Before you begin to climb the ladder in hotel management, you need to be certain that a career in hotels is right for you. The sooner you get real-life experience of a hotel environment, the quicker you will know what you want and begin to learn the skills you need to achieve it.
Sam Coulstock, regional manager for London and South-east England at careers organisation Springboard UK, says that you need to gain an understanding of each department.
"Try to get work in every department and work closely with the manager," he says. "If you work your way up in a department, the next step is into general management. You can go to university and get a degree, but you will still need to know all the pressures and excitement at a junior level."
Many hotel organisations are pro-active about helping staff work up through the ranks, and Simon Taylorson, commercial director at recruitment website Caterer.com, says that you need to take advantage of this attitude. "Many hotels are passionate about developing staff, as it means continuity of the management of the team," he says. "Most provide structured career programmes."
But you don't just have to stay at one hotel to succeed. Ren Angoujard, general manager at Novotel London West, says that the best way to develop is to work in a variety of environments. Since 1978, he has worked himself in the UK, Iraq, the USA, Canada, China, Thailand and Australia. "It's important to get experience of different workplaces and different cultures," he says. "If you travel around the world, you gain more knowledge about service - standards change from country to country."
Although some general managers make it without formal qualifications, it is still worth taking time to study. Qualifications can open doors more quickly.
And the skills needed for successful study can also be attractive to potential employers. Orla Farrell, senior learning and development manager for Hilton UK & Ireland, says: "Evidence of commitment to development is important - this can be demonstrated through a hospitality qualification."
Studying for qualifications can also help to give you the necessary perspective to plan your career steps more carefully. "A personal development plan is vital," Farrell says. "Each person should plan their most appropriate learning path."
And you don't have to take hospitality-specific courses. Farrell adds that people- management skills, especially coaching, and business acumen are areas in which most people would benefit from studying. Language skills are also highly sought-after, and will help you to work in different countries.
Having a degree under your belt will also give you access to structured graduate development programmes, which often provide fast-track routes to management.
Tim Hadcock-Mackay is chairman of Distinguished Hotels International and was once the youngest-ever manager at the Ritz in London. He says that networking has been the key to his success.
"If you want to become a general manager, make friends with general managers," he says. "If you want to succeed, write to people you respect and suggest they become your mentor. Learn to smile, and constantly network. General managers should be out and about, so go to industry awards and network with guests. I was incredibly shy when I started out, but you learn the ability to network - you just have to get out there."
Learning from others' experience is a time-honoured way to cultivate your own skills. Farrell agrees that finding a good mentor can have benefits. "If you find someone who you respect, they can help and guide you to develop to your full potential," she says.
Learn to be a leader
Great leadership skills are needed to foster a happy and productive workforce, so the earlier you start to develop these, the better.
The Department of Trade and Industry has conducted some research with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) into what makes a good leader. Their report, Inspired Leadership, identifies three key characteristics. First, leaders should share the same vision that the workforce has of where the company is going. Second, they should have real confidence and trust in teams. And third, they should show respect for employees, colleagues and customers.
Gemma Bird, a spokesperson for the CMI, says: "Employees want managers who talk about their objectives clearly and trust them to do a good job, without sticking their oar in for no reason. The research found it was important for managers to say 'thanks for doing a good job' at the appropriate time, not waiting for a later date. Managers also need to encourage change, so the team can become more creative and innovative."
Learn to communicate
Good communication is a basic but vital skill for general managers. They need to convey the right message to staff, customers and clients, so being able to talk to a variety of people at different levels is a skill that must be honed. Whether it is calming down an angry customer, showing empathy with junior staff or getting the best deal from suppliers, communication is key.
"You need strong communication skills to be able to meet customers' needs," Bird says. "You also need to know who your customers are. Your team should perform well because they want to please customers, not because they have to."
Hadcock-Mackay says that good general managers always take the time to get to know people. He says: "If you don't communicate with guests and staff and you are aloof, you will soon not have a hotel to manage."
Stand out from the crowd
If you want to make it as a general manager, make sure that you get noticed. People need to believe that your management skills are head-and-shoulders above the rest. Angoujard says that if you have a passion for the hotel business, this will shine through. "It has to be a real vocation," he says. "You have to enjoy what you do and, above all, be passionate about service if you want to succeed."
The commitment to go above and beyond the call of duty to provide the best service will also stand you in good stead. "Be flexible," Hadcock-Mackay says. "This is not a nine-to-five job. Even when you're not there, you should still be available. Be different in your approach, and use your life experience outside the industry to help you progress."
