In this new episode of the Red Cube Podcast, Great Place to Work CEO Cathal Divilly is joined by Alan Smullen, General Manager of The Croke Park Hotel, part of The Doyle Collection group.
Together, they discuss The Doyle Collection's People strategy up to now, and how the trust they had banked with their team helped them to face the COVID-19 crisis. Alan Smullen shares lessons learned from these hard times in Hospitality, and the importance of honest communication in difficult times. The duo also gets back to the importance of Culture while navigating through a time of industry uncertainty, and discusses different perspectives on the future of the industry.
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The Croke Park Hotel, part of The Doyle Collection group
Great Place to Work Ireland
Cathal Divilly: OK, welcome folks. You're all very welcome to The Red Cube podcast, this latest episode that we have around all things People and Culture. We are delighted to be joined this morning by the GM of The Croke Park Hotel, part of the Doyle Collection group, Alan Smullen. Alan, thanks for joining us, you're very welcome.
Alan Smullen: Thanks Cathal, delighted to be here and excited to catch up this morning and have a chat.
Cathal Divilly: How are you keeping Alan?
Alan Smullen: Yeah, not too bad, not too bad. I know there's a there's a lot of uncertainty out there at the moment, but yeah, we're we're in good form trying to keep the positivity moving.
Cathal Divilly: It's a challenge, isn't it? To sort of keep positivity going with everything that's happening out there at the moment. Alan, I think a great place to start for the listeners would be to give everyone a sense as to your career to date and maybe The Doyle Collection Group as a business who they are, locations, etc.
Alan Smullen: Yeah, great: so I started here in the Croke Park Hotel a long time ago, back in 2005, we’re coming up on a 16 year anniversary later on this year, and I joined the team straight out of college. I was studying Hotel Management and came into the Croke Park team just after it opened, a couple of days after the grand opening worked off the… on the team on the front desk, worked as a receptionist and team leader, worked my way up to Front Office Manager.
And a number of years later, in August 2010, was appointed General Manager here at Croke Park, and I've been General Manager ever since, and that 11 years has gone by in a flash, and I'm very, very proud to be the General Manager of this hotel. This team, fantastic group of people really, really strong group of people.
The wider company: The Doyle Collection is a hospitality group that has eight hotels and we're located in city centre locations. Between Ireland we have three hotels: ourselves, the Westbury and the River Lee Hotel in Cork. We have three beautiful hotels in London. We have one hotel in Bristol, and we have one hotel in Washington DC, and all of the eight hotels are located very much in the city centre. They've all got very unique locations and the story of each of the hotels is very much built around that location.
Pre-COVID we had just shy of one and a half thousand team members across the hotels and our Head Office, which is based in Dublin, and we are a small family run hotel group in the grand scheme of things. But our owners are extremely focused on hospitality and it's all about the guests.
And by extension, it's all about the team, and the team deliver the service to the guests. And that's really the overall ethos from the very very top of our company, and our board are very interested and very involved in all aspects of the day-to-day business, which is fantastic.
Our CEO is with the company even longer than me, Pat, and Pat would drive a huge amount of ‘the people stuff’ as we call it in the hotels, very very engaged, and very, very understanding around how important it is in terms of the overall people strategy for the business.
Cathal Divilly: Very good and Alan just to take you back to maybe the start of your career. I know there's lots of talk about encouraging more people to choose hospitality as a place to work. Where was the interest for you back then, in terms of choosing hospitality?
Alan Smullen: I always wanted to work in hotels or in bars or in restaurants, right the way through all the way up in secondary school and my first choice in college was into DIT Cathal Brugha St as it was, TU Dublin. And so once went straight into Cathal Brugha St and absolutely loved my four years there.
Done a good bit of work experience as we all do in local bars and hotels in Wicklow Town where I grew up, working there, and then in my third year in college I went over to Birmingham for my six-month placement.
And I worked in Jury’s Inn Birmingham on the Front Desk there. 445 bedroom hotel right on Broad Street which is basically Temple Bar multiplied by 25 and a very very busy location and I just had a huge grá for the company and we were Jury’s back then, and when this hotel opened, it was the Jury’s Doyle Hotel.
And when I joined that team in Birmingham I was very much interested in their focus on Learning and Development: even back then there was a program called the FISH training programme, and there was a huge amount of emphasis on it, which coming from a small town let’s say, or a small hotel in a small town in Wicklow, very very different and that just opened my eyes to it. So that was really probably what dragged me in.
What keeps me in it, is every day is different and people will say that about different industries and you know that's fine, but I really don't think there's too many industries like ours. Our industry is just so dynamic. It's so exciting you can come into your shift and you may have your day planned out and within 45 minutes you can just forget about that plan. And suddenly there's a whole new set of circumstances that you're dealing with. And some people aren't cut out for that: and that's fine. But there is a certain type of person that really thrives on that. And to manage that is a challenge every day, but it's something that I enjoy and enjoy to this day.
