TALK: Firmdale Hotels ops director Carrie Wicks

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Firmdale Hotels, one of the UK’s biggest privately-owned boutique hotel chains, achieved record revenue of £78.4m for the year to January 31, 2013, which operations director Carrie Wicks says is largely due to the high percentage of repeat visitors.

“Our repeat business is huge — between 50 and 60%,” she tells Boutique Hotelier, adding that providing a personalised service and staff training are key to this.

“We make sure that everything we do is very much creating a bespoke situation. So we work with the guests as individuals as opposed to having a generic kind of offering for all. So that most definitely contributes towards our success.”

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Firmdale does not have a loyalty scheme to keep guests — including stars such as Daniel Craig and Richard Gere — returning.

“We want people to choose us, not because they’re tied to some sort of loyalty scheme that makes them use their points or rewards. We’d rather our guests don’t have to be forced.

“So we don’t have a programme that has a standard tier where we just roll it out with everybody as we all have different preferences so we make sure we tailor the experience,” says Wicks.

The hotel keeps profiles, detailing preferences, past requests and other relevant information, for all of its guests and each morning, staff meetings are held to brief the teams on the day’s arrivals and departures.

“Our biggest hotel has 91 rooms so on average that hotel will have between 30 and 40 arrivals a day so it can be done, we can ensure we’re able to talk about each person individually and everyone knows who the regulars are,” says Wicks.

However, the real key to achieving this tailored experience, offered at all eight Firmdale hotels in the UK and New York, is the recruitment, training and retention of the employees.

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Recruit right

“We have a very rigorous recruitment process. We have ‘Firmdale people’, which are the kind of people who fit into our world and therefore we will see quite a few people for any position whatever level it is at,” says Wicks.

“We develop our people; we’re very strong in that. All our general managers have been heads of department and even receptionists in their time so they’ve all grown up through these systems. We employ very few external people at the level of head of department and upwards,” continues Wicks.

Each year, the group recruits five-to-seven new employees onto its two-year graduate programme.

“We’ve run it now for nine years or more and we’ve got people who are still with us. We go through thousands of applicants and whittle it down to assessment centres. We’re not driven necessarily by CVs, for me it’s all about the passion of people and especially in our industry, the skill set needs to be there but actually it’s all about the passion.”

Once onboard, employees are trained to recognises people — “be it the front desk, or the restaurants, or the concierge”, explains Wicks.

This is reinforced with specific initiatives and incentives.

“I don’t want to give too much away, but last year we had a ‘simply say yes’ initiative showing that nothing is too much trouble, we never say it’s not our policy, or we can’t do that — that’s not what we’re about at all,” Wicks explains.

Multi-skilling staff is also important when it comes to delivering familiar service, she says.

“We’ve done that very successfully from kitchens, to restaurants, from bars to rooms, to porter. All of our training programmes and courses will incorporate all the hotels so they will mix with each other. It stimulates the team because if you’ve got a chance to try a different path, if you’re in front of house but you quite fancy maybe the F&B side of things, we give them the chance.”

Once the team member has settled into their role, they are offered the chance to spend a ‘day in the life’ of another department.

“All of our staff are multi-skilled; some of our maintenance people have been trained to run events so one minute they’re painting, next minute they’re delivering an event because they’re fantastic and they enjoy that.”

The results are higher revenues, loyal guests and loyal employees.

“Turnover is very low, the industry norm is about 50% and we sit at about 34%,” reveals Wicks, who has been with the company for 16 years.

 

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