In the latest in a series of articles on the development, design and setting up of Von Essen's first London property, the Hotel Verta, Janet Harmer learns a lesson in five-star recruitment
With delays caused by the recession and building problems now in the past, the five-star Hotel Verta, the first new-build property from Von Essen, in Battersea, south London, is set to open on 12 September this year.
For general manager Andrew Thomason, getting this date in the diary was one of the first things he did following his arrival at the hotel in April. "It was important to secure the opening date so that we could move forward and put a timetable in place for the recruitment process," says Thomason, who joined the 70-bedroom Verta from another Von Essen property, Lower Slaughter Manor in Gloucestershire.
"I had been at Lower Slaughter for three-and-a-half years and I loved my time there. I took the property through a major refurbishment and during my second year the hotel gained membership of Relais & Chateaux. With the property having gone from strength to strength, I felt that it was the right time to move on and I'm delighted to be here."
Thomason, though, was not the first member of staff to be appointed to Hotel Verta: he was the third. Already in place when he arrived was the director of sales, Douglas Acton, who joined Von Essen in November 2008, and human resources manager, Alison Tod, who moved from within the company to Verta in February.
Once it became clear that the opening of the hotel was going to be delayed, Acton was seconded to boost sales into the 29 other properties within Von Essen, as well as spend time at the Forbury Hotel in Reading, which was bought by the group in September 2009. He moved back to Verta in February 2010 and is using his London experience - he has previously worked at the Royal Garden Hotel, for the Preferred Hotel Group and the Morgans Hotel Group (Sanderson and St Martins) - to start selling Verta.
"There are several key points I have to help sell the hotel," Acton says. "Being situated alongside the London Heliport, which makes us Europe's first fully integrated heliport/hotel solution, provides a fantastic opportunity for meetings and events at the hotel, as well as for leisure packages. It will therefore appeal to top people within the aviation world, the entertainment and other industries who want to fly in and out of meetings.
"A well as being only a stone's throw from the West End and major sporting and concert venues such as Wimbledon, Queen's Club and Earl's Court, we're also right in the centre of the major regeneration area of Nine Elms, which will eventually include the re-sited American Embassy. I see Verta as somewhere people will want to stay on their second visit to London or as a vertical gateway to other Von Essen properties."
Since her arrival at Verta, Tod has been busy getting the recruitment process for the hotel's 93 staff under way. Her initial focus, together with Thomason, was to appoint the heads of department.
In advertising these positions it was important to establish the brand philosophy of the hotel, which would help to find the personnel with the right attitude. Creative designer for Von Essen, Andrew Onraet, explains that the idea was to get across the fact that the hotel was pioneering by being a new build with mixed use. While 11 floors are taken up by the hotel, seven floors are occupied by apartments.
"We are trying to create a timeless classic and the advertisement we ran was very classy, describing the hotel as being beyond boutique," Onraet says. "We aimed to give the exact impression of what we wanted to achieve with the hotel, which was to have people on board with London experience who are more passionate about customer contact than procedures. We were looking for people who are able to provide the same kind of high-quality approach to food and service for which Von Essen is known in the country and put it into a metropolitan environment."
As a result of a single advertisement placed on the recruitment website Caterer.com, more than 1,000 applications for eight senior managerial positions were received. "We were bowled over by the interest and Alison had her work cut out in whittling down the applications to six for each position," Thomason says. "As well as looking for the right calibre of people with suitable experience, we were also looking for something a little bit extra. So, while we received many excellent CVs, it was often the detail in the accompanying letter that the person used to sell themselves that made us sit up and invite the candidate for an interview."
The competency-based interviews for all the heads of department posts were conducted by both Thomason and Tod. All followed the same format. Lasting around one-and-a-half to two hours, each interview began with an icebreaker question concerning the candidate's journey to the hotel, followed by a series of questions to ascertain the interviewee's interpretation of what Von Essen is trying to achieve at the hotel, as well as their general knowledge of the company. "It was important for us to find out how well the candidates had familiarised themselves with Von Essen and Verta and we found that most of them had done a lot of research," Thomason says.
The next part of the interview tested each candidate's competence in several areas - including planning and organisation, leadership, communications, problem solving, decision making, and teamwork - by asking how they would deal with real-life scenarios in the hotel. Each test was given a score, which were added to a league table, along with the results of basic numeracy and literacy psychometric tests.
The vigorous interview process ended with Thomason taking the candidates on a full tour of the hotel. "It was an opportunity for me to see each of them in a more relaxed setting, which helped me see something of their characters and to establish the rapport between us," he says. "This was a very important part of the process as these are the people we are asking to build departments, so they had to be the right fit for the hotel and the team, as well as being good on procedures."
For six of the positions Thomason and Tod were in agreement as to who should be appointed, with the candidates they chose as a result of their gut feeling, achieving the top scores in the league table. With each of the two other positions, they found it difficult to choose between two equally suitable candidates. "In the end we decided by selecting the interviewees with the higher scores in the competency tests," Thomason says.