Cathal Divilly: You spoke there about Learning and Development, Alan right? So we know it's a critical want or desire, and rightly so, of talent in terms of when they join an organisation: “Is there an opportunity for me to develop and grow within this organisation?” What's unique about the hospitality industry in terms of Learning and Development opportunities that that are out there?
Alan Smullen: If you look at a hotel and you think of the building, the physical building, you've got Front Office, so you've got a lot of admin work, and checking in and checking out: a lot of computer based different systems, a lot of different systems, so in that space you're learning a huge amount of those different systems and the different processes. Down in our restaurants and bars, it's a lot of Food and Beverage and there’s a lot of maybe product knowledge and service and a lot of people would say a little bit more fun, little bit more craic and that kind of dynamic.
But outside of them you've also the Accommodation Team upstairs in the bedrooms, and that's hard, physical work and it can be very, very tough and something that people are very interested in terms of the management of those departments.
But then, outside of that, you've got Sales, you've got Accounts, you've got Finance, you've got HR, you've got Health and Safety, you've got Maintenance. You really have a huge raft of different skill sets, and if you were so inclined, you could try and move around to all those different departments and suddenly you've got this range of skills. That you can either say yes, I want to specialize in A, B, or C; or you might just say, well, I want to keep going and keep learning about all these different areas and that's just the on-the-job training. And flexibility is huge in hotels: being able to turn your hand to different areas is very very important.
Then you've got the structured Learning and Development and the majority of our Learning and Development programmes in The Doyle Collection are based on how do we deliver a better service to our guests, and it has to be focused that way, because that circle doesn't stop: if we deliver better service to our guests, then they will come back again, we will get busier. But if you reverse that circle just a little bit, our team members won't be able to deliver it unless we show them how, tell them, show them again, but also that they need to feel they're involved in it. Need to feel engaged, they need to feel that there's a reason why they're doing this? And that's really the focus that we would have on Learning and Development here in The Doyle Collection.
The other part of Learning and Development is there's great examples across all of our properties, including our Head Office, of people who joined the company at entry level, as we like to call it, I don't like the term, but at entry level and have moved up through the ranks and I've got a Deputy General Manager here Sean, came in here when he was in college, part-time behind the bar, and he's now Deputy General Manager of the Croke Park Hotel. Peter O'Curry, Director of Food and Beverage here, the same idea, and a huge amount of people that have come through and for the team members that are joining now for them to see that progression. And they can say “that could be me.” That's a nice little one for them too.
Cathal Divilly: Yeah, absolutely. So we don't just say there's Learning and Development programmes and opportunities, like you're living it in terms of case studies and examples of people who start out in the business and move their way up through the organisation and for that to be effective Alan, right, we know the importance right of focusing in on a culture as well and building a strong culture.
Doyle Collection have been, strategically, working on their culture now for a number of years and could you, could you give our listeners a sense as to that journey that Doyle Collection have been on?
Alan Smullen: On yeah, it's been a very very interesting journey and I think it's been one that we've all learned a huge amount on over the last number of years. I think a lot of people use the old cliché. I don't even know where it came from originally of, you know, “Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast” but, if I was to further that cliché and say Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner in hotels.
If you do not have a positive culture in a hotel, my personal opinion you probably should be shutting the doors, it's just not gonna work. Your guests will feel at the minute they walk in. I'm sure everyone can think of an establishment, be it a shop, some type of retail outlet, a hotel: anywhere where you walk in and the team, there’s just does a little bit of “Ugh, not really want to be here”. You can get that feeling, you might not be able to put your finger on it, but you might walk out and go “not sure I’m going back there.”
And it's the total opposite of what we're trying to embed in our in our hotels, and the challenge that we have in hotels is that every day is different and you're trying to put together a culture that drives a high performance environment while everything is changing at the same time around you.
We would also have across the industry much higher attrition rates than maybe some other traditional industries. And that's because we have a very transient team, sometimes especially coming into the summer people will join and then they leave at maybe the end of the summer, so you might even need three or four different strands to that strategy.
About five or six years ago we sat down and we looked at what our People Plan was, what our People Strategy was. And while there was one in place, we felt that it need a revamp. It needed a bit of a kick start, and a group of us got together and we put out in a number of different sheets on a very, very clear piece of paper and said: OK. What do we want to get out of this? Where do we want to get to? And it was all about that high performance environment and creating a set of behaviours that we wanted our team to follow.
And it had very, very little to do with hotels. It was about respect. It was about inclusivity. It was about how we treat each other on a daily basis. That, when you're walking by your colleague in the morning time, do you say good morning or do you just walk by and not acknowledge? And it came down to very, very simple things like that.
We aimed at a number of different areas. We have very strong focus on talent, attracting the right people, attracting them into our different locations around the world. And then retaining them. The retention then would lead obviously into the Learning and Development, and all of the different aspects of our Learning and Development plan.
But what we kept coming back to was this idea of engagement with the team. And how do you engage with the team on a very, very consistent basis, and on a sustained basis? And how do you get their feedback? Take their feedback? Act upon it? Not always just bringing the solution. I use the example here of, you know if there's an issue in the accommodation department here in the hotel, I might not be the best person to come up with the solution for that issue or that challenge. It's actually the team that are there on a daily basis that can see the issue and potentially see the solutions.
