Thursday, 3 July 2014

Formula for Running a Successful Hotel - A case study (Part 1 – the Heart of the Matter)

Running hotels is an exciting business. Very stressful and challenging too. But as any experienced hotelier will tell you, it is one of the most satisfying lines of work – to first see the seeds of your thought germinate and take shape physically, then to see your baby blossom into a thriving place of activity. It brings a special sense of joy and exhilaration to note that customers appreciate the hard work you and your team has put in and support your business, both by returning to you time and again and by recommending you to others in their network.

For this Case Study, I picked up a lovely, picturesque hill hotel – Rokeby Manor - that has shot up in terms of popularity and appeal to see if there is a formula for running a successful hotel. I am pleased to announce that there is one and that it can be easily replicated, if you have the passion, sincerity and zeal to embrace the challenges and turn the boulders along the way into meaningful building blocks.

Little over two years back Rokeby Manor was wrapped under the cloud of anonymity. Even about a year back, not many knew about this gem set preciously in the lushness of the Himalayan foothills. So what changed for it in about 365 days?

The Formula for success has three parts – with heart, mind and soul inhabiting each part. Let us look at the ‘Heart of the Matter’ in Part 1 –

1.    Knowing your business –
Sanjay Narang, the proud owner of Rokeby Manor, is a quintessential hotelier. He has been born into the hotel business but more importantly he has carved out a special niche for himself in the cut throat world of hospitality where business fortune can change with the seasons.

Narang has built a unique reputation for himself as a noteworthy ‘Brand maker.’ He, along with his dynamic sister, has created successful brands in the Indian subcontinent. A Cornell graduate and a member of the family that owns the Ambassador Group of Hotels, Sanjay Narang has excelled in breaking away from the old guard to create new brands that have each become successful milestones on the hospitality map. “Innovation is our Passion,” says Narang, who as the force behind Mars Hospitality has been presenting awe-inspiring dining out and stay options to the discerning customers of the hotel and restaurants business. Options that have become market leaders and set the benchmark high, options that have presented novel ideas and have been much ahead of their time, options such as the very successful Birdy’s (1993) - a chain of gourmet bakery & pastry shops, The Pizzeria and Pasta Bar (1994) - a casual dining restaurant that was amongst the first in India to serve 'fresh-dough' pizzas and home-style Italian cuisine prepared in an open kitchen where people could watch the pizzas being baked and create their own pasta dish at the pasta bar, Jazz By The Bay (1996) that stamped in the relevance of quality live entertainment, Three Flights Up (1997) that Introduced India to the mega nightclub concept, Just Around The Corner (1998) - the first 'self service' diner / restaurant with an American style menu, SkyGourmet (2002) - India's most successful Airline Catering Company set up with the specific objective to build/operate highly efficient catering units, Waterstones (2007) - the most exclusive ‘by invitation only’ Club, The Waterstones Hotels - a young, hip, modern, boutique hotel known for its friendly ambience and efficient service. With Rokeby Manor, Narang is putting to use all that he has learned, grown up with, seen, developed and experienced.

You will see in a bit how Sanjay Narang leveraged all the experience he enriched himself with by creating brands and establishing them successfully for transforming an old, derelict Missionary Guest house into a pulsating, vibrant place.

It is only comme il faut that one must build upon one’s knowledge and experience to such levels that egg you on to do inspiring work. So, if you wish to create brands and run them as successful and profitable places then you must know your business like the back of your hand. There is need to know your market, understand your customers, run parallels with competition, comb the globe for inspiration, not be scared of treading on new pastures, stoke your drive for innovation and entrepreneurship and evolve your uniquely, outstanding product.

Knowing your business also extends to knowing your guests extremely well. When you consciously rely on word of mouth recognition as against paid publicity, like in the case of Rokeby Manor, it becomes extremely essential to be clued on to your guest profile, their characteristic and differentiating facets, likes and dislikes. So, whether it is serving whole fruits instead of sliced because guests like it so, putting a hot plate under that personal pot of coffee, increasing healthy choices across all meal options, adhering to a no-alcohol policy even at the expense of foregoing profits because guests wish to ‘live’ in a quiet, serene and peaceful ambience; Rokeby Manor employs a pronounced ‘outside-in thinking.’

