A Hotel General Manager's Day
© Courtesy InterContinental Hotel Boston
The sun has yet to break through the mist on a recent morning, but the InterContinental Hotel Boston is already in high gear. Banquet service is under way for a conference upstairs; bankers stride in for business breakfasts; and a scrum of tourists, still operating on European time, hike out the door. Outside, general manager Timothy P. Kirwan stops his car just short of finishing his commute, hopping out to shift trash cans from the building’s condos away from the front of the hotel’s retail space. “You have to have what I call ‘the Eye’ to see things others don't,” the energetic Kirwan says. Satisfied, he hurries to park. For the next 12 hours, Kirwan will cast his own all-seeing eye on details large and small, from finding out if there is space to store bags for a 300-person late checkout to deciding whether it’s feasible to renovate the spa to add an often-requested Jacuzzi. And, of course, there’s plenty more. Running a top-notch hotel requires a large coordinated effort among dozens of managers and staff that even the most frequent travelers rarely get to see.
Every day at a five-star hotel is similar only because, as any hotelier will quip, no day is the same. Even so, many of the issues hotels have always grappled with do stay the same: room cleanliness, customer satisfaction and occupancy rates. Each hotel has a morning meeting with its various department heads to cover such issues, says John Cashion, the director of operations for the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch, in Colorado. “We discuss the operational things, from occupancy issues to having the overnight manager convey important information to the next shift. And, specifically, we discuss living in the eyes of our guests: What do they see as they walk through their areas?”
On this Wednesday morning, Kirwan and a dozen of his InterContinental Boston team assemble in the offices at Fort Point Channel. Various managers rattle off statistics on the prior day’s operations: how many covers at the three restaurants (285); occupancy of the 424 rooms (100 percent); how many check-outs and check-ins to expect (376 and 178, respectively). Someone has a list of three VIPs checking in: one is a magazine editor and another a meeting planner, but the third has them stumped. It’s a celebrity’s name, but the celebrity in question died three years earlier. “We thought maybe it was his son, but Wikipedia says he had three daughters,” says the reservations manager, to amused laughter all around. It’s rare to be clueless about a VIP, but that’s easily solved: The staff will chat with him at check-in and, regardless of his celebrity connection or lack thereof, he’ll get VIP treatment. “The lifeblood of any hotel is repeat guests,” Kirwan says later. A large hotel like the InterContinental Boston, where roughly 65 percent of the 200,000 annual guests are business travelers or conference attendees, aims for 30 percent of guests to become repeats. Smaller, boutique hotels with less group business teeter on the brink of failure if that level dips significantly below 50 percent.
The discussion lingers on a new staff emergency-contact phone system. Test calls go out on Friday, and Kirwan wants a 95 percent success rate, up from 92 percent in the prior test. The new system stems from a fire in the underground garage in August 2010, after which the Boston Fire Department refused to allow guests back in for seven hours. While safety procedures worked flawlessly, the delay showed the need to ensure that more staff can race in to manage guest comfort. In fact, because the Boston fire and police departments now use Twitter as an emergency communication system, the press was already on the scene interviewing guests before the old phone tree had been completed. If this new system works, InterContinental will roll it out chainwide.
Then other issues are quickly covered, from vacation scheduling to a reminder of a corporate inspection of 10 random rooms slated for Friday. There’s not much lingering—the meeting wraps up by 8:55 a.m.
As travelers, most of us have a very personal view of a hotel: Did we sleep well? Is it pleasant? Hoteliers care about those questions, of course. But hotels are also big business, and as such they pour a great deal of effort onto attracting and managing meetings. Groups fill up room blocks quickly and generate revenue from in-house meals and services that casual travelers don’t need. “Every meeting planner or executive, whether [his] group is 40 rooms or 1,400, wants [his guests] to feel like they are the one and only group in the hotel and all their needs are met completely,” explains Eric Opron, head of sales for the business-centric Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin hotels, two Starwood properties co-located in Orlando. “The real delicate part is to manage all of that seamlessly. It has to fit together like a puzzle.”
