Hotelier of the week: Simon Mahon

ABTN speaks to Simon Mahon, general manager of Park Plaza County Hall in London, about training and recruiting the next generation of hoteliers.

You have recently put a lot of work into your student placement programme…

Yes, it’s been quite interesting. None of the hotels in our group had really focussed on student placements yet, so about a year and a half ago my HR manager and I were given the green light to make this something integral to the way we do business. So we decided to make Park Plaza’a placement programme as good as it can be. It’s something very close to my heart because I was nurtured and invested in a lot during my placement programme up at the Old Course hotel in St Andrews, many years ago.

My HR manager and I sat down with the specific aim of writing the placement programme that we would have wanted to complete. I think too many companies only give students a year working in food and beverage or a year working in reception and expect them to make the most of that. Fair enough, but actually I think we as hoteliers have got an opportunity to do a lot more. So, we wrote the placement that we wanted to do, the best in the industry. What we offer our students is kind of unique – a flexible, year-long programme where they get to work in housekeeping, reception and in all areas of food and beverage. They even get to spend a week in my office working with me as general manager, seeing my week and attending all the meetings I do.

The students also all have a high-level project to complete. Rather than what can we do to reduce our wastage of tomatoes, it’s realistic. One of our students was just showing me our £3,000 budget to refurbish one of our key guest areas and another was responsible for us delivering our highest brand audit score our companie has ever had. We really engage them in this project. We really empower the students, and talk to their lecturers about it. It’s been really fantastic. We took six students this year, and we’re going to take 12 students next year.

We also got hospitality charity Springboard involved, which is really great because we love working with them and we really appreciate the way that they help young and disadvantaged people get into the hotel business. I think Springboard brings the industry closer to the talent pool, whether that be through the local job centres, government backed initiatives or through the educational programmes that are available. Springboard do a wonderful job.

We were awarded the Springboard Best Employer Award last year, which we were very proud of. The hotel has come a long way in terms of HR best practice. To be awarded that after a really insightful judging process, was great.

Do the students come from different places?

Yes, different universities. We’re looking at having a link with a Dutch university and we have some Uk universities that we work with this year, which we’re keen to expand. We don’t want to just work with one university, and I’d much rather work with UK schools than the Swiss schools. We work with Holland because Park Plaza has a big presence in Holland and we’ve built up a relationship with the university over there.

What do you see in the trainees coming through today? Are they different from how you were when you were training?

Yes, they are, and I’ve had some real fun with it. I think the student placement programme is the most fun thing we do, in many ways, because we genuinely believe that it’s great to give back to the students. I was with a few of them today talking about next year’s programme, and they are so outspoken compared to how we were. I think students today are less used to being given firm guidelines, and I think some of that is evident on things like Facebook. They can say, “which department should I work in next?”, and they will have 30 people giving them different answers. They really want buy-in from everybody. They’re very outpsoken.

They also react completely differently to any constructive criticism – they’re often taken aback. I don’t think younger people today are too used to being given a firm guideline. Such as, they could do better in this area and here’s how, and here’s what we can do to help. I think they find it quite refreshing because they really take it on board, but they’re not used to it at first. It’s quite an eye-opener. As well as the practical experience of the placement, they learn that actually people have to do exactly what they’re told in the real working environment.

There’s a reason we do things the way we do. But I do love when a student says to me: “Have you thought about doing it this way?” They do have a fresh take. They can be quite insightful. I notice it particularly when it comes to communication. They’re used to communication being all-encompassing. They’re much better at technology than we ever were. Overall, students today expect more from their placements, and they realise they have a lot to learn. It’s great to have them around.

What about good old-fashioned service – are they up to standard?

They are. I think that is a clear advantage in the hoteliers of tomorrow. They understand that if  you’re in a hotel where service is of the utmost importance, that the way to get ahead is to focus on that area. They get very involved with guest interaction. They want to learn new and old-fashioned techniques in service. They’re strong communicators, and quite confident, therefore guest interaction is often of a very high level.

My view on service is that it should be relaxed. It should be natural and not forced. The confidence that a student has enables them to do that. That’s part of our recruitment process, not just for students but for everybody. I think it’s up to us as hoteliers to recruit the right people, that want to interact and engage with our guests, rather than just deliver a product or service. You see that more and more in the lifestyle brands – guests not only want the service, but to feel as though somebody is helping them rather than serving them. We get into this business because we want to help people and we like interacting with people. Our recruitment strategy should reflect that.

In terms of recruiting, do you think the hospitality is well thought of enough as a potential career path for young people today? Or do you think there is some work that needs to be done to encourage people into it?

I believe that it’s part of our job as hoteliers to represent our industry and to make people realise the opportunities that are available. In terms of recruitment I think we need to drive apprenticeships and work with local schools and colleges. I don’t think that the right candidate needs to have the exact level of experience that might be required on a traditional job application form. I think they need to be able to make people smile and feel good about their day. And I think we need to work with organisations like Springboard, bringing the industry closer together. We need to work with training providers more.

University in the UK is becoming prohibitively expensive – is a vocational course a good option for future hoteliers?

Absolutely. As an industry we will get to a really smart place with regards to vocational training. I think we will also start our own universities and we will work closely with select universities in terms of sponsorship, which will fund both the student and the university, and provide the hotel with a really strong recruitment pool.

Is training in the UK of a high enough standard? Are there enough courses?

There’s a big ocean of training out there. There are workplace training initiatives that are absolutely right for our business, and I think the universities are doing a great job. Also, I think any sensible and smart company needs to have an effective training plan. It’s up to us to recruit the people, and to train them in the right way.

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