Anna-Marie Dowling took over as general manager of London's five-star, 281-bedroom the Royal Horseguards - Guoman Hotels' flagship property - four months ago. She tells Janet Harmer how she has risen from her first job as a chambermaid to being in charge of the 2010 AA Hotel of the Year
You were enjoying an enviable lifestyle as general manager of the Grand Hotel & Spa in Jersey when you were invited to run the Royal Horseguards for Guoman. What encouraged you to return to London? I was very sad to leave Jersey as I had enjoyed my two years there immensely. But the Grand was put on the market and I was left in a tenuous position. I felt my future there was a little less secure. Working in the Channel Islands proved to be enormously valuable. I learnt a lot from working in what is largely a seasonal hotel, where we had to be very creative with our marketing, and being in a small location you establish close contacts with your clients. I didn't think I would come back to London, but when Heiko Figge (managing director of Guoman & Thistle Hotels) called to talk to me about the Royal Horseguards, I realised that this was going to be a very exciting opportunity to reposition the hotel as a five-star property.
How have your previous jobs prepared you for this role? Before going to Jersey I worked in London as general manager at Le Meridien Piccadilly and the Marriott Country Hall, both which are of a similar size to the Royal Horseguards. Working at the Café Royal and the Brewery, which are large function venues, also proved to be useful experience: as well as being responsible for the hotel, I also look after the meetings and events space at the adjacent One Whitehall Place - once home of the National Liberal Club.
What appealed to you about working for Guoman? Guoman is at an embryonic stage, so it is a very interesting time to join them. They are not so prescriptive in their approach as some of the larger brands and like each individual hotel to develop its own style and personality. As one of the group's general managers, I am very much involved in the development of the brand's growth. There is probably some need to create more of an identity for Guoman, but I have huge respect for Heiko and am thoroughly enjoying working for him. He brings great leadership and direction to both Guoman and Thistle.
The Royal Horseguards is nearing the end of a major refurbishment - what has it involved?
What were the key factors in the Royal Horseguards being named as the AA Hotel of the Year? I think the AA has seen that the investment we have put into the hotel has resulted in a phenomenal product. At the same time we have improved the service level to take it up to a standard that is consistent with five-star expectations. We are also continually looking at ways we can be different and individual. For instance, with our afternoon teas, we look at providing a presentation that can be linked into a specific occasion, whether it is Bonfire Night or Christmas.
Where is the hotel positioned within London's competitive five-star hotel market? By moving into the five-star market, the Royal Horseguards is now in competition with the likes of the Langham, the Carlton Tower, the Landmark and the Churchill. I think we will sit very comfortably beside the Corinthia, which is due to open opposite us, following a £340m investment, in the spring. I don't think we will be in competition with them for business as I expect they will be positioned against the Dorchester, the Ritz, the Savoy and the Four Seasons.
How do you ensure the Royal Horseguards stands out from its competitors? The quality of our product is, of course, paramount, but it is also important that we offer service that is second to none. The new restaurant is going to be a flexible space that is going to be very creative and different. We're still finalising the details, but I'd like it to aspire to have a Michelin star. We're also lucky to have One Whitehall Place, which has always been considered to be one of the highest-level event venues in the city. It has some wonderful original Victorian architecture, including the Gladstone Library which can accommodate up to 350 guests.
You mention the importance of good service, how do you ensure your staff offer the very best service? The hotel's 300 full- and part-time staff have been working at a four-star level for a long time, so it has been a major re-education programme to ensure that they now deliver a five-star service. This involves providing a more comprehensive package, with the offer of the likes of a turndown service. But it also involves offering an intuitive level of service where we aim to exceed customers' expectations by ensuring every guest is made to feel special and every experience is exceptional. This is quite a tall order to achieve all the time, but many hotels do it and it is what we strive to do. The staff need to have a passion for their job - there is no room for mediocrity in a five-star hotel.