And it’s about creating that environment that people feel confident, they feel comfortable in discussing them. And I always say to the team here, no problem I've ever experienced here in the hotel has been fixed in the canteen or in the smoking area. They get fixed by dialogue, we're all grown-ups: sit down, what’s the problem, and how do we come up with a couple solutions?
So a lot of those things built into our journey over the last number of years.
Cathal Divilly: Brilliant Alan, so you know: been working on culture for a number of years, taking a sort of a strategic approach to it, people taking ownership around some of the solutions that have been developed for the culture: and then thinking about the year that's been Alan, so the Taoiseach makes an announcement mid-March 2020. What did that mean for Doyle Collection?
Alan Smullen: Well, actually just a couple of… a number of weeks before that announcement, our CEO put together a group that I was involved in: a GM from Ireland, we had a GM from the UK. We had our CFO, himself the CEO, a Group Risk Manager and we had a couple of representatives from the HR Teams from the properties and we met every second morning via Zoom. And we were discussing all of the different changes that were coming at us.
I think we're sitting here today and I'm not sure whether we've forgotten, or whether well, I certainly have blacked out some of those weeks. They were very, very difficult, but the amount of changes that were coming at us on an hourly basis, sometimes: those huge changes, you might have had one a year previous, and suddenly we were dealing with three or four a week, so we put that group together. So I'm not saying that we were ahead of anybody else, but we were definitely working towards what was coming in late, in mid/late March.
When the Taoiseach made the announcement in March, it was surreal. I think we very quickly, as a company, made the decision that we were going to have to close our hotels, and beyond that call with our executive team and the GM's, to know that it was the right thing to do was very difficult. But the very next question was how do we protect our team? How do we communicate this message to them? They're going to be very, very scared, very upset. And how do we try and deliver the message as honestly as possible? But what else can we do to try and assist them at the moment? That took a lot of planning and not a lot of time. But we… I think we done as well as we as we could have that at that moment.
Cathal Divilly: So as soon as possible trying to get into, sort of, Action Mode almost Alan right, OK, so this is where we're at and what do we, what do we do I guess? Did you have, uh, did you have to call your team together, people together in the business, and have a conversation with them?
Alan Smullen: Yeah, so we had over 150 team members at the time in Croke Park alone. And what we decided to do across all of our units, all of the hotels and our head office was that we would make the announcement at the same time because we didn't want somebody to hear it at a certain time during the day and that message to maybe leak, and that the team members wouldn't hear it directly from myself. The GM's are the people who were delivering that message, and I think that was a really important part of this was, this is our decision, we're making the right decision, but here's what we're going to do about it.
And the delivery of that message, I'll never forget it, ever. ‘Til the day I’m inside in the box, in Glasnevin Cemetery or wherever I end up, but I'll never forget that day. It was a hugely emotional day for everybody. I spoke to the team who were here and then there was another group of the team who were on a conference call. And delivering that message was very difficult. What I will say though, is the team knew it was coming. They didn't know exactly, but they had a feeling, they’re listening to the same news that we are. They knew what was going on around there. They knew that this was the right thing to do.
And I think one lesson that I've definitely learned is if you continuously do the right thing, and explain the reasons why, there or thereabouts you're going to get y’know 80/85% of the decisions correct. And that's what we felt at the time, and it was the delivery of that message was what was done by us.
Cathal Divilly: Just getting into delivery of the message and morale if that's OK… what's your preparation like in advance, are you scripting out kind of the message? Just interested in your mindset as well, around as you head into that session.
Alan Smullen: We definitely looked at a script… and by saying a script that sounds very cold, as though I was standing up and reading a pre-prepared set of remarks. The main reason for the script was to make sure that the really key messages were delivered. Whatever way each of the General Managers have with their team in terms of delivery, that's obviously left up to them, but it was really important that we got all of the key messages across. In terms of mindset, I think… looking back, I definitely wasn't at the time, but looking back now, I definitely felt that me making the decision along with my colleagues at an executive level in the business to close the hotel was the right decision.
But I maybe underestimated the positivity that the team would have around that decision. I fully felt going into that room that this was going to just land and there was going to be a huge amount of fear and consternation and “what are you doing this for?” type of a rhetoric. If anything it was it was the total opposite and not just here, right across all of our hotels.
And I do think that we had built up a great trust with our teams in advance of that day, over a number of years of them, understanding that we were trying to do the best for them and that we had engaged so well with them. I think there was this bank of trust build up that they said, “actually, you know what? Yeah, this is the right decision, and we're going to help you as much as we can.” I will say I never want to have to be in that situation again, and hopefully hopefully never will.
Cathal Divilly: Yeah, of course Alan and you know, thinking about other leaders listening in right, so having to make those difficult decisions. Explain to me a bit more Alan about the fact that you had trust built up already, and how that was helpful in terms of that decision in that moment.
