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The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Claridge's general manager Thomas Kochs

10 December 2012 by
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Claridge's general manager Thomas Kochs

Thomas Kochs has been the general manager of Claridge's, in the heart of London's Mayfair, for nearly two years. He tells Janet Harmer why the year of the London 2012 Olympics was a good time to welcome the TV cameras into the hotel for the first time for a major BBC documentary

How readily did you agree to the hotel being filmed for the three-part BBC2 documentary Inside Claridge's (the first instalment was screened on Monday 3 December at 9pm)? It took a lot of wooing by the BBC and many in-depth conversations before we agreed to go ahead. It was a significant decision because it was the first time Claridge's had opened its doors to TV cameras. We eventually agreed, on the condition that we would see the programme in advance of the transmission, not in order to have any editorial control, but more to be able to fact-check.

We were also convinced by the filmmaker, Jane Treays, who led the project and has produced some high-level documentaries in the past. She loves the hotel and actually got married here. Most importantly, we were assured that the reputation of the hotel would not be damaged and the confidentiality of the guests would not be breached in any way. We do what we do with integrity and pride - we have nothing to hide.

Did all the staff agree to take part? No, not everyone. There were some who were hesitant about appearing on television. There was one member of staff that the BBC really would have liked to have been in the programme, but they did not want to take part and we totally respected that.

How intrusive was the filming process? It was really important that it was as discreet as possible. I spoke regularly to Jane about what was going on in the hotel, on a week-by-week basis, so that she could decide what she felt would be worth including in the film. We always knew when she was going to be coming and it was only ever her and two others operating the camera and sound.

Who are the key characters among the staff who appear in the documentary? There are many, but they include Anne Barnes, the deputy head of housekeeping; Roman Probodziak, who has been head doorman for 36 years; Michael Lynch, one of our butlers; Timothy Lock, telecommunications manager; Joao Alves, attendant of what is the oldest manned lift in the country; Martyn Nail, executive head chef; and Anthony Newitt, the painting and decorating supervisor.

Claridge
Claridge

A major event for Claridge's this year was the launch of Noma as a pop-up restaurant in the hotel's ballroom for 10 days during the Olympics. How did the BBC film the event? Of course, the BBC was very interested in Noma and was keen to film the very first service for 170 guests. But, to protect the team, we couldn't have the distraction of filming for what was a mammoth task. Filming took place during the preparation period and the trail run-through and then during a service five days after the launch of the restaurant.

How did the idea for Noma at Claridge's come about? In preparing for the Olympics, we spoke a lot about how we could contribute to the excitement in London during the games. Food and beverage is obviously at the heart of what we do, so I thought that bringing one of the most talked-about restaurants in the word into Claridge's would really create something exceptional for the city It was never about driving revenue numbers.

We partnered up with Taste of London, as they are used to running large events. When we first approached René Redzepi he was concerned that he wouldn't be able to leave Noma, but the dates turned out to be for when the restaurant was going to close for a refurbishment. It was perfect timing. René totally understood the spirit of celebration which I think we undoubtedly created.

How successful was the event? It was hugely successful. The guests loved it and it was great fun for the team. While it was a major challenge for the food and beverage department, the team spirit was incredible and the result very positive. And we didn't make a loss! The only minor problem was when we ran out of ants (for a dish served in a plant pot with cabbage leaves, radishes and crème fraÁ®che), but we flew more in from Copenhagen.

Was the Olympics good overall for Claridge's? We were very happy. We hosted many heads of state and accommodated 28 nationalities. Half of the inventory was taken by LOCOG and the rest booked by regular guests. We were completely full around the opening and closing ceremonies, with occupancy in the high 90s during the rest of the games.

Exemplary service is the keystone to the success of Claridge's. How difficult is this to teach your staff? You can teach good service to an individual who is willing to learn, but service happens at different levels. There is the professional service, involving doing things the correct way, such as laying a table or taking a food and beverage order. Then there are the aesthetics - how we speak, the language we use and wearing our uniforms in the correct way - all of which represent the Claridge's brand. And finally, the human side of service is when the talent kicks in. This is where there is a need to connect and be empathetic with guests - often within just a few moments. It is not necessarily easy and is something that requires experience, as well as being in your blood.

