Moving those in the background to the forefront

Moving those in the background to the forefront

How very heartening it was to read last week about the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok’s investment in creating a “hotel-within-a-hotel” for its employees. I stand to be corrected — and I am sure I will be — but I believe the concept, named “O-Zone,” is the most imaginative and clever (if long overdue) initiative by the luxury hotel industry in its treatment of employees. Let’s face it: In many instances our industry is characterized by an upstairs-downstairs, or front-versus-back-of-house, mentality where employees work extremely long, unsocial hours for low wages in shabby surroundings behind the scenes but with the imperative to provide perfect service with grace and efficiency to guests. It can be a schizophrenic world.

At ReardonSmith, we have long argued that we design hotels for everyone who experiences them, and that includes employees. While there is something fundamentally indecent about a luxury hotel providing only bleak and often subterranean and airless environments for its employees, a more inclusive attitude by hoteliers is, I believe, also a case of enlightened self-interest. The best guest experience is created above all by service, especially when that service is provided by a staff member who has been at the hotel long enough to remember you from your last visits and can therefore engage with you just enough to make you feel welcome as an individual. I well remember the difference it made to me when I went into a certain hotel bar after some five years’ absence. I encountered the same barman, and he not only recognized me but immediately remembered my preferred table. I will go back. It hardly takes a great stretch of the imagination to realize that such service is far more likely to be provided by people who feel valued by their employer, and, from every HR survey that I have ever heard about, a sense of value has more to do with treatment than the size of the wage packet.

O-Zone ticks a number of my boxes. It is newly renovated; it is on the second floor, which means it offers daylight; it represents security in the form of state-of-the-art lockers; it provides a learning opportunity for international staff by way of a bilingual lending library; it provides concierge and employee assistance services; and it includes zones to rest and play. It also creates an opportunity for people right at the beginning of the food chain — the hotel industry students who are brought in to serve the employees. Today’s students are, of course, tomorrow’s waiters, junior housekeepers and trainee managers, and the ease with which they look after guests will be substantially increased if they have had hands-on experience in a real, but risk-free, environment. 

Another abiding memory for me is the time when my practice had the chance to “put something back into the industry” in the design of a restaurant and kitchen that was staffed entirely by catering students. It was open to the public, and the deal was excellent food and a pleasant environment at a very affordable price in exchange for the public’s patience as the students dealt with their first real taste of a busy F&B operation. I don’t think we have ever had such appreciative clients as these students, whose ability to shine in a demanding situation soared in response to their environment and the responsibilities that it brought. Those of us working in the luxury hotel sector are very lucky to be the ones who can make dreams come true for guests. I think we might also focus on fulfilling employee dreams a little better — for the long-term benefit of the industry.