Passion and drive

Passion and drive

Think of the world’s great golfing hotels and it’s not long before Turnberry comes to mind. Kenny Kemp meets its general manager.

Among Scotland’s surfeit of special places, Turnberry has its own allure – a place of sporting legend.

The “Duel in the Sun”, during the Open Championship of 1977, between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus – two of the greatest golfers of modern times – ensured the Ailsa links course would become an immortal memory for golf buffs everywhere.

There are so many superlatives you can shower on this unique part of Ayrshire’s craggy and sandy coast, with its views towards the Isle of Arran and the granite stump of Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde.

First and foremost, Turnberry is about golf with its three courses; later this summer the Senior Open Championships takes place on the hallowed links from July 26-29, with perhaps the return of Messrs Watson and 1994 Turnberry Open winner Nick Price among the professional vets.

Overlooking the Ailsa course and the sea is the multiple-chimneyed Turnberry Hotel, one of Scotland’s grand Edwardian railway hotels, like the North British (now The Balmoral) and the Caledonian in Edinburgh; the Central Station hotel in Glasgow; and Gleneagles in Perthshire, Turnberry once had its own railway halt built to bring in well-heeled holidaymakers.

In 1997 Turnberry became part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts. It has recently undergone a £45m facelift and joined Starwood’s prestigious Luxury Collection brand to maintain its stature at the top of the luxury league.

Many of the 150 rooms have been immaculately redesigned and are not over-stuffy, and the six restaurants are overseen by Australian head chef Justin Galea, including the signature 1906 which offers its “Escoffier”-style, French-based cuisine.

Discussions are under way regarding the next phase of upgrade, which may well include updating its health spa and pool, with its iconic view of Ailsa Craig.

Leisurecorp, a division of Dubai World Company Istithmar, bought the hotel from Starwood Hotels in October 2008, while Starwood, which operates more than 1,100 hotels around the globe and employs 154,000 people, now operates the management contract on a 30-year deal.

With this backdrop, Starwood is so serious about its Scottish treasure, and its place in The Luxury Collection firmament of grand hotels, that they have posted one of their big hitters, Jordi Tarrida, to Ayrshire as Turnberry’s general manager.

His arrival is already raising the bar – and there is much more to go. The debonair Tarrida, heading towards his first full season in charge, hosted a gathering of Scottish business journalists who willingly savoured the hospitality.

As we nibbled winter rabbit salads, polished off mouth-watering, spinach-wrapped venison saddle with marinated beetroot and broad beans, washed down by a glass of Chateau des Anneraux, Tarrida explained his vision for this resort.

“It is about constantly exceeding customers’ expectations and you can’t do that unless you are passionate and fully motivated and really enjoy what you are doing,” he purrs.

He believes if his staff fully grasp what he is talking about and can have job opportunities for the rest of their working lives.

Anyone with an ounce of interest in Scotland’s hospitality industry, and its continuing quest for world-class quality, will be examining what Tarrida is doing in Burns Country.

While Turnberry has earned its place among the world’s best, Tarrida knows the resort has to fight to remain at the top, and this requires continuing hard work and attention to the requirements of his guests.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which also operates Le Méridien Piccadilly, W London Leicester Square, and The Park Lane Hotel in London among others, is opening 25 new hotels in Europe over the next four years.

Starwood’s 75-strong Luxury Collection portfolio includes the legendary Venetian properties, Hotel Danieli, and The Gritti Palace (which is undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation this year), so Turnberry is in exalted company.

Tarrida, in his early fifties, was born in Germany; his mother is German and his Catalan father – from Barcelona – was a sales agent in German pharmaceutical and chemical company, Hoechst AG.

He spent his first 17 years in Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt, then when he was 18, his dad’s job took them to Venezuela.

He finished his schooling there and his father told him, “It’s time to get serious, son”. There was no tradition of hotel work in the family DNA. “It’s fair to say there is no hospitality heritage in there,” he says.

“I didn’t have a grandpa who had a little hotel; my career path was started by me.” In 1980, he considered joining an airline, but there were no opportunities in Caracas, so he focused on the hotel industry.

At 20, he started at the Macuto Sheraton in Caracas, on the sea-front and near the university.

Fluent in Spanish, German and English, he was a great catch for the human resources department and they snapped him up. He began as a front-office clerk.

“I was fortunate that from day one I felt happy and liked the job,” he says. “I liked giving service to guests – to other people. I enjoyed the interaction with interesting people from all over the world. The feedback I received was that I was contributing to a visitors’ enjoyment, by adding value to their lives and making them more comfortable. I enjoyed knowing that they were having a great experience. From my side, my expectations about working in the hotel industry were confirmed.”

He is still as passionate about this service, remaining for 32 years with Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which operates nine internationally renowned hotel brands including Sheraton, Westin, Le Méridien, The Luxury Collection and W Hotels.