Alan Smullen: Over the previous number of years, we've engaged, used the Great Place to Wfork survey and the Trust survey as a kind of a backbone on our engagement with our team and the results that come out: in a lot, of ways the actual scores are very much secondary for us in The Doyle Collection. The comments that we get from the team members are absolutely vital. And the general sense of, you know, are we going in the right direction here? Have we identified some issues, maybe from the previous year’s survey? Have we acted upon them, and did the team think: yes, you know what? The management and the leadership in the business are taking what we're saying, and trying to sort it, trying to come up with solutions and working together about it.
I think that trust develops over time. It's not easy, but it it's based off a couple of things. It's based off communication and constant communication and not just communicating for the sake of it but talking. To the team members, be it individually or as groups, but also listening and hearing what they have to say. You won't be able to do everything, absolutely not, certain times: sorry, that's not something that we're going to be able to do right now, and here's the reasons why.
Outside of the communication part, the other side to building up that trust, so so important is the transparency and the authenticity of the leaders in the business. Are they real people? Are they showing a little bit of vulnerability every now and then? And I think that creates that connection that: actually, yeah, you know what? That leader of mine, that HoD as we call them, Heads of Department. You know they're not infallible. They're not walking around thinking they get every decision right.
I think that all built into us being able to have that trust with the team, and by the way, I'm not trying to say it was an easy message or that the team didn't feel the the pain of it. Of course they did, but I think maybe it was just maybe 5% easier because of that.
Cathal Divilly: Of course Alan, and then you said you said towards the beginning Alan that at that moment sort of pre-COVID you had about 150 team members. How did, uh, how many team members did we have after that decision and kind of trying to map the following few months from that?
Alan Smullen: Unfortunately, we had to lay off the vast majority of that group. We still ended up with a building that we had to mind and we had to take care of it, and to make sure that the all the Health and Safety stuff was still happening in a building: you can't just leave a building unoccupied over a sustained period of time, so we had to keep on a number of the team that were flexible and able to do a raft and a range of different duties.
Now there was no room for primadonnas in that team when the hotel was closed, we were all hoovering the carpets and going around and running the showers and flushing the toilets and doing all of those things. And there was: this is next on the list, this has to get done.
So unfortunately, the vast majority of your team had to go on temporary layoff at that time. The hotel was closed for just over 100 days. And it was such a difficult time trying to keep in contact with the team that were on layoff. And if you think about that time period as well, that kind of April/May and June back in 2020, there was the introduction of different state supports. There was the introduction of the PUP. There was a lot of different things that the team wouldn't have ever dealt with before, so making sure that we have the expertise also in the hotel to answer any questions was a key part of that. So yeah, it was a very, very difficult time, very difficult.
Cathal Divilly: And I know from being a customer within Croke Park Hotel the incredible guest experience that your team provide. Uhm, so the odd time I've had to go into our office right? To collect the post and it feels strange when there's of course nobody there. Uhm, how did it feel for you to be in the hotel without guests?
Alan Smullen: It was… it was surreal. And you're you're walking around the hotel with maybe two other people in it and you're looking at the busy. What used to be the busy bar on a really busy event day and you're looking at the lifts where the guests should be coming in and out and you feel like you, you should be dealing with all those issues.
And those guests and just those daily tasks just disappeared. And trying to get your head around that is very difficult. But my team were just exceptional. They thy looked upon this as “OK. This is the next challenge.” and they were getting out of bed every morning and coming in here to look after this building when everybody else in the country was being told don't move. Stay at home. Don't go outside your door. Don't engage with anybody, don't talk to anybody, and they were, they were doing it without a worry.
And to have that type of buy-in from the team was just amazing. Everybody who was on that team at the time is still with us, bar two. So they've stayed with us and they stayed the course.
One of the the really difficult things at that time was people were still ringing the hotel, saying, “oh, can I book for whenever August, September, October” and you're trying to deal with that uncertainty while giving the team of some of the tools to try and deal with it, we've never dealt with anything like that before. You're still dealing with normal hotel tasks as well. But yeah, very strange, very strange.
Cathal Divilly: And getting into that uncertainty more Alan, right: so, so for many of us it was a case of, you know, remote working, can't be in the office, and for many of us that was a big decision we had to take, but there was certainty in that: you know, we can't go back to the office till we're allowed to, there's clarity there. And for the hospitality industry, the uncertainty around: are we opening up? When are we opening up? How do you manage People and Cultur e with all of that? And like how do you manage that uncertainty in terms of as a business where will we be and on what that means for your people in your team?
Alan Smullen: Very difficult and I think our industry has reacted magnificently to the challenges that has been, that have been put in front of us. However, no matter what we were doing, during those times, a new announcement or a new set of guidelines will come out and you would effectively have to change a lot of the things that you would have done in terms of a prep for a reopening. And that's just something that you have to get used to. And you have to talk to the team about it, and I think where the pre-COVID competencies that you see in hotels with people maybe who work in a restaurant who, when they're walking by the front desk and the phones ringing, they pick it up. It comes natural to them, there's a natural initiative that that our team members have, and I think that helps that “OK, yeah, well, now what we were doing was that and now this is what we are doing next.” And it's that mindset that they have is amazing and for them to adapt so quickly to different ways of doing things.
