High above the bustling consumers of London's Kensington High Street is an oasis of urban calm. On the roof of Barkers department store sit one-and-a-half acres of gardens, housing rare species of plants and shrubs, trees and exotic birds, and spectacular views over the city.
The Roof Gardens were built in 1936, when the vice-president of Barkers asked landscape architect Ralph Hancock to design some themed gardens on the roof of the building. Today, the gardens are as lush as ever and now form part of the Roof Gardens private members' club and Babylon restaurant, owned by entrepreneur Richard Branson, who bought the property 25 years ago.
The business is part of his collection of exclusive properties, Limited Edition by Virgin, which includes his private Caribbean hideaway Necker Island and the Ulusaba private game reserve in South Africa.
Kirsten Falk, general manager of the club, restaurant and events venue, has been with the company for two-and-a-half years and has witnessed a significant growth in the company. The restaurant now seats 162 people and includes a private dining room and terrace, while the private members' club has a capacity of 600. There's now also the new events venue with room for a further 600. Revenue has grown by 28.4% and gross operating profit by 59.9% since January 2004.
Falk acknowledges the importance of retaining, training and motivating the 112 staff to the further development of the business. Branson himself states: "For us, our employees matter most. It just seems common sense to me that, if you start off with a happy, well-motivated workforce, you're much more likely to have happy customers."
Arriving at the company at the same time as Falk was personnel and development manager Kate Kendall, who also recognised the potential to improve staff motivation and morale.
Training, in particular, was put under review. It had been available previously, but on an ad hoc basis, so a yearly training schedule was put into place, broken down into months, with each month offering specific training in one area - management, service excellence, wine, etc. Employees are now also encouraged to come up with their own ideas about what they would like to learn.
Falk says of this: "It's been really useful. The employees take part in creating the training plan so, once a year, we collect their thoughts and ideas on training. They've suggested many topics, from management training to service recovery and complaint handling. In general, what we do is to include everyone in all decisions, be they menus or uniforms. We have tried to create a flat hierarchy and an open environment as far as communication is concerned."
The company also encourages cross-training within the venue as much as possible, so restaurant staff change between the club and events, but also within Limited Edition. Staff can thus get the chance to work on Necker Island, for instance. Falk explains: "It usually happens when someone needs help, so we send staff members who are very motivated. They can exchange ideas and get to know the other properties."
Other new schemes include yearly appraisals and a performance bonus scheme for selected employees. Goals are set, be they personal, financial or service-oriented, and are then reviewed. Employees can earn as much as an additional 10% of their yearly salary if each goal is achieved.
Falk and Kendall also introduced employee and department Head of the Quarter awards. The winners get £300 in cash or Virgin vouchers of equivalent value, while department heads win a night's stay for two in a luxury health resort. Winners of the Employee of the Year and Sweetheart of the Year schemes, chosen by employees and guests respectively, can be rewarded with anything up to a holiday for two at Necker Island.
"We also generally recognise outstanding achievement by our teams," says Falk. "If revenues have gone way over budget, the team leader takes them out for a celebration. We try to always acknowledge exceptional achievement, to show our appreciation."
Another benefit employees can enjoy is the Virgin Tribe arrangement. Staff get discounts on all Virgin products, including as much as 50% off on flights, travel and music purchases. They can also enjoy a monthly massage, a day off on their birthday (with dinner for two thrown in), team-building exercises and lots of celebrations. "We work hard and play hard," says Falk. "We have three or four big parties a year, then pub nights and team-building days whenever the need arises."
She believes communication has improved. Each New Year there's a presentation reviewing the achievements of the previous 12 months and looking into the future, at goals and ambitions. A meeting structure has been put in place, team spirit has improved, and roles and duties are more clearly understood. There's even a suggestion box.
"But we also try to create an atmosphere where people can excel and are creative," says Falk. "We look for tendencies and strengths in people, apart from the roles they are meant to do, and try to broaden that."
She adds: "Since we did this there has been a difference in the quality of feedback we get. The employees are the root of our success and, if they are happy, it spills over to our guests. Customer feedback is more positive, and the number of complaints we get has declined drastically."
Annual staff turnover is 28%, and 12% for employees with more than one year's service. About 80% of the restaurant staff were employed at the time of the opening five years ago, a statistic of which Falk is clearly proud.
She says: "What we offer our employees has come a long way since I arrived. We are a
growing business and we are now doing very well. We're much busier in the restaurant, and the events department and the club have improved revenue. I think it's a lot to do with how we treat the staff."
How to enter
Do you run a successful business and treat your staff well? Why not get greater recognition for your achievements? Enter the Caterer and Hotelkeeper Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards 2007. Go to www.catersearch.com/bestplaces and complete the application form.
2007 award categories
Closing date for entries is 31 October 2006.
BOXTEXT: The awards
BOXTEXT: The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards were launched last year, in partnership with restaurant and bar recruitment specialist The People Tree, to highlight and reward employment best practice in the British hospitality industry.
It's hugely beneficial for a business to have a reputation as an employer of choice. Hospitality professionals now place as much importance on issues such as work-life balance, career development and training as they do on a good salary, so they want to identify potentially attractive employers early in the recruitment process. And employers want to attract better qualified candidates - and to retain them for longer.
For businesses and organisations already demonstrating HR best practice, the awards offer a chance to prove they are employers of choice.
For those that could do with improving their employment practices, they showcase some of the best businesses to learn from.
And for jobseekers, they offer a means of benchmarking prospective employers against the best in the country.