The Firmdale Effect: Carrie Wicks talks IHS15


A new face to the line-up of expert panellists at this year’s Independent Hotel Show, Carrie Wicks, operations director at Firmdale believes that all boutique hotels worth their salt should make time in their diary to visit the October exhibition. Here she sits down with Zoe Monk to talk trends, hiring tactics and top investment opportunities at IHS 15.

Wicks on the main issues affecting the industry at the moment…
“After the Olympics there has been such a huge amount of rooms and restaurants that have opened especially in this area of London, so I think the biggest problem I think is finding the right people, in terms of staffing wise and recruitment. And also to make sure from our perspective, in making sure we don’t keep cannibalising each other. More and more hotels of a boutique calibre are opening and putting their name to that sort of operation, but it’s making sure that we pride ourselves and sticking in the vein of what that entails.”

Wicks on hiring the right staff…
“Social media is huge now and I think that’s where we need to jump up a little bit – it came so fast and washed over us and I think to a certain degree we need to embrace that a lot more and I think the whole industry does and use that as a way to recruit. Gone are the days where people trawl through magazines for a job, by then it’s too late and the job’s gone.

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“For example, recently we took on a pastry chef, purely because she saw a picture of another one of our pastry chefs on Instagram and thought that the hotel looked like a great place to work.

“ I think also the days are gone where I don’t particularly need to have people with a huge amount of experience as a server or a bar person, for me it’s about the passion in people; the fact that we can take that person from a raw material and train them, I’d much rather do that.

“So for me, I now encourage my team to not look so much at CVs and dismiss them on what’s written down – we want to do a lot more Skype interviews and connecting with people that way. We are putting together some employee videos too, of success stories on our Facebook page. Retention we have no problem with, but it’s getting the right people in the first place.”

Wicks on educating the whole industry…
“I think hoteliers do need to be more aware of how quickly the sector is changing – I feel that sometimes we fight each other a bit and we should be helping each other. We should all be transparent about things; what have we got to hide?

“We love the fact that another hotel opens up around the corner because actually all it does is bring more people to the area and that’s a good thing. It generates more business and we can all have that share of the business, that’s all healthy so why not all help other and share information?”

Wicks on the key successes of Firmdale…
“For us, it’s all about the product and the service and that’s got to match. I get given a beautiful hotel and I have to make sure that it operates well and works. You have to get people that are vibrant to go into a vibrant environment; it’s those two things that work together and they have to synergy.”

Wicks on the word boutique being overused…
“I think it depends on your interpretation of it and I think that’s what it boils down to. We started in Covent Garden with our first boutique hotel and I’d say we’ve become bigger than that in a sense of bedrooms – it isn’t your traditional 30-bedroom model – so we’ve got slightly out of that, but we’ve kept within that feeling of small luxury. There has always been a limit to how big you can go to be able to keep your finger on the pulse and we’ve always felt that limit is around the 100-room mark. I think when you have more then it starts to become a different kind of structure.

“We’ve stripped the mould slightly – we sit in that but we have a foot elsewhere at the same time.

“It’s all becoming blurred now; there’s nothing wrong with that but it’s a question of identity, that’s the important part.”

A key part of this year’s Independent Hotel Show will be focused on refurbishment and arming hoteliers with the know-how to updating their property in the most effective way on a budget. So why does Wicks think the constant review of a hotel’s interiors is crucial to the success of a property?
“It’s hugely important for us and always has been; a higher percentage of our revenue goes back into refurbishment than any other company that I’ve even known or worked with.

“But for people who come and visit us, they have come to expect a product that is of a very high standard. So if they walk in and see a chipped skirting board or a mark on the wall, then they would say standards have dropped here, what’s going on?

“We look at keeping occupancy between 80% and 90% and we have a repeat business of over 50%. In order to get that you need to make sure you are maintaining your product and not just maintaining it, but taking it to the next level.

“When we do a refurbishment, there is always a room or two rooms out in all the hotels at any given time of the year, so we don’t actually take that into account for occupancy, it’s just a running programme. Then what we do in that room, we look at what it’s about – we won’t just give it a lick of paint or new curtains, we will change it completely, we’ll even change the shape or the size, we’ve done so many things. We use a lot of colour – that’s hugely important for us, but also touchy feeling elements, so when you walk in you have to feel as if you can flop into a chair and not feel uncomfortable. You want people to walk in and think, oh I want that at home.”

Wicks on her involvement in this year’s Independent Hotel Show and the importance of the exhibition…
This year I’m going to be participating in a couple of panels at IHS15. Last Year Tim and Kit Kemp won The Independent Hotelier of the Year award and I went along for the first time and thought it was great.

Exhibitions like the Independent Hotel Show are important because they open up opportunities for people, give visitors a chance to see new innovations and the new trends. We all like to go somewhere and see something revolutionary to take back to our business. I remember going to an exhibition and seeing my first ever glass crusher – and I got all excited about it!

It’s being able to look at what’s out there, what’s new and how you can adapt it to your business.