Hoteliers of the world
There are two Hotelier of the World awards, Corporate and Independent, and the 2000 winners illustrate quite clearly why we need two categories.
Alberto del Hoyo, the Independent winner, has built his reputation as a turnaround specialist of sorts, taking charge of prestige properties in need of a firm-handed expert, often put in charge of re-opening a hotel after it has been closed for renovation. Del Hoyo is at the stage of his career where his reputation might precede that of the hotel he manages (even if he manages a property as prestigious as the Beverly Hills Hotel), and it is for this that his peers have bestowed the Independent award on him.
Our Corporate winner, Bernard Lambert, is recognized for entirely different, yet no less laudable, achievements. In an industry now notorious for short-lived allegiances, with young hoteliers seeing corporate emblems as stepping stones rather than home bases, Lambert has worked for his employer, Le Meridien Hotels & Resorts, for virtually all of his professional career, more than 20 years. But longevity is not his only virtue; his peers appreciate Lambert’s ability to relate to Meridien operations at the ground level, even as he has ascended the corporate ladder to be Meridien’s president and managing director.
Still, Lambert and del Hoyo have much in common. Both hail from Western Europe, Lambert from Austria via France and del Hoyo from Spain. Both are married with one child. And both value their formative years in the industry. Del Hoyo talks about the first 10 years of general manager’s life as being crucial because that is the time he or she learns all operational phases of a hotel and how to appreciate what needs to be done. Lambert likes to point to a baptism by fire he received during a three-year stint in Martinique. Listening skills, he says, are sometimes taught to a rooms manager by his line employees, or they are not learned at all.
Independent Hotelier Of The World
One of the first things that strikes you about Alberto del Hoyo is his modesty. Here is a man who, at age 55, is rumored to be one of the highest paid general managers in the world. He has worked with some of the industry’s most influential hoteliers—Don Pritzker, George Rafael, Robert Burns, Horst Schulze, Raymond Bickson, Hernando Courtwright—at some of the world’s finest hotels. The Beverly Wilshire, Miami’s Turnberry Isle, the Regent Kuala Lumpur, The Ritz-Carlton Singapore and now the exclusive Beverly Hills Hotel & Bungalows have all prospered under del Hoyo’s entrepreneurial leadership. And yet when asked to explain the secret of his success, he humbly shakes his head and says, ‘I have been very lucky all of my life because I have always had great people working for me.’
Whether it’s the people who work for him or Alberto del Hoyo himself, the success that follows him around the industry is the kind of which legends are made. Take, for instance, his ability to turnaround the 203-room Beverly Hills Hotel. After being closed for two years during the early ’90s to undergo renovation, the hotel was having a hard time getting back on its feet. In 1997, three years after its reopening, del Hoyo joined the property as general manager. And today, just three years later, he has taken the hotel from a 67% occupancy averaging US$387 a night to an 85% occupancy averaging US$485, a rate that is at least 35% higher than its nearest competitor. These figures translate into annual revenues that have grown by more than 50%, from US$37 million in 1997 to the US$52 million recorded in 1999. Repeat business stands at 45%, and the hotel’s 25,000 sq. ft. (2,323 sq. m) of meeting space is sold out until 2003. Results like these make owners stand up and take notice, and results like these are the reason HOTELS’ 63,000 readers worldwide have voted Alberto del Hoyo HOTELS’ Independent Hotelier Of The World for 2000.
A true independent operator‘
This award is very, very fitting, because he truly believes in the concept of an independent hotel as a hotel that specializes in personal service,’ says Ricci Obertelli, director of operations for The Beverly Hills Hotel’s parent company,The Dorchester Group, London, and HOTELS’ 1996 Independent Hotelier Of The World. ‘He has positioned the hotel at the highest level. He’s built up both the banqueting and the rooms business by bringing in some of Hollywood’s biggest parties. He’s an all-around manager who is very much at ease with all sides of the business: F&B, rooms and the financial side. He’s also got entrepreneurial traits and vision. I’m delighted he’s won the award.’
Robert Burns, chairman of Robert H. Burns Holding Ltd. who worked with del Hoyo when Burns was chairman of Regent International, echoes Obertelli’s sentiment. ‘He is probably one of the last independent hotel managers who can operate without a strong corporate affiliation,’ Burns says. ‘He opened the Regent Kuala Lumpur with the most attractive and energetic staff ever assembled in a Regent hotel, and he did it with great success in ‘uptight’ Malaysia.’
As an individual, Alberto del Hoyo’s modesty is a tremendous part of his charm, as is his self-deprecating sense of humor, his approachable nature and his inquisitive intellect (one assistant manager at the Beverly Hills Hotel says del Hoyo loves to talk politics). But those who know him say his modesty, which sometimes masks his discretion, is also part of his success.