They also are very practical. And that comes also with working in hotels and when my team were told, well, this is how we now do breakfast service for example, it was “Yeah, that's fine. Let's get to it. What tools do we need to do this job?” It's that ethos of, that culture of, what I use is ‘WIN: What's Important Now.’ And forget about tomorrow. Forget about next week. What's important right now to try and get the guests to have the best experience. And if you if you can have that as an ethos in the team, I think that helps hugely.
The issue around the uncertainty. What that was maybe affecting more was their personal life, and there was a huge amount of uncertainty in their personal life and you had people who were suddenly taking a drop in their weekly salary. You had people who were living in Ireland who were maybe not from here who wanted to go home, who suddenly were told you're not going to be able to go home for a certain period of time. People who had sick relatives. People whose home countries were in a different time or a different schedule, let’s say, from here. Like we had people who were who were on the team here who their home, their home city, their hometown, were fully open at certain times when we were in lockdown. And then vice versa. And so that uncertainty was actually probably a lot more difficult to deal with. Because you very rarely will have a solution to that. What you can do is you can give them the tools and the environment to maybe talk to us about it.
And we've an EAP: Employee Assistance programme. And I know that was used during the COVID, especially during the lockdowns by some members of the team, they got some comfort and some tools out of that.
Cathal Divilly: Yeah, and I've seen you in action, with your teams Alan and, you know, seen how approachable you are and to your teams when they're asking questions, and that strong connection relationship you have with them. Can see through your results that, you know, you're a high trust leader within the business. How have you cultivated that? Because I hear you that people, you know the big challenge for people is around their personal challenges, right? What's going on there? It's so important that those personal challenges come to light as well. So then you can support them. Any specific things you do to ensure that the business hears about these challenges, and then we can go and support them?
Alan Smullen: Well, I think it comes back to trust and I don't necessarily think you're gonna be able to cultivate those types of relationships if the other person thinks that they can't trust you. And this is nothing to do with hotels, this is a personal relationship that you would have with your team members. And I think once you start moving in that direction, what happens is, Cathal, for example, who might work in the bar, maybe has an issue and brings it to my attention. Or maybe to HR. And a couple of weeks later, it's sorted or it's dealt with, you might say to your colleague: “Oh well, I had this issue, but I went and talked to Alan or to the HR team and they were able to assist me” and the little Chinese whispers as they call them can sometimes make that move in the right direction. And suddenly that just grows that feeling within the building that, yeah they can help you, if you just talk to them.
In terms of the personal relationship, I find it, I find it easy to talk to people. I think a very, very simple question. How are you today? And the first question, the first answer you're going to get back because that's what we say is: I'm fine. And but how you doing today? How's all at home? How's the family back in… wherever? How's the new car you bought last week or whatever’s the small little in that you can get? And usually is the start of that conversation, and you pick those things up by listening.
And if you sit in the canteen in any hotel any day, you will hear 25 different conversations going on around a raft of different subject matters, some that you might not want to hear, and but most that you do. And it's just about picking up those little those little bits and using them. To create that conversation.
Cathal Divilly: What was interesting there Alan is you're saying you know challenges come to light for the business or pressures that people are under. And how we react to those challenges is really important there, because that can then I suppose, in a way let the business know, let the people know we are here to support you. And it is OK to raise a challenge that you're having professionally or personally, and we will do our best to support you on that. So I think that's so true.
Interested in… have you done anything to keep in contact, Alan, with the people that haven't been part of that core team: I guess throughout those difficult months like how have you kept in contact with those individuals?
Alan Smullen: Yeah, it's been a challenge and, those team members that that we haven't had work for in that period of time are some people that have worked in the hotel for a long period pre-COVID and that's really difficult for them to get their head around: there might be some people in the hotel, but I'm not required or there's not enough work for everybody to go around. And the new challenges that COVID has brought to us in terms of service, in terms of face-to-face in terms of all of those things have meant that there are some things that we would have done pre-COVID in hotels as the norm, that we just don't do anymore, and that's a really difficult thing to get your head around.
When you think about the breakfast buffet in an Irish hotel on a Saturday morning or Sunday morning, and you know, no one down before half nine and then suddenly the whole hotel wants to have breakfast at the same time. You know, those days won't be back for a long long time where you have a queue to get up to make sure that you get the last sausage or the last piece of white pudding.
And so there's there's a lot of different changes that have been put on us because of COVID that have meant a knock-on effect on our team, what we tried to do with the team members who were sitting at home during different times and different lockdowns, was trying to talk to them every couple of weeks and there was a structured approach taken, and I think the structured approach is the right approach to take, in that it wasn't just left to be ad hoc.
