Coffee With Sandra
Each month our Managing Director Sandra Swatton will be meeting GM’s to discuss their careers, insights, challenges and strategies they are implementing and future hopes for the industry”. Through this discussion the key topics will be collated and added to the General Manager Boardroom Series events where we will seek guest speakers talking about solutions around those areas.
You have had a well-travelled career already in the UK, Singapore & Adelaide. Why did you choose hotels and why have you settled down in Brisbane?
My Dad spent his entire career in this industry and so in many ways it feels like I have spent my entire life in hotels. We moved around a lot – hotel to hotel, every 3 years. A couple of different cities in Scotland, a handful in England, Jordan, Kuwait and India too. My Dad saw the early warnings signs when I was 16 and passionately suggested almost any other career path; something with better hours, more stability, but I was already hooked. Having enjoyed the childhood the industry gave me it was always an element of our industry I was keen to pursue myself and indeed two years into my professional post-university career an opportunity arose in Singapore and I didn’t think twice. I feel very lucky to be here in Brisbane, and particularly in Fortitude Valley. To me, it has a rare vibrancy and charm; all the benefits and attractions of bigger city life, while retaining the humility and friendliness that bigger cities often do not. From a personal life perspective, I have to pinch myself sometimes when I remember that I live in one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations with extraordinary sights in every direction. Professionally, I firmly believe that the hospitality industry in SEQ, the extreme variety within our industry here and the exciting pipeline can sustain and support my career long-term.
— Daniel Moran
Speaking of our young and up & coming leaders, what do our next gen GM’s need to keep abreast ie social media?
I think the role of a GM has been changing for years and COVID has only expedited this process. While social media is playing a bigger role than ever in how we market our hotels and communicate with both potential and actual guests I think the key focusses lie a little closer to home. Traditionally, the hotel industry is a slower adopter of new technologies but I don’t think we can afford to be that way anymore, irrespective of hotel key count or whether you’re part of a global brand family. It is harder than it ever has been to attract and retain talent, and the teams we have are working as hard as they have ever had to. We need to be brave enough to invest in modern technologies that that can simplify trivial and repetitive processes. Whether that be enterprise wide communication and task management apps to reduce the time spent on cumbersome emails, to working with developers who can build platform to platform integrations that the remove the need for room service orders to be taken by phone, for example. By removing mundane and time-consuming tasks from our teams they will have more time to focus on both themselves and our guests.
— Daniel Moran
How do you support your teams during the constant stress’s of covid and staff wanting more flexible hours?
There is no quick fix for this. Now, maybe more than ever, our teams need to see us in the thick of the action with them, to lead by example. We need to know how to check a guest in, how to turn a room, what the valet process is, to pick up a ringing phone if walking through the reception area. They need to feel they can call you at lunchtime because there’s a rush and they need help. I think the general spirit of those still in hospitality after the last couple of years is extraordinary, and the togetherness you get from working alongside them is one of the best parts of the job and definitely helps me stress, and I hope them theirs. I also think we need to be actually open to changing processes based on real feedback from our team. I’m sure we can all remember times in our career as we were working to ascend through the ranks and we were frustrated with a decision someone in a more senior role made. “What dinosaurs, they don’t know what it’s like!” – it was a pretty eye-opening realisation recently that even at 34 years old, I am already a dinosaur in the eyes of those 19 / 20 years old’s we have working in our operational departments. Even just admitting this has helped us be better able to listen – properly – to our team. To break this stigma we need more of our executive level team members spending time in our operational departments, and we need to proactively support a more collaborative environment in which our teams are exposed to executive level decision making. It has always been difficult to appreciate the work of people you don’t often spend time with, so balance is important – both ways – in understanding why some things happen the way they do. If we can take the best of both worlds we might save ourselves from extinction! As for flexibility, I have found myself reacting internally to some requests we have had with surprise, shock; “I’d never have done this, asked for that”. But it goes back to the dinosaur piece, the industry has changed drastically and so now for us, we talk about flexibility being the sincere respect for the fact that everyone here has a life outside of work and to them that will always be more important than the hours they spend in our hotel. Flexibility is different for everyone, it’s not a one-size fits all WFH policy.