The InterContinental Boston’s sales staff have already begun piecing together the hotel’s puzzle at 9 a.m. A spreadsheet listing dates, rooms and meeting space is projected onto the wall, and reps hash out their leads and how many of them can be placed into available space in coming months. Then, inevitably, there are fresh requests from groups booked long ago. This morning, the staff has a problem: a 60-person brokerage group due to stay next month has requested breakout rooms for 12 five-person teams. That would require 40 percent of the hotel’s meeting space, which cannot be allowed for such small meetings. “If we say yes, what if the next day a group of 300 calls and wants the space?” Kirwan asks. At a property expected to generate well over $50 million in annual revenue, space is doled out very carefully. Even if the sales manager lets the brokerage group claim the breakout space, another manager charged with maximizing income per square foot would overrule him. This also means that groups that spend less and need more hand-holding, such as the so-called SMERFs (for Social, Military, Educational, Religious and Fraternal), are discouraged. That said, anyone looking to meet within the next 30 days counts as an exception—if the space is available in that circumstance, any salesperson can book it.
Plugging Leaks, Putting Out Fires
From full-body scanners to carry-on bag fees, travel has increasingly turned into a hassle for travelers of all stripes. That expands the role of the best hotels from places to sleep and facilitate business to a means of calming the traveler’s soul, says Guy Klaiman, general manager of the Hilton London Tower Bridge. “It’s become a nightmare to travel. When they enter this hotel, it becomes a safe haven, a hassle-free environment. People like to feel spoiled. Today, it’s been raining, so we gave them a dry towel on check-in. Little things like that take them by surprise.”
Maintaining the oasis feel of the InterContinental Boston comes easier on some days than others. At 6 a.m. today, a pipe burst over the Club Lounge above the Boston Greenway. Kirwan slips out of the sales meeting to meet with the chief engineer about the possibility of “pipe and drape” to maintain access for members. When he arrives, the assistant engineer is in the ceiling, navigating an impossibly small space. The leak did little more than cosmetic damage, but there’s a problem: The burst pipe belongs to the multimillion- dollar condominiums occupying the eight floors above. Kirwan pulls out his iPhone and calls the head of the residents association. The call is quick and cordial—it’s the first the head has heard of the leak, and he and Kirwan agree to hash out billing for the work and material later. Ten years ago, hotels didn’t face this kind of glitch. But these days, capital requirements mean that no hotel gets built without a healthy portion of the property being sold as condos whose residents are entitled to use the hotel pools, gyms, restaurants and, occasionally, flood rooms. Complicating matters sometimes (but not today) is the fact that most hotels’ physical properties are now owned by third-party real-estate companies.
GMs such as Kirwan have a director of operations whose job it is to keep an eye on the smaller details. But even Kirwan, a 30-year hotel veteran, can get caught up in minutiae. The phone rings—it’s the bar manager. Is high-end brand 1800 tequila part of the evening event’s open bar? No. Later, from a different staffer: Should a plan to test iPad menus at the property’s hip SushiTeq restaurant include the ability to place orders? Probably not, Kirwan muses, because that would push the novelty toward a quick-serve restaurant gimmick. Unusual guest requests work their way up to him, too, such as arranging for a celebrity to ride a Harley and having a suit custom-made at midnight for an executive whose airline lost his luggage. “The only thing that really differentiates a great hotel from a good one is service,” Kirwan says during a lull. “If you don’t deliver the little touches….” He trails off, but you can guess the rest.
Sleep Quality Matters
Regardless of how good a hotel’s service is, the primary factor in whether someone enjoys her hotel experience is the quality of her sleep and the cleanliness of her room. Every scrap of information on this factor is studied closely by hotel staff. Frequently, a GM will walk through a few rooms each day to ensure that staff are getting the details right in the 30 to 45 minutes it typically takes to clean a standard hotel suite. “Housekeeping is such a complex operation, and it’s like the housekeeper is coming into your home,” says the Ritz-Carlton’s Cashion.
