uring the past two and a half years, I’ve interviewed 50 hoteliers from well-known international chain and independent hotels worldwide. All of these individuals climbed the corporate ladder working their way up to the top. The long journey (it takes anywhere from 10 to 20 years to become a hotel General Manager for a major brand property in a major city) is usually full of excitement and challenges mixed with occasional failures and disappointments. Apart from a few exceptions, most of them have gone through a similar journey. For example, almost all of them have been an opening General Manager sometime in their mid-career before taking over a flagship hotel. As an opening GM, one is challenged to implement every bit of knowledge, skills, talent and courage one possesses and more. While horror stories of confusions, errors, fear of not being able to make the deadlines, and problems with owners/investors abound, it is an honorary badge every hotelier is proud to wear and a “must have” experience to pave one’s career path.
So, what makes these individuals successful while many of their colleagues seem to be stuck in a dead-end path or fall by the wayside?
As much as it sounds like a cliché, hotel business is a people business. More and more hotel companies begin to realize that attracting, recruiting and retaining service-minded, talented and highly motivated young employees is an essential part of a formula that will ensure their long-term success in this highly competitive industry. Among the luxury hotel sectors that include international chain and independent hotels as well as boutique hotels, senior management is particularly concerned with being able to maintain their service standards day in and day out. It is important to wow their guests with exceptional performance that leaves the guests with unforgettable experiences that lure them back over and over again.
In this very competitive field, many hotels now demand the General Manager to be personally involved in identifying and attracting potential talents for the hotel.
So, what do these hoteliers look for in a talent? Here are a few examples of what they told me:
When asked, what makes a good GM, Mathieu van Alphen, who has been with the InterContinental for 27 years and who is currently the GM of InterContinental Flagship hotel in Moscow, said:
The basic values, such as honesty, straightforwardness, willingness to accept criticism, the mentality to never make the same mistake twice, willingness to learn continuously, willingness to change because the world is changing, are very important.
Here is his advice for those who are inspired to become a GM:
It’s a good thing if the individual aims to become a GM. I would advise him/her to be flexible, to stay open-minded and learn more than one language. You must be passionate about what you do. You must work hard and never give up. If the hotel where you are working now does not provide you with the right opportunities, don’t just stick with that hotel; find one that will give you the chance to grow.
Rainer Burkle has been in the hospitality industry for more than 35 years, of which more than 20 years are with The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. He is currently the Regional Vice President and the General Manager of Ritz Carlton Shanghai Pudong, China. When asked if he were to hire a GM, what would be the most important qualifications he/she should have, he answered:
I would like to see that the individual possesses:
• A consistent approach;
• The ability to be inspiring to his/her employees;
• A mentality that doesn’t buy into: “It’ll never work!”
• Commitment and belief in his/her work;
• The ability to anticipate what customers want and understand the luxury business.
He advises those who are interested in pursuing a career in hotel management to consider the following:
When I first started in this business, I had a dream of becoming a GM. I always let my supervisors know that I wanted to grow. Possibly because of this, they always helped me. My advice is: “Go for your dream!” Keep in mind that it’s important that people around you feel good about your ambitions too. Steve Jobs once said that you have to “live” in the moment, “love” what you do, “learn” for the rest of your life, and “leave a legacy” of what you believe in.
My legacy, for instance, would be that I opened this hotel and 20 years from now the physical property will still be here. Yet, the most important legacy for me is that our employees will keep striving for excellence.
Laurent Chaudet has more than 27 years of hotel management experience under his belt. He became a General Manager in Indonesia when he was just 31 years old. When I interviewed him, he was the General Manager of Pullman Dubai Mall of the Emirates at the United Arab Emirates. He is now the General Manager of Pullman Dubai Deira City Centre. When asked, as the General Manager what was the most important issue to him, here is what he said:
One thing that is very important to me is our talent to recruit the right people in the right position – it is better to find the best. For example, revenue management is absolutely crucial nowadays. In our PULLMAN DUBAI, over 45 percent of our business comes from online intermediaries. We recruit and train people with this type of specialization more and more. The GM must look after these people who are technically skilled and at the same time are passionate for what they do and are committed to the company.
I also asked him what, in his opinion, makes an effective leader?
I would say personality, character and experience. A GM must have the basic technical knowledge so that he knows what people are doing. A GM doesn’t have to know how to make soup but he needs to be able to tell the chef, whether the soup tastes good. He must set a good example and show respect to his people. He must be open and fair to his employees. When he gives a warning to one of his employees, he must be able to explain and justify his warning/decision. And he must be a coach more than a trainer.
Helmann Elger is the General Manager of Montage Beverly Hills in California. He spent 18 years with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company before he joined Montage. The Hotel is located in the center of the very posh Beverly Hills. When asked to offer his advice to those who are inspired to become a General Manager one day, here are his words:
o You absolutely have to love what you do and love to see your associates grow.
o Be humble; be in the shadow and let accolades fall on those who work with you.
o You must love to interact with your guests and understand human behavior.
o You must have patience – it takes time to develop yourself. You can learn the system and technology quickly but the art side of the business will take much longer to learn. Despite the fact that the younger generation wants to grow quickly, there is no shortcut.
What about what disappoints or irritates him the most?
Any time I see arrogance in service delivery, it irritates me. There is no room in the luxury hotel environment to carry on with this kind of attitude. There is just too much competition; too many choices for our guests. If we do not deliver, they will make a new choice.
I asked Michel Gehrig, who is the Vice President Talent Development at the Kempinski Hotels’ Geneva headquarters, what is the single best quality his employees can possess, here is what the vivacious executive had to say:
Passion and ambition!
You can’t work in the hospitality industry if you are not passionate about your work. Where else will you work so hard and such long hours and yet be most likely underpaid compared to other industries. Still, you enjoy the challenge. This kind of attitude cannot be taught. Either you have it or you don’t. Therefore, it’s important that we identify the right talents.
He also offers some advice to young hoteliers:
You have to be mobile. Meaning, you must be willing to travel and work in different cultures and environments.
Take advantage of this opportunity to learn new things and stay competitive.
Tom Roelens is the General Manager of Four Seasons Resorts Lanai in Hawaii, who has more than 27 years of hotel management experience. He has been with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts for the past 14 years. When asked what puts a smile on his face at work, he said:
A wow moment, created by a member of our staff, who has gone beyond his/her duties to create an unforgettable guest experience – that puts a smile on my face. It’s magical when you hear that from the guests’ feedback!
When asked what he finds least tolerable:
Mediocrity! We demand the best! We deliver the best! As far as I am concerned, we will deliver 100% of our core service standards to our guests. That is how we can deliver the wow moments!
And finally, here is his advice to those who want to pursue their dream of becoming a GM:
My advice is to pursue your dream! If you are passionate about service, people and travelling, the hospitality business is for you. I’ve travelled to more than 40 countries and worked in six of them. For me, it continues to be the most challenging adventure every day.
And finally, here’s a little video of Tom Roelens, the General Manager of Four Seasons Resort Lanai in Hawaii, sharing his thoughts about our book “Interviewing Successful Hotel Managers”. Enjoy!