Lessons learned from ‘Downton Abbey’

For those unfamiliar, “Downton Abbey” is a spectacularly produced period drama set on the titular aristocratic estate just outside of London in the period in and around World War I. The story follows the Earl of Grantham family, the activities of the era and, importantly, the ample cadre of servants with their own explicit hierarchy.

I feel as though this is a meaningful series for hoteliers to watch. And the show, which just wrapped its third season, is available for worldwide rental or purchase in hard and electronic formats.

Setting aside any spoilers, my focus today is on the lessons learned applicable to hoteliers’ jobs some 100 years after the time period of this show.

1. Staff and guests do not mix, except in specific interactions. It is not appropriate for members of your staff to have close relationships with any guests. This does not mean your team is barred from going out of their way to assist or provide service, but never should they assume the role of equals. With the exception of senior staff or friendships outside of the work environment, guests should not be casually acquainted with staff. After all, the term “guest service” implies hoteliers take on a “servant” role with visitors. As an example, notice how awkward the staff acted when Tom Branson (played by Allan Leech), left alone for the evening, invited himself downstairs for dinner with the staff.

2. Every staff member has a specific role to play. In “Downton Abbey,” the head butler, Charles Carson (played by Jim Carter), serves as proxy to a general manager position, coordinating all other roles. He ensures the property runs smoothly with an effective allocation of work amongst the team. He manages staff shortages through a realignment of responsibilities, ensuring at all times proper protocol is maintained. Even amongst footmen there is an order that makes for fluid service. As from a third season episode, notice how just a small deviation to this service order resulted in near total chaos.

3. There is a lot a GM can learn from having dinner with his staff. Each “Downton Abbey” episode in typically includes a scene in the staff dining room where the butler resides as the patriarch. The flow of information provides the butler with valuable insights in addition to disseminating knowledge to the team — a two-way street. In modern times, a team is far too large to have everyone at the same table, so I encourage GMs to take a sampling of staff for lunch at least every four weeks.

4. When the house is empty, it’s an ideal time for maintenance. Be flexible in your engineering and maintenance scheduling. Look at year-over-year figures and prudently take advantage of occupancy “holes.” Further, maintenance shouldn’t be compromised due to staff shortages. For an apt demonstration, look to when the Crawley family departed on a trip to Scotland. The footmen immediately thought this was an opportunity to slack off, until Charles Carson reminded them of how great an opportunity this was to clean the silver in every bed chamber.

5. Choosing the freshest ingredients is vital. There’s no compromising your standards for the sake of costs. Several kitchen scenes in this series explicitly mention the selection of fresh foods over canned equivalents. (Recall in the final episode a discussion with the food purveyor on the difference between fresh and canned legumes and the cooks’ preference for fresh.) That was 95 years ago; the same applies today.

6. Breakfast is an essential part of every day. And it’s a great opportunity to plan the day for maximum productivity. In “Downton Abbey,” Charles Carson attends every breakfast with the Crawley family. He doesn’t work; the footman do that. Rather, he uses this time to learn about what’s happening, allowing him to anticipate needs and coordinate his staff accordingly. Sounds a lot like an executive planning committee meeting, only with wittier dialogue, fewer inconsequential metrics and better food.

7. Additional guests mean more staff and more planning. Don’t forget that as occupancies rise, seasonally or via special events, staff complements have to be managed accordingly. They get it in “Downton Abbey.” Do you ensure staff levels are organized to balance the needs when the property is full or when major functions are in house?

8. A female head of house is important for speaking to female staff. Alas, there is only so much men can do to empathize with women outside of the spousal unit. A female touch is a necessity, both for exemplary leadership in the public realm and private chats. Notice how head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (played by Phyllis Logan) is able to diffuse issues with the kitchen maids in a way that the Charles Carson couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

9. Staff talk about everything. They’ll chitchat and gossip over the good, the bad and the ugly, and especially rumors regarding financial issues. Speculation on the decline of Downton Abbey due to the Grand Trunk Railway misadventures of the earl not only put the estate at risk, but also had the entire staff abuzz. Speculation about finances (bankruptcy, change of owners, refinance, etc.) within a hotel can be a death sentence for morale. Uncertainty can lead to premature departures and neglecting of duties. As a GM, your role is to ensure that this never becomes an issue, so don’t let the rumor mill gain momentum!

10. Remember that owners make the decisions. It’s their property. As a GM, or as the butler in the case of this show, you might not agree with a decision coming from the top, but ultimately, it’s not your place to veto. Rather, your role is to execute the owners’ agendas to the best of your abilities. Think of your hotel as a giant ship; the owner is the captain, and the GM is the navigator. In this analogy, the owner sets the course while the GM finds the best route to get there, and the two are in constant communication to avoid running aground or icebergs.

These are only my most salient lessons learned. I’m sure with a rewatch, I’d squeeze out another handful, and no doubt you all have another dozen to add to the list. So, if you are a follower of the show, reflect on your favorite moments and try to compile your own teaching tools to apply towards your hotel and your team. As for me, I can hardly wait for season four of “Downton Abbey.”