Adapt, Evolve and Pivot
Hotel and Restaurant Times met with Camden Court Hotel’s Stephen Hanna and Simon Buckley to talk about meeting the challenges of this unique time in the industry with positivity and enthusiasm.
One thing certain about the hospitality industry is it’s never certain, and over the years, it’s had to learn to adapt, evolve and apply measured foresight to survive and thrive. Stephen Hanna, General Manager of Dublin City’s Camden Court Hotel, knows this all too well. He has been in the hospitality industry for nearly three decades, and throughout his career experienced the peaks and lows that go hand in hand with it. Hotel & Restaurant Times sat down with Stephen and Camden Court Hotel’s HR Manager Simon Buckley to chat about how the popular Dublin hotel is successfully adapting to this unique and challenging time.
Stephen’s path into the industry started in 1994 as a trainee manager in Jury’s Hotel Cork as part of the CERT TDMP, of which today’s nearest equivalent is the National Trainee Manager Development Programme. He has been with the Camden Court Hotel since 2006, and in that time experienced the hotel’s many changes and challenges. Stephen’s attitude in the face of difficulties, he tells us, is to expect ups and down while remaining positive and proactive.
“It’s been quite a ride,” he tells us. “2006 was the top of Celtic Tiger, then came the recession and the slow build out of that, and of course the pandemic in 2019. We all know given the history of the last number of years there’s going to be a series of ups and downs in the next 10 to 15 years, and that’s just the nature of the business. It’s about staying positive that the ups will come around again, and positioning yourself correctly for the next up, as opposed to the next down. Pivot, pivot, pivot.”
After a tough few years things are certainly on the up at the Camden Court Hotel. Occupancy is at 96% and the property is currently refurbishing the bedrooms and leisure centre. Planning has also been approved for 71 new rooms. Stephen tells us that luckily, staffing levels are relatively high, and he attributes this, in part, to remaining open in an essential capacity throughout the pandemic.
“I don’t want to glibly say staffing is not a problem but we are working hard to ensure it’s not the case,” he says. “We tried very hard during COVID to stay open. I thought, it’s easy to close, hard to reopen, so we kept a core team who remained throughout. When we reopened the skillset was there, so we’ve had no opening lag and gone back to full occupancy. If it wasn’t due to the loyalty of the team we may not be in this position.”
HR Manager Simon Buckley says a combination of foresight and recognising talent is crucial in ensuring positions remain filled. For example, staffing needs are monitored well in advance to gauge which roles need to be filled in the future. “It’s about adaptability, as we are constantly evolving, and pivoting to make sure all bases are covered,” he explains. “We always need to be thinking ahead. If a spot is becoming vacant, we assess who could fill it and recruit ahead of time so we’re not always on the backfoot. Another thing is seeing if one person can work in two areas of the hotel. We’d never pressurise someone into a department they didn’t want to work, but part of our internal development is to gauge where staff members’ interests lie and see if we can job match that.”
Simon explains there may be a role for someone they don’t know exists, so his job is to work with the Heads of Department to celebrate different personalities and cultures and pinpoint strengths and skillsets.
“For example, we’ve got many students working here from the English schools and a lot of them speak several languages,” he says, “so if someone works in Food and Beverage, we could trial them on the front desk.”
Positioning the industry as a great place to work is also key to attract new people. It is a widely held view that hospitality has a PR problem – for example, not enough is known about the hospitality training courses across the country and the career potential they offer, and many people still consider the industry a stopgap as opposed to fertile ground for a long and rewarding career. Simon tells us the Camden Court Hotel is meeting this challenge on the ground, pitching hospitality careers to students of other disciplines working in the hotel. “In this industry many people are studying for other careers, for example accountancy. We identify their potential as managers of the future and pitch the industry to them by providing dynamic and interesting roles. This offers them a snapshot into a different career, one that suits them and they enjoy but they may not have hitherto considered.”
Of course, attracting staff is one challenge, but retaining them is just as crucial. Stephen tells us the Camden Court Hotel does not have a high staff turnover and he credits the hotel’s friendly and calm working environment and internal development opportunities.
“We’re promoting calmness not firefighting,” he says. “The baseline here is calm and in-control. It’s a nice place to work. Yes, there will always be challenges, but we want to give the sense to the team we’re striving for a standard, not just striving to stay open. We also provide staff meals and a comfortable canteen with Wi-Fi and pay for breaks – I don’t think that can be underestimated – and it has worked to our advantage. Professional development is also crucial. If someone comes in and shows potential or initiative they’ll be promoted quickly, for example a car park attendant could be promoted to front desk or night manager.”
Training in the Camden Court Hotel is also constantly evolving, Simon adds. An internal development programme is currently being established that will entail leadership training for department heads. “People get motivated by being seen, heard and recognised and it strives them to do better,” he says. “Being a department head is about nurturing your team as well as looking after guests. It’s about giving them opportunities and the support and encouragement that they can do it.”
From chatting to Stephen and Simon, a clear theme of the enthusiasm to evolve and try new things has emerged. This paid off particularly well with the Camden Court Hotel’s in-house laundry, which was installed in 2008 in a bid to reduce linen costs, which Stephen says at the time were €25,000 per month. Post-lockdown understaffing has also been an issue with launderettes and Stephen says the next big challenge for Dublin hotels will be linen. “We’re lucky,” Stephen says, “many hotels are struggling with this but we’ve managed somewhat to stay out of that issue. We do have our own challenges in keeping the laundry staffed and maintained – for example, if one machine goes down, we won’t have enough of what we need. The good thing however is we’re in control of our own problems. If we’ve got an issue, we’re on it straight away. It’s also easier to control the standards and consistency.”
Staffing in the laundry is meticulously planned. It is manned for 16 hours a day from 7pm to 10pm which is split into a morning and evening shift. Usually, 10 staff members are required per day and there is also a buffer in the department, so if the laundry is short-staffed, other staff members can fill in as needed. Over a decade later Stephen says the investment remains hugely positive and valuable. “We bravely took it on and have been learning as we go,” he says. “If a hotel has got space for a laundry, I’d hugely recommend it.”
Another example of this kind of long-term thinking is pricing. Stephen tells us the Camden Court Hotel is not interested in charging extortionate prices due to demand. “I think individual hotel properties putting rooms for sale at crazy prices is short-termism,” he says. “It’s not sustainable, won’t help longevity and will create bad press. We don’t engage in selling rooms at ridiculously high prices as the reputational damage for your property and the industry is not worth it. In the Camden Court Hotel, we’re more focused on meeting and exceeding expectations. There comes a tipping point in price where you can’t meet or exceed that. We’re happy with our pricing, turnover and costs so that’s the long-term objective and we are here for the long term.”
This year the hotel’s bookings are comprised of around 30 per cent from the United States, 30-40 per cent domestic, and the remainder from European countries. Stephen tells is the U.S. market has shrunk slightly due to a lag in demand; by the time it came, bookings were full. He predicts the larger demand will come back by next year and hotels will go back to their usual segmentation.
Stephen is pragmatic about the coming months and years, but he’s also upbeat. “You could do this interview in 30 years and it’ll be the same,” he says. “It’s a people industry and the challenges repeat. Certainly, in my career they’ll be lots more ups and downs. It’s a unique industry that changes with the environment. We need the capacity to be chameleon-like, more so than a lot of other businesses. We’ve learned a lot, two years ago we were in the depths but we’re still here, and back to high occupancy. Hospitality is a great industry to work in and we’re just feeling very positive.”
Wise words indeed.