Management gathers at 3 p.m. today to review monthly guest survey scores. In InterContinental Boston’s case, the results come from randomly emailed frequent guests. Remarkably, those surveyed have found enough time to answer an exhaustingly long questionnaire ranking some 90 aspects of their experience at the hotel on a scale of 1 to 5. The current month’s scores are presented alongside a running 12-month score, as well as the average month and 12-month scores of the other InterContinental properties. Kirwan’s hotel scores well, moving it into the top six InterContinentals for the year—all the more impressive given the bad scores this property received after the parking-garage fire. For each area in which this InterContinental falls short, ideas are solicited: “I drove by the Mandarin the other day, and their valets were all standing in a line at the curb. It was very impressive,“ offers one staffer. Someone mentions that another hotel briefs housekeepers on big local events going on that day as another way to inform guests of local options. “So the housekeeper might say, ‘Are you going to so-and-so’s concert tonight?’,” the staffer explains.
Walking the Precinct
This InterContinental feels like a town in miniature. Despite all the meetings he attends, Kirwan spends the bulk of his day like an old-style Boston pol, making sure to greet all of his constituency. “GMs are either front-of-the-house or back-of-the-house, in their offices all day. I’m a front-of-the-house guy. I’m the mayor of Fort Point,” he says with a chuckle. Through the kitchens, offices and storage spaces comprising an area as large as the public space of the hotel, he offers words of encouragement to staffers, handing out scratch lottery tickets to one or two whom he spies doing a good job. Kirwan walks to the meeting space and checks in with planners to verify that everything is to their liking. He draws out a visitor’s opinion on whether an oxygen bar would be a good idea. Slipping through a service hallway, he notices a trash bin too close to a door and pushes it back. Later on, he glides over to the front desk, adjusting the lobby lighting. Boston is a compact town, so Kirwan often runs into city executives shopping or dining—that’s another relationship for him to cultivate. Like most high- rises built in the past 15 years, this property is partially designated for public space, so even when the hotel wants to use its outdoor land for events, a city permit needs to materialize.
At the afternoon shift change, Kirwan walks the lobby and grabs a word with employees, checking to see that important information is conveyed. In the evening, he greets movie-industry executives at a complimentary event designed to keep the hotel topmost in mind for stays during film shoots, a booming local business. The event closed SushiTeq, which will hurt revenue totals at tomorrow’s morning meeting. “But by the time other hotels have heard about film shoots being scheduled, I’ll have already booked the productions,” Kirwan explains. Repeating a line that encourages InterContinental Boston staff in posters hung up behind the scenes, he notes that “the goal is to keep this a great hotel guests love,” just before his cell phone chirps again.
BRENDAN COFFEY is a contributing editor of Executive Travel.
How to be a VIP
Want to be a VIP—or at least get treated like one? First off, stop booking through discount websites. “Going through a third-party site isn’t the best thing to do, because the relationship you build with the managers is important,” explains David Lopez, general manager of the Court and the Tuscany, former W properties taken over in mid-2010 by London-based St. Giles. “Whether it’s upgrades, complimentary breakfast or tickets to events because you are staying with us again, you are always going to get a better deal if you just create a relationship with the hotel.” Still can’t resist the online price? Call the hotel directly and ask the staff to meet it, Lopez suggests.
Repeat stays are the key to being a VIP everywhere. Even if you frequent Holiday Inns, earn enough Priority Club Rewards points and you’ll get kicked up to the first of its five VIP levels at an InterContinental (the same company owns both chains).
Hoteliers from various brands we spoke with all admit that what, exactly, VIPs receive changes all the time. Certainly, it means that the GM or assistant has walked through your room before check-in, and that a manager will greet you on arrival, guarantee that your preferences are met and, when space permits, bestow a room upgrade. Those who’ve earned VIP cred because of their popularity, political status or immense wealth can call hotel security a few minutes away from their arrival to ensure that they are whisked through the service entrance and to their rooms without the risk of meeting another guest.
What about the highest level of VIP, those who get the Presidential Suite, chilled Veuve Clicquot in the room and access to private lounges? That perk is frequently negotiated on the sales side. At the InterContinental Boston, for instance, film-shoot customers often draw up agreements ensuring top-level VIP status for one or two movie stars as part of booking a significant block of rooms.