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September 2022, Virtual
September 29 2022, Virtual
Mark Willis is regional director of Radisson Blu in the UK. He talks to ABTN about getting through a recession and a rebranding at the same time, and why opening hotels is addictive.
How did you get into the hotel business?
By default really. I came into the business very early for a summer job, which I think is a lot of people's entry into the business. I fell into a Michelin Star restaurant, in Suffolk, from the word go, washing pots and peeling vegetables, and basically doing anything I was told to do.
When you do Michelin Star it's very intense. It's a very strained envronment - it's an excess, which i like. I was hooked from day one. I had always planned to be a vet or something more strategic at that age, but as soon as I saw the environment and the work ethic - and dealing with the general public is always interesting to say the least - it went from there to there.
From there I did some City and Guilds (an NVQ today), which a lot of people were doing at the time. I then quickly moved abroad. I went to Germany at 19 and South Africa at 21.
Was it working in hotels that gave you those opportunities?
Yes, I was given an opportunity from a colleague to go to germany which opened a lot of other opportunities. I was a Brit working abroad at quite a young age, which wasn't the norm.
In Germany I met a colleague that had contacts in Sun City, so from there I went to South Africa. It was a 24-hour day, a huge operation. There were 19 restaurants when I was there, and 2000 rooms. It was a big exposée for me. I'd done a 60 cover michelin star restaurant at quite a well regarded five star hotel in Stuttgart, to then find myself in Sun City, where there were 456 people working in the kitchen alone. It was a real eye opener.
So what brought you into the Rezidor fold?
I was working in Dubai, after South Africa, and was approached for a job back in the UK. One thing led to another, and I found myself moving from Dubai to open the Radisson SAS at Manchester airport in 1998. It wasn't planned at all. I thought 6 to 12 months in Manchester, get my foot on the property ladder, pay a few taxes maybe, and then move on back abroad.
But, once I touched the radisson family, the rest is history. It went from there foward very quickly. I had always had aspirations to leave the kitchen, but if you're working at a certain level in the kitchen it's not an easy thing to do, actually. And totally out of the blue the regional director approached me to be his number two at the hotel. I had no formal qualifications, no training, it was all about aptutide and attitude, commitment and work ethic.
Very quickly I got involved with a number of openings. I went to Cornell. It was a huge exposure to revenue management, sales dynamics. We owned Manchester, so it was a bit of a focus property at the time. When the brand wasn't so well known at the time. We only had three hotels. The Portman, Manchester, and a small property in Scotland, Airth Castle at the time. And we were in the process of opening Galway and Dublin.
So you got involved in hotel openings. How did you find that?
Very interesting. I've always liked openings. They're not for the weak hearted. Or those that sleep! But openings are just fabulous. Too often you see people do one opening and they don't do another, which is a bit of a shame.
You get hooked. It encompasses all the wonderful dynamics of our business, and there are many. General public, diversity of staff, we do food, drink, accommodation, it's a very dynamic business. That is increased by 50 or 100% during the opening. It goes from one thing to the next, one problem to the next. Openings are interesting.
So you've been in your current role for 18 months?
Yes, I moved from Manchester, to (typical Rezidor huge exposure) a very large airport hotel in Norway. From there I went to Bahrain and then back to the UK.
Just as the recession took a grip...
Yes, what a time to take the reigns. There's an eye opener.
Coming into the recession, it's been very interesting. For sure, it's been a tough period.
What has been the most challenging aspect?
We've made some difficult decisions. And within those decisions there's been invariably a number of casualties, as far as our employees go, which is a key focus for us.
We know our business is about two sets of business. It's about our customers of course, but in our trade the employees are everything. You can have the most beautiful hotel in the world, and I've been in plenty, where that first smile at the door, that first ‘how was your trip?' at check-in, is missing, and with devastating results.
I think one of the most difficult things is that we parted company with members of the team... people were casualties of the recession as business dropped away.
How has business been?
We were very fortunate here in the UK, at most of the hotels, to retain a very positive occupancy. While everybody's aware, it's not a secret, throughout all the brands, rate suffered dramatically. We were fortunate, we had a clear strategy last year of occupancy versus rate, which worked for us.
And now? Are business travellers coming back?
There are two key areas of the business traveller. The business individual, yes, has slowed down to some degree, but not to the halt that i think everybody was anticipating, given a number of the big companies put in travel bans. I think people travelled in different fashions. I think they reduced their travel.
The business groups, meetings and events suffered last year, and we look forward to that returning - there are glimpses of it returning.
But recovery is still a while away?
It is, but dare I say forecast to year end improves and I remain, as always, positive but realistic. Our attitude, clearly communicated from our CEO Kurt Ritter, is whatever's out there we need to fight for, and that's what we're doing. Our competitiors are well aware.
What are you doing to attract business travellers?
We've taken quite a strategic view of being clear and concise with our pricing. We're not trying to over discount and manipulate rates and business. Our customers know we would rather offer a realistic rate in relation to product and location, versus enticing people with a magnitude of offers and rebates and discounts. It's just not our stuyle. I think we're clearer with the way we communicate, especially to the key clients that we have. The big clientele that went into the recession with us, came out of the recession with us. I think we have huge loyalty.
Do you think it is still a buyer's market?
I do, and I think that will stay in place while there is still some hesitancy out there.
I think people are right to be cautious with thier travel, and I think we're trying to deal with that. I think we'll try and assist wherever we can.
Radisson SAS has been rebranding into Radisson Blu - how has that been going?
I think we were all anticipating some hugely difficult, outlandishly drawn-out process. That wasn't the case. I was pleasantly surprised.
The branding collaboration with SAS came to a close and it was time to move on, and i think we've done that in a very positive way. It's been very well communicated. The actual physical process of rebranding has been super smooth.
And there have been a number of new openings for the brand, in Bristol, Cardiff and Durham. Do you think it was the right time?
Durham is an interesting property, as it is not in a major city location. Radissons are mostly pitched at the big cities, but Durham is a benchmark opening. It opened with positive numbers from day one.
Bristol has also done very well, but Cardiff has been a difficult opening.
Building work has made it difficult for the property. There is a new shopping centre right in front of the hotel. The road has been dug up, and a different organisation has dug the pavement up at the same time. So it's been a tough one. But figures in Cardiff are also improving. As always, not as quickly as we would like, but i think that's the norm.
Are there any other openings planned in the UK?
There are a few Park Inns but no more Radisson Blus.
Park Inns are the focus for the UK. It's a brand that will continue to grow through new locations and better awareness through the market.
What is it about working in hotels that you love?
The people I work with. I've just spent the last two days at the Park Inn in Southend-on-Sea. I didn't even know where that was, I must admit. It's an absolutely fabulous hotel. Great location, right on the seaside. Again, it's a real addition to the town. A lot of money has been invested, to great effect. I've been there with the UK GM team from radisson. We always have the meeting at a Park Inn.
While the brands are very different, we are all part of the Rezidor family. We're lucky that we're not this massive juggernaut, and while we're these days compared with those big big brands, I think we haven't lost our open communication and some of those other aspects of working for a huge organisation.
I think it's good to expose the guys to different products. We have very clear definition on the brands. There isn't any crossover between them. But we're all part of one team. We work for Rezidor.