He has a modest attitude, and he underplays his roles and achievements,’ Obertelli says. ‘He’s even a little shy, but he has great knowledge, and he’s extremely approachable.’ Such mannerisms make del Hoyo imminently likeable. So there is definite truth to his claim that the people who work for him are the source of his success. But that’s because of his ability to cultivate talent and engender loyalty. ‘He manages by example and is a strong communicator,’ Obertelli continues. ‘His interactions with staff at all levels are critical to his success.’‘
The people who have worked with him would jump through fire for him,’ says Raymond Bickson, general manager of The Mark in New York. He worked with del Hoyo in the early ’90s when del Hoyo oversaw The Mark’s renovation. ‘He has a knack for creating loyalty. He knows how to satisfy both his in-house clients and his external clients.’
An international education
Alberto del Hoyo has spent 25 years successfully satisfying owners and clients around the world. Success almost seems to have come naturally for him. Perhaps he learned it as a child growing up in the Northern Spanish city of Santander at the knee of his father. ‘My father was an entrepreneur and a very successful businessman,’ he says. ‘He had a big impact on my way of thinking, both about business and making a profit.’
Del Hoyo received his undergraduate degree in business administration with a major in tourism in 1968 from Deusto University in San Sebastian, Spain. ‘Those were the years when tourism was one of the major industries,’ he says. ‘And I became very interested in hotels.’ Ten years after, he completed the professional development program at Cornell University.
His career in the hotel industry began at the Hyatt Regency Acapulco, where he was hired as executive assistant manager by Don Pritzker and Peter di Tullio. He spent four years there before leap-frogging to corporate director of sales and marketing for Hyatt International and its 16 hotels across the globe. Four years later, he was back in operations at the Hyatt in Vancouver. And then he landed back where he started, at the Hyatt Regency Acapulco, but this time as general manager.
Most challenging position
Del Hoyo left Hyatt in the early ’80s to go to work for Regent International under the leadership of George Rafael and Robert Burns. While with the company, del Hoyo twice served as general manager of the Beverly Wilshire. The first time was from 1985 to 1987, under the hotel’s legendary founder, Hernando Courtwright, who lived out his life at the hotel. The second time was from 1991 to 1994, when del Hoyo was also president of Regent International Hotels California. Like he would later do at The Beverly Hills Hotel, he was charged with reviving the Beverly Wilshire after it had been closed for renovation. And here, too, he had the hotel thriving within a year of his arrival.
In between stints at the Beverly Wilshire, del Hoyo took on what he describes as his most challenging and most rewarding position, opening general manager of the Regent Kuala Lumpur. ‘At the time, I had to look at a map to see where Kuala Lumpur was,’ del Hoyo says. ‘I went over there and saw a beautiful building, but that was it.’
The property was in a state of emergency. In just four short months, del Hoyo had to hire the entire staff and purchase all of the supplies, everything from sheets and towels to kitchen equipment and table linens, for the 469-room property. ‘By working 16 hours a day, we managed to open on time, and the hotel was very successful,’ he says. The hotel was so successful, in fact, the owners burned the mortgage just five years after opening.‘
That was one of the most fulfilling jobs I’ve ever had because the impossible was done,’ says del Hoyo. ‘To open a hotel from scratch in only four months, starting with nothing, and to see it run close to 90% occupancy in the first year is very fulfilling. After one year, we won the best hotel in Malaysia, and all of our restaurants were voted the best restaurants in Malaysia.’Del Hoyo opened another award-winning hotel in 1995, The Ritz-Carlton Singapore. The 610-room property has just been named the best hotel in the world by Condé Nast Traveler magazine. But after three years in Asia, he and his Chicago-born wife, Mary Pat, and his son, Alberto Jr., were ready to return to the United States. And thus he landed at The Beverly Hills Hotel.
Bringing home success
At both the Beverly Wilshire and The Beverly Hills Hotel, del Hoyo explains that the key to turning around the properties was to improve services by paying attention to the clients’ needs. And the best way to improve service, he says, is to ‘hire the right people. When you hire someone, you don’t look that much at experience because experience can be acquired. You hire someone because he or she has the right attitude, the right ambition, and you hire people who thrive in this environment of providing the best service you can provide.’
But del Hoyo does more than just hire the right people, he also cultivates them. In Malaysia, he developed a training program whereby he selected six departments heads, of varying nationalities, who spent half of their work days doing their jobs and the other half learning their bosses’ jobs. He then sent them all to hotel school in Hawaii and assigned each one to work at another Regent property. Today, all six are general managers of luxury hotels back in their native countries.
