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The Caterer

The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Alex Polizzi

27 July 2012 by
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Alex Polizzi

Alex Polizzi is once again drawing on her extensive hotel and family experience to hand out no-nonsense advice in a new eight-part series of The Hotel Inspector, currently being screened on Channel 5. She speaks to Janet Harmer about families, online reviews and working mothers

You have hotels running through your DNA. Was it always expected of you to work in the business?
Not at all. None of the family really wanted me to do it as they are all too well aware of the long hours and that it is not a very well paid industry. They would have much preferred me to be a lawyer or a doctor.

I didn't really spend as much time in hotels as you would imagine when growing up, but I loved listening to the adults talking with such passion - when all the family got together for lunch on Sundays - about the world of hotels. My first job in a hotel was a stage at one of my grandfather's properties - the Beach Plaza in Monte Carlo - at the age of 16. Although I had a bit of a miserable time as the granddaughter of the owner, I loved the guest interaction.

What did you learn from your grandfather, Lord Forte, about running hotels?
I suppose I picked up his immense interest in and liking he had for human beings, which is essential for being a good hotelier. And I think I acquired his analytical mind and the importance of running a big event like a military operation, with great attention to detail.

The success or failure of an event or a business is often down to the advanced planning. I'm always very prepared when I'm working, although the same cannot be said for my private life!

How easy has it been for you to hand out advice as The Hotel Inspector?
As the eldest of 14 grandchildren, I was really rather indulged and, you could say, precocious, so I was always a bossy boots - part of it was ignorance of youth. So, no, it's not usually a problem at all - however, I do find it embarrassing when people don't take my advice.

What do you regard as the most important attributes of a successful hotelier?
There are many, but one of the key ones is remaining cool under pressure when dealing with members of the public. You also need to be able to switch very quickly between so many diverse roles - whether it is marketing one minute, costing a menu the next, then dealing with a customer before checking the beds. These are all roles I would do when I was managing the Hotel Endsleigh.

The whole cleanliness thing really gets my goat. So I really don't understand hoteliers that don't keep their hotels clean - this is such a fundamental element of hotelkeeping.

Finally, you've really got to like people. I'm often told that customers can be impossible, but I generally don't find it myself because, on the whole, most people who go out, do so to enjoy themselves.

What advice would you give to hoteliers with tricky customers?
First and foremost, you just need to listen and let the guest get whatever it is off their chest. Sometimes this can be hard to do, but unless you do this, the guests will never be receptive to what you have to say. Then you need to unpick the different elements of the problem and work out how to rectify it.

I'm generally a very easy holiday-maker as I'm glad not to be working. But a recent experience in Crete ended with me being incoherent with rage, having experienced the wrong way to handle a complaint. After enduring a miserable early-morning flight, it took 35 minutes to be checked into a five-star hotel. Having complained and said that I wanted to check out, I was simply presented with a cancellation fee. What about saying sorry for the poor service?

In these tough economic times, what should hotels be doing to bring in business?
Tonnes of establishments stagger on during the good times, but the recession really does sort out the wheat from the chaff. The temptation during hard times is to spend less money on selling yourself, but, in fact, you need to work twice as hard when it comes to marketing. Coach companies will often try to dictate rates and a hotelier may be terrified of losing occupancy if they don't go along with them. So take a good, hard look at the lowest price you are prepared to sell rooms - you are in this to make money and if you don't you won't survive. And finally, make sure you serve proper, decent food.

What are the chief failings you come across within hotels?
Over-promising and under-delivery. It is so easy these days to put together a glossy website and basically lie about your hotel. Then the guests arrive at the property and find a hotel that bears no relationship to what they have seen online - the result is a lot of disappointed customers.

What has been the most challenging hotel you've had to deal with during the current series of The Hotel Inspector?
It was probably the Meudon Country House hotel, which is a stunning property in Falmouth, Cornwall. The hotel is owned by 87-year-old Harry Pilgrim and his 47-year old son, Mark, who just hates being involved and claims the business has ruined his life. As a result, the guests are being very ill-served. They basically need to make a success of the place and sell it. I actually offered to buy it from them.

