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The Caterer interview – Sean Wheeler

03 June 2011 by
The Caterer interview – Sean Wheeler

Sean Wheeler, who made his mark as group director of people development at Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, is now turning his attention to the five-star hotel market as area director of human resources for Dorchester Collection UK. He shares with Janet Harmer the challenges of his new role

You spent six incredibly productive years with Malmaison and Hotel du Vin. What do you consider were your major achievements? I joined Malmaison when there were only six hotels in the group, which were joined soon after by the acquisition of the Hotel du Vin brand.

By the time I left there were 12 Malmaisons and 15 Hotel du Vins. I was involved in bringing the two brands together, establishing the people strategy between them and helping to create both groups as good places to work.

What attracted you to the Dorchester Collection? I've never worked in luxury hotels before and the Dorchester is such an iconic property. Now with the addition of Coworth Park, it also offers the opportunity to work within a country house environment, which is also new to me. And then shortly there will be a third hotel in the group - 45 Park Lane.

Together the hotels make up a great portfolio of three unique properties, all offering fabulous food and beverage outlets and bedrooms, which tend to attract some of the best people in the industry.

What were your key challenges on arriving at the Dorchester Collection? Fortunately the company had taken a long-term review during the recession and had made no redundancies. The product itself is fantastic, but I've had the opportunity to put more structures in place to make the people strategy more consistent [see box].

How does the service delivery differ between the three UK hotels? Each property has its own DNA and culture, but they all have a common set of values - from a people point of view this means having a positive attitude, working together and being innovative and respectful.

Being a country house hotel, Coworth Park provides a more relaxed environment, but still with good, professional service. We want staff there to be friendly and less formal, but still professional. The Dorchester has a service-style more suited to a capital city, but for both properties the ultimate aim is for every team member to look after the guests' needs.

Many of the staff at 45 Park Lane have been promoted from within the group. Languages will be key here. Many of the team have business degrees or an interest in the art world, and will be able to hold meaningful conversations with guests.

How do you plan to develop and hold on to talent? We are looking at setting up a graduate training programme which will work across the three properties. It will be a two-year programme, with six months being spent in each hotel. The final six months will be in the department that the graduate will eventually want to specialise in and we aim to retain all the trainees in the business. We hope to start with six trainees this autumn.

We are working with Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland and Oxford Brookes University to build a long-term relationship to find talent for our graduate programme, direct entries and for internships.

Hopefully, we will then use the graduate programme as the basis of a similar food and beverage programme as we have some wonderful restaurants to be used for training including Alain Ducasse, the Grill and the Promenade at the Dorchester, John Campbell at Coworth Park and Wolfgang Puck's CUT at 45 Park Lane.

Is there an opportunity for existing staff to progress their careers? Absolutely, it is very important that we look internally for talent and I am a great believer in growing your own talent - working at the Dorchester is seen as the pinnacle of many people's career in hospitality, hence the top positions don't always change that often. Now we can offer staff wider opportunities as we have the power of three great properties.

How do the hotels support one another with staff? We are in the process of setting up a task force which is, in effect, a mobile workforce team which can be called upon to support one hotel at a particularly busy time. Every member of the team will be based at one property but if, for instance, there is a major function taking place at the Dorchester, then members of the task force at Coworth Park and 45 Park Lane will move over to the Dorchester. It will create a very team-focused culture.

What are the challenges of looking after younger staff today? The average age of the staff at Coworth is 28, which puts them in Generation Y, and they are often very confident and constantly looking for their next role. This can be challenging as it takes time to turn enthusiasm into expertise, but also very positive as they are keen to learn.

They are all about speed and immediacy. It is important to adapt a different style in the way we work with them, as well as offer them training and development, in order to help them move forward, or you will lose them.

How do you balance the younger workforce with the older workforce? A mixed-age workforce provides the perfect balance between those who have achieved a level of perfection that can only be honed by years of experience, balanced with an awareness of younger generations and new methods. Our role is to ensure there is respect and a positive attitude between the generations, which allows them to flourish alongside each other.

The main difference is the speed of response. Growing up in a digital world, younger staff are used to immediacy of information and answers.

How have you recruited for Coworth Park and 45 Park Lane? At Coworth Park we created a local PR campaign which tied-in well with recruitment opportunities. We delivered leaflets to nearby high-end shops and set up stands at fêtes selling mince pies and Christmas puddings.

