Over the past 32 years, Bea Tollman has created a legacy in the 17 individually designed properties that make up the international Red Carnation Hotel Collection. She tells Janet Harmer how it all began
Every day, no matter where she is in the world, Bea Tollman receives a report of the performance of each of the 17 hotels that make up the Red Carnation Hotel Collection.
Pages of documents with occupancy figures, room rates, guest comments, performance data against competitors and images of special events are printed off (Bea does not use a computer) for her to analyse.
Bea makes no concession to the fact that she is now 83 or that she has an exceptionally strong team of 2,000 staff, headed by managing director and 2009 Hotelier of the Year Jonathan Raggett, to run the business on her behalf. Today, she is as hands-on as she has ever been since opening the first Red Carnation hotel with her husband, Stanley, in 1984.
"I also respond to guests' comments - never with a standard letter; always one that is personalised."
The Safari suite, Milestone hotel
Bea's hands-on approach and obsessive attention to detail has always been central to her ethos of creating hotels where guests know they will consistently receive the very best service. But, before that can happen, she knows that the team needs to be happy and inspired. Only then will the kind of environment where guests feel nurtured in the most exceptional way be achieved.
This is no mean feat, considering the size of the group, which now operates eight hotels in the UK and a further nine in Guernsey, Ireland, Switzerland, South Africa and the US. In addition, she is involved in the design of the Uniworld collection of 19 boutique river cruise ships, which operate in Europe, Egypt, Russia, India, Cambodia and China. Red Carnation and Uniworld are just two of the 30 brands that make up the Travel Corporation, which employs 10,000 staff and is overseen by 85-year-old Stanley as chairman.
She has come a long way since her entry into the hotel sector, something that seemingly happened by default.
Born and brought up in Johannesburg, South Africa, in what she describes as a "very happy family", Bea had a number of ambitions as a young girl, none of which involved working in hospitality. She was initially keen on becoming an opera singer or playing tennis at Wimbledon, but decided in both cases she didn't have the ability to get to the very top. Then she hoped to obtain a university degree, but after six months studying at the age of 16, she returned home to be with her mother, who had suffered a heart attack.
"My mother, in fact, recovered very well and became one of the first patients to have a pacemaker fitted," says Bea. "I've always loved children, so I then decided to turn my attention to nursery school teaching."
It was while she was undertaking her new studies that she met Stanley, a pharmacist, who spent his lunchtimes helping out in the kitchen of the pub owned by his parents. They married in 1954.
"Stanley hated working in the pharmacy. So, soon after we married, we took a lease on a hotel called the Nugget in what was a pretty awful part of Johannesburg, and I started doing the cooking," explains Bea. "We used all our wedding present money to refurbish the hotel - it was very basic."
And so began the Tollmans' journey into hotelkeeping, although initially Bea presumed her role was only going to be temporary. "The idea was that I would help my husband out at the beginning before going on to teach, but I ended up staying in the kitchen for 15 years."
Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve, South Africa
During that time, the Tollmans went on to open a second hotel in Johannesburg, the 17-bedroom Hyde Park, which Bea is convinced was probably one of the first boutique properties in the world. It featured the first disco in South Africa and the Colony restaurant, which was inspired by the supper clubs of New York and became a focus for the international glitterati of the day, including Marlene Dietrich, George Peppard and Petula Clark.
All the time, Bea was building up her repertoire in the kitchen, teaching herself from a gourmet cookbook. However, it was not something she spoke about outside the business very often - at the time it was almost unheard of to have a white chef working in South Africa, especially a female one. "When guests asked to see the chef, my husband told them that 'he' wasn't there," she says.
"It was an exhausting life, as by this time we had four children. I returned home after lunch and went back to the hotel in the evening after putting the children to bed."
The Tollmans eventually ended up with six or seven hotels in South Africa, including the Tollman Towers, which became the country's first five-star hotel. However, by the early 1970s and with growing unease of living within an apartheid regime, the couple were keen to leave South Africa. "We hated the political situation and didn't want our children educated in the country," she says.