With anyone trying their hand as an amateur hotel inspector through online review sites, what are your thoughts on the likes of TripAdvisor?
I think it is a peculiarly British trait to be incapable of making a complaint face to face. Instead, it seems that more and more people are sniping from the sidelines and I really don't understand it. If you say you are not happy about some aspect of the hotel while you are there, then hopefully the hotelier will fix it for you and improve your stay. So really, what is the point of complaining online about the most ridiculous things, such as an unchanged light bulb?

Any bad review is devastating for a hotel - it is something I would always dread myself. The business must respond. You really do ignore a bad review at your peril. But when you do, stay measured, don't sound sarky. Acknowledge the problem and try to rectify the situation. At the same time, when your guests have enjoyed their stay, try to encourage them to write good reviews. It really is such a joy to receive complimentary comments.

I recently met a guest in Wigan who claimed to have been given a reward for having posted the most reviews on TripAdvisor. Really, people like this need to live a little.

Name a hotel or two that really impresses you.
I have to say that I really love the hotels which my mother has designed - staying in one of her bedrooms is really soothing. I love the George of Stamford in Lincolnshire for its exemplary service. It is always heaving and thoroughly deserves to be, and serves fabulous food. Food can often be dire in hotels, but I had the most amazing food at the Jalousie Plantation in St Lucia, where as many of the ingredients as possible were grown on the island.

Are you currently involved operationally in any of the family hotels?
No, I stepped aside from managing the Endsleigh when my daughter was born. Running the hotel really was my life and I found that once I was a mother I really could not continue to work the hours I used to or be there in the evenings. I decided that I didn't want to do either my job as a mother or a hotelier badly and so I had to give up the hotel. I miss it terribly.

Do you therefore think it is too difficult for women with children to progress their careers in hospitality?
I really don't see how you can combine being a hotel manager with having kids, unless you have a stay-at-home husband. Federica (Bertolini) at the Tresanton has two kids, but her husband is at home.

Working in hotels requires you to be very dedicated to the job and that is very difficult as a woman, when you have children. My grandfather didn't really see much of his family and my grandmother's role was to ensure there was food on the table twice a day. Basically anyone working as a general manager needs to have a wife. I'm lucky that in my TV work I can juggle things and I'm always home at weekends, which wouldn't be the case if I was still managing a hotel.

Sitting next to the prime minister at dinner, what would you tell him about the hotel industry?
I would make sure he knew about the burden of legislation that hotel owners have to deal with. Every year there are more hoops for hoteliers to jump through. Fire regulations, for instance, have changed hugely over the past 10 years, but there is no help out there for the operator to deal with them.

I would suggest that there should be a way to be able to book hotels through VisitBritain. And I would tell him that the minister of tourism's suggestion that taking away a Government-backed rating system and replacing it with reviews posted on Trip Advisor is ridiculous. There should also be more protection for hoteliers who suffer as the result of unfair reviews on online sites.

Do you ever intend to open a hotel of your own?
Well I certainly don't fantasise about opening a bed and breakfast - because I know what bloody hard work that is. But yes, there is life in the old dog yet and I would love to do something.

I would particularly love to run a restaurant and Mum and I have spoken about finding somewhere in London where we could work together. So maybe one day…

ALEX POLIZZI: CV

Alex Polizzi was born into a dynasty of hoteliers nearly 41 years ago. Her grandfather was Lord Forte, who built up international conglomerate the Forte Group, while her uncle, Sir Rocco Forte, heads the 13-strong Rocco Forte Hotels company. Her mother, Olga Polizzi, designs interiors for Rocco Forte Hotels as well as owning two hotels - the Tresanton in Cornwall and the Endsleigh in Devon.

After reading English at the University of Oxford, Polizzi trained at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong and went on to work for Marco Pierre White. She then worked for Rocco Forte Hotels at properties in Cardiff (now sold), Rome and St Petersburg, before moving on to manage the Endsleigh on behalf of her mother.

In 2008, Polizzi replaced Ruth Watson as the presenter of the Channel 5 series The Hotel Inspector, and earlier this year launched a new BBC2 series Alex Polizzi: The Fixer, in which she focuses on turning around family businesses, not just hotels.

Polizzi is married to Marcus Miller, who runs a wholesale bakery, supplying the likes of Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Fortnum & Mason. They have a young daughter, Olga.

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