Mirror mirror on the wall

Mirror mirror on the wall

Little things mean a lot to hotel guests. They add up to rollicking success for a hotel staff too. Brian Nicholls interviews award-winning Guy Hilton and his team.

You may not have heard of “inspirational moments” that sometimes occur in daily life of a four-star hotel. But if you ever experience them you’ll probably be eternally grateful...

  • The concierge who lent his spectacles to a forgetful conference delegate who’d misplaced his.
  • The management team who, without bidding, cleared thick snow on the steep road outside by hand after mechanical gritters had failed to do the job.
  • The staff who lend their personal DVD players to brighten the evenings of long-stay guests, and.
  • The general manager who lends cufflinks, ties - even a dinner suit - to guests caught on the hop.

It is this manager, Guy Hilton, and his staff who’ve made the Hilton NewcastleGateshead the success it has so quickly become – a hotel with 80%-plus occupancy and now adjudged to be the North East’s best medium-size business in the Service Network at the Culture for Success Awards. Unlike many other awards, these centre less on finance - more on culture and development methods that make a business outstanding and, so, prosperous. Judges visiting Guy Hilton’s establishment were immediately struck by the depth and detail employed in running the hotel.

“It’s little things in particular you note about the place,” said one.

“There’s a great feel and buzz to the organisation. It stems from truly engaged and motivated staff with good leadership,” said another. They felt hospitality here is upheld as an art, and that while each department has the hotel’s values embedded, these are personalised and interpreted in each department’s own way. Hilton always considers first impressions when he stays at other hotels – “a warm welcome, that feeling from whoever you meet initially that they’re interested in you, and why you’re staying there. Only then do you look at the facilities. It’s people looking after you who make the difference.” Sure enough, when this writer neared unannounced and inconspicuous, the concierge stepped outdoors to greet him. Hilton and his team have created a routine for upholding and progressing standards that might surprise many guests whose sojourns have been brightened as a result. The “smile mirror” for example...

Hidden from customers’ view, staff look into the smile mirror just before stepping into the public areas. “Smile, you’re on stage,” they tell themselves. “A bit Disney-esque,” Hilton calls it. “But possibly that’s where the idea came from. That whole Disney concept is that if you’re playing a character, as soon as you step foot outside the cast door you’re on stage and playing, and you can’t lose that look.” The idea evolved during a staff brainstorm. “We were talking about how we might just look and think before we step into contact with customers. Smile at the mirror... Make sure you’re well groomed... and go from there.

“Our conference and events team take it to extreme and do it very well. We get lots of feedback about our warm welcomes and interaction. We spend lots of time as a management team, and with colleagues, talking about how to improve and that was one idea that came up.” No surprise, then, that the mighty Hilton organisation acclaims Helen Fayle, the conference and events sales manager, as their number one in class for all Europe, or that the Hilton’s twice-yearly independent audit of hotel standards this year rated this Hilton 87% (against 56.15% before Guy became manager in 2007).

“Guest satisfaction expressed in surveys is also hugely apparent,” he adds. Testimonials include praise for the generosity of parking space and a “superb” conference and events team. The Culture for Success judges described Guy Hilton as a role model for the values of the organisation. They note he knows all 200-plus staff by name, and they seem genuinely pleased to see him on his frequent walkabouts. Everyone loves to play for a winning team, as Hilton – a keen sportsman – knows.

So staff retention stays high, inevitably helping costs. You might imagine from indications so far that Guy Hilton is a New York high flyer – one of a founding family perhaps parachuted in. But no, the surname is a coincidence. He’s a down-to-earth 40-year-old Scouser, born and raised in the seaside town of Formby. Year for year, though, there can be few more widely experienced in the UK hotel industry. He was 15 or so when career advisors thought him a potential fireman or surveyor.

He certainly didn’t want to be deskbound. A family friend in the industry said: “Why not send Guy to a friend of mine, give him some hotel experience and see if he likes it? I could see him doing it.” He worked for two weeks in the restaurant and kitchen of Calcot Manor, a country house hotel in the Cotswolds.

“I loved it ... never looked back. I worked in different places, then ended up doing a BSc (honours) degree in catering systems.” The four-year sandwich course at Sheffield City Polytechnic took him to Canada for a year, working for Holiday Inn as part of his studies. Casual and vocational work followed at Tunbridge Wells, also Sheffield – the catering village at the World Student Games and the Royal Victoria Holiday Inn – and an Irish bar at Lake Maggiore.