In 1974 the Tollman family left the country with almost nothing and relocated to London. They initially borrowed money to buy the Montcalm hotel, which they sold two and a half years later prior to moving to the US, where they built up a chain of three-star hotels operating under the Days Inn brand.
The family then moved back to London and in 1984 bought the Chesterfield - the first of what was to develop into the Red Carnation Hotel Collection. The name was inspired by the flower Stanley always wore in his lapel.
As the group has expanded, Bea has always ensured that the staff have had the support, resources and opportunities to enable them to mature as individuals and climb the career ladder. "We provide wonderful training and as a result we have so many people in the group who have started as a porter or a housekeeper and ended up in management," she says.
An annual party and awards dinner is held for 950 staff at London's Grosvenor House, with representatives of each country where Red Carnation has a presence in attendance. The 55 or so staff who come from South Africa stay for 10 days, are provided with spending money and Oyster cards, and enjoy time working alongside their UK counterparts.
"Staff at every level come to the party and they love it," says Bea. "So many say it makes them feel like they belong to one big family. Even if they don't win anything, there is always enormous encouragement and applause for their colleagues."
Bea's generosity knows no bounds. Every Christmas she personally selects presents for the 4,000 employees across both Red Carnation and Uniworld, which are wrapped with the help of two housekeepers in a special room set aside for the purpose in her London home. And we're not talking about boxes of chocolates or bottles of bubble bath. For managers, it could be Tod's shoes, handbags or iPads, while other staff may receive cashmere blankets or silk scarves.
The lobby, 41
It is no surprise, therefore, that staff turnover is just 27%, and that Red Carnation has been in the top 10 on The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For list for the last three years.
Recognition for Red Carnation is regular and always gratefully received. The number of awards achieved by the company is far too extensive to mention here, but one accolade that crops up time and time again is the top rating on TripAdvisor. As well as Hotel 41 currently securing the number one spot out of 1,065 hotels in London, three other Red Carnation properties are also listed in the top 10.
How does the group consistently achieve such positive results? "It primarily comes back to the service and staff," explains Bea. "The guests may say they love the hotels, but they always mention how well they have been looked after by the staff."
Looking back at the growth and success of Red Carnation, Bea is astonished at what has been achieved. She is under no illusions, though, as to what makes her most proud: "It is the fantastic spirit of enthusiasm that runs through the staff. It is hugely strong and very touching," she says.
However, as Red Carnation has gone from one success to another, as in any business, Bea has experienced tough times, but she has always remained strong and focused, ensuring that her people are well looked after so that they in turn take great care of the guests.
She also recognises it is not just her who lives and breathes the industry. "We are a family-run business and we all work very hard to build on all that has been achieved to date," she adds.
As chairman and chief executive of the Travel Corporation, Stanley and their son, Brett, oversee more than 30 travel companies, including Red Carnation. The Tollmans' two daughters also work for the company - Toni on the operation and design side for both Red Carnation and Uniworld, and Vicki, alongside Raggett, on sales, marketing, PR, finance, HR and training. Only second son Wynn doesn't work in the business, working instead in finance in South Africa. And now a member of the family's third generation has joined the firm. Alexandra, the eldest of six grandchildren, works in Red Carnation's sales and marketing team.
Looking to the future, is there room for expansion? "We're always looking for new opportunities," says Bea. "They could be in the UK or they could be overseas. We would rather like to do another one in Ireland, maybe Dublin, and we've also looked in Scotland."
Wherever the company chooses to go, I suspect that Bea's indomitable spirit will ensure she will be at the helm for a very long time to come. "The retirement word is not one that exists in my vocabulary," she says.
Milestone hotel, London
Bea Tollman decided from the outset that she was never going to design a "brown and beige" hotel. "I wanted to create bedrooms that guests would remember," she says. "I like to surprise people and make an impression, whether they like or hate the design."
Red Carnation bedrooms are, indeed, highly memorable, each with its own design, often inspired by the Tollmans' extensive travels. Rich colours abound and the use of matching highly patterned fabrics for heavy window drapes, bed covers and even wall coverings are a signature feature.
