From lobby-roaming host to desk-bound number cruncher, HNME finds out how the general manager role as morphed over the past decade
The role of the general manager has never been static. The ability to multi-task and be quick to adapt has always been a pre-requisite, such is the nature of the fast-paced hospitality business. General managers need to be jacks of all trades and preferably, a master of some. From checking the balance sheets to dealing with staff and guest disputes, their role is multi-functional, but today, GMs work much more ‘behind the scenes’ than in the past.
Not so much the lobby-swanning host, they are business managers first and foremost. Yet personality and people skills remain essential when it comes to keeping staff and guests happy. Hotel News Middle East asks industry consultants, hospitality group leaders and GMs past and present how the role has evolved and what is expected of the modern-day general manager. How do they get the balance right, knowing when to take care of their guests and when to report to the board?
Who better to ask than industry veterans who have ‘been there, done that and got the T-Shirt?’ They include Rupprecht Queitsch, who boasts more than 40 years of hotel industry experience across three continents and dozens of brands. He took his first GM role at the tender age of 26 and has opened seven properties, most recently, JW Marriott Marquis Dubai. Today he is putting this vast experience to good use as CEO and senior partner of Dubai-based International Hospitality Consulting Group (INHOCO) and says he believes hotels have become “less GM-centric”.
“In the past, the GM would call most shots, but today, because of the increasing complexities across all areas of responsibility, from sales, marketing and revenue to technical, operational and financial, GMs must surround themselves with strong leaders – those who are experts in their field and good leaders,” he says.
With direct reports given more power, GMs must get the balance right between staying “connected” to details and technicalities, while empowering the team do their jobs and make decisions.
However, finding the right leaders to support you as a GM is no easy task.
“It’s increasingly difficult to find direct reports who have both technical and leadership skills,” argues Queitsch.
Technology has been a key driver of change given the digital world in which we live means guests and owners expect “immediate” responses to requests or issues. The GM role is even more of a circus juggling act than it used to be, he says. Queitsch says the five ‘juggling balls’ are the owner, the brand/management company, the guest, the staff and the GM’s own private life.
“Juggling all five without over-playing one, under-satisfying the other, and underestimating the changing circumstances in today’s service-driven hotel world are, and always will be, the challenge – and the opportunity – for a GM,” he says. “I always liked being a hotel GM above any other role in the hospitality industry because it allowed me to be the master of my own destiny, making a hotel a great place at which to stay and to work.
“I enjoyed trying to exceed the goals and expectations of the companies and owners I worked for and I liked the engagement with the local community – meeting and working with all kinds of people.”
Queitsch says the key to finding good GMs is to not only identify and incentivise future leaders from within the industry, but to also hire from outside of the sector
“In my opinion, someone with great leadership skills, even if not practised in the hotel industry, can surely make a good GM,” he says. “Despite our business getting a bit more complex within the different disciplines and functions, the hotel business is not rocket science because it is based on working with people. Leadership skills are the basis for a good GM, regardless of his or her previous experience.”
Another industry stalwart with more than 30 years’ of hotel experience, many of which were spent as a GM, is Mike Scully, founder of family-friendly hotel concept First and Foremost Hospitality.
He says the role of a GM alters as economic conditions change, particularly in terms of managing international branded properties.
“When times are good and hotels are full, you generally find the experience and responsibility of the GM tends to be downgraded in order to save costs with the often mistaken belief that the ‘brand’ is responsible for the success of the property at that particular time in the economic cycle, when often it is due to infrastructure, government initiatives or location in respect to safety and accessibility that could be driving business to that particular destination,” he says.
“The obvious danger with this philosophy is that when times are tougher due to greater supply or insecurity, management does not necessarily have the experience, innovation or resources to drive additional business to properties. We see time and again those properties that do have GMs with experience and contacts greatly outperforming competitor hotels where they are not in a position to leverage suppliers or adjust their product or offering.”
Today’s outsourcing trend, whereby a large number of operations or activities are managed by third parties, is the result of inexperienced GMs lacking expertise or know how in these areas, he argues. “I am referring in particular to F&B outlets being outsourced to restaurant and bar professionals, very often at great expense to the owners in lost potential profits,” he adds.
Scully says today, owners and developers are looking for operators who empower their management as opposed to restricting in the decision making process.
“Those who are able to source new direct business (as opposed to recruiting third parties), are innovative, and have experience across aspects of the properties they run including rooms, restaurants and bars.”
The new masters of data
Martin Kubler, a hotel GM turned hospitality and service industries consultant with 20-plus years of executive-level management experience in hotels across Europe and the Middle East, says today’s general managers face a much more “multi-faceted operating environment” than 10 years ago, driven by the digital world in which we live. “The Internet has made business faster, lead times have dropped dramatically, and competition has increased considerably in many markets,” he says. “Today GMs today don’t just have to deal with competition from other hotels, but also peer-to-peer services such as Airbnb.
“At the same time, electronic word of mouth, online reviews, price comparison websites, and multi-channel communication options, have led to guests being better informed and expecting more customised experiences – and they’re also less loyal than they used to be.”
He says the new breed of digitally-native and highly individualistic travellers, Millennials and Gen Ys, and Zs, have grown up being able to “customise just about everything (think Starbucks coffee options versus coffee options in a café 20 years ago)” and know that they’ve relinquished a large part of their privacy to the Internet.
“By and large, they’re fine with that, but in return expect hotels to use data available online to customise their stays. They also don’t fit into boxes and segments as easily anymore as they used to do,” says Kubler.
The biggest opportunity for today’s GMs is to embrace this trend by analysing user data and using it to deliver “better experiences for all stakeholders”, he argues.
“Tap into the big data stream generated by your guests, staff, suppliers, owners, visitors, etc. and you’re tapping into a gold mine,” he says. “GMs need to be able to answer today’s travellers key questions ‘What’s in it for me?’ and ‘Why should I stay with you?’ with more than just price and location. You can achieve higher room rates and generally increase revenues even in very competitive markets if you harness the power of data.”
While the world in which we live has changed beyond recognition, the internal structures of hotels haven’t really changed at all, Kubler notes.
“Hotels are still fairly hierarchical organisations with GMs in overall charge and information cascading down to other departments,” he says.
This needs to change if hotels are to meet the needs of today’s travellers and employees.
“In 2016, GMs must be business managers, hosts, and sales and marketing experts to succeed,” Kubler notes. “They also need to be approachable and visionary leaders, because not only has business changed, but so too have employees – they expect more from working in hotels than a decade ago.”