Case Studies

Hotel manager: Case studies

1. Oliver, manager of a 400-room, five star hotel in Dubai

Since graduating in 1995 with a degree in hotel and catering management, Oliver has built a successful career which has taken him all over the world. Now the manager of the Fairmont Dubai, a luxurious 400-room, five star establishment in the city's financial district, he has worked with the company for nearly ten years. Oliver's course gave an excellent grounding of financial and business knowledge but applying his skills on placement in Florida provided the greatest benefit. There he also made many contacts, which were pivotal for his career development, and he recognises the importance of networking for success in hospitality. After graduation, three years' experience in several managerial positions at the Savoy opened the door to another stint in America, this time New York at the prestigious Plaza Hotel, his first role with Fairmont. Next, he moved to San Francisco and in 2004 became the manager of the Fairmont Orchid in Hawaii.

Typical of hotel managers, Oliver's current role is varied and requires close attention to everyday detail as well as a broad, strategic view over the long term. Like staff at all levels in the hospitality industry, Oliver needs to be flexible and working hours are often long; 12-hour days are common and he stays late for functions or to meet and greet dignitaries and VIPs, including the ruling family, hotel owners, regular guests and celebrities. Penthouse suites cost around £2,000 per night and personal service from the manager is appreciated. Quality service is not reserved only for high-spending guests and Oliver ensures all visitors experience the highest standards they expect from the brand, as service is what can make the hotel stand out from the competition.

Staff training has a major part to play in maintaining standards, particularly as staff hired locally or from countries in Asia are unlikely ever to have set food in a five star hotel, so training plans are a high priority for the management team. Regular leadership meetings also consider the strategic direction for sales and marketing and plans for pricing, renovations - including making design choices - and recruitment as well as how best to use and develop the hotel's 800 staff. Of those, around 75 have management responsibilities, so although Oliver is still concerned with day-to-day operations, he delegates work effectively and is more of a business manager, focused on strategy and forward planning to maximise profit. This structure is common in large hotels, whereas in smaller establishments the balance of the manager's work would be more in favour of hands-on tasks. Oliver believes it is important to act as a visible role model for his staff and show his interest in all aspects of the hotel, including the leisure and recreational facilities, food and beverage operations and, of course, the rooms. During his regular walk-rounds, he is constantly checking every detail of the expected standards of behaviour, presentation and service.

There is a significant difference between hotels in Dubai and those in the US and Europe, which is that they are the only places with alcohol licences. This affects the hotel's revenue, around half of which is derived from the food and beverage area. There are ten food outlets in the hotel and non-resident guests represent three-quarters of the business. There are few stand-alone restaurants competing with the city's hotels, so this is a highly profitable element, whereas in the rest of the hospitality world this sector is downsizing.

Though the hours can be long and unsocial and pay, in the early days, is not high in comparison with some other sectors, hard work and dedication are rewarded. Progression can be relatively speedy, but new graduates are unlikely to step straight into an office job without building practical experience first. Oliver's advice is focus on the long-term prospects, as hotel management at the executive committee level has excellent rewards. Most importantly, it's a diverse industry with plenty of options for change and development in terms of size, location and style. With tougher visa restrictions, it is much harder to obtain work in the USA now than the boom time when Oliver started out. Holding a relevant degree and gaining five star experience increases your chances, and gaining successful entry once then helps with future visa applications. An international outlook and, ideally, experience, are essential for management. Workers at all levels need to be energetic and customer-focused, since this industry is ultimately all about making sure other people have a good time.


2. Christian, general manager

Christian's eight years of experience with one of Norway's top hospitality organisations contributed to the company's £1.7 million turnover. With a keen focus on professional development, he learned on the job and became conference centre manager. He built essential knowledge and skills for success in the hospitality industry by learning from talented colleagues who devoted time to his training. To further his ambitions, he realised that relevant qualifications would provide a substantial advantage and prove his abilities, so he enrolled on a BA Hospitality Business Management course. He sees his studies as very fruitful, allowing him to build the underpinning theoretical knowledge and learn more about issues he had tackled previously. For example, with a broadened understanding of market segmentation, Christian was able to identify ways to improve on his earlier marketing strategies. It is essential to apply theory correctly to real life situations like handling budgets and analysing profit and loss, but even when more flexibility is appropriate, Christian's academic grounding results in greater effectiveness at work. He suggests that graduates will use the knowledge they have internalised even if they're not conscious of it, because it will become second nature when they're successful.

