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Keep it in the family: how generations work together in family-run hotels

12 February 2021 by
Keep it in the family: how generations work together in family-run hotels

Much like everyday family life, a family-run business can operate as one mind, with all members pulling together. But clashes in opinion can expose rifts in relationships. Rosalind Mullen speaks to the generations behind four hotels to discover where family stops and business starts.

If you followed the saga of the Barclay family's sale of the Ritz London last year, you will have been treated to a fairly extreme example of how emotions and mistrust can run high in a family-owned business.

Accusations that the late Sir David Barclay's three sons had bugged conversations between their uncle Sir Frederick and their cousin Amanda in the Ritz's conservatory exploded into the public domain following a hearing in the High Court.

Happily, the multimillion-pound business is not representative of most family-run hotels in the UK. London's five-red-AA-star Goring hotel, which has passed through four generations of Gorings since opening in 1910, is testament to the fact that keeping it in the family can be a strength.

Indeed, according to the UK Family Business Report, produced by Oxford Economics for the Institute for Family Business Research Foundation, family partnerships make up 45% of the hotel and restaurant sector, with more than 2.3 million people working in family businesses since 2010, and contributing substantially to UK GDP.

We spoke to four family-owned and run hotels to find out how they make it work.

Seymour Hotels, Jersey

The resilience of family-run hotels is exemplified by Jersey-based Seymour Hotels, which has been run by five generations and has reached its 100-year landmark.

It business began in 1920 when George and Ada Seymour opened a five-bedroom guesthouse. George's parents added two hotels and, over the years, they expanded and consolidated their empire. Today, Seymour Hotels embraces the Merton hotel, Pomme d'Or hotel, Greenhills Country House hotel, the Merton Suites self-catering apartments, a beach bar and the Merton Aquadome & Leisure Club. The total of 1,041 bedrooms comprise more than 12.5% of the island's registered hotel bedstock and the company employs 350 people during peak times.

Pomme d'Or
Pomme d'Or

Three generations of Seymours are involved and all have hospitality training. George's son Robin is chairman, supported by wife Rita, who used to be a general manager in the group. Their son David is managing director, his wife Tina is housekeeping director and their son Matthew, who joined in 2017, is group operations co-ordinator.

"Matthew joined having gained valuable experience in marketing, event management and finance. It's fantastic working with him and my father to drive the group forward," says David.

Working with family, living and breathing your business 24/7 would, for some, be claustrophobic. But the Seymours see it as a benefit. "With three generations involved in the business, the senior members are akin to built-in consultants, imparting their knowledge and vast experience, while the younger members bring a new perspective. To succeed today, a whole new level of knowledge, experience and professionalism is required," says David, who describes the bureaucracy as "staggering".

With three generations involved in the business, the senior members are akin to built-in consultants, while the younger members bring a new perspective

The breadth of age and outlook afforded by multiple generations has had its benefits during the pandemic, too. "What has struck me is the fearlessness and confidence shown by the younger generation to go out and tackle the problem," Davis adds. "While we are worrying, they are saying ‘let's try different things'."

Meanwhile, his daughter, who left the business to join her husband's around the time Matthew joined, has returned. "She sat in on a senior team meeting at the beginning of lockdown and hasn't left. It's extraordinary how [other] family members have come out of the woodwork," David says.

The Merton hotel
The Merton hotel

While it's not always easy to keep business and pleasure separate in a family business, healthy debate often brings creative results.

"Keeping shop-talk away from the dinner table is a challenge," says David. "But it's in these moments, when we are sharing our dreams and hopes and debating options, that we drive the business forward. Yes, there are inevitable disagreements over some plans or issues, but we are a close family and show each other a huge amount of respect. If there's a critical investment decision or issue to be resolved, we will ultimately look to my father as his hard-earned and wise experience can sometimes trump all else."

It's in these moments, when we are sharing our dreams and hopes and debating options, that we drive the business forward

His mantra is that families must understand how to run their business without letting disagreements become personal. If they can do that, then their hands-on involvement leads to a deeper connection with staff.

"Running your own business makes you go that extra mile, and that strengthens your care for the people who work with you to make the business successful. We're not a faceless organisation, and everyone, from back-of-house and support teams to frontline and guest-facing teams, recognises that their roles are to provide our guests with holidays full of happy memories."

That said, family members are not guaranteed a job – they have to earn their roles. For instance, Robin believed the business needed a different approach to safeguard its future, and so encouraged David to study for a BSc in hotel, catering and tourism administration at the University of Surrey, rather than follow the family's more traditional hospitality craft route to Lausanne.

