To celebrate the long awaited reopening of hotels in the UK on May 17 (and of course further easing of lockdown), we spoke to two GMs about how they’ve been readying for reopening! The first of two interviews is with Mike Wood MIH, GM at Hempstead House.
You are hosting a theatre charity event: ‘The Show Must Go On’ in June… can you tell us more about it?
As a business, we have had, since 2018, a real focus on the local community for family & evening special events, and as such we have decided to host four special events during the year with a monetary donation of all ticket sales being donated to charities from health care to the performing arts, of which we cannot wait to showcase and support. I’ll be singing along & probably waiting on tables too!
Tell us about your career to date.
It all began in September 1999! Alongside a Leisure and Tourism Btec Diploma in those days, I walked into Eastwell Manor Hotel in Ashford, Kent with my CV to ask for any opportunities and within two weeks I was wearing a blue blazer with gold shoulder lapels and a name badge with my name on as a Hotel Porter! An amazing experience that I will never forget, from moving beer deliveries and delivering room service to parking a guest’s blue Ferrari! I enjoyed nine years of employment establishing vast leisure experience and leaving as a Duty Hotel Manager in 2009.
It was a client showround at Eastwell Manor that engaged my move to Hempstead House Hotel as Assistant Manager, to launch a new spa and country house hotel that was also independently owned and in need of a purpose and identity, to which I now am very proud of its success, position, and developments to date as GM for the past seven years.
What made you go into hospitality?
My parents were my inspiration, as publicans in the good old days, I grew up and lived surrounded by the buzz and commitment it took to develop such a continuous operation and the enjoyment people had in my mum and dads business/home. I was always wanting to be part of it and to be with people and develop this environment of hospitality. To this day, I cannot cook but still love the rich pickings from the chef’s kitchen pass on a Friday night, just like I used to from the pub kitchen all those years ago.
As we approach May 17, how have you been preparing for reopening?
A question so many have asked me… where I feel some days in control of strategy and decisions, that is soon overridden by doubt and nervousness. I am sure many of my comrades can understand. We have actually been 20% open for many months with key workers and business guests so it has kept me engaged in operations throughout keeping us focused on the government roadmaps dates. Because of this, we were ready for our Spa to reopen on April 12, and all strategies have paid off successfully following lots of refurbishments, decoration and auditing of systems and policies. We have recently held detailed outside staff meetings from HODS and all staff to explain openly our position and offer full support for staff wellbeing in what is a very difficult and refocused time for all our team. New rotas have been streamlined and departments will be planning to work closer operationally now. Our menus are ready and lots of local social media promotion is in place as we reopen for half term. We also have developed cohesion with Visit Kent, down here in the garden of England, to support tourism and staycations. We are ready for it!
What change in government policy is crucial to help the recovery of the hospitality industry moving forward?
We rely on people and people need to rely on us… There has been such supportive measure for hospitality with VAT, rates, and furlough, but now we need the freedom of people to be allowed to return and move within our home nations and Europe to revitalise the opportunity available for hospitality and tourism. There is refreshing social presence currently to petition government, and I know our industry ambassadors are championing this, to which I have also signed.
What can companies do to tackle the people and skills shortages in the post-Brexit, post lockdown UK?
Just this week, I have been in discussions with my peers about this, and why we are seen as a steppingstone for a career and visualised to be so unattractive. Companies need to now cohere with each other or enrol to set up affiliated CPD recognition for personal growth and share opportunities together. We need to recognise that it is in our laps now to deal with LIVE and support hospitality venues for staff progression to keep good employees within the industry. Attractive but realistic opportunities, not just filling gaps.
Is that our biggest issue in the long list of current challenges?
Yes and No… We as hoteliers and staff work for each other first and foremost in our teams and peers, and secondly the company itself. Staff are committed when motivated and adapt and offer versatile ideas to succeed. When our backs are to the wall the customer service never fails. Customer expectation is incredible now as guest’s money is hesitantly spent so we need to ensure the customer service is genuine and exceeded.
The pandemic has had a strong impact on the relations between operators, owners, and stakeholders in hospitality. How do you feel that’s changed the day-to-day life of a General Manager?
I have always been an independent hotelier reporting directly to the owner and family. It is a thing you either can do or you cannot – I can’t comment on operators who works for a consortium hotel or investors wanting results, but in my experience, it has been very structured (with a few healthy disagreements on decisions!). I have 20 years industry experience and yet the pandemic has left me feeling completely out of control and vulnerable… unsure of what to do next. I am sure this was the same for most GMs. That said, it allowed the opportunity to showcase full autonomy and set my plans ahead together, securing a strong business approach and allowed for working for a year together which would normally be sporadic due to the owners travel. Honesty on how to restart the business together in what has been so negative has actually been very positive.
Which sectors of our industry do you expect will lead recovery in 2021 and beyond?
F&B will bounce back quickly… encouraging supply chain regrowth and more local focus on suppliers. Travel and Tourism will then peak in the summer for days out and then accommodation with entertainment or city breaks, weekends away will follow suite towards the end of the year. I genuinely think COVID will dissolve in people’s apprehension as subconsciously we are social beings that need hospitality.
What is your main area of focus to help the industry drive recovery?
Staying confident with our business model here without panicking and discounting our provisions. This will not help the industry to aim for cheap and high-volume head count… moreover to be delivering high expectations and consumer confidence.
Partnerships with local businesses, and education for people growth is key with supporting the local community.
What made you join the Institute of Hospitality?
I have always looked to develop the business and realised that to do so I needed to look at areas I need support and advice. The IoH has all the resources and solutions to develop me personally, along with recognition for my experience as a Member (MIH) with fellow professionals, which is a fantastic relationship to have. I still wish to be mentored, and be a mentee, as you can never stop progressing and respecting experience.
Which elements of Membership did you use most during lockdown?
Networking. This has been key in supporting many associates, members and fellow hoteliers that I have liaised with. Reading all social media articles and attending webinars has been fantastic as they have been so topical and relevant. I look forward to assisting the Institute further with this, and welcomed this kind opportunity to give my insight here in this spotlight article!
Tell us three things about you that no-one knows!
Blimey! Interview question or what!! Ok so…
- I can never say Hippopotamus correctly. This has become apparent since having my children and reading books. I just can’t say it! The letters in the middle are just not needed.
- I do not drink Tea.
- I fainted once having my eyes tested!