Sanjay Narang’s three-pronged strategy for attracting the right profile of guests is -

a.      Word of mouth. “We never advertise,” he asserts. That makes sense. Reference or TripAdvisor ratings from happy and satisfied customers are worth so much more than advertising outlays.
b.      Location
c.       Pricing

Narang is extremely particular about the importance his hotels and restaurants accord to his guests. There is no short-changing that. “We sacrifice some of the income to preserve the experience. We might close the restaurant over the weekends and keep it only for hotel guests to retain our profile,” shares Narang. The structure of the resort is such that it is a very intimate property hence the hotel is not inherently propped up for loud people. Going by the Resort’s success, there are a large number of guests from around the world who come looking for this quiet, redolent home in the hills.
“We encourage that guests give feedback on our website too. We respond to every guest feedback, either on comment card or website or TripAdvisor. And we especially respond to a negative comment, employing corrective action where necessary,” he adds.

Lesson – In the course of my working with hotels, I have seen legendary owners get down to the Housekeeping basics as and when the need arose. I have noted entrepreneurial General Managers know as much about ducting and laundry machines as about the food and wine. And the guest has definitely been God whether it is the individualistically iconic Aman Group or the template-benchmarked Four Seasons or the service-trendsetting Ritz Carlton. From Cesar Ritz, Conrad Hilton, Bill Marriott to Jay Pritzker, Biki Oberoi and Adrian Zecha – these legends have known their business so well that they have envisioned way forwards and outcomes, set trends and spelled out how hoteliering should be conducted. Therefore, in order to be a consummate hotelier you must endeavour to know all. No piece of information is too small and no responsibility big enough for you to learn and handle.

2.    Location
Rokeby Manor sits atop a hill and it’s Highlands – the party, barbecue, Jacuzzi zone with the finest Sunset view - is the highest point of the peak at 7550 feet above the sea level.

It has been seen that location is many a times the key deciding factor in brand selection, a little more than the other facets. On a business visit, a city center hotel is of main consideration. When transiting frequently, the airport hotel regardless of its standards is what we tend to pick out. On a holiday, the location with the best views or close to main attractions or with special features of its own is what we are keen to choose.

On this score, Rokeby Manor comes out on top. It is nestled in the bosom of pine trees, set in a pristine setting away from noise, pollution and clamour so characteristic of a soiled city life. It offers some of the best views and whether it is early morning, noon, tranquil evenings or a starlit night; Rokeby’s personality has something uniquely different to present at each time.

Lesson – As a hotel owner, do a lot of due diligence on the location. I recall the location issues the top sub brand of a leading international hotel chain had to battle as the Chain opened their Five- star deluxe hotel in the Commercial Capital of India with much fanfare but with a view of a large cluster of slums. No amount of fine dining, finer aspects of luxury, a pulsating events calendar and the charms of a great Spa and Wine Cellar could help the hotel downplay the negatives of its disastrously unenviable location.

“The location has to be right and the size has to be right. You can’t build the hotel and then build the market,” asserts Biki Oberoi, the father of modern hoteliering in India in his interview with a leading Financial Daily.
As a proprietor, choose wisely before allowing the blueprint to take birth. And as an on-the-line hotelier make the most of your location. It is a strong force of attraction for your clientele and a strong selling point.

3.    Breakfast at Tiffany’s Syndrome
By this I mean that the food at the place must be such that people travel from far and wide just to experience the culinary marvel that the Hotel can proudly boast of.

Is the food at your place so great that it becomes a sight that guests must visit to see and an experience that they wish to make that special trip for? Think Tea at the Ritz, Brunch at the floating Jumbo restaurant in Hong Kong, a once in a lifetime meal at the now closed elBulli by Ferran Adrià!