But as critical as it is to cultivate talent, del Hoyo emphasizes the importance of giving employees room to do their jobs. ‘I don’t micro-manage my people,’ he says. ‘I’m just there with them along way, coaching and making sure they don’t make mistakes. But if they do make mistakes, it’s not the end of the world as long as the mistake is recognized and corrected.’
And when it comes to cultivating a world-class hotel, del Hoyo emphasizes the importance of personalized service and preserving heritage. ‘There is nothing at this hotel that we wouldn’t do for our guests,’ he says. ‘We have a client who stays with us for one month a year, and he wanted a private pool in his bungalow. So, we built him a pool. Another client likes only white flowers, so we decided that wherever the client moves throughout the hotel, all the flowers along his path would be white for as long as he’s at the hotel.
You have to understand, The Beverly Hills Hotel was in Beverly Hills before Beverly Hills existed,’ he continues. ‘So the city grew around the The Beverly Hills Hotel, and the community has a very strong emotional attachment to this hotel because many happy moments were spent here. I have customers whose guest histories indicate they have been here 185 times. That is why there are some things we do not change. We have our traditions, and those traditions are sacred.’Perhaps the greatest tradition at The Beverly Hills Hotel is its tradition of success. The property annually receives the Mobil 5-Star award and five diamonds from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences. And in 1998, the hotel was named the third best hotel in the world by Institutional Investor and among the top 10 hotels in the world by Leaders Magazine. Also in 1998, and every year since, the infamous Polo Lounge achieved five diamonds under Chef Suki, who was hired by del Hoyo in 1997 and who was named chef of the year by the American Tasting Institute in 1998 and again the following year by the Culinary Institute of America.
First ten years
Such accolades prove that del Hoyo definitely surrounds himself with great people. But the true key to his success seems to lie in his advice to younger hoteliers just starting out. ‘The first 10 years are crucial. This is when you absorb all the knowledge,’ he says. ‘During those 10 years, you should learn every aspect of hotel operations, and that will help you understand when you get to the top what people have to do to accomplish their tasks. Another thing is to always do your job with the most integrity, because integrity is what gives you your reputation, and your reputation is the only thing that’s going to take you places.’
Corporate Hotelier Of The World Grace under pressure is an easy phrase to use when referring to any good hotelier, because operating a hotel requires expertise and finesse in a dynamic environment along with a genuine concern for guests at all times. So what further superlatives are available to describe the 2000 Corporate Hotelier of the World, Bernard Lambert, president and managing director of Le Meridien Hotels & Resorts? Rapidly growing a luxury brand can place pressure on a lead brand executive and so can mergers and acquisitions. The Meridien flag has grown from flying over 52 hotels to 130 in the past five years, and at press time, is about to be sold for the third time since 1994. Grace under pressure only begins to describe the poise of Lambert, a Meridien veteran of more than two decades.
Unrelenting changes for Meridien—sold by Air France to Forte in 1994, which was then sold to Granada, a company since merged with Compass and now selling its hotel assets— make it even more important to keep a firm hold on the brand’s vision, according to Lambert. ‘I have focused on keeping the team together and maintaining values and standards and driving the business,’ he says. About 60% of the Meridien portfolio consists of management contracts, so Lambert over the past six years has worked hard to not only deliver on the expectations of an evolving group of shareholders, but to also reassure the individual owners.
Expand the band
He sees the transition to Granada’s ownership as very rewarding for the brand. ‘I think it was easier this way because we proved then to Granada, with their support, which has been absolutely phenomenal, that Meridien had a lot of potential after being sold by Air France in 1994, and they gave us the means to develop ourselves and expand the brand,’ he says. Going forward, Lambert plans to continue to balance his perspective, with one eye on the boardroom and the other on hotel operations. ‘Today, Compass is our main shareholder,’ he says. ‘There has been a merger, and I will keep exactly the same pace, in terms of balance, of what we need to do on a daily basis and what we need to do for our shareholders.’
Spirit and élan
One hotelier who applauds Lambert’s maintenance of the original Meridien vision is Kevin Murphy, vice president of international operations & development, Kowloon, Hong Kong-based Great Eagle Hotels International, which owns the Le Meridien Boston. ‘Lambert has maintained the flame of Meridien’s earlier promise through turmoil in a fully professional manner in which he can take pride and for which his present shareholders should be fully appreciative,’ he says. ‘There have been times I feel sure when he might have hoped there were more resources and more people with that original vision left around him, particularly in the pre- and early-Granada days. But he has pulled Meridien through as a chain with much of a spirit and élan that has remained intact to that early promise.’
