The positive working environment across Firmdale Hotels just got even better with the launch of a bespoke training academy. Janet Harmer reports
Never has it been more necessary for a hotel to provide a supportive and nurturing environment to allow its team of people to flourish.
With more and more properties opening – some 210 hotels are in the development pipeline for London alone, according to a new study by private wealth law firm Boodle Hatfield – operators are increasingly having to look at creative means of recruiting and retaining staff after the introduction of a point-based immigration system following Brexit.
Firmdale Hotels, owner and operator of eight hotels in London and two in New York, has always been known as a group that puts people at the heart of its business. As winner of the Best Employer Award at the 2017 Cateys, the company was praised for creating a strong family-like people culture that encouraged camaraderie across its 1,750-strong workforce (1,400 in London and 350 in New York) by promoting a positive working environment.
Taking this approach a step further, Firmdale has now launched a training academy that could be regarded as something of a game-changer within the industry. While training has always been undertaken by the group – primarily within the hotels – there was always the realisation that it could be done better and to a higher quality.
The intention was to enhance the family culture already in place by offering training within an environment which would heighten the confidence and skills of the staff. The result has been the launch of the purpose-built Firmdale Academy, with a fully operational training kitchen, bar, restaurant, bedroom and bathroom, alongside three training rooms for theory work set up with the latest technology.
There is also a central production kitchen and bakery, where all bread and baked goods for the London hotels are made daily, a family room, breakout area and shop.
Back to school
The reality of the Academy was driven by managing director Tim Kemp, founder with his wife Kit of Firmdale Hotels in 1985, and fully supported by operations director Anna Jackson and director of people and development Julia Murrell.
Launched in September 2019 and costing "a significant sum", the Academy is located within a warehouse on a business park in Brentford, west London. It is no surprise to discover – given the renowned and distinctive designs created by Kit Kemp across the portfolio of properties – that the Academy is every bit as beautiful as each and every one of Firmdale's hotels.
Jackson explained that for several years the company's general managers had discussed what was seemingly the utopia of being able to offer new starters the opportunity to undergo training within an operational environment, but without the challenge of being immersed within the heart of a busy hotel, with guests checking in and out and F&B being served throughout the day. Average occupancy at the London hotels is 87.7%, with up to 60% repeat guests.
"The Academy has enabled us to put our ideas into practice," she says.
At full capacity, up to 54 people can receive training at any one time, with staff being transported to the Academy in a minibus from the Knightsbridge and Haymarket hotels in central London.
All new starters now undergo a four- to five-day, full-time on-board programme, which includes a general introduction to the company as well as a specialist induction in F&B, kitchen, front office or housekeeping.
In addition, the Academy offers seven different apprenticeship and management development programmes for culinary, hospitality and learning and development, alongside training on an ad hoc basis for team members at different levels in a wide variety of subjects, such as building rapport, team DNA and revenue management. Meanwhile, English lessons and 90-minute training sessions continue to take place in central London.
Emma Granger, a former graduate management trainee at Firmdale who went on to spend more than two years as restaurant manager at the group's Charlotte Street hotel, is the manager of the Academy. She oversees the facility on a day-to-day basis, with training delivered by heads of departments, group managers and outsider providers such as Umbrella Training.
Our aim is to offer a nurturing, inclusive and open environment to everyone starting a career with Firmdale
"Heads of departments have always delivered the department induction programme to new starters," says Jackson. "The learning and development team has been working with them to adapt the training, so that their teams are now given the opportunity to practice without being under the pressure of being in front of a guest."
Being able to conduct training in a dedicated space away from the hotels has been hugely significant. "We have already seen great success in the confidence and ability of new starters by the end of their on-board programme," says Jackson. "The dedicated space allows them to learn in their own time, make a mistake and try again."
Murrell explains that it is not only the recipients of the training who are benefiting from the Academy – managers are also enjoying the career development that delivering training offers them. "More managers are keen to undertake training now as they are able to dedicate the time it requires to fully focus on what needs to be done," she says.
Overall, the feedback has been excellent. "The Academy is definitely wowing and creating a great first impression of Firmdale," says Jackson. "We understand that starting a new role in any company is intimidating – there is so much to learn, not only about your own role, but the company as a whole. Our aim is to offer a nurturing, inclusive and open environment to everyone. We encourage lots of questions and interaction, as well as giving time to the practical application of the skills that will assist team members in their respective departments."
While it is still early days, Firmdale is measuring the impact of the Academy on retention, probationary period turnover, guest service and standards. "At the end of 2019, Firmdale had maintained a vacancy list of only 4% of headcount throughout the year and annual employee retention had been consistently over 70%," concludes Jackson.
Helga Nemeth, room attendant, Haymarket hotel
Originally from Hungary, Helga Nemeth recently worked in Germany before coming to the UK. She was concerned that what she felt was her poor English would hold her back in the on-boarding housekeeping programme at the Academy. But she need not have worried. "Biserka Ivanova [group head housekeeper] was very helpful and encouraging," she says. "She showed us what to do and then we went through everything together. We were given plenty of time to learn."
Drew Cliff, public area supervisor, Ham Yard hotel
A recent recruit to Firmdale Hotels – he arrived two months ago from the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London – Drew Cliff has enjoyed a career of more than 30 years working in hotels all over the world, including in his native Australia.
"I have never before experienced such a fantastic training setting as the Firmdale Academy," he says of the week-long on-boarding programme. "It allows you to increase your knowledge within a quiet, prudent and precise environment, without being hampered by the constraints of an operational hotel.
"It also enables you to bond with colleagues from different departments in a friendly setting. I now aspire to become a trainer in the future and pass on my many years of experience."
Aisling Tyndall, reservations manager, Ham Yard hotel
Aisling Tyndall's introduction to Firmdale started with the five-day front office on-boarding programme. She joined the company three months ago after spending three years on the graduate programme and then as reservation supervisor at Rosewood London. The first four days of the programme was spent at the Academy, with the fifth back at Ham Yard learning the operations.
"During the mornings, staff from all departments came together for team building and to learn the core values of the business, then in the afternoon I had one-on-one training with my departmental trainer," she explains. "It was very personalised and easily the best on-boarding experience I've undergone. I hope to have the opportunity to undertake further training in specialised areas such as revenue.
"The Academy is a brilliant set up. It provides an excellent environment for learning without the pressure of a guest in front of you."
Kate Turner, commis chef, Charlotte Street hotel
After joining Firmdale Hotels nine months ago, Kate Turner is halfway through a chef apprenticeship, which involves training at the academy for two days a month. She arrived at the group with no formal training, although she had worked in the kitchens of Middle Eastern restaurant Honey & Co in London.
"I was looking for classical training," she says. "We do one theory day and one practical day, when we are able to be much more hands-on than we are when trained in the hotel kitchen, where there is always the pressure of preparing mise en place and à la carte orders. It allows us to gain a better understanding of the techniques.
"The important thing is to follow this up with practice at work and at home. The Academy is an investment from the employer that makes you want to perform and achieve."
Matteo Delrio, assistant head concierge, Charlotte Street hotel
For Matteo Delrio, the Academy has confirmed that Firmdale is a caring employer that "encourages us to reach our full potential and become a star". He says it was always his intention to work for Firmdale after arriving in London from Sardinia in 2013, and he joined the company three years ago from the Marriott St Pancras Renaissance hotel.
Delrio, who works in a team of nine at the Charlotte Street hotel, was able to complete his Management Development Programme at the Academy, an experience he describes as "nurturing" without the pressures of the day job.
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