— Daniel Moran
With the industries current issues around staffing what do you see happening around wage & operational costs?
My thoughts on this might not be widely shared but I do think we have work to do as an industry. We have seen firsthand this year that the expected salaries for particular roles have grown significantly. Less experienced people are asking for more, people who might have previously committed to doing 18 months in a role are now leaving for promotions 9 months in. When we recruit, we have candidates interested in senior roles who then ghost recruiters only to share that they’ve been promoted at their current workplace, no doubt having used the recruiting hotel as leverage for a counter offer. We do need to call this unsavoury behaviour out, otherwise it’s a race to the top of unsustainable labour cost growth. Playing devil’s advocate for a moment though, the industry has been an infamously poor payer for decades. The supply of good people has gone down, demand is up. A significant portion of our teams earn the minimum wage and COVID has taught them they can earn more, often for doing less, in more stable environments with kinder hours. Those remaining are passionate, many see our industry as a vocation and maybe we do need to re-assess the cost of talent? In my junior years I sat in recruitment meetings and saw senior leaders celebrate a candidate accepting a salary that was below their previously stated expectations. What kind of impression does that deliver? How is their happiness and excitement for a new role undermined knowing they compromised on their value? Employees who feel valued offer better productivity, have greater engagement and becomes advocates for us in and outside of work. As with any service, if the cost of delivering that service is going up, the cost for experiencing that service should too. It needn’t impact of operating profit and subsequently asset value.
— Daniel Moran
Have you implemented any hotel technology or new process’s to improve on communications within your team or guests?
We have recently invested in three apps for our team. A hotel-wide communication tool; Workplace by Facebook. A task management tool; Monday – which supports in-the-moment work stream updates that don’t require a formal email and a Mental Health program; Lifeworks – which provides access to confidential support, meditation exercises, health and nutrition guidance. From a guest perspective we have launched a concierge services app with local recommendations, the ability to favourite venues and wayfinding services to help our guests get there. It has within it a regularly updated blog that talks to what is going on around us. We’re currently exploring an Augmented Reality colouring book for children that features a Hotel X specific story, it comes alive when scanned through a phone and dynamically moves around the hotel.
— Daniel Moran
How is Hotel X leading the way in digital marketing? Are you doing anything different to continue to stand out?
The short version is that we are open to exploring anything. We launch some shot-for-purpose TikTok material soon and have recently sponsored a podcast studio here in Fortitude Valley with a view to providing relevant local content via this medium in the future.
— Daniel Moran
You attended the whole day 80Twenty Conference in Brisbane what were the biggest takeaways you got?
I thought it was a great day, with a genuinely interesting and diverse selection of panellists and speakers. My personal favourites were Nick Ellis, he’s such a positive and vibrant person and his key takeaways of the different panels were spot on. I loved listening to Wayne Taranto who wasn’t afraid to say things many hesitate to. I thought Jacob Sinnott was genuinely insightful and engaging in talking us through statistics we rarely have access to. Paul Claydon and Rob Unson were both fantastic too. I still can’t get over how good of an idea the Green Hornets is and it’s a credit to Spicers that they have brought on Nick and now Paul in relatively uncommon roles which clearly offer great value to their business. Rob is a tremendous storyteller and listening to him share the story of their rooftop gardens and the connection to the hotel owners only served to reinforce why The Calile have enjoyed such success under his stewardship. Fundamentally for me, opportunities like this are about diving beneath the surface of general chit chat and having real conversations in which we’re prepared to discuss what we’re doing – in detail – to better the industry. The problems we face today are not hotel specific, they’re industry wide and it will be more difficult for all in the coming years if we aren’t prepared to work together. And on that basis, my single biggest takeaway is that I’d like the opportunity to spend more time, more often with my peers in the GM community, specifically those who are prepared to be honest and transparent so we can all succeed.