When Robert Cook announced that he was going to staff one of his Hotel du Vin properties entirely with graduates, the knowing looks began: it will never last, experience counts. But more than half a year into the venture,how are the staff - and, more importantly, the guests - faring? Tom Vaughan went along to find out
Things have got awfully grown up on Newcastle's Quayside. They've towed that bastion of immaturity the Boat nightclub, with its revolving dance floor and £1 vodka mixers, off to Greece on the assumption that sun-seeking revellers want to disco in a former car ferry. On the Gateshead side there's the glistening blob of the Sage building, with its peristaltic wobbles and hordes of mature 30-somethings trooping over the Millennium bridge to grab a Macchiato before their Rhydian concert. Meanwhile the former flour mill the Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art sits plastered with posters for Yoko Ono exhibitions in sight of the various Tyne Bridge bars boasting two Jager bombs for a fiver.
Things have also matured at the Quayside's Hotel du Vin. They've had to. As part of Malmaison and Hotel du Vin's unerring faith in its own production line the company put in place a senior management team made up almost entirely of students from its graduate scheme when the hotel opened in November last year. The hotel's deputy general manager, reception manager, bistro manager and assistant managers, as well as its housekeeper and bar manager were all first-job graduates, with general manager Andrew Creese a Malmaison graduate from a previous year. All had spent a year in the graduate scheme shadowing and working in every role of a hotel.
Speaking early last year, chief executive Robert Cook had confidence it would work. "If you are good enough, you are old enough," he said. "We're giving them a £12m toy, but if we give them this opportunity, they'll want to be more successful than their peers." But as any parent will testify, kids break toys. So six months on, has the Great Experiment worked as hoped?
The first thing that strikes you at the Newcastle site is how thoroughly desensitised we've become to the sight of 30-year-olds running a hotel. I'm not sure what I expected - skateboards in the foyer and Lily Allen blasting out the radio - but the days when 40-year-old career receptionists were the norm are long gone. In fact, there was little discernible difference in the appearance of staff at the adjacent Malmaison. Unless you take any notice of the old lady sitting beside me in the bar, who commented in genteel murmurs that they "all looked so young" - an assessment she'd likely still have made if Rod Stewart had served up her Baileys - then there was nothing in the outward appearance to suggest you were at the hands of relative rookies.
However, does it tell in the service? A slow Wednesday night probably isn't the time to best assess this - you want a wedding, a power cut or a slighted and pugnacious guest to properly test the mettle - but it all seemed effortless. I was there to judge and evaluate, to pick up the lost looks and the rookie panics, but for all the guilty schadenfreude of potential mishaps - and while a confused back of house crisis would make for a much better article - it was a warm, friendly and efficient service, free of mistakes. In fact, it was noticeably worse at the neighbouring Malmaison hotel, with breakfast service sporting a befuddled disarray whereby guests had finished their full English by the time a pot of coffee arrived.
Of course, the graduates have something of an advantage in the contemporary splendour of the new hotel - all shiny touches and noughties chic. Stick them in Malmaison around the corner, in a site increasingly looking like an ironic homage to the late 1990s, or an artist's impression of the kind of hotel Craig David might have fashioned had he extended his multiple talents to interior design, and they might have a few more disgruntled guests to deal with.
Anyway, an individual mistake during a short stay is a harsh gauge of the success of six months labour. A far better barometer than looking for the dropped wine glasses or badly made beds is the motivation among the small army of floor manning reception and waiting on tables, as a badly run hotel will drag down the team. But there's a vitality of communal endeavour among them; a shared point to prove.
Of all the potential pitfalls for the rookie staff members, it was what might happen if this keenness and endeavour wore off, or met with the harsh realities of the commercial world, that most worried Cook. "The thing with young people is that they have all this enthusiasm and purpose that they bring into the industry but when the commercial reality of a hotel kicks in, with the costs, costs, costs pressure of running a hotel, that can change," he says. So in order to help the new graduates with the finances - and save him from potential large losses - Cook had a regional accountant in Newcastle keep a close eye on them.
As well as financial support, the graduates have had crisis management support, too. Luckily for them, over the course of the past six months, the hotel has, in Cook's words, been somewhat blessed. "It has been a lucky hotel in that it has yet to be touched by any major crises," he says. "Other hotels in the group have had little problems here and there but it's yet to happen in Newcastle."
However, were there to be a catastrophe of sorts, rest assured that the graduates wouldn't be stranded. Not only has experienced Newcastle Malmaison general manager Lizzy Kelk been a five-minute walk away (and is now acting general manager, following Creese's departure to Oxford Malmaison), but group director of people development Sean Wheeler visits the property once a week to help iron out any difficulties ongoing.
It's so far so good for the experiment. In fact, the graduates have so excelled that two among them have already been given promotions. The bistro manager has been moved to a similar position at the larger Aberdeen site, while the head housekeeper has made the lofty step up to group head of entertainment, sport and music. The gamble has certainly paid off, and it's hard to fault the energy the graduates exude in the hotel, to such an extent that Cook says he will be more than happy to do it all again when they open their next hotel. "The investment we made, on realising we were expanding the business and needed talent, has paid off considerably," he says. "It was absolutely the right thing to do."
So what have we learnt? Things are certainly mature on Quayside. The odds of bumping into Gazza on the Boat have dipped from 50/1-on to 1,000/1 against, unless you regularly holiday in Piraeus. People actually attend Rhydian concerts. And, just as Robert Cook says, if you're good enough, you are old enough. Take heed.
A testament of youth: the graduate team at the Newcastle Hotel du Vin have had few problems running the hotel
WHAT THE GUESTS SAY, COURTESY OF TRIPADVISOR.COM
- The staff were young and keen and couldn't be faulted. Nothing was too much trouble and they really helped to make the stay very special. Thank you Hotel du Vin - we will definitely be back!"
- "I can't fault this hotel, it is obviously well managed and is a credit to the management and the staff. I have been in the trade running a hotel for the past 35 years and when staying away am a harsh critic of mediocre hotels, but when I find something this good it I think people should know about it and the staff should get the credit."
- "But the worst was our evening meal in the Bistro. Service was slow and impersonal - we had been given menus in the bar, walked in with them and then spent the next 20 minutes trying to catch a waitress's eye to order."
- "Very attractive suite with fantastic views of the Tyne from enormous windows but unfortunately there was an undetectable smell which although was investigated thoroughly would not go away. So we were upgraded to one of the loft suites with no extra charge by the manager, Andrew. A huge room with two roll-top baths and a double shower called the Dom Perignon Suite and it was fantastic."
GIVING IT TO THE KIDS
Success: Manchester United 1995/96
"You'll never win anything with kids," was Alan Hansen's immortal assessment as the all-winning Manchester United youth team of the mid-90s made the transition to first team duty. After selling more experienced pros in the summer, manager Alex Ferguson entrusted the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville with maintaining the first team's push for trophies. Hansen went on to eat his words as the team became the first ever to win a double of the league title and FA Cup for a second time.
Failure: The Children's Crusade
Much cited but probably apocryphal tale whereby, in a Europe steeped in the Crusade fever of the early Middle Ages, a young boy claimed to have been visited by a vision of Jesus, who told him to lead a Crusade of children to Jerusalem in the belief that the sight of 30,000 pre-pubescents on the tail end of a 2,000-mile march would make the resident Muslims put down the Koran and switch to Christianity. When the waters of the Mediterranean didn't part, as was supposedly promised, they hitched a lift with some merchants, and either perished in a shipwreck or were taken to Tunisia and sold into slavery.