Greenhills Country House hotel
Greenhills Country House hotel

As for succession, David says: "I would obviously love us to celebrate another centenary as a family-run business. But we believe that if you are joining the business, you have to bring something to it. We have lots of dedicated and exceptional staff and it's important they know their future is secure with a capable and dedicated person at the helm."

Headlam Hall hotel, spa and golf, Lower Teesdale

John and Ann Robinson, Headlam Hall
John and Ann Robinson, Headlam Hall

Four generations of Robinsons have farmed in Headlam in Darlington since 1927, but in 1978 John and Ann Robinson diversified by buying the freehold of 17th-century Headlam Hall and its four-acre gardens, restoring and opening a year later with six bedrooms and a small restaurant.

Today, the hotel has 39 bedrooms as well as its flourishing restaurant. In 2004, the family opened a nine-hole golf course and driving range, and in 2007 a new spa building opened.

Over the years, the couple's three children have become involved, too. The directors are headed by John as chairman and Ann as co-founder. Their daughter Clare Metcalfe joined as receptionist in 1986 and is now spa director; son Simon, who joined in 1991 is golf director and still manages the family farm; and son Thomas has been marketing director since 1995.

Thomas and Cheryl Robinson, Headlam Hall
Thomas and Cheryl Robinson, Headlam Hall

Outside expertise has also been brought in for key roles. In 1990, David Jackson joined the company as a chef-manager and was appointed operations director in 1995.

"He had a lifetime of experience in hospitality, which we felt was necessary to progress the business," says John. "None of the family members have had any formal training in the hospitality trade, so it seemed beneficial to bring in some professional expertise."

As for family input, John believes the contribution of the younger generation is important to bring more cutting-edge business strategies on board. For instance, the £3.5m annual turnover has levelled off over the past three years as functions and corporate business face increased local competition and the fact fewer people are marrying. In response, a more vigorous marketing strategy that targets short breaks and leisure groups has been introduced.

"Marketing has become more critical in recent years, and more time and resources are required to sustain the volume of business and this is best suited to the younger mind," says John.

As with any business, communication is crucial. "Board meetings are held regularly and can sometimes be quite lively, particularly when problems arise – which is not infrequent," says John. "These meetings try to keep the various departments and elements in the loop and any major policy decisions are discussed and resolved – if not unanimously then by a majority vote.

"It's generally felt that the presence of the family – and its several long-standing senior employees – gives customers a feeling of personal care and stability that is often lacking in many group hotels," explains John.

It's generally felt that the presence of the family – and its several long-standing senior employees – gives customers a feeling of personal care and stability

It's too early to talk about succession, but it seems the family will continue to grow the business. In 2012, they bought the 14-bedroom Rose & Crown hotel and restaurant in Romaldkirk, some 15 miles from Headlam, which is managed by Thomas's wife, Cheryl.

Historic Sussex Hotels, West Sussex

Three generations have helped to grow this company into a luxurious hotel group with destination restaurants. It started in 1957 when Hugh Taylor purchased the lease of the 39-bedroom Spread Eagle hotel in Midhurst.

His daughter Anne and son-in-law Sandy Goodman subsequently took over and added the 28-bedroom Ockenden Manor in 1987, followed by 39-bedroom Bailiffscourt in 1993.

Bailiffscourt
Bailiffscourt

Sandy is still involved, along with his daughter, Miranda, who looks after refurbishments and building works, and her husband Pontus Carminger, who is managing director. The eldest two of Pontus and Miranda's six children are also on the team – Clara handles group social media and JoJo, who is a furniture-maker, looks after maintenance.

"My mother-in-law Anne, who was interested in interior decorations and hospitality, shaped Historic Sussex Hotels and over the years the hotels have evolved. In 1997, they created a spa at the Spread Eagle, adding another at Bailiffscourt in 2003 and at Ockenden Manor in 2011," says Pontus. "Anne was very involved with the hotel – but not operationally like Miranda and I."

Ockenden Manor
Ockenden Manor

Pontus and Miranda, who met at hotel school in Switzerland, have strong hospitality backgrounds and see the benefit of some key positions being held by outsiders. These include the three general managers, the director of sales and marketing, and the finance director, who has been with company on and off since the late 1970s.

Pontus's advice to those starting a family business would be to separate areas of responsibility. "Working with your family I am sure is not for everyone," he says. "Miranda and I, as husband and wife, have done it since we started out here in the 1990s, so it was never really a difficulty. We try to separate our areas of involvement. These days I am more involved in the operational day-to-day side so I brief her, and she does the projects side and briefs me. Most of the time it is amicable and not a problem."