What is the hotel's current occupancy rate and how are you driving this and room rates up? On average, we are currently running at an occupancy that is high 70%/low 80%. By becoming a five-star property, our strategy is now to drive up the rate, which is likely to be at the expense of occupancy. Having just spent £20m on refurbishing the hotel, the rates can't stay the same as they were before. Guoman understands that it will not be an overnight journey as we make the transition from one segment of the market to another. We have lost some corporate accounts as a result, but are seeking new ones. We have a big sales team in the USA which will be helping to drive up the rate and replace some of the lost business.
What is the mix of business at the Royal Horseguards? It is predominately corporate and from within the UK at the moment. But we also have some leisure business as we are in a good position overlooking the Thames and opposite the London Eye. We are in a quieter location than the West End, and yet just five minutes' walk from Covent Garden.
How important is it for the Royal Horseguards to belong to the marketing consortium, Preferred Hotels & Resorts? I have to say Preferred was quite new to me and it will take me some time to understand its value. The quality of properties in Preferred is certainly in keeping with where we are going with this hotel. I will embrace it and strongly believe that the benefit of what you get out of consortia like this depends upon what you put into them. It will help us to reach out to clients not on the Guoman and Thistle database. With our sales team in the USA and with the support of Preferred, I feel confident we have a good base on which to build business.
As one of only a handful of female general managers within the five-star market, how difficult has it been to reach your current position? There is no doubt this is a very demanding industry, which requires a huge amount of dedication, commitment and perseverance - whether you are a man or a woman. I've never felt discriminated against and plenty of opportunities have come my way. I started off as a cleaner, working for Holiday Inn, which was a great grounding into the business. I remember sitting at the general manager's desk, knowing that one day I wanted to do that job. Woman have choices to make - I don't have children, so I don't have to juggle a family commitment. I think it would be very difficult with a young baby at home when you are running a hotel which operates seven days a week, 365 days a year. There are more female general managers in London than when I was here before and I do believe if anyone wants to do it, they will get there.
How would you sum up your management style? It's firm but fair, and I like to bring a sense of fun into the business. Engagement of the staff is fundamental to the success of a hotel. It is very important to communicate this to staff - as well as talking to them about what I expect from them, I let them know what they can expect from me. Good working relationships are based on good friendships and I always try to have a social agenda. Themed staff lunches once a month brings some light relief - hard work needs to be rewarded. I make sure I get to know all the staff, at whatever level and ensure that they feel valued and recognised.
ANNA-MARIE DOWLING - CV HIGHLIGHTS
â- Joined the industry as a chambermaid at the Holiday Inn Slough-Windsor
â- 1982-84 BTEC hotel, catering and institutional operations diploma, Wakefield District College
â- 1984 Inn House trainee with Holiday Inn
â- 1998 First general manger position at the Brewery in the City of London
â- 2000-03 General manager, Marriott County Hall
â- 2003-08 General manager, Le Meridien & Café Royal for Starwood Hotels & Resorts
â- 2008-10 General manager, Grand Jersey Hotel & Spa
â- 2010 General manager, the Royal Horseguards, London
GUOMAN HOTELS - THE LOWDOWN
â- Guoman Hotels is the exclusive sister brand of Thistle hotels, which has 33 four-star properties in the UK and two in Malaysia. Both brands are operated by Guoman Hotel Management.
â- Guoman operates four hotels in London - three four-star de luxe properties (the 239-bedroom Charing Cross, the 1,019-bedroom Cumberland and the 801-bedroom Tower) in addition to its flagship five-star property, the Royal Horseguards.
â- In 2010 Guoman opened its first international property in Shanghai (442 bedrooms) and will launch a hotel in Beijing later this year.
â- The 348-bedroom the Grosvenor hotel in Victoria, currently a Thistle property, will soon join the Guoman brand upon completion of a £18m refurbishment.
â- Guoman Hotel Management is a wholly owned subsidiary of GuocoLeisure, part of the Hong Leong Group.
By Janet Harmer
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