Food is, indeed, the other pivot on which your success story can rest. If you do great food then there is a lot you can get by. Guests will happily dine at your restaurants, will entertain proudly at one of your crown jewels, chat with your chefs, get enamoured by the little stories you weave around your ingredients, how they are sourced, how they blend into your majestic presentations, the appeal of your culinary craftsmen and the superlative taste most of the items on your menu promise to leave on the discerning palate.

Great set of restaurants, strong focus on food quality, plating par excellence and taste including an above-par Room Service will help in entrapping even the toughest of guests and bind them into your fold.

Rokeby Manor is proud of its food forte. It is supremely confident of both its software and hardware and happily showcases the two in its open kitchens and glass walls that spell a story of high quality equipment and produce, strong hygiene standards, excellent workmanship and most of all a bunch of happy faces laboring in a sense of bonhomie over your pizza, paella, pilaf or pastry. The promoters are quality conscious and will only source the freshest and finest available. The staff will test, try and then tempt the guests with their offerings. They will cheerfully do repeats of what you like, make enthusiastic suggestions on what they think you must try, accept a mistake and rectify with a smile and a substitute, listen acutely to guest advice and be ever eager to ensure that you enjoyed the fare and their hospitality.

Rokeby is so comfortably confident about its food & beverage that not only does it parallely-run the Clock Tower Cafe in the heart of the hill town, it also, behind its show walls, puts on grandstand its master craftsmen who work ergonomically and interestedly in a meticulously clean kitchen. If you know hotels then you know well enough that only the very courageous and secure in their good reputation can pull this through.

Sanjay Narang, the owner tells me, “Open area and glass wall to the kitchen serves as an attraction to the guests. They can merrily see what they are eating and how it is prepared. It also helps put pressure on kitchen boys to keep their turf clean.”

Lesson - The good food crafted by trained hands and delivered by guest-oriented staff is a great strategy for winning and keeping guests. Rustle up food lores from the historical annals of the culinary fare you serve, create your irrepressible food scents around your specialities popping out of your specialized boulangerie, patisserie, delicatessen, let the guests eat out of the hands of your rocking F&B star team members, proudly present a wine list that is the talk of the town, get a mixologist to train your barmen to become blending masters. The opportunities are endless and serve to work as a sensory binding of the guest loyalty for your brand.

4.    The Serving Star
Could you win any combat just on the basis of a great war strategy (think Brand positioning here) and a very able General (think top leadership) if your henchmen and foot soldiers failed to toe the line with their loyalty, commitment, passion, hard work and astuteness? 

Ask any well-bred hotelier and they will tell you about the million battles they must meet head-on, all in a day’s work. A hotel job is inundated with gazillion crises that must be fought and smoothened in little time. This would not be possible without enlisting the moral, physical and cerebral support of a committed and trained work force.

The winning factor of Rokeby Manor is easily it’s pleasant, guest oriented staff that is trained well to be professional at all times. They smile their shiniest and sail over if the guest makes a faux pas. They smile even brighter and get into correction mode when they commit a mistake, immediately attempting to right the wrong with humble flair. “If there is nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear,” Narang tries to instill this maxim in his team.

In fact, all staff, whether it is the Reservations Clerk, the Housekeeping Attendant, the Manager lording over the F&B services, the General Manager, heck even the owner are naturally tuned towards making it a memorable and pleasant stay for the guest, with their immaculate service, pleasant demeanour, ears and eyes sharpened for guest likes and dislikes and a fervor that helps them go beyond the brief.

Lesson – Your dedicated team comprised of happy, satisfied and trained staff are the biggest reason that will make your hotel stand out and above the competition when most other parameters are more or less the same – you know the set of services, the offerings, the linen, crockery, bathrobe, technology, even the plush airport pick-ups. 

As an Owner / Manager, always endeavour to keep your team happy, satisfied, motivated, committed, enthusiastic, conscientious and yes, crisis-ready.

Ensure this and you have a dreamboat to navigate.


Pictures courtesy - Google Images, Wyndham Hotel, Istabul.

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