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The Caterer interview: Sally Beck, general manager, Royal Lancaster London

23 March 2018 by

Sally Beck is general manager of one of the capital's largest event hotels. Under her watch, the Royal Lancaster London is close to completing an £80m-plus refurbishment to bring it up to five-star standards. Rosalind Mullen met her

What drew you to hotels as a career?

I was born and bred into this industry. My parents, grandparents and great-uncle were all in pubs and hotels. Hospitality is in our blood. I didn't live in a house until I was 17. It was natural for me to carry on in the industry, so I went to Bournemouth to do my hotel management training and started working in sales and marketing (S&M) in my early 20s.

You're a Master Innholders St Julian scholar and an active member of the Institute of Hospitality, and you've honed your skills in some of the UK's best hotels. Give us a brief rundown of your career

I moved to London and worked in the five-star independent hotel sector, getting a good background in operations. In 1992, I became S&M director at Conrad Chelsea Harbour and in 1995 I joined the reopening team at the Royal Garden hotel in Kensington as S&M director under general manager Graham Bamford. The hotel had been closed for two years for a refurbishment and repositioning, and I set out to bring entertainment and sport back into the business. The hotel reopened in 1996, hosting the UEFA European Championship players, having initially launched in 1966 hosting the World Cup winners. In 2001, after travelling with my husband and working briefly for foodservice business] Aramark, I became S&M director at the five-star Landmark London, the sister hotel to the then four-star Royal Lancaster. By then I had children, but continued working.

How did you make the move from sales and marketing into hotel management?

In S&M you get to a stage where you want to shape the business more. Six years ago I started to think I could do more with my career. An opportunity was opening up because Douglas Glen, the hotel manager at the Landmark, was transferring to the Landmark Bangkok. The hotel manager here, Andrew Batchelor, moved to the Landmark London and I swapped hotels into the vacancy he left.

sally-beck2
sally-beck2

And relatively swiftly you were promoted to general manager?

I took up the hotel manager role in November 2012, but within a few weeks the general manager, Stephen Kyjak-Lane, handed in his notice, so I had a baptism of fire as acting general manager. After six months they still hadn't found a suitable replacement. By that time, I had been running the hotel on my own and felt I could do the job. I put myself forward and they said yes.

The Royal Lancaster has 400-plus bedrooms and is one of the largest banqueting hotels in the capital. Few women have broken through to run such big hotels in London, so you must have had to go the extra mile to get the role?

It's a fact that most of the big event hotels in London tend to be run by men. There tends to be an unconscious bias when you are a mum and a woman. You have to break the door down by persistence and proof that you can do it to get the position. Anna-Marie Dowling [complex general manager at the Westin and Le Méridien Bahrain City Centre] is an example of a GM who broke the mould.

Do you have a clever way of managing your own work-life balance?

I have two daughters, aged 14 and 15, but they were nine and 10 when I took the job. We sat down and I made a contract that, for instance, I would only work one or two nights a week at the hotel. We all signed it and I stuck to it.

I get here at 7am, sort my emails, see the night team and morph from being a mum to a GM. Then I get home at 6.30pm, when I morph back to being a mum. My husband works from home, but travels. We have made it work. Initially, we had au pairs to help us, but now the girls say they are too old. So the eldest does the cooking and the youngest does the laundry, and they get paid. It works for us as a family.

Royal Lancaster London Living Lounge
Royal Lancaster London Living Lounge

Were there moments early on when you regretted what you had taken on?

Never. The worst point was when Stephen left. But I gradually realised that running a hotel is not rocket science. If you discuss, share, involve and learn, it's fine. You need to trust your team and have good, open communication.

Is sales and marketing a good route into becoming a general manager?

It is a cracking route. As an S&M director you open markets, break down barriers and make relationships work to build the business. You have a fundamental knowledge of how the business works. To be a good GM you need to know where the profit centres are and be able to negotiate, so I was equipped for it.

What were the biggest initial challenges on taking over as GM?

Staff engagement is important to you. What culture are you creating in the hotel?

I want to run the happiest hotel in London. I have added "We Care" to our original values. Staff are valued; they want to come to work and have a career.

Previously, there was a lot of disciplinary action, but we now have a no-blame culture. I have set up a mediation system whereby an HR manager will discuss any problems with both sides and, if it can be resolved, both sign a document to agree to move forward. It only goes to a disciplinary hearing if there is no clarity.

This system is more open and it has made a massive difference to trust across the hotel. Instead of managers blaming team members, they start talking. Talking has helped.

Royal Lancaster London executive bedroom
Royal Lancaster London Park Suite

The 50-year-old building has just gone through a two-year £83m refurbishment. How have you influenced the project?

There were three stages. The first stage, planned before I arrived, was to replace the air conditioning, plumbing, wiring, electrics, lifts and so on, and to clear most of the plant from the 19th floor to allow for future development.

I got involved with the second stage - room design. For example, 341 of the bedrooms are not large. I surveyed the guests, challenged the designers and decided to replace the baths in the en suites with wet room-style showers.