Many of the rooms are heavily themed, sumptuous and highly theatrical. At the Milestone hotel in Kensington, for instance, there is the Safari suite, which includes original artworks from the Tollmans' homeland; the Harlequin suite, inspired by 15th century pantomime; and the Mistinguett suite, named after the French actress and singer and featuring original theatre posters.
The finishing touches, in terms of in-room amenities, are just as important too, with an extensive range of toiletries and stationery that goes far beyond a pen and paper. "I want guests to have everything they need at their fingertips, " says Bea. "And we like to provide a bedtime gift, but never the standard chocolate. We may provide two prunes, as they are the healthiest antioxidant. Or maybe a keyring, bookmark or even a book. It has got to be something of value."
The Harlequin suite, Milestone hotel
Bea oversees every element of the design, whether it is for a new room or a refurbishment. With each room featuring an original decorative scheme and containing individually sourced furnishings, artwork and artefacts, the work level is immense.
None more so than that during the recent two-year refurbishment of Ashford Castle in County Mayo, Ireland, and the adjacent Lodge, which Red Carnation acquired in 2013 off a guide price of £21.4m. It was a mammoth task, primarily because so many different permissions had to be obtained at the property, which partly dates back to the 13th century. The effort has paid off - Ashford Castle was named Best Hotel of the Year 2015 by luxury travel company Virtuoso.
Working from an office in London, Bea is supported by the company's project director, Brian Brennan, one-time housekeeper at the Montague; Terry Gelfand, who records the design of every room; and Toni, the Tollmans' eldest daughter.
"And, of course, there are my two dachshunds, one who is usually on my lap," she adds. "It is something of a mad house."
Oyster Box, South Africa
A working life
After taking her dogs for a walk at 6am, Bea Tollman gets straight down to work. Four months of the year she will be in London, three in South Africa and the rest she is travelling. But wherever she is, she will be working.
Alongside new designs and ongoing refurbishments, she is kept up to date with the daily figures from each hotel and she also has an input into menus.
"I try to phone each head chef once a week," she says. "The kitchen is one of the most difficult parts of the business in which to keep staff and when you have a good chef, you want to do everything you can to encourage them."
The menus across all 17 properties are a combination of Bea's own dishes (around 50%) - many of which appear in her book, A Life in Food, the proceeds of which are given to her two favourite charities - the Starlight Children's Foundation and Great Ormond Street Hospital.
"My dishes are primarily all about comfort food, and that is what guests like," she says. "Analysis of what guests choose to eat shows that a little over half of the guests choose my dishes."
Bea generally doesn't leave the office until around 7pm. "I work long days, but I don't mind - it is difficult to stop when you are so passionate about something you love. I need to be on top of things at all times. The staff know that I'm interested in what they are doing and that makes a real difference to their attitude to their work."
The Red Carnation portfolio
- The Chesterfield Mayfair, London (107 bedrooms, four red AA stars)
- The Montague on the Gardens, London (100 bedrooms, four silver AA stars)
- The Rubens at the Palace, London (161 bedrooms, four stars)
- The Milestone hotel, London (62 bedrooms, five red AA stars)
- 41, London (30 bedrooms, five red AA stars)
- The Egerton House hotel, London (28 bedrooms, five red AA stars)
- Bbar, London
- Summer Lodge, Evershot, Dorset (25 bedrooms, four red AA stars)
- Acorn Inn, Evershot, Dorset (10 bedrooms, four-AA-starred inn)
- The Old Government House hotel and spa (62 bedrooms, five AA stars)
- The Duke of Richmond hotel (73 bedrooms, four AA stars)
- Ashford Castle (82 bedrooms, five AA stars)
- The Lodge at Ashford Castle (50 bedrooms, four AA stars)
- Twelve Apostles hotel and spa, Cape Town (70 bedrooms, five stars)
- Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve, Western Cape (16 bedrooms, five stars)
- The Oyster Box, Durban (86 bedrooms, five stars)
- Hotel d'Angleterre, Geneva (45 bedrooms, five stars)
- The Chesterfield Palm Beach, Florida (53 bedrooms, four stars)
The Mistinguett suite, Milestone hotel
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