He still appreciates the importance of professional development and it is now a key element in his role as a manager. Over his 12 years of experience, Christian has realised that putting time, effort and money into staff training is a sound investment, as it makes the most of human resources in a period when the business is growing and in need of good workers. Cascading knowledge and skills down through team leaders is the best way for Christian to ensure that there will be a suitable replacement to keep the business operating smoothly when he makes his next move. Identifying problems and dealing with them positively through training strengthens morale and motivation among the staff, as well as offering longer term benefits in productivity and quality of service.

Hospitality staff aiming for speedy promotion can increase their chances by adopting Christian's strategy of taking as much work as possible off their boss's desk. Asking for additional responsibilities whenever you are ready gives you chance to learn new skills under supervision. Most importantly, it demonstrates the attitude managers look for. New recruits can be trained in expected standards, systems and procedures, but as Christian points out, he can't teach personality, staff have to bring that with them. He suggests that setting goals and actively seeking opportunities to prove your commitment and potential is the key to progress. Building commercial awareness and paying attention to what is happening in the company will also help. It is important to go beyond the basic requirements of the job description and take ownership of your future, putting in whatever it takes to get where you want to be.

One of Christian's main concerns for the coming year is driving the business forward. To do this, he analyses business performance, identifying areas of weakness and considering a range of actions to tackle them. Currently, he is focused on increasing weekend occupancy, which is low compared to weekdays. Both short and long-term solutions are under consideration simultaneously. He will use information from last year to determine where the most effective changes can be made in next year's budget, at the same time as examining and evaluating daily operations. Even small adjustments can affect efficiency. Christian recently noticed that not all the keys for the hotel are easy to find, which wastes time. After noting an issue, he decides the appropriate action, delegates the task and later checks it has been dealt with. With larger or recurring issues, he will also need to put preventative measures into place or agree new procedures and systems to create a permanent solution. As he is quite new to his role, Christian is pleased that he can rely on an experienced team of department leaders, congratulating their strengths and achievements. At the same time, his fresh perspective brings opportunity for improvement at the hotel.

As well as leading in his hotel, Christian regularly links with the group's other regional general managers, working closely to achieve consistency for the brand and plan ahead. He has significant charity fundraising goals to work towards too, while facing daily challenges at every level in the hotel. He performs a tricky balancing act with present and future, individual and business concerns, short and long-term goals and it is this variety and unpredictability that he loves.


3. Birgitte, front office manager for a luxury London hotel

Turning around almost all of a hotel's 406 rooms ready for new guests in one go is a major challenge. Luckily, it is one that Birgitte, Front Office Manager for a luxury London hotel, can meet enthusiastically and, she says, when things go right it is incredibly rewarding. With responsibility for reception, the night team, the concierge service and guest relations, Birgitte mostly works with the heads of those departments rather than directly with guests or other staff. But she can still be called upon to check guests in or move luggage when necessary: if it needs doing, she will do it. Success in her role depends upon good communication and sound staff training. She has to ensure that everyone knows what is happening in the hotel and how to deliver what is expected of them in this fast-moving environment.

As with most management positions, proper planning is vital and Birgitte tends to look a month ahead to be aware of arrivals and departures, large groups and arrangements for meeting rooms. She also keeps track of pricing and packages on offer, in consultation with the sales team and revenue manager. A contractor provides business intelligence about the competition and since she is close to the front line and day-to-day changes in the hotel, Birgitte is well-placed to provide feedback and make suggestions to ensure her establishment remains competitive, which can include changing the room or service rates.

The job is extremely varied, which is a major factor in Birgitte's level of job satisfaction. The key to this variety is that hospitality is all about people and it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen with both guests and staff. The flipside of this is that things do not always go according to plan. In fact, they hardly ever do. This makes effective time management difficult and can cause a good deal of frustration, so flexibility is another essential quality for budding hotel managers to develop.

