When a team member requests to spend money to make a material change, ask, “If you owned this hotel, would you spend your money to do that?”
In 1999, I had just transferred to a major branded hotel in Chicago and was living in the hotel for the first few months. As the food-and-beverage director, I was accustomed to taking meals at the hotel, but now I was taking every meal at the hotel. Before long I began to demand answers to long simmering questions I had once dismissed as trivial.
For example, during my second week of residency, I asked the executive chef why we didn’t serve fresh-squeezed orange juice, especially since we operated a 4-star hotel.
Indignant at my question, the chef responded, “What are you talking about? We only serve fresh-squeezed!”
I replied, “Chef, I’ve been drinking fresh-squeezed juice for many years, sometimes it’s sweet, sometimes it’s tart, sometimes it just has no flavor at all. But this juice tastes exactly the same, every day … processed.”
The chef was really ticked off and said, “Look, George, I’ll show you.”
As we made our way to the walk-in cooler, the chef picked up a gallon carton of juice and said “See. It says fresh-squeezed right on the box.”
“Yes, Chef,” I replied. “It also says ‘from concentrate.’”
Another day, while passing through the cavernous kitchen, I spotted a bain-marie with a giant pot of oatmeal being kept warm. This was but one of the pots prepared for each satellite restaurant, so at least 10 gallons of oatmeal were being prepared every day.
“Chef, why do we make so much oatmeal?”
He answered, “It’s a brand standard, and that’s the way we have done it here for years.”
Mind you, on a good day, three orders were sold.
And then there was the smoked salmon. It was on every menu, available every meal period, in every outlet, every day. Smoked salmon with a bagel for breakfast. Smoked salmon appetizer for lunch. Smoked salmon in the evening.
But guests never ordered the salmon. Instead, it was delightfully consumed by the staff in the employee cafeteria. We couldn’t let it go to waste. Our employees ate well.
In the big scheme of things, nothing about serving concentrated orange juice, preparing oatmeal for legions that never order it, or trying to force salmon onto every plate is earth shattering. Menus that offer tired, ubiquitous offerings from a bygone era are nothing new.
But these anecdotes are demonstrative of what can happen in organizations or big-brand hotels. Over time, teams may become complacent, resistant to change, staid.
Fast forward to 2005. As general manager of the independently managed Raphael Hotel (now Raffaello), I learned we included a continental breakfast in the room rate. Served each morning in the lobby, this consisted of a pot of hot water with instant coffee, styrofoam cups and some disgusting sweet rolls.
On Day Two of my hotel exploration, I found silver coffee urns, bone china and an ebony serving cart hidden away in a basement storeroom. It was perfect for an elegant breakfast presentation. At the next morning meeting, I asked everyone what they thought about our complimentary continental breakfast. One individual spoke up, explaining the breakfast had been added to the rate plan when the restaurant closed. Over time it had become what we see today.
“Better to get rid of it completely than continue. It makes us look bad,” he said.
I had found an owner.
Within 10 days, freshly brewed coffee, a selection of juices (yes, fresh!), freshly baked croissants and muffins were served daily. We made the coffee ourselves, we purchased the juice and we had the baked goods delivered. Oh, and our costs skyrocketed. But so did guest satisfaction. By the end of that summer, the breakfast was so popular that we no longer gave it away. We charged $7, made a small profit while delighting our guests.
As managers, we often discuss the notion of empowerment—giving individuals the freedom and authority to make changes. But empowerment won’t work if the individuals in organizations with rigid or outdated standards don’t want to accept or embrace change.
As an independent hotelier today, we have flexibility that brands do not. The trick is to find team members who have an owner’s attitude.
How? Ask this question the next time a team member requests to spend some money or make a material change: “If you owned this hotel, would you spend your money to do that?” If they answer “yes,” if they can justify their decision, if they are passionate in owning the solution, perhaps they are willing to be held accountable for the results.
Empower that person. Make them an owner.
In an independently managed hotel, you may find individuals ready and willing to challenge the accepted norm, but you also need to ensure they have this owner mentality to be successful in making those changes.
If you see something that doesn’t seem to make sense, it probably doesn’t. Find an “owner,” empower them to make the change, praise and reward their efforts.
Or you can just have breakfast with the chef daily. It’s a fixed menu of orange juice, oatmeal and salmon.
George Jordan is the senior VP of operations for Oxford Hotels & Resorts, and Chicago area hotel cluster general manager for Hotel Cass, Hotel Felix and Godfrey Hotel (opening early 2014). Over the past 30 years, he has held key management roles with The Arizona Biltmore, The St. Paul, The Marquette, The Drake and The Raffaello Hotel. Jordan rose through the ranks while attending college at University of Southern California and Arizona State University, where he obtained a B.S. in Finance. He served as area food and beverage director for Hilton International, based out of The Drake Hotel Chicago, and also as hotel manager at The Drake. Today, he contributes his extensive operational, revenue management and marketing expertise to Oxford's national acquisition activities. Reach him at email@example.com.
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