Dean Winter on People, Leadership and how our hotels make people feel….
Our Managing Director Dean Winter takes us back to when he first joined Swire Hotels as General Manager of The Upper House's pre-opening team, detailing the decisions made as well as the people that helped shape our "Think Differently" culture.
I joined Swire Properties in 2006 in a two-year hotel development role, assisting Brian Williams with the operational planning and design of our early hotels; The Opposite House, The Upper House and EAST Hong Kong. I was in my early forties and had recently moved on from a 14-year career with one of the leading luxury hotel companies that obsessed over the guest and lived the mantra that ‘the customer is always right’. Prior to that, I had trained and worked in more traditional luxury hotels in London, where management styles were just as traditional, very autocratic and severely lacking in empathy. My London experience in those formative years of being a hotelier and restaurateur instilled the importance of attention to detail, teamwork and perhaps above all, how to be a good manager! I was determined from an early age as a leader, not to be seen as a bad one.
I joined The Upper House pre-opening team in 2008 as General Manager. I look back on the year prior to opening in October 2009 with immense affection for so many reasons as it provided the chance to deliver the design concept which had been created by André Fu and all the wonderful touches that that entailed. Everything from uniforms to flower vases, bed-throws to TVs, right down to the coffee cups and the homemade jam in what was then, Café Gray Deluxe.
As part of any hotel project, the developer would construct a mock-up room to assess design and dimensions. Swire Properties embraced this requirement by building not one but three different rooms. As the operator, we exploited this opportunity to acquire three different styles of most things you typically find in a hotel room; TVs, hairdryers, coffee machines, bed linen, hangers and telephones - even different note pads and pens! Over a period of a month or two, we played around with all these items until we arrived at what we felt was the right combination to fit the interior design and meet the expectations of high-paying guests.
One of my highlights from reviewing the mockup room, was the shower design. The generous bathrooms at 35sqm were so unique and we wanted to make them feel more spacious by removing the door to the shower. From an operational perspective, a glass shower door also requires cleaning, drying and being free of fingerprints; all of which adds up to a great deal of labour. We worked with André to slightly increase the ‘fall’ in the floor to allow water to run off easier and set the ceiling-mounted shower further back to minimize splashing beyond the shower area into the bathroom. Achieving this has allowed us to feel very proud of our seamlessly easy and spacious bathrooms – a truly unique differentiator for us, even to this day.
I believe the success of the hotel is rooted in this period and our investment in time and people. All the little touches create a feeling of considered design that is not only noticed by our guests but makes them (in turn) feel special, comfortable and cocooned in understated luxury. It’s best described as arriving in an affluent friend’s apartment, but they have gone away, left you the keys and access to some helpful people to ensure you have a great time.
This segues nicely into the best part of my job; the people. I recall experiences from my own career where it was drilled into you to always offer assistance to the guest or always use certain ‘conversations-starters’ on arrival and departure. Right before leaving my previous job, I observed a young affluent traveler with some very nice luggage on wheels, battling an employee who was adamant that they had to take the bag from the guest (offering assistance) even though the guest was refusing to let the luggage out of their sight. It struck me that the needs and expectations of future patrons was about to change and that what had long been the benchmark standard in luxury hotel service would change along with it.
Employees were changing too. They no longer accepted a 6-day work week. They wanted more time with friends and family. They wanted to ‘be themselves’ at work and not have to conform too much to rules and standard operating procedures. We saw that some people who were great with people, hated the paperwork they were made to do and conversely, colleagues that loved administration work, felt unlike their natural selves when asked to deal with guests. These young ‘Gen-Y’ (now Millennial) profile of hotel employees, wanted to feel trusted and know that if they made a mistake, it would be OK. This meant that we needed to look for these people and attract them to an emerging hotel brand, recognizing that some would prefer to work at more established hotel companies. We also didn’t want too many people from such companies that would potentially bring their bad habits and conventional way of working to our hotel. The solution was to take some risks and hire candidates that had not worked in hotels before; fresh graduates and the retail sector were the two main sources of young, on-brand, well-groomed candidate with great social skills. This young profile meant that we (management) had to adjust our management and communication style and so, our leadership philosophy of allowing people to fail quickly and succeed faster, was born.
Much has been talked about this approach to our people culture and I feel extremely passionate about how it dovetails with how we differentiate as a brand. Our whole purpose of ‘thinking differently’ about everything that we do, is built upon the youth, energy and ideas that the majority of our employees bring to their roles every day. A cast of millennials that embrace the fact that every day and every guest is different.
When reading all the wonderful online reviews that have helped to place us at the top echelons of global travel rankings, the common thread is our people. Individuals are named and celebrated, which in turn gives them the energy and motivation to continue their efforts to deliver our purpose. They do so in the knowledge that they are trusted and that when things go wrong, it’s an opportunity to learn and improve.
I thank them all. They are our brand and the ones who allow our guests to experience who we are as a company.