Whichever route you choose to take, being equipped with these skills and setting out with the right frame of mind could help you achieve success that bit quicker.
Top tips on how to get ahead
What not to do
Making it as a general manager takes a lot of hard work - so if your heart isn't in it, you're unlikely to succeed. "I am so bored with people not taking pride in this industry," says Tim Hadcock-Mackay, chairman of Distinguished Hotels International. "Your job as general manager is not just an accountant or chef, it is to create memories. It doesn't matter if the hotel has fabulous decor - if the team is not led from the top, it will appear bland and boring."
Arrogance is an ugly trait, so you also need to keep your ego in check as you rise through the ranks. "If you think you're too grand to do plate-washing, and are preoccupied by what suit you wear and the perks you recieve, you will fail," Hadcock-Mackay says.
René Angoujard, general manager at Novotel London West, says bad managers hide themselves away. He says: "You can't sit in an office looking at figures - they won't make a hotel successful. It is service that is going to do that. You need to be on the floor, because that's where the business is coming in."
Being complacent, Angoujard says, is also a fast route to failure. "Every day is a new day," he says. "When a client wakes up in your hotel, they don't care what you did yesterday - it's irrelevant. All that matters is that, today, you have to be even better."
Gaius Wyncoll, general manager, Macdonald Bear hotel, Woodstock
Gaius Wyncoll started his career in hotel management at the age of 13, washing up at a local hotel. A few years on, the general manager of another hotel came to his school for an “understanding industry” workshop and gave a presentation on working in hospitality. Wyncoll accepted his offer of a work-shadowing day and was subsequently offered a job in the restaurant.
His A-level results were poor, but this work experience helped Wyncoll secure a place at university. After studying for a degree, he contacted the general manager he had previously worked for. Wyncoll worked for him for five years and was subsequently given the role of operations manager at the Macdonald Randolph in Oxford.
At the age of 30, he was promoted to his current position as general manager at the Macdonald Bear hotel in Woodstock, Oxfordshire.
Wyncoll says that he was inspired to work up through the ranks by his first general manager.
“You need your own determination, but also someone who believes in you and can inspire you,” he says. “My general manager gave me great support and training.”
Sam Farmer, general manager, Courtyard by Marriott, Reading
Sam Farmer became general manager at the Courtyard by Marriott in Reading this June, aged just 27. His career started with a part-time job as a linen porter at the Northlakes hotel in Penrith, Cumbria. Finding that he enjoyed the hotel environment, he went to college to take a GNVQ in hospitality and catering.
While keeping his part-time job at the Northlakes, he did a four-year sandwich degree in Hospitality Management. For his year out in industry, he returned to the Northlakes hotel full-time and did a one-year management placement, ending up as a duty manager.
After graduating in 2001, he joined Marriott Hotels’ graduate development programme, running the second restaurant at Marriott’s Tudor Park Hotel and Country Club in Maidstone, Kent. He was then promoted from within to the post of conference and banqueting manager, moving to the Milton Keynes Courtyard by Marriott to become operations manager for two years.
In June 2005, he was promoted to his current post.
Farmer says that the key to his success has been ambition. “As I’ve moved through the ranks,” he says, “I have always been there chasing the next job, showing that I’ve been hungry to learn and develop.”
John Hunter Philipson, general manager, Lowry hotel, Manchester
John Hunter Philipson worked in hotels on both sides of the Atlantic for nine years before he got his first general manager role. After studying for a hospitality BTEC in Newcastle, he moved to the USA to become hotel assistant manager at the Hyatt Regency Grand Canyon. Over the following year, he took on a range of roles with Hyatt in Chicago.
He then moved to London to become brasserie manager of Hyatt International, and the following year he became assistant food and beverage manager. He then moved to the Grosvenor House, where he was deputy food and beverage manager for Forte Exclusive Hotels.
Two years later, he moved to Edinburgh’s Balmoral hotel to become director of rooms for Rocco Forte Hotels. In 1999, aged 32, still working for Rocco Forte, he was promoted to his current position, general manager of the Lowry in Manchester.
Hunter Philipson also gained a BSc degree in Hospitality Administration in 1992 and an MSc in Hospitality Management (with Distinction) in 2003.
He says that his rise to the top has been helped by gaining experience in different hotels, but more so by his qualifications. “I found they gave me the confidence, discipline and technical knowledge to push myself and make decisions,” he says.