Executive or head housekeepers play a pivotal - if invisible - role in the smooth running of a hotel and they can make or break the guest experience. Angela Frewin reports
Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but it reigns supreme in the minds of hotel guests and the smallest lapses in the cleaning regime do not go unnoticed.
A well-managed and trained cleaning team will avoid the pitfalls outlined opposite and keep the bad reviews off TripAdvisor. But, as cleaning represents the largest department and budget in most hotels, it has proved an easy target for cost-cutting drives.
Anne Britton, executive head housekeeper at London's Jumeirah Carlton Tower and chair of the London and SE branch of the UK Housekeepers Association](http://www.ukha.co.uk) (UKHA), claims the role has been gradually downgraded outside the five-star sector, with other managers taking control of some of the functions or budget, or the whole operation being contracted out.
In her view, it can be harmful if the majority of staff are not directly employed by the hotel. Britton believes that hotels should maintain a proper budget for cleaning that remains under the control of the head housekeeper.
"Cost controllers should not decide on productivity, as this would be based on cost and not on a proper time and motion study to ensure that the standard expected can be achieved," she says. "Basic cleaning should be a non-negotiable part of any hotel."
Her concerns were backed by Rachael Park, executive head housekeeper at Rudding Park hotel in Harrogate, who says that there is a lack of experience in the industry.
"The development and career of an executive head housekeeper was previously a balanced and carefully planned programme of job moves and training courses," she adds. "Nowadays, unfortunately, hotel managers and HR directors all too often see quick promotion as a cost-saving exercise as they over-promote junior housekeepers in order to save engaging an experienced and more expensive qualified executive head housekeeper."
This approach, she says, leads to a lack of delegation, direction and trust and demotes the head housekeeper role to that of head cleaner.
It can be attractive to outsource cleaning functions. It provides an instant solution to short-staffing, a guaranteed cost per room, and no recruitment costs, national insurance contributions, sick leave or pensions to pay.
But it can also have uncontrollable effects, according to Park. "Staff turnover rises rapidly, there is little or no staff loyalty, there is no control over recruitment or implementing a training programme, maintaining the quality of cleanliness or a preventive maintenance schedule." She adds that the approach can also treble overall costs for a hotel.
"There are some very good outsourcing companies but there are others that really are undercutting costs, then standards and hygiene," according to Ian Hughes, chairman of the UKHA.
"These companies move staff regularly between sites - that is, if they can keep staff! This then has a large negative impact on the standards and image of the hotel to the end-user - the paying guest."
Simon Lever, proprietor of Torquay's Daylesford hotel and a director of the Torbay Hospitality Association, compares the situation to the loss of the hospital matron.
"In the NHS, where outsourcing is common, it is questionable whether there is a genuine motivation to ensure everything is indeed clean, and checked to be so," he says. "In former days, matron would have successfully ensured cleanliness was of paramount importance."
In order to maintain consistency in standards, Andrew Creese, general manager of the Oxford Malmaison, keeps his cleaning operation in-house. Recognising its importance to a guest's experience, he has enhanced housekeeping budgets and ensured it remains under the full control of the executive housekeeper.
Without this control, according to Britton, scenarios can arise where managers forbid spring-cleaning during both quiet times (because costs need to be reduced) and busy periods (through reluctance to lose a room sale).
"Do the right job and prove that the cleaning budget is needed and it is hard for any general manager not to give you a budget for next year," Park advises. "A rolling cleaning programme of carpets, mattress protectors, net curtains and soft furnishings will vastly improve the quality of bedroom accommodation and will help to raise and maintain room rates."
Like other areas of the industry, training is key and good leadership skills essential to inspire teams. But Hughes says this, too, was in decline, with both education and industry "dumbing down" the sector and hotels cutting their training budgets.
"Most education establishments have stopped teaching the subject so future managers do not understand it," he says. "We are seeing this more and more as the managers that have come through over the past few years really do not have any idea what the job entails.
"There is a major shortage of deputy housekeepers, head housekeepers and executive housekeepers and this void is growing each year."
But senior AA inspector Alistair Sandell believes outsourcing need not have a negative effect if a head housekeeper on the hotel payroll or the hotel's general manager kept on top of things. "It makes good business sense and leaves the hotel free to focus on selling bedrooms," he says.