Two of the managerial positions not to be recruited through the online advertisement are those of the revenue and maintenance managers. "These are a more specialist area and we went through an agency to find the right people," Tod says.
However, it is hoped that a second advertisement on Caterer.com, which attracted 500 e‑mails expressing interest, will help recruit all the remaining employees.
Tod selected around 120 people to attend one of three open days at the hotel in early June - one for front-of-house roles such as concierges and receptionists, as well as reservations and switchboard staff; the next for positions in conference and events, sales and marketing, the restaurant, bar, kitchen and stewarding, and the final one for housekeeping, maintenance, security and goods in.
The interviewees who got through an informal chat with one of the senior managers at the open days were then invited back for a second, more formal interview with their prospective heads of department.
With a soft opening of the hotel planned for 27 August, just over two weeks ahead of the official opening date of 12 September, it is hoped that the hotel will be fully staffed by 9 August. Most of the management team, though, will be in place by 12 July. This will allow a full Von Essen induction programme and health and safety training for all staff, as well as specific departmental training - all of which will take place internally.
Intensive training for the spa staff - the manager, three therapists and two receptionists - will start in July, with the involvement of two product houses, Anne Semonin and Comfort Zone.
"I shall be talking to all the heads of department about how we can best make the training work," Thomason says. "I don't want to stand and dictate as I'm coming from a country house hotel and Von Essen background, while many of these guys have come from senior managerial positions within London hotels. Their experience will be enormously valuable to us here at Verta."
The 16 operational staff from the London Heliport, which handles both national and international flights, will also be involved in the training as it is important they understand how the hotel operates. "With 6,000 landings a year next door, the passengers are very much our target audience," Thomason says.
"You can lose a lot of staff in the first two to three months upon opening a new hotel because some people find it difficult to adjust to a new environment or procedures," Thomason says. "We are hoping by operating a very thorough recruitment process, we will minimise the loss, keeping staff disruption to a minimum and prevent further very costly recruitment costs."
VON ESSEN AND THE LONDON HELIPORT
Since its creation in 1996 by chairman Andrew Davis, Von Essen has grown into a group of 30 mostly country house hotels. Twenty-nine are in the UK and one - Château de Bagnols - is in Beaujolais, France.
The company incorporates Von Essen Aviation, which offers a fleet of twin-engineered helicopters and six- to eight-seater executive jets for charter. In 2007, Von Essen Aviation acquired the freehold of the London Heliport, the capital's only commercial helicopter airport, with the opportunity to develop alongside it, its first new-build hotel, Hotel Verta.
Hotel Verta is the third hotel within Von Essen's Metropolitan Set which includes the Forbury in Reading and Seaham Hall, within the metropolitan area of Newcastle.
CASE STUDY: ANNA ASIMAKOPOULOU, DEPUTY GENERAL MANAGER, HOTEL VERTA
Originally from Greece, Anna Asimakopoulou has worked in the hotel industry in London since 2000. Her most recent position was as operations manager at the Crowne Plaza London Shoreditch.
"I saw the advert for managerial staff and the name of Von Essen immediately attracted me as I was looking to move to a five-star property. I applied online which led to a telephone call from Alison Tod. We had a 10- to 15-minute chat and she invited me for an interview.
"I did a lot of background research about Von Essen before attending the interview. I looked at financial reports on the company, TripAdvisor, articles about the owner and general manager, as well as finding out more about information about the local area so that I would have an idea about potential customers and guests.
"I live in South Norwood and couldn't believe how easy it was to get to the hotel - I took a train to Clapham Junction and walked the rest of the way. My first impression of Verta was 'wow'. Its position next to the heliport and on the river are very impressive and I knew straight away that this was my dream job.
"I was very nervous, but Andrew and Anna were very welcoming and quickly put me at my ease. After some initial questions about the hotel and Von Essen, I was asked several questions that would be very relevant to the role that I was applying for. It was the first time in a job interview that I felt I had really been tested about my ability. I was asked how I would support my team, encourage staff retention and work under pressure.
"I was given an exercise to do on a profit and loss account, which contained some deliberate mistakes. It was not difficult to do if you know your job.
"Being shown around the hotel, I knew more than ever that I wanted to work here as I strongly believed in the vision for the property and knew I could help sell it. When I received the phone call from Andrew two or three days later offering me the job I was delighted and was very professional. But when I put down the phone I went a bit crazy.
"The whole recruitment process was very fair. Andrew and Anna spent a lot of time introducing me to the hotel and it felt very personal."
THE SENIOR MANAGEMENT TEAM AT HOTEL VERTA
General manager Andrew Thomason
Deputy general manager Anna Asimakopoulou
Director of sales Douglas Acton
Marketing manager Sally Strang
Human resources manager Alison Tod
Head chef Neal Dove
Front-of-house manager Serkhan Deveciogullari
Restaurant & bar manager Christophe Cordeil
Conference & banqueting manager Ryan Dunn
Financial controller Massimmo Arena
Revenue & reservations manager TBC
Maintenance manager David Culley
Night manager Gordon Addo
Spa manager Catherine De Villiers
By Janet Harmer
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