“It’s easy to say now but I think it has worked out well,” he says with a grin of approval. After a brief spell in Venezuela, the family went back to Germany, where Tarrida moved to the Sheraton in Frankfurt – then the largest hotel in Europe – with over 1,000 bedrooms and connected to the international airport.

He started an apprenticeship programme, studying all aspects of international hotelkeeping from finance, operations, through to marketing and sales.

He says: “I was able to put some foundations down about the hotel business in Germany. The dynamic of a modern airport hotel are very different and very special. You fill it at night and it empties in the morning and you fill it again. It’s basically a one-night stop for guests. It was a good place to learn all the different departments.

“After his training, he chose sales and marketing in Frankfurt, staying until 1989, when he was offered a director’s post at the Sheraton Abu Dhabi, a resort with a solid corporate customer base. Jordi Tarrida was tasked with building its leisure tourism segment, almost from scratch.

“It was about talking to customers and tour operators, putting Abu Dhabi on the map. I was there for two years and it was a great experience. It was working in a different cultural and business environment in the Middle East. It is one of the most extreme places that I could go to.” This was his bachelor years and he grabbed every opportunity.

“In the beginning I had my friends who worked significantly fewer hours and made significantly more money and were always free at the weekends,” he says.

“My friends, who installed telephones, finished on Friday at 3pm sharp. I was always the one missing a birthday party or working on a late or weekend shift. Yet your shift finished at 11pm and if an airline called and says its Boeing 747 is broken and there were 300 passengers coming in an hour, needing dinner and overnight, well, you just do it, when you know you wont be leaving work before 2am. There were moments when I was considering what this was all about, but it was only a fleeting thought. I never really considered moving out of this business.”

He concluded that there would be a time in the future when it would start paying off – and it did.

“If the dynamic is there and the career path is supported by the company, then this gives people a future. That’s been the position for me with Starwood – and this is something I tell our people today; whereas my friend is still installing telephones and finishing at 3pm sharp on a Friday!”

Here there is something that should resonate with everyone who wants Scotland’s tourism industry to prosper and succeed.

Long and often antisocial hours are unique to the hospitality business; there’s no way around it.

“It is often said that you can start as a front clerk, a chambermaid or as a waiter and make your career in hospitality and there is truth in this,” says Tarrida.

“I am always trying to get this across to our people, especially at Turnberry – this is a truly international industry and good people can work around the globe in exotic locations.

“I’ve talked to all my team members about my vision for Turnberry and why it is a beautiful profession and what I have been fortunate to do. Then I tell them if they are not passionate and don’t enjoy what they are doing and only consider it a ‘job’ because they can’t find any another; then I suggest they strongly consider getting another job as soon as possible. Why? Because, ultimately, they won’t be happy.”

The luxury hotel business makes Jordi Tarrida’s heart beat. He left Abu Dhabi and moved back to Frankfurt to run the hotel sales, with a massive conference centre and 600 staff.

“It was a very successful hotel and I was there for two months before the Gulf War broke out,” he says.

“From one day to the next, we had to revise our business strategies. We had taken our customer base a little bit for granted – and then suddenly it was not the case.” It was a vital lesson for Tarrida; you can never take your market for granted and that includes high-net worth American golf parties heading for Scotland who might be put off by various scares, such as volcanic ash or the Sars virus.

He spent five more years at Frankfurt, where maintaining high levels of the occupancy was the target. Every year it was the most successful hotel in Germany, beating all in terms of revenue. Then Tarrida was given a fresh challenge.

In 1995, the then ITT-Sheraton hotel business was bought by Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and they then purchased Compagnia Italiana Grandi Alberghi (Ciga) Hotels, which had a range of renowned properties, including the 14th century Hotel Danieli in Venice, The Excelsior and The Grand Hotel in Rome, and The Palace Hotel in Madrid.

These were top-end historic hotels, and he was offered a job as sales and marketing director of Spain and Portugal with a mission to incorporate the Ciga hotels into Starwood, which had just launched its Luxury Collection portfolio.

“The idea was to take all the good things from Ciga and its historic luxury and bring this into Starwood and create The Luxury Collection,” he says. For Tarrida, there was a fault line between the ideals of American-Northern European hospitality business and the old-world Mediterranean culture.

He says: “There was a big difference in that the Ciga group – despite its wonderful hotels – wasn’t making much money! It was privately run and many people didn’t want to become part of an American company. Summarising it, I would say they considered them the ‘founders’ of tourism and they felt the ITT Sheraton group wasn’t really a high-class hotel chain to match them. There was a little problem in that Ciga’s financial performance wasn’t in great shape, but this didn’t seem to matter to them.”

Part of Tarrida’s task was re-launching the spectacular Palace Hotel in Madrid in 1997, after a 50 million euro renovation, and moulding the culture of The Luxury Collection “without using the sledge-hammer approach”.

