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Student Advice Hospitality

Advice to Graduating Hospitality Students from a Seasoned Hotelier

Aug 16, 13 | 12:08 am 


By feature writer Matthew Stephens

When I graduated from the Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School, I was hungry to prove that I had what it took to “make it” - determined to become a GM. The Hospitality Industry is one of the largest in the world; it is competitive, full of aspiring GM’s, some willing to support your growth, others wanting to cut you down at every opportunity. Times have changed since I graduated and you can guarantee that change in all areas of the industry will continue to be at the heart of managing a successful business for all of us.

I would like to share a few life lessons and experiences with you today that I have learned since I sat in your graduating seat:

  1. Patience
  2. Passion and
  3. Profit

Lesson #1 – Patience – It’s all about Timing

In my experience, it’s not about forcing open doors, but working hard, demonstrating your abilities and the benefits you bring to the business and a focus on continuous improvement. If you maintain this focus, doors will open in front of you, it’s then up to you to walk through them. Your education paired with experience, a positive attitude and a large dose of common sense will have you rising quickly through the industry ranks. To be a truly great Hotelier it is important to know the details of every area of your business.  Knowing the theory of how to fold a hospital corner will get you so far, however personal experience will provide you with an understanding of the implications on your staff, customers and the bottom line and when you speak from experience, you will earn respect, which is critical in leading a team. Great opportunities rarely present themselves, and when they do – you must be ready.

As a first semester student, I served coffee and pastries on a train from Central to Leura for the official opening of the school in 1991.  At the end of the journey while cleaning the carriages, I found a trench coat on one of the seats and took it back to the school to lost property. 

When I handed it in to the Principals secretary, she took one look inside the collar and said to me “do you know who this man is?”  I had no idea he was the General Manager of the Sebel Townhouse, one of the premier five-star hotels in Sydney.  The Principal called me into his office and taught me this lesson.

Matt, you should take advantage of this opportunity.  Call Mr Hall, and offer to hand deliver his trench coat back to him personally – but make sure you meet him and hand it to him.  When you meet him, explain that you are looking for student placement and would he consider you within his property.   Yes, I got the job!

Having spent 8 years working for Rydges Hotel group under one of my industry idols, the iconic hotelier David Seargeant, my wife and I decided to move to the UK.  I accepted a position at The Celtic Manor Resort in South Wales as MIS Manager, hoping to take a break, travel and experience Europe for a couple of years.

After 6 months working closely with the Owner and his sister, explaining my vision they asked me if they thought I could manage the resort?

Celtic Manor is one of the largest 5 star conference resorts in Europe, with 400 guest rooms, 42 function rooms, 2 leisure clubs, 2 Spas, 8 restaurants, and probably more notably, 3 championship golf courses, 2 club houses and 2 driving ranges – one indoor and heated – which is a good thing in Wales! Celtic Manor is the home of the Wales Open Golf tournament, and in 2010 hosted the Ryder Cup – the third largest sporting event in the world.

At 27 this incredible opportunity presented itself and ultimately led to financial success for the resort, as well as a stream of personal achievements for me, including meeting and hosting Royalty, Prime Ministers and a never ending stream of sporting greats and celebrities.

Lesson #2: Passion – It’s about commitment and determination to succeed

Passion is at the root of success in our industry – Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal, Jamie Oliver, Marco Pierre White and also many of the iconic hoteliers. However, I thought, that work/life balance was for wimps and was not high on the agenda for a young, aspiring General Manager.

Your passion for your new lifestyle may become intoxicating; an addiction to success that drove me and I hope will drive you too early on in your career. At times I work up to 16 hours a day 7 days a week – not because I have to, but because I love it.  I thrive on success, doing more, achieving more, ensuring my guests, staff and owners are happy. However, your addiction can overtake your life and that can lead to personal sacrifice and in my case damage your personal relationships – so beware of the balance.

Building a network of contacts throughout your career will ensure you will always have someone to ask for advice, support or just to crack a bottle to celebrate your successes. One of the most passionate people I know, I met day 1 in the industry, green from High School my very first lesson, 8am Monday morning. As an Executive Chef within great hotels of the world, this person taught me the basics of knife skills, how to make a roux, the dreaded Veal Blanquette, and the reason you don’t sit on the bench in a kitchen.  Sometimes with inspiring one-on-one guidance, other times with Ramsay-esq direction that could be heard in the Park Hyatt in Sydney.  Make use of your alumni colleagues and friends many who are passionate and have learned the lessons you will face, lean on them too!

Lesson #3 – Profit – It’s all about the bottom line   

The simplest lesson to learn in my experience but often camouflaged by warm and fuzzy objectives, I cannot recall a long term successful hotel that I believe was not profitable. 

Have you ever walked into a property and thought it felt comfortable?  I believe the secret is in establishing reliable efficient processes and training your people rigorously in these processes. It creates standards, structure and therefore reliability as your people will be confident in their roles and responsibilities.

Combine this with a passionate, motivated team, and this will translate through the service they deliver.  You will be well on the way to happy customers and a healthy bottom line.

I hope you will relate to my experiences and the lessons I have learned:

  • Have patience and run through open doors,
  • Be passionate but remember to have a balance
  • Don’t forget the profit.

In closing, congratulations and welcome, fellow Hoteliers to your new lifestyle - the Hotel Industry, may your skill; experience and passion drive you to great success!