As new technologies proliferate and competition grows fiercer, the role of the hotel general manager has undergone dramatic changes. We talk to Dorchester Collection CEO Christopher Cowdray, the European Hotel Managers Association’s Johanna Fragano and Jean-Luc Naret, managing director of Heritage Resorts, about the greatest challenges currently facing those on the front line of hospitality – and how they are being overcome.
The role of general manager has never been static. With a nebulous-sounding title and a changeable job description, general managers, as a rule, tend to be quick to adapt. After all, when you’re checking the balance sheet one minute and dealing with your kitchen staff the next, you can’t afford to be a specialist. You need to be a jack of all trades and preferably a master of some.
That said, the last ten years have seen a real shift across the industry. A perfect storm of factors – including but not limited to the financial crisis – have conspired to make today’s GMs a very different breed from their predecessors. Whereas, in years gone by, the role was primarily guest facing, most of the GM’s responsibilities are now performed behind the scenes.
“In the past, the general manager was always present in the lobby and, particularly in the luxury market, it was all about interaction with customers,” says Christopher Cowdray, CEO of the Dorchester Collection. “But over the years, it’s evolved. There are now so many other demands of a business nature placed on general managers, which makes it more difficult for them to be as visible as they would like.”
In truth, the vision of a GM as a lobby-swanning super-host has been out of date for a while. This somewhat romanticised image stems from an era of simpler corporate structures and rather fewer reels of red tape. Nowadays, the general manager needs to juggle a wider range of tasks and, as big brands come to dominate the market, words such as ‘governance’ and ‘legislation’ are rarely far from their minds.
Cowdray does not think that the shift is absolute – “The personality of the general manager is still crucial to the success of the hotel,” he says – but he does concede that the balance has largely shifted. What, then, does it take to perform the role in 2013, and what do guests, staff and stakeholders require from a GM?
Certain answers to these questions can be found at Domaine de Bel Ombre in Mauritius, which is home to Heritage Resorts. Housing two luxury hotels and a range of private villas, the resort not only caters to a discerning clientele – it also has a notoriously discerning managing director.
The MD in question is Jean Luc Naret, former head of The Michelin Guide. Having spent eight years determining exactly what makes a good hotel or restaurant – or conversely, a bad one – he was keen to put his insights into practice and, in 2011, returned to his first passion: hotel management.
“There was no question that I was going to take the job at Michelin – there are enough hotels to run across the world, but there’s only one Michelin Guide,” he explains. “But I didn’t want to stay there forever. I wanted to extend the brand, leave a legacy behind and go back into the hotel industry.”
Naret wasn’t new to Mauritius: he first arrived there in 1990 to manage the One&Only Le Saint Geran. At just 29 years old, this was his inaugural stint as general manager and market conditions were relatively straightforward.
“It was a time when you could raise your rate every year, since there was no competition,” he reminisces. “Then, when I came to Mauritius again ten years later to create The Residence Mauritius from scratch, things were a bit different – there were quite a few companies and more competition. So we became the first hotel group there to incorporate a spa.”
By the time he arrived for the third and final time, holidaymakers could afford to be picky. Why would they choose your luxury hotel when they could choose a luxury hotel with a spa? Why would they choose your luxury hotel with a spa when they could choose a luxury hotel with a spa, golf course, beach club, nightclub and on-site château? The latter option, of course, is Heritage Resorts, the all-encompassing business model of which is designed to meet heightened demand.
“The playing field has changed,” explains Naret. “There are more hotels; there’s a lot of competition; there are many different brands from all around the world. So obviously we cannot run a hotel in the same way we used to run a hotel 20 years ago – it’s not going to work.”
What makes a good GM
While Naret’s may be a special case, competition is undoubtedly growing fiercer across the board. And with the economic downturn still being felt, it is more important than ever that GMs pay heed to the bottom line.
For Johanna Fragano, former president and now treasurer of the European Hotel Managers Association, this trend is clear to see. Since 1990, she has managed the Hotel Quirinale in Rome and, while self-professedly “old-fashioned” in her approach, she is determinedly up to the minute when it comes to tracking market fluctuations.
“The corporates are watching every penny because of the effects of the recession,” she says. “We have to continue to provide the high quality of service that our clients expect without overspending. From a managerial point of view, you have to be extremely attentive to what’s going on around you.”
This is not about pandering to stakeholders at the expense of your clientele. Rather, it’s a question of having financial nous and a keen eye for business trends. As a result, many of the newer GMs come from an economics background, eschewing the well-trodden path of their predecessors in favour of a more corporate approach.
“It was always thought that you would work your way up through all the different departments and that quite late in your career you would become a manager,” says Cowdray, whose own background lies in accountancy. “That has changed today. The people who really have ability are dynamic; they are able to come in, get the relevant experience and move up the ladder more quickly.”
We only need look at St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, arguably the most-touted hotel opening of the past ten years. Its new general manager, 36-year-old Gareth Banner, typifies the trend for accelerated career paths – beginning his working life in Marriott’s head office, he was a general manager by 32, and this August was assigned one of the highest-profile GM gigs in Europe.
He is not alone in this regard. What we’re seeing here is the emergence of a splintered industry, where some GMs boast a lifetime in food and beverage, and others arrive armed with proficiency in Mandarin and a shiny MBA.
Ideally speaking, a good GM would also be well traveled. Cowdray spent time in the Middle East, the Far East, Australia, Africa and the UK, amassing a data bank of experiences en route. And although Fragano has remained in Italy throughout her career, she would recommend a more itinerant path to today’s young GM hopefuls.
“They should work as much as possible throughout the world, particularly in countries like China, India and South America, where most of our clients now come from,” she says. “Ideally they should work in one of the big chains, because these are present all over the world, which helps make your experience much more varied.”
Ultimately, however, the GM’s résumé is less important than their willingness to rise to new challenges. Some of these are technological in nature – with more channels of booking, business patterns are shorter term and more tasks are accomplished online – while others have to do with the hotel staff, who are younger and more transient than before.
Cowdray concedes that motivation can be a problem. “The people side of the role today takes up far more time than it probably did 20 years ago,” he says. “If you want to deliver a very high standard of service, this involves working more with the staff than with the guests.”
Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the immediacy and visibility of guest feedback. Now that guests can publish their reviews online, a GM offering substandard service doesn’t have anywhere to hide.
“Before, it was really about trying to push products and making sure people knew about your hotel,” says Naret. “Now, with the rise of websites like TripAdvisor, the guests are telling the world about your hotel and you have to be more careful about every detail.”
Accountability, of course, is not a bad thing – and in fact this newfangled state of affairs should serve to reinforce some age-old goals. “The core of our profession remains the same,” says Fragano. “We’re still providing a good experience for our clients, providing what they’re looking for or even surpassing their expectations.”
In many ways, the watchword is equilibrium. This is about pleasing investors while keeping standards high for your guests. It’s about staying abreast of finances, inspiring staff and communing with your guests when you can. Even in a corporate environment, a general manager can still function as a powerful figurehead for a hotel.
“You definitely need both, back of house and front of house,” says Fragano. “I wouldn’t remove one from the other.”
“There’s a time to take care of your guests,” agrees Naret, “and there’s a time to report to the board.”
As the industry evolves, tomorrow’s GMs will need to be skilled at walking a very fine line.
This feature appears in the Autumn 2013 edition of Hotel Management International