides of the industry. But what does he think his greatest achievements are? The question leaves him a bit stumped. "What? Apart from being made Hotelier of the Year?" he laughs.

He admits that one of his toughest jobs was opening the Hyatt in Canberra, which coincided with his first general manager position. "You have to have a certain mind-set to open a hotel and this was a lovely building in the Australian capital that already had a place in the local community," he says. "The challenge was to preserve its special history while opening it in the 20th century."

This was obviously a conversation that was getting stuck in Gray's natural modesty - and then we hit upon his great passion, the future of the hotel industry. "The greatest challenge to the UK hotel industry is bringing in more home-grown staff so we're less reliant on overseas staff," he affirms. "It's the key to our survival."

In fact, rather than just talk about it, he's doing something about it. One priority is his work with the People 1st Sector Skills Council steering group, which is leading a government initiative for the hospitality industry to introduce 14-19 Diplomas. Under the scheme, 17 diplomas covering a wide range of skills will be launched for 14- to 19-year-olds next year. The diploma in hospitality will be introduced in 2009.

"From 2009, our schools will be able to teach hospitality," Gray says. "We as an industry have to persuade schools, parents and children to study for a hospitality diploma alongside their core GCSEs. It requires the support of us - hoteliers - to provide schools with help in teaching and getting kids to visit our hotels to see how the business works. They can then use their diploma to go to hotel school or into the industry."

In his view, it's the responsibility of the industry to drive the momentum. He works with Springboard, which, he says, under chief executive Anne Pierce is helping to bring disadvantaged children into the industry. And he points out that Future­Chef gets 7,000 entrants of 15- to 16-year-old children who want to cook. "They need us to pick it up," he urges. "We have to inspire local children and convince them that it's not a drudgy, low-paid industry but one that's exciting. The world is your oyster - you can work anywhere."

Gray is also on the expert panel developing the hospitality diploma curriculum and works with Westminster Kingsway College, where Geoff Booth is leading a consortium of 18 schools in Westminster and Camden that will initially teach the diploma, although it will ultimately be a national initiative. West One, a London-based group of hoteliers of which he is chairman, has also pledged resources.

Yes, Gray is everywhere. Somehow he finds the time and energy to fit in being on the committee of the Master Innholders, chairman of West One, chairman of the Springboard London advisory board, national delegate for the European Hotel Managers Association and a member of the British Hospitality Association (BHA). And he's involved in the Ark Foundation, which educates the industry on the dangers of drink and drugs (Caterer, 6 December, page 24, and www.caterersearch.com/beaware).

What comes across loud and clear is that Gray cares about the industry that has given him such a fulfilling career. As a member of the BHA, he's an admirer of Bob Cotton's work in liaising between the industry and the Government. Another he admires is Philippe Rossiter at the Institute of Hospitality, and it genuinely matters to him that industry bodies are starting to show "joined-upness" in delivering a consistent message. But in a world of increasing legislation, Gray believes there is a need to focus further. "I worry when a new initiative comes out - we're all so busy, we need to channel our energies into a handful of important ones," he says. "There are so many organisations out there that people start to turn away."

Initiatives

He is, therefore, urging Master Innholders to concentrate support on a limited number of initiatives. These include the Institute of Hospitality, People 1st (particularly the 14-19 Diploma and National Skills Academy), the Ark Foundation, Springboard, the Academy of Food & Wine and the Applied Ability Award Chefs Programme.

As a role model for the industry, Gray stands out, and he makes sure he uses this gift positively. "I want to inspire the next wave of people," he says. "Young people are not content to do the same job. You need to develop and move them up and on - that is part of a hotelier's remit."

He would definitely encourage ambitious hotel professionals to work abroad, as he did. "The great thing about this industry is that it's like a working holiday," he says. "I would always encourage people to work overseas. I left as a London person and came back an international person."

Having six children, he's no doubt happy that two of them are following careers in the industry he thrives in. Jonathan, his eldest, is running a health club called Thirty Seven Degrees on Embankment, while Toby, 19, is studying food, tourism and creative studies at Birmingham University.

Gray's is an infectious enthusiasm. "This industry offers young people so much and anything is possible," he adds. "When I think of the world leaders I've shaken hands with - even international war criminals. I'm lucky to have had those opportunities. We all work so hard I do sometimes wonder why it's so enjoyable - but it just continues to excite and inspire me - and long may it last."

Judging criteria and comments

Judges of Hotelier of the Year look for a candidate who exhibits a strong attention to detail is willing to impart knowledge to staff has an exemplary business track record has the personal touch with guests, and is totally dedicated to the industry.

John Stauss

"Of all the general managers in London, Michael is the most active in industry-wide training organisations such as Springboard. He's a tireless ambassador for the hotel industry, never hesitant to take on a role representing our industry needs."

Robin Hutson

"Michael Gray is the consummate hotelier, displaying all the skills over a long period of time that separate him out as at the top of his game. His dedication to staff development is legendary and he consequently enjoys great loyalty from his team. I doubt there's another London hotel that sees as much of its general manager in the lobby, meeting and greeting and genuinely looking after his guests."

Peter Birnie

"Michael Gray is highly regarded, not just for his long-established and consistent high standards of management, but also for the considerable time and contribution he makes to the key issues of the wider hospitality industry."

Sally Shalam

"Michael Gray is generous - with his knowledge, experience and time. He not only operates an ‘open-door' style of leadership, which his staff recognise, appreciate and benefit from, but he also involves himself outside ‘the office' in initiatives for the good of the industry at large, which, ultimately, help improve quality for those who pay to stay in hotels in this country. Despite undeniable professional success, Gray remains unassuming, and anyone climbing the hotel career ladder could do a lot worse than emulate him."

Peter Lederer

"Michael is respected for the way he goes about things. He quietly delivers a consistent, quality product in his hotel and is always ready to lead the debate or support the industry. His work with the Master Innholders, Springboard and other organisations to move the people and skills agenda forward is outstanding. A consummate professional."

Harry Murray

"Michael is a people person who has spent his whole career applying a systematic approach to training and development. I called his hotel and asked some of his staff what they thought about their boss. There was one very clear reply: ‘He cares about us and his door is always open.' These are true leadership qualities."

• The judges panel comprised: Sally Shalam, travel writer, the Guardian Peter Birnie, chief hotel and restaurant inspector, AA Hotel Services Robin Hutson, chairman, Soho House Peter Lederer, managing director, Gleneagles hotel Harry Murray, managing director, Lucknam Park hotel John Stauss, regional vice-president and general manager, Four Seasons hotel London Richard Ball, managing director, Calcot Manor.

Watch Michael Gray telling Caterersearch what winning the Hotelier of the Year Award means to himhere

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