Then, from 1991, into management and further postings: the Regency, Solihull; the Hoole Hall Hotel, Chester; Royal, Llangollen; Lion, Shrewsbury; Howard Johnson Hotel, West Bromwich; Park Plaza, Nottingham; Hilton, Leeds City; and before Tyneside, the Hilton Edinburgh Grosvenor.

He was inaugural manager at the four-star hotel in Nottingham, where he also chaired the Nottingham Hoteliers’ Association and was ambassador and board member of Conference Nottingham, helping to promote the city. “Travel’s essential in the industry,” Hilton explains. “You must experience different things, work in different types of hotels, moving your way up all the time. I did stay with my first company 14 years, so many of my moves were within one company. Moves are never next door though – always one end of the country to another.” The Hilton’s 254-bedroom Tyneside implant, whose facilities include a spa, banqueting suite, seven meeting rooms and a Livingwell health club (with 650 members, shows a very successful fusion of the famous brand’s global provisions on one side and an explosion of community involvement on the other. Politicians, entertainers, footballers and international business travellers checking in expect – and get – services they anticipate at a Hilton anywhere.

Yet, simultaneously, the local populace knows it as a venue where local interests are the hotel’s concerns – due again largely to Hilton’s personal involvement. This year Hilton did his second London Marathon run and, at 4½ hours, cut his previous time by 40 minutes.

He’s run numerous half marathons, and this year will do his eighth Bupa Great North Run. Fittingly, his hotel is that event’s HQ for a second year. The hotel is home from home for basketball, cricket and rugby league and union thanks to relations built up with Newcastle Eagles, Falcons and Gateshead Thunder, as well as Northern Universities Student Club Community Cricketers Elite, and it’s a key sponsor of Durham County Cricket Club. Social activities vary from Asian weddings to cycling weekends.

In 2008, Hilton himself completed a charity bike ride of nearly 500 miles between Newcastle and Twickenham, visiting all the Premiership rugby club grounds. He did it with Tom May, the former Newcastle Falcon now starring with Toulon.

Charity support like this can be superglue in bonding with the community, and the hotel since its 2004 opening has raised more than £100,000 – largely through staff initiatives. Hilton enthuses about the North East even though he is unable to settle his family here yet.

His wife Sarah and their three children - Sophie 10½, Oliver five and Issac just turned one – live at Innerleithen, the Borders home bought during his Edinburgh posting – because they have yet to secure a buyer. So Hilton commutes 152 miles at weekends, and at least by being a midweek resident himself can see almost round the clock how guests are being treated.

“It’s a hard routine sometimes,” he admits. “You miss not having time with your children in the evenings.” Thrown in at the deep end in November 2007, he hadn’t time to acquaint himself thoroughly with the North East initially.

He started just in time to cope with simultaneous retail, media and entrepreneurs’ conferences. Luckily, he knew the hotel boasted some of the region’s finest views: the Tyne and Swing Bridges, the Quayside and the Quays.

“I knew the hotel, what it looked like and where it stood, as I’d actually stayed here, having done the Great North Run a few times. I knew it was the right hotel and the right city for me,” he adds. At one point when he and Sarah thought they’d sold their house, they did get to look around the area with their children. He says: “I think it re-emphasised everything you learn about the place. So much to do, a great place to live in, and I think it will be a fantastic place for the kids to grow up in too.

“There’s everything here, isn’t there? You see why people come and never leave. It’s a fascinating and exciting place to work in. We’ve got our grumbles and gripes but everyone around is just so committed to the success of this region.” Just as he worked once for Nottingham’s good as a whole, Hilton now promotes the North East. He works closely with the Entrepreneurs’ Forum, chairs Tyne and Wear’s tourism body, is a board member of the NewcastleGateshead Initiative, and has helped the North East drive to bring the 2018 World Cup to England.

He says of the region’s ascent in tourism: “We’ve gone far. But there’s a lot of opportunity yet. A large proportion of the country is still unaware of what we have to offer in the North East. We’ve certainly seen growth in the staycation. We’ve seen family-centric business develop and grow. But you’re always looking at new business for your business and leisure tourism has got legs.”