For all his current poise, Lambert at times found himself wrapped in doubt as a young hotelier, particularly when working as rooms division manager and then deputy general manager at Le Meridien Martinique during a three-year stint in the late-1970s. ‘In this particular post, I was ready to give up,’ he says, describing the work environment as a mixture of union problems, personnel relations challenges and overall market difficulties.
When I first got there, I had 50 or 60 people to manage all of a sudden,’ he explains. ‘That is where I got my very first lesson, in terms of: If I want to go further, this is the most important thing I will have to do, gather respect from the staff and provide them with the same respect care and attention.’ He says it is human nature to test the authority of new managers, not to be confrontational, but to see if the new bosses offer respect up front. ‘Some employees look at you as the young guy who is just starting,’ Lambert says, ‘and if you start to change things around immediately the first week, this is the wrong approach, showing no respect, no listening skills.’
Tested in Martinique
Out of his initial frustration, Lambert gave himself a personal deadline of 90 days to improve working conditions up to what he considered Meridien standards. ‘It was very difficult to accomplish anything…we had huge difficulties with the customer, with the clients,’ he recalls. Although reluctant to label his time in Martinique a turning point, Lambert says his life may have switched paths permanently back then. ‘If I had given up, I might not be in the business anymore, or my career would have changed as far as its pace was concerned,’ he says.Neither happened, of course. Lambert worked three years in Martinique then moved onto property and regional assignments in the U.S., Brazil, and South America. After an extended period as an ex-patriate, he returned to Paris as executive vice president, worldwide operations, a position he held before being named deputy managing director following the Forte acquisition. With the Granada acquisition of Forte, he was named Meridien’s managing director and added the title of president in 1999.
What Lambert was seeking to impart as a young rooms division manager in Martinique and what he continues to preach today is the gospel of precision, persistence and consistency. ‘I have a very simple principle for my teams around the world,’ he says. ‘There are a number of things that are non-negotiable; everything else is up to their imagination, creativity and it is delegated to them. But there are a number of areas in terms of guidance, corporate image, basic standards, attitude, consistency—those are non-negotiable,’ says Lambert. ‘There is no discussion about it.’
Mission of consistency
Lambert seems to have assumed the hands-on approach of Meridien’s first president, the late Henri-Georges Marescot, a man he considers a professional mentor. Marescot was a leader who, ‘even during the last days of his presidency, always had the right questions,’ Lambert says. ‘He knew exactly what was going on in the company. He knew exactly what was still wrong in a hotel. This is a very important lesson.’
Consistency has become Lambert’s mission as a hotelier. ‘I think hotels have come a long way, and I think that most of the hotel chains, when we compete, offer the basic same standards and are driving the same values,’ he says. ‘But I think that anywhere I go, there is always at one point something which doesn’t work. So if there is one thing that I could fix, it would be consistency, in terms of standards, in terms of equipment.’
Perhaps it is because of the omnipresence of the Olympics, but when asked who his historical heroes are, Lambert offers up two American athletes: Jesse Owens and Wilma Randolph. He chooses them because they are performers who succeeded not in team competition but through unbelievable individual effort, setting records, in the case of Owens, under hostile conditions, which stood for half a century. Similarly, Lambert’s favorite piece of music is Ravel’s Bolero, a work that achieves its complexity through the precise repetition of its deceptively simple melody. He says the musical composition is a reflection of his management style: timing, dynamics and intricacy all working together in search of perfection.
It may be easier to emulate orchestral discipline in theory than in the practice of running a global hotel chain, but Lambert insists precision starts at the property level. ‘Everybody has a role to play everyday, whether in the restaurant or catering in the banquet area, bedrooms, or the field in sales and marketing,’ he says. ‘When you are in my post, you need to be in contact with everybody. You need to be in contact with every owner on a daily basis. You have to touch every subject, every issue, every concern, every problem.’
Great Eagle’s Murphy credits Lambert’s homegrown rapport with his general managers for enabling his vision to flow outward. ‘That sensitivity towards management,’ Murphy says, ‘is frequently missing in an era where many of his peers in today’s industry, with earlier high reputations in other fields, seem to be struggling to grasp the complexity of our business at a corporate level, while battling the winds of change in brand ownership and corporate evolution.’Going forward, Lambert is embracing change. ‘I want to bring something new to the hotel experience for the customer, and I don’t know what it is right now, but we have started working on it,’ he says. The pendulum is swinging back from guest productivity in a hotel room to guest entertainment, ‘not only on the beach, but in New York and London, too,’ he says. ‘It is time to find a new amenity in terms of a leisure experience that people will take with them when they leave.’