The greatest competitive advantage in a hotel is its people

What really makes you stand out?

By Giles Gordon-Smith, Founder, Penshee

I don’t hide my belief that greatest competitive advantage in a hotel is its people. Great people make great hotels. Go to any five star hotel in London – how can you not be impressed by what is on offer? Cumulatively, the various constructions, titivations and re-developments in London’s five star market over the last few years bound into the nine figure bracket. The physical impact of this sort of capital investment is inevitably significant, whatever your taste. However accustomed to the finer things in life that you might be, I’d challenge you to eliminate the word ‘wow’ from your vocabulary on a show around of The Ned (for example). The bench is extraordinarily high, and is increasingly tight for space, so what really makes you stand out?

I’ve had the privilege of spending last night at The Beaumont, which certainly ticks the ‘wow’ box. I am deeply satisfied in this respect, but that’s not the point, and it’s certainly not this alone that makes a hotel worthy of the prestigious Independent Hotel of the Year 2017 award, and other accolades. True service excellence is about delivering the seemingly ordinary with care, consistency and empathy – a foundation upon which the extraordinary can flourish. I find it reassuring to see a long-held belief so clearly delivered at The Beaumont and it’s got me wondering, what’s going on behind the scenes at Corbin and King’s Mayfair hotel that brings this to fruition?

Service excellence cannot exist without the right culture, and that culture cannot exist without buy in from the top. I can’t emphasise this enough. In my considerable first-hand experience of luxury service delivery around the world, the hotels where the GM is hungry to know about the feel of their hotel, are invariably those that feel terrific.

I was first introduced to Jannes Soerensen last year by a former colleague, who suggested that there was something unique about his approach to hospitality. I was due to meet Jannes for the first time in the hotel and as I approached the entrance, was greeted by name with such warmth and kindness by the doorman, Julien. To be clear, I wasn’t there to stay, I’d not previously visited the hotel and considered myself an insignificant contributor to the hotel’s footfall that day. Yet somehow in those few moments, I felt as though the hotel existed just for me. The Beaumont made its positive impact before I’d even crossed the threshold into its beautiful lobby.

Inside, Jannes awaits and approaches confidently, seemingly aware of who I am (Googled perhaps?). The first thing to ponder is his age. At 36 years old, Jannes is the youngest GM of a London 5* deluxe hotel by several birthdays, and it’s testament to Messers Corbin and King that they took what could be perceived as a gamble in recruiting him in January 2016.

We spend a fascinating hour sharing ideas and experiences and I left wanting to know more about Jannes and to experience the hotel properly. Several visits and a glorious stay later, I feel better placed to share, with his kind permission, some insights.

Jannes is resolute in his quest to create exceptional memories and experiences for his (he would of course say ‘our’) guests. Frederick the Great (bear with me) once uttered the powerful words; “I am first servant of the State”, a marked contrast to Louis XIV’s “I am the State”, and it strikes me that as a fellow Berliner, Jannes’s leadership style would certainly emulate the former.

In this spirit, what I am about to reveal is not the result of Jannes or the Beaumont’s doctrine but rather, my interpretation of the foundations of their benevolent culture.

1.  Employ the right people
Sounds obvious right? There’s a skill however to having the insight and judgement of character to do this. I was taken aback when I came across a receptionist that I’d previously encountered during a family stay in a country hotel six months ago. My wife and I chatted in some depth back then about her spark, and how at only twenty-two, the industry was crying out for young stars like her. Two months ago, she came for a short stint of work experience at The Beaumont. Now she’s a full-time employee. Arguably inexperienced? Perhaps. The right person? Without question.

2. Share the vision
The team at the Beaumont have invested a lot of time in identifying what they want to deliver in their hotel. I can’t give too much away here, but put it this way, every Beaumont employee knows what their mission is, and keeps it close to their chest (on a card in their uniform pocket, in fact). Perhaps more importantly, their goals are realistic, and deliverable in every guest interaction.

3.  Solicit high quality feedback to measure this
Peter Drucker rightly said that you can’t improve what you don’t measure – so find somebody who understands what you’re trying to achieve and take their feedback seriously. Jannes would appear to be aware that the perspective of someone who understands the vision, but doesn’t live inside it, is important. I’ll resist the temptation to self-promote here.

4.  Put your people first
Jannes isn’t the first to boldly proclaim the importance of putting employees first, and he’s in good company. Richard Branson for one famously stated:
“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”
And it’s not just about the money and perks, it’s about understanding your people. It would not be unusual to find Jannes spending the morning in the housekeeping department, and I was intrigued one afternoon to see him taking tea in the bar with a handful of employees from across the hotel operation. This doesn’t appear to be part of a grand strategy, but something intrinsic; He’s taking the time to listen to this team, to understand their challenges, to applaud their achievements and to hear their thoughts on how to improve the experience for their guests.

5.  Think Differently
There’s a distinct advantage to youth in hotel management – fewer preconceptions about how we go about our business. I can assure you that a GM asking how techniques from behavioural economics might be used to subtly influence guests’ actions, was a first for me. And the goal is not to get them to spend more money (in fact you’ll see there is little or no up-selling at the Beaumont), it’s about helping them to enjoy a more experiential stay. Verbally encouraging a guest to take a bath in their suite is not a practice you’d wish to standardise, but if there was a way to more subtly plant the seed so that a guest partakes of something you know will enhance their state of mind, Jannes is all ears.

6.  Trust and Empower
Adhering to standards plays an essential part in the delivery of luxury service, but there’s a fine balance between understanding them and disempowering your employees. Less, would appear to be more, when it comes to the rule book at the Beaumont.

So there you have it, something to ponder on and perhaps implement, yours for free. All that I ask is that if you haven’t done so already, swing by The Beaumont and see how you feel. Then you’ll really believe me. Before signing off, I should add that I had to plead with Jannes to write this article, such is another of his strongest traits so important in hospitallity – humility. So, thanks Jannes for your openness here and of course, to your wonderful people.