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It’s one of the many strengths of the hospitality industry that there are periodically success stories of hard-working and ambitious young hoteliers, working their way up to head some of the world’s largest hotel groups, and becoming a source of inspiration of all those that work for them.
One could certainly argue that some of the world’s biggest banks and multi-nationals would be better off if the people in charge had the kind of education in frontline service that comes so naturally to hoteliers.
One such success story is that of Sofitel Worldwide CEO Robert Gaymer-Jones, who developed a career from working in a hotel kitchen to leading the operations of a multi-national luxury hotel chain.
Having graduated from university with a degree in hotel management, Gaymer-Jones began his career as a chef, and worked for a range of Michelin starred restaurants and hotels across the UK.
“I loved being a chef, and I loved being involved in the operation of running kitchens in hotels all over the world,” he explains. “However, eventually I began to feel that the creativity I was using in the kitchen was just as important in the back of house operations, so to speak. I began to think that I might want to try running a hotel myself, which is what I was able to do. And in the end I enjoyed running a hotel just as much as I ever enjoyed running a kitchen.”
Having made his move out of the kitchen as an F&B manager, Gaymer-Jones moved to assistant manager and general manager positions, before eventually ascending to the role of the vice president of European operations for Marriott International.
“Running a hotel is very much like running a kitchen, in that you’re ultimately in charge of every guest, just like you’re in charge of every plate of food. And those similarities continue to exist as you move into senior roles, where you are looking after hotels and looking after owners, and giving them the same level of attention as you would when preparing a fabulous meal. And I got a buzz out of that.”
Out of the frying pan
This rebranding of himself from a successful chef into one of the most senior hotel operators in Europe became a useful starter for the next part of his career, when the French hotel group Accor offered him the opportunity to head up the repositioning of its Sofitel hotel brand.
“Accor were looking at Sofitel, which at that time had around 206 hotels, and asking themselves ‘what are we going to do with this brand. Are we going to sell it or keep it?’
“Eventually, Accor decided to re-position the Sofitel brand in a similar way to Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton, to create a distinct luxury hotel brand which would help to elevate the profile of the Accor group as a whole”.
It was this opportunity to re-interpret and deconstruct an entire hotel brand that most appealed to Gaymer-Jones’ creative side, and which somewhat surprisingly had many parallels to his past life in the kitchen.
“When I was in the kitchen I was never much of a Gordon Ramsay type, screaming and shouting at everyone,” he says. “But what I always saw as important is to ensure that you have a good team around you, all working together like an orchestra. I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by fabulous people throughout my career, and by extracting the best of their talents, you are then able to create this fabulous hotel experience almost from nothing.
“And it was the same when I got the opportunity to come to Sofitel, as we were starting with this completely blank canvas. The Sofitel brand needed refreshing completely, and to be given the creative licence to work on the brand the way we wanted to work on it was really exciting.”
Therefore, on taking the role, the first item on Gaymer-Jones’ agenda was to assemble his management team and tour every Sofitel hotel, to first get a feel for the brand and get his first impressions of the size of task he had taken on.
“When I arrived I was given a remit to create a successful portfolio of luxury hotels within the group, and at that time we already had 206 properties, some of which were fantastic, but some were frankly not where they should have been.”
While evaluating each hotel Gaymer-Jones’ team began using a ‘luxury index’, based on different factors such location, clientele and whether the necessary investment was available to upgrade the hotel to the correct standard of luxury.
“We did that all over the world and pared the original 206 hotels right back to 89. And at the same time we introduced a brand new set of luxury standards for the brand, based partly on how other French luxury brands positioned their products in the luxury market,” he says.
These luxury standards were founded on three pillars including design, with a strong essence of French style inside every property; F&B, which was to combine classic French cuisine with local styles; and finally creating a ‘cultural link’ in every property, where Parisian style was combined with each location, whether that be Shanghai or Dubai.
“We’re not known as a large group hotel, and as a result we’re able to be much more intimate in style. When we were in the planning stages of deciding what kind of brand we wanted to be, we decided we wanted to focus on the provoking the senses of our guests, instead of say just being a big MICE hotel,” he says.