While studying for her degree in hospitality, Birgitte worked in the industry part time, and she sees this combination as being extremely beneficial for her career development. Her course at university helped her to understand the big picture and build useful business knowledge and skills across all areas. Her job, in turn, gave her the opportunity to apply her practical skills and observe the effects of managers' efforts in a real working situation. Having a relevant qualification is certainly beneficial for ambitious entrants, as employers selecting managers look for commitment and a realistic appreciation of the work involved. Commitment and experience may often count for more than high grades. By the time she graduated, Birgitte had three years' experience and had become a Duty Manager and later achieved the post of Front Office Manager. She points out that loyalty within an organisation is valued, though internal promotions can still be hard to come by and willingness to move may provide broader options.

The international and diverse nature of guests means that all hospitality staff need to cultivate excellent cultural awareness. The opportunity to meet people with varied backgrounds from all over the world can be a genuine source of enjoyment, though it can also lead to misunderstandings. Being open-minded and ready to accept that other people's priorities will be different from your own helps to avoid culture clashes and ensure that guests' expectations are met. This flexible and respectful approach is naturally also extended to staff, since it is certain that hospitality staff will be working alongside colleagues from other nations.

Birgitte suggests that building a career in hotel management requires a mixture of practicality and thoughtfulness. This is not an easy sector, since longer and unsocial hours are common and the pay is only high in later career stages. However, if you enjoy working with people, relish taking on a challenge and look for variety to gain your reward, being a hotel manager will provide plenty of opportunities to be satisfied with a job well done.


4. Caroline, graduate management trainee in a hotel

Caroline has been working for Novotel on a management training scheme since she graduated in July 2005.

After leaving school Caroline went to university and worked part time in a bar to support herself. She found that she enjoyed working in the hotel environment so much that she opted to change her degree course and began to study hospitality management at Napier.

'Having a relevant degree has really helped me in my current position. Studying such a vocational course really gave me confidence, especially when giving presentations and writing business reports. If you're interested in this area there are lots of different courses you might want to study, for example hospitality, events management or tourism.'

Caroline started work straight after graduating. 'I was really pleased to be accepted onto the graduate programme with Novotel. Initially I worked as a receptionist to give me an idea of the work and to earn some money over the summer. The actual programme didn't start until September, but by that time I had already had a good introduction to the company.'

What Caroline really enjoys about the training scheme is the opportunity it gives her to move between departments. She changes her role every two months and regularly combines front-of-house and back-office work. Currently she is responsible for greeting guests in the restaurant and also for handling accounts work. 'The variety is what really attracted me to hotel management. I do so many different things each day that it never gets dull. One minute I will be talking to guests and helping them decide what to do in their day, the next I will be on the phone, chasing up accounts. It really gives you a buzz.'

Being on the graduate scheme gives Caroline a real opportunity for quick promotion. At the end of the two years she can expect to be head of department or assistant manager, depending on the size of the hotel. It does mean moving around the country though, she says. 'Flexibility is absolutely crucial if you want to progress in a large hotel chain. Although the graduate scheme is based in the UK, the chain has hotels all over the world so opportunities may be available should you wish to pursue a career abroad. You need to be prepared to drop everything and move if you want to be promoted.'

Flexibility is also required in her day-to-day role. Most hotels work on a shift pattern, seven days a week. Caroline may find herself working 7am – 3pm one day, and 3pm – 11pm the next. Although she does have two days off every week, this rarely falls on a weekend. If, however, you have plans, all you need to do is ask and you can request specific days off. She really enjoys working shift patterns. 'I would have hated having a nine to five office job,' she says. 'It was one of the things that really attracted me to this job.'

'Working as a hotel manager means being able to respond quickly to situations, making sure the guests are completely happy with the service they receive, managing your own team of staff and being able to have fun at the same time! You need to be resourceful, flexible, creative and have the ability to use your own initiative. The job can be very challenging, but it is also very rewarding.'