The biggest challenge that I felt was we were actually quite busy in the hotel. When I say busy, I'm not saying because we had a huge amount of guests or you'd had a huge amount of bedrooms sold, but there was an awful lot of additional tasks to be completed. And sometimes you would come into work on a Saturday or Sunday, and you'd turn around and it was Thursday or Friday, and another week had kind of passed. And the difficulty, and I kept having to check myself, was my team members that are sitting at home, they're not seeing this busyness. They're not seeing this this level of work, and it was really important that we were taking that time out to talk to the team.
Zoom was great and it's fantastic: you would get sick of it and I don't think you necessarily get that interaction and that one-to-one communication that you that you can have with them when you're sitting in the canteen or you’re able to go and have a cup of tea with somebody face-to-face. It's just not the same, but you have to make do and you have to do with whatever you have and with the tools that you have at the time.
Cathal Divilly: Really interesting Alan to hear that you kept in contact with these people in conversation with your team members, took a structured approach to it, which I think is really important as well, and gives a great message to say, you know, unfortunately, we are where we are in terms of the work that we can provide. But the hope, I guess, is that we keep them connected in with the organisation, show that they're valuable, and still valuable. And because there is a point where we will, we will have to re-hire the team as well.
Alan Smullen: Yeah, and you will be… you will absolutely be going back to that group of people. They're your loyal team members, they have given up so much over be it a short or long period of time depending on their tenure, and to make sure that they're there and that they know what's going on and that you want them back to work whenever, whenever possible.
One key task that we decided to do – which looking back on it, it was probably a little bit out there – was we closed the hotel in late March 2020 and in the first two weeks of April we decided to go out to our team members, with a Pulse survey through Great Place to Work. And we went out to everybody, so the team members who had been laid off a couple of weeks before that, and my thought process around that was I want to know how they're feeling. I don't want to know a score, I don't want them to give me a rating out of 10 of how I spoke to them that day, or how their HoD told them that their roster was finishing on Wednesday. I wanted to get their real feelings on how they felt that we'd approached it, and was there something that we could do?
How could we then put together a plan on keeping in contact, and if there was something we could do. And we went out and we got a great response, a great response rate to that survey and it came back into us probably three or four weeks after we closed the doors of the hotel. And we decided there and then, we said, “OK, this engagement can't stop.” If anything we tried to accelerate it.
Now, when you're sitting at home, and you were getting maybe calls from the team in work, “how are you today?” that can also get a little bit you know… I won't say boring, but you know it can, it can go against you a little bit, so there's a time and a place for the communication and we felt that we tried to stagger it in that way.
Cathal Divilly: Any key learnings, Alan, that came out of that Pulse survey that you did, that check-in that you did with people who were at home. Anything you'll carry forward into the hotel as you move forward?
Alan Smullen: The comments that came back from that survey spoke about honesty. They spoke about how the team were told the bad news, and that was something that we put in the centre of everything then, in terms of our comms pieces going forward, the communication strategy. I've said it, and I only said it last week on our town hall meeting, that I'm going to deliver the bad news as much as I'm going to deliver to good news, and I'm going to keep doing that. Because if we start trying to hide things and not being transparent, that's when I think you're going to start losing, losing the trust that that the team have in you.
And sometimes the bad news isn't actually as bad as you think it's going to be. And also the other thing I've learned is if you are delivering bad news, the team probably know it's coming. You know, they're very, very intelligent people. They're hospitality professionals. They know the business, they know what's going to happen next. So while I might overthink it, suddenly you deliver it and they're looking at you going “yeah. Yeah, that's fine. I was thinking that” so there's a little bit of that to it as well.
Cathal Divilly: Alan, might be a difficult question to answer, but just interested in terms of the last year, what has worked well, from a People and a Culture point of view?
Alan Smullen: Yeah, it's a difficult one, with the uncertainty in the marketplace and the opening and the closing and the different restriction levels that that were being sometimes brought upon us with 24 hours notice. It's very difficult and we found it very difficult to continuously build a positive culture. Now, we did sit down and we had a chat at a fairly high level within the business to say “OK, how are we going to tackle this and how are we going to manage this to the best of our ability?” and we decided that we needed a structured approach and that structured approach is around communication, around the delivery of a message, around making sure that our team members were being communicated to by ourselves as GMs and as leaders in the business, but also by their departmental managers and that it wasn't always, maybe, me with the message.
I think at the start of the pandemic it was very much, the General Manager was delivering the message. There was very serious messages, if you know what I mean, being delivered and it was very important that we got the key messages out there to the team. As we progressed through, maybe over the last 8-10 months, the team members then were hearing from their HoDs, hearing from different people within the business, and I'm not saying it was more relaxed, but there was definitely a different angle on that communication.
As a company, we decided that we were going to put in aset of structured communication targets, talking to our team members every single month on a town hall meeting, making sure the HoDs were talking to their team members every two weeks. Sometimes only for 10 minutes, just Zoom call 10/15 minutes. Some of the conversations never even mentioned the hotel, just about what's going on and what's the new series on Netflix or whatever the conversation went to. But it was about just keeping that that ticking over and making sure that that we kept that communicational. I think that was probably the key one over the last, definitely the last eight months.