He says: “I was in Madrid for five years and it was a beautiful experience; then I had to ask – what is next? Would I continue in the sales and marketing path, or do I go back into operations, running a hotel? Well, that’s what I decided to do.” He became general manager of the Westin La Quinta Golf Resort in Marbella, which he opened and ran for five years, with its 170-room hotel and the Manuel Pinero- designed golf courses.

Out in the Spanish sunshine, he rubbed shoulders with top golfer Sergio Garcia and befriended Habanapuffing Miguel Jimenez, a local character supporting “the cigar and red wine industry, as he still does”.

“This was my first exposure to a golf resort. After the first year of operations and having been constantly exposed to golf on these marvellous courses, I thought it was important to learn how to play. If you can’t beat them, join them, and I had to start.”

By now married to Spanish wife Laura, whom he met in Madrid, he was expecting his first son, so any serious golfing aspirations had to be put on hold for a while.

Then, when his second son was born, he found little spare time to improve his skills, although in 2006 he went on to Majorca where he became general manager of the St Regis Mardavall Mallorca Resort (in the home town of Rafael Nadal) and the Arabella Starwood Golf resorts, which included three stunning Mediterranean courses, Son Vida, Son Mutaner and Son Quint.

“This was a step up because the golf courses were fully owned and operated and run by Starwood and my team,” says Tarrida.

“It was a wonderful experience and I learned a great deal but Turnberry is on the next level up.” After five years in Majorca, Turnberry beckoned and, in terms of iconic golf resorts, this was an opportunity too good to miss.

“Was the weather going to be as nice as in Majorca? Not really.

Is the challenge and everything else outstanding and interesting? Yes.” He felt it would be interesting too for his wife and family having this exposure to a different culture.

“Many years ago I was here for a birthday celebration, so I knew the hotel.

I felt an excitement for the place.

Over the years and getting together at strategy meetings, I knew about the dynamics of Turnberry.” After meeting the hotel owners in April 2011, he was asked to come to Scotland, arriving last June, well aware of the expectations.

He reckons his unique knowledge of the Spanish and German tourism market can help with the hotel’s promotion, although he feels that better air connections to Europe from Scotland are an essential element for the future.

“I would definitely say, with my different experiences in international hotels, when you start taking about developing new markets, and developing tourist resorts, you must analyse how visitors can get here, what flights are available.

The biggest focus is on air.

Then you go to Prestwick and Glasgow airport and see where flights are not coming from, you immediately know this doesn’t help.

It is crucial they come from major airport hubs in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Scandinavia into the West of Scotland. And that is not the case today.

“Golf is growing around the world, year on year. Turnberry is one of the ‘must-play’ courses in the world. However, more and more people are playing and more are interested in going to golf destinations and the name Scotland: The Home of Golf is one of the first places people will think about.

We have to help them make the easy decision to come and enjoy Ayrshire and Turnberry.

“Our biggest challenge today at Turnberry is finding volume. We need to find more market and more guests to come and stay. While golf is the reason and the main attraction, we need to ensure people make the trip to enjoy our cuisine and also to make it a family-friendly experience.”

What does the luxury hotel sector mean for someone like Jordi Tarrida? “There are a lot of restaurants where the food is OK,” he says.

“If you order fish and chips in a carry-out, the fish is well cooked and the chips fresh, then this can be fine.

What makes a place is the welcome experience; do they recognise you? Do they make you feel that they appreciate your business? Do they take the extra step when you come back?” When you crank this up several notches this, in essence, is at the heart of what Tarrida says a luxury hotel is all about.

“As I say, it’s about exceeding guests’ expectations.” In any major Starwood resort, there is an executive committee, headed by the general manager and Tarrida’s Turnberry senior team includes Ralph Porciani, director of operations, and head chef Justin Galea, who are driving the business.

“Turnberry already has a track record of excellence,” he says. “There is a genuine, heartfelt friendliness and willingness to be an outstanding host to our guests here.

This doesn’t need fixing.” However, a golf resort, even with the outstanding Colin Montgomerie Links Academy and the Taylor Made Performance Laboratory, opened in April last year, has its seasonal limitation, especially during the slower, winter months.

So without trampling on the golfing fraternity toes, Turnberry is subtly trying to make itself more familyoriented, with enchanted woodland walks, archery, fishing, and a falconry course.

There’s also the outdoor activity centre with its trout fishing, and horseback treks along the beach. The Lands of Turnberry self-catering five-star apartments is a three-iron shot from the hotel.

“Turnberry is unique in Europe,” says Jordi Tarrida. “I can say this as a Germanborn Spaniard who has fallen in love with the place.” And, with his children off to school, there’s the promise that, at last, he will be able to improve his own golf, without any handicaps.