5. Jennifer, hotel restaurant supervisor

Jennifer decided that she would like to work in the hotel industry while she was still at school. Working part time in bars, restaurants and hotels always gave her a real buzz and the possibility of becoming self-employed one day really appealed.

Jennifer studied for a degree in hospitality management with Glasgow Caledonian University. One of the best parts about her degree programme, she says, was the opportunities it gave for work experience. Before she started her third year, Jennifer was interviewed by a hotel company based in America, near to Boston. She was accepted by the company and went over to work there for 15 months. 'The whole experience was amazing; the Americans have such a different approach to the industry and it was great to learn in such a hands-on way.'

She must have impressed the company because after she graduated she was asked to go back to the same hotel, this time as a supervisor. Jennifer stayed there for just over a year, learning the job and gaining some amazing experience. When she decided to return to the UK she was offered a position by Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland.

After a year working for Gleneagles, Jennifer was promoted to restaurant supervisor and has been working in this role for a few months. 'The management are incredibly supportive: if you want to be promoted, they'll help you every step of the way.'

'If you are interested in working in this area,' Jennifer says, 'it is really important that you get some good work experience. A relevant degree can help, but it's not vital. It's showing that you have the commitment, the interest in the sector and the right skills for the job that counts. You have to be really motivated, a good team worker and, if you want to be promoted, you need to show good leadership skills.'

Rather than join a graduate recruitment scheme, Jennifer is pleased that she has had broad experience across the industry, both in America and the UK. 'Graduate schemes can offer a great fast-track, but for me I'm glad I followed a different route. I've really enjoyed working my way up at a pace that suits me and I hope to carry on in the same way.'

Jennifer really enjoys working in hotels, getting to know the customers well and knowing you're making them happy. But that is not the only part of her job that she likes. 'One of the best things is also working as part of a close-knit team. We all get on really well and it's great also being a manager. Whenever I run training programmes you can really see people improve. It's great knowing you're making a difference.'

Although the hours are long, sometimes 50 hours a week, Jennifer says that's just part of the job. She also gets any extra hours she has worked back in the form of holiday. 'Long days are part of the industry, but it never drags. There's always something happening that you have to deal with. You usually don't even realise you're tired until you get home and the excitement wears off.'


6. Sam, hotel owner and manager

Sam first decided that he would like to work in the hotel industry when he was five years old and on his first holiday. Early ambition was followed in later life when he attended Coventry University to study hospitality management. He graduated ten years ago and now owns his own hotel.

During his course Sam undertook a period of work experience with a hotel in Birmingham, where he was employed immediately after graduation as a trainee manager.

'I always wanted to run my own hotel one day; it was probably the main reason I went into the industry to start with. My first job was a really good experience, not only because I learnt about all the different areas of hotel management, but also because my manager was a self-employed hotel manager. He really inspired me to see it would be possible for me to do this myself one day.

After working for five years, Sam decided that it was time to follow his ambition and he resigned in order to buy his own bed and breakfast hotel. 'My first hotel was very small - it only had four bedrooms, but the learning curve was incredible. I learnt so much about how to make guests happy and about adding the little touches that really make people feel welcome. My first year running it was the most difficult period of my life. I worked all the time as I was running on a very tight budget so I couldn't afford any staff. I would be washing sheets until midnight and then be up for breakfasts the next day by 6am. It was incredibly tough but, for me, the feeling of being your own boss made it all worthwhile.'

Sam now owns a 15 bedroom boutique hotel on the South Coast. 'I'm constantly amazed at how far I've come in such a short time. It's been a combination of hard work, good luck and excellent financial advice from the small-business team at my bank. I wouldn't change my job for the world. The best part about being a hotel manager is that when I wake up in the morning I have no idea how the day is going to go - whether I'm going to have to deal with any crises or just chat away to the guests and my staff.'

Sam also thinks that managing his own team of staff has been very rewarding. 'I think it's partly about choosing the right people but I've been very lucky with my staff. I really enjoy training them and helping them develop. Two people who work for me are now studying part-time degrees in hotel management. I just hope they don't end up being my competition one day!'