Cathal Divilly: Alan, really interesting about the spread of who's doing the communication right? Where do you see the value in having that spread? So I know you've taken a structured approach to communication, which is really important always, and really important right now, and then the spread of the people that are actually doing the communication. Where do you see the value in that?
Alan Smullen: Well, I'm a firm believer that leaders develop leaders, and I need to make sure that my team members are… sorry, my managers are also displaying the leadership behaviours that I want to become part of the culture within the business, and I think at the start of the pandemic there was great uncertainty out there for them as well, as much as anybody else, whereas I think that maybe eased a little bit, as we progressed through 2020. And then giving them the authority, giving them the autonomy to go out and talk to the team as their manager within the department. And saying, “yeah d’you know what, I'm able to make the decision here. I'm able to talk to my team. I'm able to answer our questions.” 9 times out of 10 they were able to answer them, they didn't have to come come back to me.
I think that's really important that there's leadership at multiple levels in an organisation. It's absolutely critical, definitely in hotels where it's a 24/7 business and I can't be here 24/7 nobody can, so it's about creating and making sure we got back into that stream of multiple leaders across the business making decisions as we progressed, that was probably the key element of it.
Cathal Divilly: Brilliant, and we know that your relationship with your immediate line manager is a key part of your whole workplace experience, and so the more trust and trust moments, I guess, we can create in that relationship the better it is in terms of that person’s experience. As we know Alan, there's lots of talk about ‘Future Way of Working’ and lessons learned, and how we will work into the future and some organisations, of course have the luxury of, you know, whether they return to normal or go hybrid. Any thoughts around lessons learned for the hospitality industry out of the last year or so?
Alan Smullen: So it's a strange area for the hospitality industry to be dealing with. We're a little bit different than than most when it comes to the planning for this future, what the workplace will look like in the future. There is a huge part of a hotel that can't be done remotely. You can't serve somebody their breakfast, or a cup of coffee; or you know you can't get a bedroom turned around for a new guest arriving remotely. So it's fairly simple to say that, but there's a huge element of that. There are some aspects of our business though, that are traditionally office-based that you might be able to say, yeah, well, from a sales perspective, maybe there might be a day a week where you could sit at home and do your admin and do your calls from whatever location it is. Maybe a little bit in Finance. And maybe in some others as well.
But the issue that I see in that is as hotels reopen now and start to maybe grow their occupancy, I do feel that flexibility is going to be absolutely critical. So you don't really have too much flexibility for somebody helping out at certain times of the day if they're not physically in the building. And I think that's where maybe the challenge is going to come in hospitality. whereby that whole ‘Working from Home’ piece; I don't know whether it's going to be as across the board in our industry as maybe in some others.
And the last piece I’d say is from a personal perspective, and you can't manage a hotel from home. You can't manage a hotel until you’re in it walking around it, seeing it, feeling the atmosphere in the building. It's impossible and I challenge anyone else to tell me any different on that.
Cathal Divilly: Of course, yeah. Of course you can't be a guest of a hotel remotely either, right? So it's it's about being there. It's about feeling the experience. It's about enjoying that moment… so, thinking about then talent out there Alan, that we're going to be looking to attract into the industry. There's so many benefits and value in terms of choosing the hospitality industry as a place to work, how would you describe what those benefits are to talent out there, Alan? So to somebody who's choosing or deciding where they're going to place their career or where their family should, you know, what are the benefits of the hospitality industry?
Alan Smullen: The first thing I'd say is it's fun. You're selling, you're selling fun. You're selling maybe an evening away, you're selling a nice experience in a restaurant or in a bar. So there's an element of the majority of the time, there’s a little bit of fun from the guest perspective, maybe. And so that's a key part of it, and I think if you're in a workplace and you're not really having a bit of fun, I think, you know, it can get... well for me anyway it would get quite boring quickly.
The second thing I'd say in the vast, vast majority of hotels, there would be a very structured training, Learning and Development part. And if you show initiative and you say, yeah, this is for me, there are multiple examples of people who have grown within different hotels or different groups. Or just within the industry and have worked their way into quite senior positions.
And the third thing I'd say about hotels is if somebody is looking to maybe join a hotel – you can travel. I know you can't travel today, but in hopefully a number of months’ time, you won't find a city or a town around the world where there isn't going to be an opportunity for you to get work, so there's that element to it as well, that if maybe you want to go away for a year, or two years in the future, you have those skills. And… you get a CV that drops on your desk from somebody who's worked in a hotel in Ireland – trust me, we're seen as market leaders, when it comes to that.
So yeah, a couple of key benefits to joining our industry.
Cathal Divilly: Absolutely a great sector for people to consider choosing in terms of their future employment. And super role-modelling on the part of many to senior leaders working within hotels at the moment started at various parts of the business and worked their way up and were supported to do so, which is great to see.
Alan, People and Culture. So lots to talk about, the importance of having a strong culture, creating a positive experience for your employees. Just for our audience, Alan, to kind of wrap it all together. What are the key focus areas you believe should be there to build a strong culture for your people?