I was also instrumental in ensuring we had flexible connecting bedrooms, and now we can connect three or four rooms. I also worked with the designers to ensure that the interiors were fit for the future and contemporary rather than simply "fashionable".

The third stage was to remodel the lobby and entrance. If you're going to do all that work, you need an [imposing] lobby to ensure you get your return on investment. The owner had foresight and went for height and light, where previously it was dark and low-ceilinged. There is a new, dramatic eight-metre-high glazed facade and a sweeping white Carrara marble staircase in the lobby. It has made a huge difference - but it cost another £15m.

The works also embraced the creation of Hyde Lobby bar, the redesign of the Nipa Thai restaurant and the refurbishment of 16 event spaces, with the two largest spaces able to collectively seat 2,000 guests for dinner. The £3.5m refurbishment of the Lounge Bar and Park Room restaurant area started in February and will run for about 16 weeks.

Royal Lancaster London bathroom
Royal Lancaster London bathroom

Did you close the hotel during the two-year building works?

No, but it required a lot of juggling. For instance, we went down to 200 rooms, stopped day meetings and had a temporary lobby. We closed different areas of the hotel at different times, so we needed one person to do the logistics. I took on a communications manager to liaise between the staff, the contractors, the guests and me. He oversaw acoustic tests to find out how far noise resonated between

different parts of the building and created a 3D model of the hotel so we could see how to manage the noise around the building. We told all our guests what to expect and kept our business - but it was not easy. Our Trip­Advisor scores stayed stable all the way through, but yes, we had some complaints.

Did you cut staff?

When I took the position I knew I would have to halve the staff before the refurbishment work started. I didn't want to create redundancies. If people left though natural attrition, for instance, I replaced them with staff on a fixed contract. During the period when we couldn't take bookings for conferences or banquets, I asked the conference team to work in the F&B departments across the other hotels. They are now all back. It is important when reopening a hotel to have consistency with staff.

Is the hotel moving from a four- to five-star rating in line with its sister hotels?

Well, the AA is waiting until six months after we are finished before they officially accredit us. However, with events being an important part of our overall business I would like us to remain unrated. Many of our clients are from the pharmaceutical world or banking, and their ethics policy prevents them from booking five-star properties. I just want us to be the best event, best leisure and best corporate hotel. The guests will be the ones who grade us.

What will the hotel's new status achieve?

The old hotel was tired and certain markets didn't come to us because we weren't special enough. That has now changed. We are pitching to be the headquarters hotel for the 2020 UEFA European Championship [the semi-finals and final will be in London]. We are getting entertainment market and embassy business, and can attract more blue-chip clients because the bedrooms match the events product.

Royal Lancaster London executive bedroom
Royal Lancaster London executive bedroom
What are your financial targets? When I arrived we were achieving average room rates of £130-£140 and I would like to be achieving £250-£300 by the end of this year. We used to trade at 83% occupancy before the refurbishment works and we need to build it back up, but that might take time. The hotel turnover is £32m, but it should be turning over £50m and I won't feel my job is done until that is achieved. It might take two or three years, but that is where my S&M experience comes into play. Anyone can spend money, but you need to deliver on the investment, so the hard work starts now. How have you approached recruitment and introduced five-star service standards? We have taken on 161 new staff in the past six months, so will have 465, including part-timers. I didn't want to bring in a whole new five-star team. Our team are "five-star", but they didn't know about the levels of service that are required, so we have been training in-house. Of the current team, 30% are fully employed and 70% are agency recruits. I want to switch that so I can train and develop more people. Is Brexit casting a shadow on recruitment? We had to grow our staff from 200 rooms \[during the renovation\] to 411 rooms. About 50% of the new staff are from Europe. Good companies can still find good people, though we struggled to find room attendants in the summer. There is a lot of noise around Brexit, but Britain needs immigration and so does our industry. I hope sense will prevail. Certainly, Europeans still see the UK as a place of opportunity. What's next? There is more travel to the Middle East and New York to make sure I hit that return on investment - that is personal for me - and we still need to think about the 19th floor. But, for now, I want to run the hotel for a bit. It has great potential for duplex suites and we also need a spa. I am a long way from getting bored.
The Royal Lancaster London in a nutshellOwner Thai-based Jatuporn Sihanatkathakul Company Lancaster Landmark Hotel Company General manager Sally Beck Number of bedrooms 411 Background Opened in 1967 as the Royal Lancaster, but in 2009 it briefly changed its name to Lancaster London Facilities Nipa Thai and Island Grill restaurants, Hyde Lobby Bar, Lounge Bar, Park Room, 16 event spaces. The two largest rooms, Nine Kings and the Westbourne Suite, can collectively hold 2,000 guests for dinner. Refurbishment London-based Studio Proof designed the £83m facelift of the 18-storey building, taking the number of bedrooms from 416 down to 411 Sister hotels in London The Landmark London, K West Hotel & Spa and the Basil Street Apartments Sister hotels in Thailand Lancaster Bangkok and Landmark Bangkok Videos from *The Caterer* archives
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