Tell us about your career history?
I am currently the general manager of Hydro Hotel in Eastbourne, East Sussex, since May 2016, where I am in charge of overseeing a team of 90. Before that, from November 2012 to May 2016 I was the general manager of the Buxted Park Hotel, and the general manager of the Rhinefield House Hotel in Hampshire from September 2010 to November 2012.
I’ve also been the general manager of the Alexander House Hotel and Spa, the Rowhill Grange Hotel, and my first role was as the deputy general manager of The Grand Hotel in Eastbourne in 1994. I did that until 2003.
How did you get into hospitality?
I started in the hospitality industry aged 13 washing plates for £1 per hour in a small coffee shop within a furniture store. As a family, we used to enjoy a couple of holidays a year in hotels and from an early age I remember asking my parents if I could check in for the family and ordering meals of an evening and even asking the managers if I could take a look behind the scenes. At 15, I progressed on to being a waiter, working in a local four-star hotel restaurant for three years. On the occasional quiet Sunday night, I even took the role of restaurant manager.
What attracted you to the current hotel?
As a three-star property I was always fascinated as to why the hotel did not take advantage of its location and facilities and actively aim to becoming a four-star property in a vibrant seaside town. The attraction for me was working with a supportive board of directors in realising this aspiration. Many parts of the hotel required investment and the opportunity to project-manage refurbishment programmes appealed to me. It was extremely hard work but so fulfilling.
What stands out about the hotel?
Undoubtedly the team. Many of them have been at the Hydro for years. Our head housekeeper and financial controller both have in excess of 35 years’ service. The team’s service and hospitality afforded to our guests because they want to serve is so refreshing and they have embraced the many changes we have as a team have worked on over the past 16 months. Currently those team members with over five years’ service their combined years of service totals over 400 years.
What changes have you made since being there?
Since joining the team, we have embarked on an ambitious refurbishment programme that has culminated this summer in the completion of our new Coastal Terrace. The Terrace offers al fresco dining for 40 guests with uninterrupted views out to sea.
We have been fortunate with the weather this summer and our latest project has been well received by guests and residents. Our main objective for creating the Coastal Terrace was to offer an exclusive wedding ceremony venue to enable couples to get married outside and enjoy the stunning views. We have now completely refurbished our three function suites, the largest being the Garden Suite with the view to establishing the hotel as a leading wedding venue in East Sussex.
Our most significant investment and change to the hotel has been the reclassification of bedrooms and refurbishment of 32 rooms, including a brand-new Headland suite on the third floor with views out to sea from the bedroom and separate lounge. By reclassifying and reviewing rate strategies in line with market trends this has enabled us to grow our average room rate by £5.25 net this year. This gives the board confidence to invest in further bedroom projects for 2018.
I have restructured the management team to allow the senior team more time to review the hotel performance. I have introduced a three year rolling business plan with tangible objectives and clear vision statements for our market which are cascaded down to team members so they understand the hotel’s mission. Team members are required to attend daily dash meetings where performance of the hotel is communicated, targets for the week discussed and provide an opportunity to ensure everyone has a voice.
I have introduced a new hotel website working with Queste Design and Stephen Callis on content and marketing, to ensure our guests have all the relevant information to hand and can easily make those important decisions on booking.
Our back of house areas have also been freshened up, improving the working conditions for the team behind the scenes including our staff accommodation provision. Early this year we introduced a new Rational 201 model to the kitchen which has revolutionised the way banqueting food is served from the kitchen. No longer does the Crystal restaurant have to wait 20 minutes for functions to be served. I know James Penn, my head chef, is particularly pleased with the addition to the kitchen brigade as consistency and presentation have been enhanced for all our functions.
Empowerment has been key to the many successes at the Hydro over the past year, I have been at the forefront of sharing hotel performance including daily revenue analysis which has allowed departments the opportunity to make their own decisions on generating revenues for the hotel and being mindful of when to incur costs.
What do you feel you have brought to the property?
With my background in both private independent hotels and commercial chains I feel I have been able to bring a business perspective to the Hydro. Utilising my skills and awareness in competitive analysis whilst developing business strategy short and long term has allowed the business to grow and be measured by what success really means.
Having worked in Red Star properties for the past 10 years I have also worked with the team to create the memorable service points in the guest journey ensuring we continue to build on our returning clientele whilst receiving the praise for all their hard work on various online platforms. Since joining in May of last year our TripAdvisor rating has risen from 14th to 5th traveller-ranked hotel in Eastbourne.
The hotel recently gained four-star status, how did that come about?
In May 2016, I started with discussions with the AA so they had a clear idea of what aspirations I had as the general manager. Undoubtedly the refurbishment programmes outlined already have had a significant impact on their decision, however our increase in the hospitality score combined with the investment made this an easy decision for them.
How does it differ from other hotels in the area?
The Hydro’s location means our views out to sea are unrestricted. We also offer a recently refurbished outdoor pool and terrace which is a popular choice for guests. I firmly believe in a plate-cooked breakfast and we are the only hotel in Eastbourne in excess of 50 bedrooms that offers this facility, cooked fresh by our breakfast chefs. As I am sure hoteliers and guests will agree, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
How does it differ from other hotels you have run?
It is very different from my time at Hand Picked Hotels where you had considerable support from a central office, however decisions can be made on the day and you see immediate effect which is very useful when running a single site property. Meeting with a board of directors six times in the year as opposed to weekly with private owners, or monthly within Hand Picked Hotels has been interesting. The ability to sense check certain decisions is now very much at hotel level as opposed to board level which is positive.
What future plans do you have for the Hydro Hotel?
We have carefully invested £425,000 in 2017 and are looking to scale back plans for 2018. We are committed to refurbishing a further 12 bedrooms next year as well as investing in our Hornsby suite for board level meetings. We are currently finalising plans for a wedding and hotel video to appear on our website towards the end of this year so we can showcase the hotel to perspective couples and guests.
Our main focus for development is the replacement of our conservatory in 2019, which will see a bespoke offering including a live kitchen within the new build, providing a new restaurant concept and casual lounge area accompanied by sea views.
You recently held a Chestnut Tree House party, how did you get involved with that?
Over the past seven years I have worked with a designated charity each year. In developing our calendar of events, the team voted on the Chestnut Tree House as their chosen charity. The Chestnut Tree house charity approached me to see if could help with any additional activities and I was overjoyed to support their summer children’s party and have offered to hold this again in 2018.
We also hosted the Grandparents Afternoon Tea event and sponsored both events to ensure costs are keep to a minimum and funds remain with the charity.
What do you think the hotel brings to the Eastbourne area?
The Hydro Hotel is regularly referred to as offering service from a bygone era. We never try to pretend we are something we are not and capitalise on our Art Deco Edwardian artchiture throughout the hotel which certainly is popular with many guests visiting from recommendation of friends and family.
What experience can guests expect when they stay there?
I believe our guests receive a quintessential English experience at the Hydro Hotel, with all the modern conveniences one would expect in the 21ST Century. Some guests may say they expect to see Poirot or Agatha Christie walking through the lounges.
What do you enjoy most about working there?
I most enjoy the guests and team members I meet and work with everyday. Since joining last year, the changes we have made and journey we have all been on has been incredible. I am more often out of my office on the floor talking to guests and receiving their praise on behalf of the hard work of the team, which is very rewarding.
I have also promoted many team members into key positions and to see them blossom into roles created to improve the business is very satisfying. I have also empowered them to make decisions themselves for both guests and team members without having to refer to senior managers – this is how our industry should work.
By Shekina Tuahene. This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Hotel Owner.