2019 winner: Sean Wheeler
Sponsored by Taylors of Harrogate Coffee Bags
The creation of a positive people culture is central to the success of any forward-thinking hospitality business. Sean Wheeler has not only put in place such an ethos across a myriad of pubs, restaurants and hotels, but he has also inspired a legion of up-and-coming operators to follow in his footsteps.
Wheeler's widespread contribution to the way businesses look after and inspire their team has deservedly earned him the prestigious Outstanding Contribution award. He has, quite simply, become the go-to individual for best people practice in the industry.
A career spanning 40 years has seen him progress from a management trainee with Concord Hotels in 1981 to his most recent role, as director of people development for Kimpton UK & Regent Hotels at InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), from where he retired in September. In the intervening years he oversaw the people culture at Vintage Inns, Mitchells & Butlers, Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, Dorchester Collection and Principal Hotels.
David Taylor, vice-president for UK operations at IHG, worked with Wheeler for four years. "It was a great privilege to work with Sean," he says. "He was my partner in crime in creating the Principal brand, and its success was very much down to the people culture he led."
It is Wheeler's belief that a standout collection of beautifully renovated hotels is not enough to guarantee success. It is essential, he says, to match the fabric of the properties with a strong service environment, driven by a caring and inspiring people culture.
This is what was achieved at Principal, where Wheeler set the ball rolling in transforming it by bringing together four or five staff from each hotel and from across all departments in the surprising setting of the monkey den at Edinburgh Zoo.
"Our discussions were all about evolution, so it was an appropriate location," he explained at the time. "The individuals – dubbed change gurus – were chosen because they were already living the values of the brand, in terms of having a positive attitude and being good team players. The intention was that they would go away and write a programme about how they would personalise the changes and then roll them out to their colleagues."
Principal's service philosophy was to "surprise and delight" by empowering staff to engage with guests and improve their stay. This has created a happy team – with happy guests and a boost to business as a result. Throughout his career, Wheeler has sat on numerous industry bodies to promote the sector as an exciting career choice, while at the same time highlighting that the industry needs to do more to take better care of its staff.
No longer in a full-time role – although consultancy work beckons – he continues to be an advocate for the industry through his chairmanship of the People 1st College Accreditation panel, board duties for Hospitality Action and as a judge for The Caterer's Acorn Scholarship.
At a time when the industry is facing exceptional challenges regarding recruitment and retention, Wheeler's own commitment to making hospitality a better place to work makes him a deserving recipient of the 2019 Outstanding Contribution award.
- 2018 Jonathan Slater, Oddfellows Hotels
- 2017 David Morgan-Hewitt, the Goring, London
- 2016 Robin Sheppard, Bespoke Hotels
- 2015 Philip Newman- Hall, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Great Milton, Oxfordshire
- 2014 Robin Hutson, Lime Wood Group and Home Grown Hotels
- 2013 Patrick Dempsey, Whitbread Hotels & Restaurants
- 2012 Paul Gayler, the Lanesborough, London
- 2011 Gordon Campbell Gray, Campbell Gray Hotels
- 2010 Alan Parker, Whitbread
- 2009 Willy Bauer, AB Hotels
- 2008 John Williams, the Ritz London
- 2007 Grant Hearn, Travelodge
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