From Trust to Controls – The Diminishing Authority of the Modern Hotel General Manager

As seen on SilverforceHospitality, the author is a Managing Partner – Greg Meadows, whose impressive bio began at The Savoy in London.

We all talked about it at our monthly dinners. We used to take turns hosting them, ten of us. An opportunity to gossip, share experiences, talk seriously, talk nonsense, let off steam amongst colleagues, competitors and friends. The mood changed over the years. The fun and the joy of managing a hotel was becoming more of a chore. The directives, the reports, the endless stream of emails, the challenges of dealing with an over enthusiastic area director who had a point or two to prove! The faceless bureaucrats populating the Orwellian corridors of power in some head office in a distant land demanding to know why, what, where, when, how, every minute of every day.

We knew something was up when our chain hotel colleagues said they could no longer share information about occupancy levels, rates and opinions on local trends. But that was then and this is now. Like the friendly post office, the corner shop, the local bank manager, hotel keeping has gone the way of the Dinosaur. Insidiously, this culture has grown like a weed, choking confidence, creativity and personality in its wake. And at those monthly dinners painful cries of frustration only grow.

Why is giving a general manager the tools to do the job and allowing him or her to get on with it so difficult? General managers know their hotel teams, their owners, cities, culture, religion and political climate in which they operate far, far better than anyone in that distant head office. So why is their opinion so rarely sought and their advice unwelcomed? Why is a creative opportunity allowed to wither because the lawyer, the risk assessment analyst and everyone else bar the tea lady have not signed it off? What is this obsession with control? La Belle Époque was an age which saw the beginnings of the grand hotels such as the Savoy in London, the Ritz Hotels in Paris and Madrid, the Palace in Caux and hundreds of others; they are now a fading memory. Although some are still thriving today, others have morphed into hotel schools! Those times produced grand hotel managers for the grand hotel. They were larger than life characters that ruled their kingdoms. They were Gods. It was not so long ago that a wide-eyed receptionist at the Savoy Hotel in London looked on in awe as the general manager, dressed in morning suit, surveyed his lobby and greeted his guests. No question about who was the boss!! And my fellow trainees and I had all come through the ranks, including learning French in Switzerland sometimes working more than 16 hour days in the restaurant and kitchen, banqueting and wine cellar, stores and stewarding. By the time we reached junior management level, we had begun to understand how a hotel worked. It took time and a degree of suffering. In the 60s and 70s the general manager still enjoyed a godlike status but then in the 90s was relegated to that of a king. In the new millennium, the role became a mere functionary, especially within the larger hotel chains.

A few monarchs still reign in a number of independent hotels, allowed to manage and get on with the job as they see fit, empowered by their employers and trusted by their employees. They are the lucky ones. Long may they thrive and teach the young hosts of tomorrow because if they don’t, the industry as we have known and cherished it will be lost forever.

In 2001 I was given the opportunity to open a 400-room hotel, part of a very small but growing international brand of a large parent company in the USA. My team and I were given complete control and authority over all aspects of the opening. We had no manuals, no policies and procedures, no guidelines and most significant of all, no ‘interference’. We were trusted and it led to a successful opening. Would this happen now? Absolutely not. I am not advocating that my experience becomes the norm for hotel openings; it can’t possibly today. I am simply illustrating that by empowering managers with entrepreneurialism, trust, enthusiasm and a little bit of encouragement, great things can be achieved.

Is this lack of trust and focus on strict controls due to the massive size of hotel companies? Is it because the pool of new available talent open to manage properties is less worldly and less tutored in the demands of managing a hotel? Certainly the big hotel companies are getting even bigger, and to keep everything on track they have to have controls otherwise anarchy would reign! But young graduates today are full of enthusiasm; they are clever, articulate, and armed with their degrees are ready to change the world. I have had the good fortune to teach students at a hotel school in Switzerland. Every year hotel companies set up their booths at the convention centre in Montreux to try and persuade soon to be graduate students to join their organizations. Promises are made, including the dreaded fast track to management and students are easily seduced. But in my interactions with them I try to counsel on the realities they will have to face and the choices available to them. If a student is highly creative, outgoing, emotional and perhaps not totally receptive to authority, will this type of character thrive or wither in a strictly regulated environment? Or should he or she search for the new entrepreneurs and owners who want to redefine hotel keeping for the decades ahead? There are many fine examples if you care to look. Who will be the next Sol Kerzner, Adrian Zecha or Hans Sternik out there? Who are you are going to learn from, to work hard for, to grow and develop and have fun with? In their rush to recruit and to fill vacancies, how much effort these days is put into a potential manager’s cultural fit? Is the nationality of a General Manager the right one for this or that country? What needs does the workforce have to enable them to perform and can this person fulfil them? Newly graduating students are full of hope and they will need guidance and encouragement and a mentor to help them through the tough times of which there will be many.  

Are the big hotel companies equipped to do this and is it even on their radar? Do they bother? Does all this matter for the guest experience? I think it matters greatly. It matters for the wellbeing of the team, the culture, and the intangibles such as the feel, the atmosphere, the demeanour of those charged with giving their best every day, their creative flair, the feeling that they are enjoying themselves and yes, having fun doing it. There aren’t any hotel companies in which having fun is one of their core values. But it is, believe it or not, a core value of an online company selling shoes! They say, “Create fun and a little weirdness”. WOW! Who is going to be the first hotel company to say that?

IT is now rightly an integral part of our lives and our industry but over reliance and misplaced importance given to it can be a problem. The amount of time a modern General Manager spends responding to e-mails and analysing a plethora of reports and data leaves little time to focus on human interactions. Gathering intelligence from ones guests and staff, from the local community and personal networking is just as important to make informed and sound decisions. The development, if you like, of one’s ‘gut feeling’. As a great mentor of mine once said, “You don’t know what’s going on in your hotel if you are sitting in the office.” And he never had a computer on his desk up until the day he retired, leaving behind one of the greatest hotels in the world, The Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok.

Do hotel companies want their general managers to shine other than in the realm of financial indicators? Are there any truly customer focused hotel groups still left? Is everyone obsessed with yield and shareholder value? In a well-balanced scorecard the customer experience will have as much weight as the financial results. Indeed, happy customers drive profits.

As the very nature of managing a hotel changes so fast with so many experts to tell the General Manager what to do, it makes it all the more important to remember and practice the best from the ‘golden age’ and to understand where good hotel keeping came from and to build on those ideals. Yes, change will continue for better or worse, but if the human aspect is forgotten, then the values of our great traditional hotel industry will be eroded and Hospitality will become just a quaint memory, to the detriment of everyone.

I believe it is vital that, before leaving the classroom, Hotel Schools ensure that their students have a thorough understanding of the history of our industry to better qualify them for shaping the future. Managing a hotel is basically not that difficult. With training, passion, dedication and hard work it is a rewarding business. But today’s demands of General Managers have altered, driven largely by the huge chains, which have gobbled up the industry and largely changed the nature of hotel keeping.

The question now is, how to strike a balance between the challenges of running your property as a consummate hotelier with the demands made on your time by the corporations. Finding that balance will be the test for future managers, and it will determine whether or not a General Manager succeeds in making his guests happy, which in the end, is what it’s all about.

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