Alan Smullen: The behaviours of the leaders within a business will set the parameters around your culture. And if your leadership team are displaying the behaviours, the values that you want within your business, well then you've made a great start. And it's not always about having the highest performing manager or highest performing department head. They mightn’t actually be driving a really positive culture within the department or within the business. Usually it's about having the right person. And they'll have their positives, they’ll have their weaknesses and they'll come up with different challenges. But if they're driving that ethos of positivity, of understanding, of including everybody, and making sure that everybody is working towards a common goal, you know again, you've taken another really positive step in getting that positive culture.
The other huge element to it is that you won't get everything right. Nobody gets everything right. There's always going to be challenges. There's always going to be problems. It’s how do we react to that. Is there a blame culture? Is there, “oh well, that room service didn't go up correctly, whose fault was it?” Is that the next sentence or is it “that room service didn't go correctly? How can we make it better the next time?” And they're simple... they sound simple, sorry, they're not simple to make sure that they happen on a sustained basis, and they're definitely not simple to make sure that they happen when you're busy.
And it's about being busy and making sure that those values and that culture continuously drives within the business. And it's something that… it can be sitting on one or two people’s shoulders, from the outside… but it's everybody. You need those culture warriors right throughout your business that are saying “no, actually, this is how we do things. This is the positive way that we do things here” and it's about creating that that high-performing environment for everybody to flourish in.
Cathal Divilly: Brilliant, and that approach needs to be spread from Alan Smullen to HoDs to team leaders throughout the business.
Yeah, Alan, we're almost at time and you’ve been really generous with your time, just to sort of wrap it up, I think this is our “get to know Alan Smullen and a little bit better” round and so I might fire a few questions at you if that's OK. So, for Alan is it Netflix or TV?
Neither! I watch very little TV. My other half is absolutely in charge of the remote control at home, so I rarely choose what's on the TV.
Alan Smullen: Yeah, whoever is in control of the remote is in control of the TV, right? And any particular, I suppose any particular resource you found interesting, or a particular book that you found useful in terms of your business, your business life?
Setting the Table is a very, very famous book that you will see a lot of hospitality professionals going around with, and every now and then I grab it back off the shelf and and have a look at it. But actually, over the last 15 months I found that there's a lot of a lot of things on LinkedIn. A lot of different articles that people are putting up and Cathal, you know I have a huge grá for Gary Keegan and the work that Gary does, and we've been very lucky to have his in with us also couple of times and some of the stuff that Gary talked about and some of the stuff that Gary has shown us in our presentations have been extremely useful for me over the last 15 months.
Cathal Divilly: Brilliant, and for our listeners there who're interested in hearing more about Gary, you can check out our YouTube channel and there's some really good content up there from Gary that we did last year. Alan, I know you have a really strong family support network around you, which is really important. How do you keep yourself at your best at the moment given all the change that's going on?
Alan Smullen: It's a big challenge, I think. I'm very lucky. I have two beautiful daughters at home and they are absolutely loving life now, they're out playing and they're able to go and visit their friends and their grandparents. And that was a challenge for anybody who had who had kids at home that were maybe not in school. And there was that whole home-schooling piece going on.
My other half is a hotelier, and was a General Manager of hotels so I don't necessarily have to explain every time there's maybe a late shift or something additional to do.
I think one thing I would say that that whole home part is, I find with the team members here, if you can help them in that part of their life, the loyalty that you can gain and that that comes back from them is tenfold. And sometimes it's something quite small, but definitely something that we've aimed at over the last 15 months. Huge amount of examples I won't give, for confidentiality reasons, obviously, but yeah, we've been lucky to be able to help people across that part.
Cathal Divilly: Yeah, I've seen Doyle Collection in action. In terms of those really important moments in people's lives and how we show up and how we support them. Final question Alan, any advice to a younger Alan Smullen starting out on his career?
Alan Smullen: Some important advice would be leaders show up. And there are some days you might wake up and you might know that it's gonna be a tough day, but leaders show up. Leaders go to work. They get dressed. They make sure that they keep their standards as high as possible at all times, and that goes an awful long way in times of crisis that when your team are inside in the hotel, or maybe they're at home and you're there, you’ve showed up, you said, “yeah, you know what? Let's get through this together.” I think that's probably the biggest piece of advice that I’d give to anybody who's starting out on their journey in terms of leadership: their behaviours are the thing that will set them apart from anything else.
Cathal Divilly: That’s brilliant, Alan. Really appreciate your time today, I think it might have been Peter Drucker that had that quote “Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast”. I could be wrong, we'll find out. But I have a feeling it might have been Peter Drucker, but Alan you've been a great supporter of Culture within Doyle Collection over a number of years, a great ambassador for the culture within Doyle Collection, and it's been a pleasure for us in terms of partnership with yourself and your team over the last number of years. And I want to really thank you for joining us today.
Alan Smullen: Thank you, Cathal, really enjoyed it.