Innovation begets changing guest expectations and changing guest expectations beget innovation… usually. As an industry, we are stuck in a largely wonderful, sometimes terrifying and often expensive, cycle of improvements which increase expectations, which in turn command more improvements. Businesses that succeed in adapting and innovating stay ahead, while those who do not are often left behind. So where do businesses apply their focus to enable a competitive edge in this dynamic forever shifting market?
In our experience, staff training and retention is key to this cycle, and those with a strong, proactive process excel in their field. The industry is currently typified by issues with staffing and quality recruitment, which is resulting in a trend towards a much more transient staffing basis. This problem is further exacerbated by the reputation of the industry and the external political situation, both of which make quality and consistency a challenge in most areas. Each year, Quality in Tourism is appointed to conduct hundreds of mystery shopping visits, designed to identify areas for improvement and any ‘quick wins’.
As part of these visits, we engage with hoteliers to discuss their challenges within the context of the wider industry. In the last six months, 60% of our mystery shopping customer base reported a problem with recruitment and these collectively experience an average staff turnover annually of 50%. 10 years ago the same average was 33%, with rural properties achieving much higher levels of retention with an average turnover nearer 25%.
While some staff turnover is natural and can be tolerated, without stability of staffing it can be difficult, if not possible to maintain innovative practices and consistently meet guest expectations. Basic training is frustrated by a dilution of skill sets within properties because of reliance on staff members with longer service training new staff members without proper guidance and instruction. We have also experienced situations where clients excel in training in one department but not another, and switch their focus following a mystery shop, only to lapse standards where they previously excelled.
It is essential therefore to ensure training is continuous, has senior level ownership and is constantly checked. It’s not easy, but committing to a mystery shop and training program will not only improve the competitive edge of a property, boosting customer satisfaction by more than 10% and market position by one or two positions, but also an average 7% boost as a result of improved revenue. In the case of Strand Palace Hotel and Ufford Park (see case studies), making sure the properties can exploit capital investment by raising standards has been fundamental, but I would argue in these days of more competitive markets and tougher markets, anything that helps continuously improve your bottom line has got to be attractive.
Strand Palace Hotel, London
Strand Palace Hotel has been a central London destination since 1909. Their rich history combined with superb service and ideal location continues to attract a wide range of visitors from all over the world. Strand Palace Hotel offer exceptional service, fantastic rooms and award-winning food and drink: from light bites and cocktails in Gin Palace to three-course a la carte in the Carvery and Grill, via the informal style of Sacred Café, there’s plenty for every traveller to choose from before resting their weary heads in one of the 785 rooms.
In 2017, the hotel embarked upon stage one of a three year long refurbishment project to bring Strand Palace into the modern age and ensure the highest levels of comfort for their guests. Along with the physical refurbishment, the team wanted to ensure that their service was also being reviewed and refreshed on a regular basis. A priority for the hotel and the team is that they do not become complacent and that the team receive structured and informative feedback to continually deliver exceptional service.
Strand Palace Hotel has been working with Quality in Tourism since March 2018, and we visit monthly to review improvements and mystery shop the team. Working with Gemma Hall, Learning & Development Manager, we developed a unique feedback system which aligned with the main business objectives; an approach not usually possible under traditional inspection processes, but which has been essential for matching feedback to tangible changes within the team, training and structure. For Gemma, this was one of the main reasons for working with Quality in Tourism “they genuinely wanted to support our business and not fit a model or template.”
Gemma said: “We usually find all the feedback is extremely informative and our people look forward to reading it. I think the one area which has improved as a direct result of the feedback is our Carvery and Grill restaurant. Along with the addition of a new supervisory team, who are extremely open and receptive to feedback, we have been able to develop an enhanced service and deliver a much more guest focused experience.”
When asked what they find most challenging about the process Gemma responds, “For the team, probably not knowing when to expect a visit. We deliberately keep this a secret so the mystery shopper receives the exact same service as any other visitor. It would negate the entire process if we were aware of when a visit was taking place. For me, it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between what is beneficial for all our guests, and what could be interpreted as personal opinion. However, the majority of the assessment team are very skilled at clearly writing this in their report and they are also very open to feedback about what could be improved from their side.”
When asked about the results from the partnership, Gemma said: “We have definitely seen an increase in people being mentioned by name by guests, which demonstrates that individuals are making more of an impact than they were previously. Our revenue and average daily spend have also improved over the last few months as the team become more comfortable and confident upselling to enhance the guest experience. Overall, I feel the partnership has helped us to enhance the guest journey from start to finish by allowing each department to see the challenges and tasks faced by other departments, which has in turn improved departmental relations.”
Strand Palace is a shining example of an improvement strategy which has been devised and developed to specifically deliver on guest expectations, and which has been programmed and is reviewed to incorporate changes, recommendations and shifts in trends between now and project completion. It is likely that the project will be largely, but not totally true to the original brief and that there will be some specific but essential shifts to the programme too as time progresses. It is this responsiveness and adaptability that will ensure the hotel continues to meet and exceed guest expectations and ensures that it is not outdated or outmoded before the improvement cycle is even complete.
Ufford Park Woodbridge, Suffolk
Ufford Park Woodbridge is a Hotel, Spa and Golf complex in Woodbridge, Suffolk. The hotel is set in 120 acres of beautiful parkland and has 90 well-appointed en-suite bedrooms, an 18-hole award winning golf course and a well-equipped health club, including thermal suite and cutting salon. The hotel is a family run business which allows the business to offer a relaxed and informal but professional welcome to all guests. With so much to offer, the hotel suits a variety of visitors – families, corporate, leisure and they are also dog friendly too.
Quality in Tourism has been working with Ufford Park for 12 months, delivering quarterly mystery shops and monthly test calls, to help support them with the journey to achieve a silver accolade against the three star rating. The assessment team has just completed the first full assessment under the new Quality in Tourism accreditation, which saw them achieve their goal.
Tarnia Robertson, managing director, said: “The most common feedback we get from guests is how helpful and friendly all our staff are and that we go the extra mile to assist our guests. We get many reviews from both day and residential visitors who say the views across the golf course and our lovely staff make them come back time and time again.”
“As MD the most frustrating thing is ensuring our staff are being 100% consistent with the service and quality of hospitality that they provide to our guests. These visits help me get the relevant heads of department on board and engaged to train and retrain their teams and it’s not just limited to the new staff either.”
As a result of working with Quality in Tourism, Tarnia can see a direct improvement in the quality of service standards, food quality and hospitality offered at the hotel. The feedback received from the assessment team is used constructively to retrain staff and improve the offering.
Tarnia continues “We reward when improvements are made and retrain with areas which need some work – but we finally achieved 3 star Silver accreditation this year. This is a target which has taken us 2-3 years of investment and hard work from the whole team to achieve and I personally believe without the help of detailed mystery visits and the support of the team at Quality in Tourism we would still be trying.”
Ufford is now succeeding in delivering consistent standards and this consistency has been essential to supporting an increase in returning guest visits, and an improvement in the overall standard of the hotel.