But he, too, believes that it is not an area in which it is possible to cut back without a noticeable effect. "Hoteliers who cut their cleaning budgets too much are ultimately cutting off their noses to spite their faces - their customers will not return," he adds.
It is an area in which staff churn can be high, but good management support can ensure that the service remains consistent. Chief housekeepers should develop effective on-going training programmes and methods of stimulating what Britton characterises as "a very varied work force, with different degrees of motivation, background and understanding".
To achieve this, she adds, hotels must achieve "stability and continuity" in the head housekeeper position and have a proper succession plan in place. "Passing the knowledge is vital, as too few training courses are adequate to this role," she says.
The EXECUTIVE housekeeper's role
The head housekeeper's role is multi-skilled and requires:
â- Strong housekeeping, operational, business and management skills
â- Cost management and contract negotiation abilities
â- An innovative approach to on-going training for both new recruits and longer-term staff
â- The ability to motivate staff
â- The knowledge to advise on guest needs and suitable materials during hotel refurbishment
Source: Anne Britton, chair of the London & SE branch of the UK Housekeepers Association
The case for the housekeeper's craft
â- For 25% of consumers, a hotel's reputation for cleanliness is the key criteria for deciding where to stay (aside from price).
â- Guests judge a hotel's cleanliness by the state of the bathroom (41%), the bedroom (28%), and the entrance/reception areas (21%).
â- Top hygiene gripes are: dirty bed sheets and towels (71%); residual material in toilet bowls and basins (16%); and bathroom mould (9%).
â- Three out of five guests have complained about the cleanliness of a bedroom.
â- After complaining, 57% were offered a new room; 33% had their complaint tackled within an hour; 12% said nothing was done.
Source: Mystery Leisure Company, hospitality guest experience auditor
Suppliers reveal common problems and how to deal with them
Problem: Bugs in the main restaurant area Solution: Clean thoroughly, identify the source of attraction for the insects or rodents and call in pest control if necessary. To prevent food attracting pests, clean all large storage areas and kitchen equipment each week and wipe down all tables after every service and at the end of each shift to remove leftover crumbs.
Problem: Staff seen cleaning cutlery by breathing on it before polishing Solution: Train staff in restaurant etiquette, regularly update them on cleaning and polishing guidelines, and display a "do's and don'ts" list on the wall. Wash cutlery separately from dirtier equipment and polish afterwards with a clean towel.
Problem: The kitchen area is visible, and equipment looks dirty Solution: A biannual professional deep-clean is recommended for restaurants and take-ways with open kitchens, especially in the fried food sector. Otherwise, clean down the kitchen for 30 minutes each day, using an effective degreaser.
Problem: Lack of hygiene awareness among some members of cleaning staff Solution: Food prep staff must have basic food safety training and have easy access to hand-wash facilities and sanitisers for hard surfaces, crockery, cutlery and utensils.
Problem: Dealing with difficult stains Solution: Tackle major spillages as they happen. Vacuum carpets daily and deep-clean them occasionally. Products that break down organic food and drink residues can be used on carpets and upholstery as well as hard surfaces.
Problem: We're cleaning so thoroughly visitors are complaining about the smell of cleaning products Solution: Use un-perfumed cleaners in food-prep areas to minimise the risk of tainting the flavours of the food. Try to avoid using cleaning products with overpowering scents to mask bad smells: it's best to neutralise and remove odours chemically before introducing gentler fragrances.
â- Save money by using catering products rather than big consumer brands.
â- Check whether cleaning fluids are formulated for hard or soft water areas.
â- Ensure hazardous cleaning chemicals are used safely; staff may need protective clothing.
â- Consider all aspects of cleaning from washrooms, equipment, crockery and glassware through to personal hygiene. Choose products specific to hand-wash and food-prep areas where bacterial control is key.
â- Be seen to promote Food Standards Agency hygiene standards.
Martin Ward, brand manager, Country Range
HOTEL GUESTS' TOP HYGIENE GRIPES
â- Mould/mildew/discoloured sealant around baths, showers and floor tiles/edges
â- Stained carpets, mattresses, pillows
â- Dirty bathroom extraction fans, windows, mirrors, TV remotes
â- Dust above wardrobes/doors; below beds; on light bulbs and shades
â- Smelly trouser press
â- Stained beverage tray/teapot; scale build-up in kettle
â- Dirty sanitaryware/paper on floor in public area toilets