We find that both our older and younger members of staff learn from one another, and as a result are respectful of each other. The older ones pass on the traditional etiquettes, while many of the young ones have experience of working in different countries and can pass on their knowledge of cultures.

What do you regard as the essence of Claridge's service? Effortless and natural, which exceeds the customer's expectations, but without appearing to be over-focused. We're always very demanding on ourselves and want to do our very best and then a little bit better on top of that. We aim to do things the correct way, but never in a robotic manner.

Claridge's is regarded as such a major institution - how do you move the hotel forward? We are very proud of our heritage - and it would be really sad if we didn't preserve that, but we have to constantly keep the hotel relevant to today. This means that, particularly with regard to technology, we are constantly moving forward and becoming more efficient as a result. For instance, where the concierge in the past would have printed out airline boarding passes, he will now make sure they are sent to the guest's smart phone. Yet, at the same time, there is also a balance and I will continue to hand-write notes to guests.

Another example of increased efficiency, but not at the expense of personal interaction with guests, is the way we deal with bookings for afternoon tea, for which we have a huge demand. We serve between 150 and 170 afternoon teas a day, and have to turn down around 30% of requests for bookings. The easy option would be to put all the bookings online, but we decided that this would be the wrong move. Bookings are taken online, but there is the option to telephone so that we continue to provide the personal service for those who require it.

What are some of the more unusual requests you have received from guests? We really don't regard any request as being unusual as we always approach anything that is asked of us with an open mind and a can-do attitude. There is very little that we would think of as being extraordinary or extravagant.

As long as it is legal and does not compromise our staff in any way, we will do it. Certainly one area in which we are getting more and more requests is regarding dietary requirements and specific allergies, where we are asked to source products from overseas, such as certain cereals from the USA. As a result, we now also prepare a gluten-free afternoon tea.

What lies in ahead for Claridge's? Claridge's is a timeless hotel, but we like to push the boundaries and do things more boldly - whether it is our Christmas trees (which in the past have been designed by John Gallinao of Dior and Alber Elbaz of Lanvin, and this year is by Kally Ellis of in-house florist McQueens) or bring in a rock-star chef such as René Redzepi. We've invited David Downton to become our fashion illustrator in residence to draw our guests to create a history for today. These are things you would not necessarily expect of a hotel like Claridge's.

Noma was so incredible for the hotel and was great for London, too, that it has inspired us to do something similar again. It would have to be a chef and a restaurant that was completely new to London - someone like Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park in New York - but we are looking at many others.

We will always provide great service at the hotel and, through the right technology being interfaced between different departments, we are increasingly creating more precise guest profiles - that is how the magic happens. So the next time you come here, we will know your preference will be for a cappuccino with brown sugar and chocolate brownies instead of shortbread biscuits. Technology at Claridge's is all about personalising and enhancing service, as well as making the staff more efficient through the use of mobile devices - but we won't be asking guests to check out via their TV.

THOMAS KOCHS - CAREER TO DATE
Born in Germany, Kochs started his career in the hospitality industry 20 years ago at the Steigenberger Hotel Group, after graduating from the Fachhochschule Munich with an MBA Diplom-Betriebswirt (FH).

He joined the Maybourne Hotel Group in 2001, since when he has worked in all three of the company's properties in London. Starting at the Berkeley, he initially worked in the banqueting team, becoming head of events and subsequently food and beverage director of the hotel in 2005.

From 2007 to 2009, Kochs was hotel manager at the Connaught and played a key role in spearheading the successful relaunch of the hotel after its £70m restoration programme, including launching the newly created Connaught Bar and the Michelin-starred restaurant Hélène Darroze.

Upon arriving at Claridge's as hotel manager, he oversaw projects such as the creation and launch of the Diane von Furstenberg rooms and suites, as well as ending 2010 with the best financial results in the hotel's recent history.

Kochs was appointed general manager of Claridge's in early 2011. He oversees a team of 420 full-time staff.


E-mail your comments to Janet Harmer here.

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