For 45 Park Lane, we have run invitation days in which we placed an advert asking for CVs and we received 1,500! After sifting, invitations were sent to the candidates we want to interview. At the interviews, each candidate is seen by three people - the relevant departmental manager, a member of the HR team and an executive team member.

Tell us about your talent team? We are putting this together to reduce the need for agencies and reduce the amount of time it takes to fill an open position.

By building strategic relationships with universities and colleges, through strong brand awareness and good PR, we should be able to avoid using agencies and put the money used for them in the past towards retraining people.

Do you employ people from outside the industry? At Coworth Park, we took on a lot of people with no hospitality experience but who were local to the hotel and had passion, energy, enthusiasm, a positive can-do attitude and great personalities. Then we taught them the technical skills. This undoubtedly paid off, as nine out of 10 positive comments from guests are about the team.

By December last year - three months after opening - Coworth Park had lost only 13% of its staff, while the industry norm for this period is 30%. Most of our housekeepers at Coworth Park were completely new to the job, many of the front-office team came from retail or customer service environments.

At 45 Park Lane, we aim to have a higher proportion of staff with industry experience, with a goal of about 35% coming from one of the other Dorchester Collection properties.

Who was your mentor? Tony Hughes, the managing director of TGI Friday's when I was there, who then went on to be managing director of Mitchell & Butler Restaurants. He was a great inspiration, would spot talent and nurture it. Robert Cook, chief executive of Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, and now Roland Fasel [general manger, the Dorchester, and regional director UK] have all played a key role in my personal development.

What does the future hold for the Dorchester Collection in the UK regarding its people. We're talking about apprenticeships for chefs, which could then be applied to front of house and also housekeepers. Good housekeepers are hard to find and much more should be done with regards to their training. They have enormous responsibilities and big budgets to manage - this is definitely going to be a big focus for us.

sean wheeler
2010-present Area director of human resources, Dorchester Collection
2005-10 Group director of people development, Malmaison and Hotel du Vin
2001-03 Restaurant group human resources manager, Mitchells & Butlers
1997-01 Human resources manager, Vintage Inns
1988-96 New store opening manager, general manger, national training manager then operations manager, TGI Friday's
1985-88 Area catering manager, Miss Selfridge
1983-85 Assistant manager, Meon Valley Golf & Country Club hotel, Hampshire
1981-83 Concord Hotels management training scheme

sean wheeler on how to create buy-in among a team
My first year in the job has been about opening two hotels [Coworth Park and 45 Park Lane] and bringing together all three hotels to work together and support one another with regards to its people.

In particular, I've introduced to my team a 90-day programme which every new employee completes on joining the company.

During the induction on the first two days we impart the value, history and culture of the company and take the new recruits on a tour of the properties, enabling everyone to be a sales person. They also meet the executive team and get to eat lunch in the hotels.

On day three, the employees join their specific departments and for their first 30 days they follow a training matrix alongside a trainer. Then for the next 60 days they undergo specific training in specialised areas such as selling skills, telephone techniques and service recovery.

On completion of the 90-day programme, each new member of staff gets to stay in one of the hotels with their partner, enabling them to have more meaningful and knowledgeable conversations with guests.

My intention is that the 90-day programme will help create a more confident workforce. The hotels can at first appear to be quite a daunting environment and we want to show people that they have come to the right place. We have worked hard to find these people and we intend to work hard to keep them.

improving staff retention
Staff may be attracted to the Dorchester Collection by reputation, but they will only stay as a result of the people they work with and the opportunities offered to them. Sean Wheeler outlines the structures in place to maintain enthusiasm.

â- An employee satisfaction survey helps us discover what we can do to make life better for everyone. It is often the smallest things that make the difference, such as having a water machine installed in an office or the staff locker rooms refurbished.
â- We are rewarding and recognising people through a Lucky Dip Star recognition system. If a manager or assistant manager spots good examples of work - such as respectful service, innovation, passion for the job - they will award a Lucky Dip Star and they win something like afternoon tea, a spa treatment or M&S vouchers. Staff love it. We probably award 10 Lucky Dip Stars a day among our 700-person team at the Dorchester and team of 220 at Coworth Park.
â- We also have the Employee Dazzler of the Month, voted for by the staff, who then goes forward for the Dorchester Dazzler of the Year where the winner gets a five-day stay at one of the Dorchester Collection's overseas properties in either Beverley Hills or New York, with business class airline tickets and £1,000 spending money included.
â- Retention of good people is all about reward, recognition and development, as well as encouraging them to feel part of a team.

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