Working with your family I am sure is not for everyone. We try to separate our areas of involvement

He does concede that budget discussions could be an area of difficulty, but explains: "Luckily, we have an outside financial director with a hotelier background. He's been a director of the company for a long time and we listen to him. He's never afraid of saying what he thinks from a financial point of view and is always very clear. He is part of the board of directors and so he has a vested interest in the business, just like the family members – in fact, he has been on board for 25 years – longer than Miranda and myself."

The Spread Eagle
The Spread Eagle

The mix of family and outside expertise has helped Historic Sussex Hotels navigate the exceptional last year too. "In unprecedented times like these, but also during normal trading conditions, it is unlikely that a family business would have all the skills required within its family members," Pontus says. "We are therefore extremely lucky to have a close management team that is both family and non-family, which provides skills, experience, diversity and enthusiasm."

Pontus believes that simply inheriting a role is not enough. "You need to get involved with all of the business and the people, in the restaurant, kitchen and reception, and you need to learn by working in those departments. Then you can start to understand the difficulties they face and appreciate the work they are doing."

He isn't taking it for granted that any of his six children will ultimately want to take over the business, but it offers plenty of challenges if they do. The Carmingers recently bought a pub close to Bailiffscourt that they are starting to renovate, creating five bedrooms.

"I would like to think there will be more properties if the right thing comes along," says Pontus.

Brits abroad: Palais Amani, Fez, Morocco

Jemima Mann-Baha
Jemima Mann-Baha

Husband, wife, daughter and niece work together at this luxury boutique 18-bedroom hotel. British-born Jemima Mann-Baha and her husband Abdelali Baha opened Palais Amani 10 years ago, having spent three years renovating the property.

Abdelali is the financial director and oversees the technical side, while Jemima is communications and marketing director and looks after staff training. Their daughter Amilia is digital marketing manager and also works with Jemima on the overseas trade fairs. Leila, the couple's niece, looks after housekeeping.

The different generations create a challenge in working together, as Jemima says: "There is a need to be careful in separating a work relationship from a personal, husband-wife relationship and a parent-child relationship. [Even if] your child is in their thirties, ghosts from the past can encroach on work."

One example is that Jemima and Abdelali didn't originally see the need to have formal business meetings. Instead, they used to simply mention things to each other in passing.

Palais Amani rooftop
Palais Amani rooftop

"If those casual meanderings are then taken as business decisions, you can find yourself in a meeting where an [issue] is being discussed that for one family member is a decision and for the other is just an idea," says Jemima. "It has taken a number of years to impose proper, regular directors meetings, but it's important to make that divide clear, to work without your personal life seeping into the dynamics."

It's important to make that divide clear to be able to work without your personal life seeping into work dynamics

She stresses the importance of defining boundaries, setting up proper job descriptions and showing confidence in family members' abilities. This was one lesson she learned in the 1990s, when she took over her mother's London restaurant.

"My mother ran her businesses in a maternal, extended-family way. Our line of business has a lot of that method, but we have also structured it so that the role of each staff member is clear. It allows them the freedom to take on their role, but also know where work starts and stops. It reduces the emotional ties that can blur responsibilities," she explains.

She has also appointed outsiders to management roles. "An external, less emotional viewpoint is imperative in allowing a business to grow, and also to free us up as directors to work on the expansion plans rather than the day-to-day operations," she says.

Palais Amani
Palais Amani

"If, as owners, you spend too much time with your nose to the ground, you don't have time to lift your head up and see what is happening in the market, nor do you have the time to go out and promote the business. It is also imperative to let the ‘baby' grow up, by letting other people take on the project."

The family have also ensured that they are as experienced as the staff. Jemima has had chef training and her husband draws on his administrative business training. Leila underwent an intensive housekeeping course and Amilia trained as a lawyer before joining the family business.

Their strategy clearly works. The business has grown in the 10 years since it opened, from 16 staff members to 50, and now includes the Fez Cooking School and standalone spa.

"Not bad for a decade of dedication, and one that would not have been possible if we hadn't invested in the team," says Jemima.

Six top tips for both peace and prosperity

  • Brief each other regularly.
  • Have separate areas of responsibilities.
  • Discuss everything openly and honestly and try to keep personal emotions at bay – there will have to be compromises.
  • Be prepared to work long hours, especially as you establish the business, but make sure you factor in some time together.
  • Appoint outsiders to positions where there may be flashpoints, such as making financial decisions.
  • The younger generations must earn their positions within the business.

Seymour family photo: Andy Le Gresley Photography Ltd

Palais Amani photography: Omar Chennafi

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