After winning seven awards last year, including two Best Places to Work in Hospitality awards, Red Carnation Hotels is riding high. Daniel Thomas discovers how a bit of imagination and attitude goes a long way at this relatively small firm.
Last year was a truly momentous one for the HR team at Red Carnation Hotels. The company was recognised on an unprecedented seven different occasions for its employment practices, including a double win at the Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards, Best Employer at the Springboard Awards for Excellence, National Training Award Winner for Greater London, and First Class status in The Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For.
Liz McGovern, director of HR at Red Carnation - which runs 13 properties across the globe including the Chesterfield Mayfair in London and the Summer Lodge Country House in Dorset - says 2009 was a fabulous year from a HR perspective.
"Everything I have worked for and believed in was recognised," she says. "We were so pleasantly surprised and delighted to win two Best Places awards - we are a tiny company compared with the hotel industry giants and this puts us on the map in terms of competing with the big boys for the best people."
Picking up the Best Places award for employee engagement as well as the award for hotel chain with more than 10 sites (Caterer, 20 November 2009) reflects Red Carnation's view that great employment practices lead to great customer service, according to McGovern.
"In the current climate, you need to be offering the best possible customer service so guests keep coming back," she says.
"For us, it's about ensuring that our employees are equipped to deal with every customer eventuality."
This ethos begins right at the recruitment stage, with Red Carnation choosing new staff as much on the basis of attitude and personality as more formal skills and experience, says McGovern.
"I can spot a potential Red Carnation person a mile off," she says. "We will often ask in interviews what people have done to bend - or even break - the rules to achieve great customer service. This epitomises what we are trying to achieve - it's about overriding principles. If you use a bit of imagination, you can find a way of getting a guest for life."
One of the answers given by an interviewee to this question summed up the difference between Red Carnation and less enlightened employers, according to McGovern.
"The chap told the story of when he was on his way to a management meeting (at a previous employer) and saw a young child in trouble in the hotel's swimming pool," she says. "He dived in and helped the child get out of the pool, before going to the meeting. The general manager promptly told him off for being 10 minutes late and having wet clothes!"
Of course, employee engagement isn't just about giving staff responsibility to make their own decisions; it's about ensuring they understand the values that the company lives and dies by, stresses McGovern.
"When we first ask people in for interview we let them know what the business is all about," she says. "We are a smaller company so it's easier to create that family feel, but we work hard at it. For example, our ‘open door' policy is not just about HR and department heads, but the managing director (Jonathan Raggett) as well. Staff come up to him and tell him their ideas - it shows what our approach is all about."
As well as the open door policy, Red Carnation conducts regular staff surveys, some of which are on an ad hoc basis, and monthly staff consultation meetings to ensure employees are involved in the decision process.
This forms part of the wider HR strategy, which includes a well-realised induction procedure, training and development at every operational level, volunteer days, a wide-ranging benefits package, flourishing equal opportunities culture, annual staff appreciation party and a management programme geared for graduates - and tailored for those with no qualifications - that provides a mentor plus direct access to the managing director. These and other initiatives have led to a staff turnover rate that, at 21%, compares favourably with the 64% industry average.
The annual staff appreciation party for 2010, which will be held at the London Hilton on Park Lane at the end of this month, will be the largest one ever thrown, according to McGovern.
"We are flying people in from around the world and closing Summer Lodge for the day so we can celebrate with as many staff as possible - there will be around 1,000 of them there," she says.
"Lots of awards will be handed out - it is one of the ways we can say ‘thank you' to the staff for all their hard work during the year."
Attitude and personality are fundamental to customer service. With a thorough training programme in place, employees that may not have the necessary skills or experience can be taught the techniques to succeed. A positive outlook and enthusiastic imagination will go a long way towards delivering great customer service.
WHY IS RED CARNATION A BEST PLACE TO WORK IN HOSPITALITY?
This year Caterer invited employees of the nominated companies to comment on why their employer was a Best Place to Work in Hospitality. We round up some of the views of the Red Carnation staff:
â- "The welfare and personal development of its people is put above all else. The owners and senior management of the company take a great interest and pride in their team. I find it extraordinary that in a company employing around 1,500 staff, I received a call from the president wishing me a happy birthday and another congratulating me on the birth of our baby."
â- "The whole organisation is committed to developing excellent staff and ensures that in all our actions we are enabling our employees to continually deliver the best. From the fantastic training and development to the support from the senior management, everyone is striving for the best."
â- "They have rewarded me for my hard work and I am constantly driven and motivated to do more. The company will help you progress as far as you are willing to go - I have been promoted four times in five years and do not see myself moving, unless it is to another hotel within the group."