“That is why the female business and leisure travellers tend to be particularly loyal to our hotels, as we’re not seen as a male dominated style of hotel”.
The final course
Today, Sofitel has managed to build itself back up to 120 properties worldwide, with its latest being the Sofitel Dubai The Palm Resort & Spa on Palm Jumeirah, Sofitel’s second property in the city, with a third underway.
“The Middle East is a very important market for us, and eventually we like to have hotels in all the major capitals such as Beirut, Muscat and Amman, while we see KSA in particular as somewhere with a lot of potential.”
As part of the brand’s push into KSA, Sofitel recently announced the signing of a new property in the city of Jeddah, due to open in 2014, while plans continue for the opening of its first hotel in Riyadh in 2015 and Gaymer-Jones hopes to announce plans for a first hotel in Mecca “soon”.
“KSA is important not only because of religious tourism and the business market,” explains Gaymer-Jones, “but also because of the emerging number of Saudi leisure travellers visiting locations around the world. If we have successful hotels inside KSA, then we are able to create an awareness of the Sofitel brand inside the country that will benefit our hotels all over the world.”
However, Gaymer-Jones is also well aware that, due to the repositioning and restructuring process, which saw the brand shed a number of hotels across the Middle East, Sofitel could be considered to be behind other global luxury hotel brands, some of which already have a large presence in the region.
“It’s a challenge, as we had to get rid of hotels in both Dubai and KSA that we felt weren’t properly representative of the new Sofitel. However, we felt that it was important for us to re-enter the market with a fresh, repositioned brand,” he says.
“The fact is that if I’m an investor in one of our new, modern luxury hotels, I don’t want to be associated with older hotels that are not representative of the brand that I’m putting my money into. I feel it’s better that the hotels we do have are much more relevant and reflective of our brand than maybe other hotels that have been here for 20 or 30 years.
“I think those hotels have a tendency to get tired very quickly, which is not something we have to get worried about,” he adds.
Getting tired, it seems, is not something that Gaymer-Jones ever seems to worry about. Having so far managed to transform himself from a passionate head chef to the head of a luxury hotel chain, he has since changed Sofitel into an expansive and exciting hospitality brand. A process that Gaymer-Jones insists will be cooking up a storm in the Middle East for some time to come.
The People who inspire me
Robert Gaymer-Jones is a source of inspiration for many in the hotel industry, but who has spurred him to success?
1. My mother: One of my greatest inspirations, she raised six children single-handed.
2. Pattie Boyd: My half sister, she was once the wife of George Harrison from the Beatles, and also Eric Clapton. She was also the one who put me through hotel school.
3. Jean Jacques Poutrieux: He was first a chef and a former professor at the Glion Institute of Higher Education hospitality school in Switzerland, and he was someone who taught me a lot.
4. John Willard “Bill” Marriott, Jr: Bill is the executive chairman and chairman of the board of Marriott International, and throughout my time at that company his work was a geat source of inspiration to me.
5. My team: The entire team of Sofitel Ambassadors around the world (all 27,000 of them) are a constant source of pride and inspiration as they work to make the Sofitel brand what it is today.
5 top management tips
1. “Make sure you focus on the details and inspect what you expect. If you expect something to happen, make sure that you check that it is going to happen.”
2. “Realise how important the people you work with are, and how important it is to look after them. Be part of a team, understand what each member’s talents are and how you can extract those talents to benefit the whole group.”
3. “Never forget the importance of the investor. You have to try to see the hotel from their point of view and understand the importance of getting them results. Thinking about the guests is the obvious part, but understanding the person who is putting money into the hotel is also very important.”
4. “Every guest is different, and you should treat every guest as an individual person, not just a reservation number. That way you can deliver to them a personal level of service which excites them.”
5. “Be as creative as possible. Modern hotel guests are, and they will align themselves to any companies and brands which they believe are as creative themselves. If you’re offering something that is attractive to them, then that will seduce the guest to come and stay with you.”