Cheese platters, rubber duckies and being a black sheep – all in a day’s work for a hotel GM!
I was recently lucky enough to spend some time with Nick Ellis, the GM of Ovolo Inchcolm, just after he’d got to Number One on TripAdvisor for the best hotel in Brisbane. (Here’s Nick’s LinkedIn profile: https://au.linkedin.com/in/nickellis673
Among other things, we talked about:
How Nick’s managed to achieve such an impressive feat.
What trust in the workplace means to him, and how it influences his corporate culture.
Nick’s management style in general.
What’s most important to him.
What advice he’d give to someone starting out in hospitality.
But we kicked our Q&A off with me asking him…
Q: What’s the secret to being Number 1 on TripAdvisor for the best hotel in Brisbane ?
I guess there is no real secret. Because people can get a bed and a shower anywhere, it’s about what we do differently.
As a boutique hotel, we get to build a genuine connection and relationship with each of our regulars so we can really personalise their experience, but we try to build a connection with our new guests too.
We just do all the things that the hospitality textbooks say you should do but we also add a bit of fun while we do it. We’ve got an amazing team here, and the Ovolo brand lets us add a bit of fun and personality.
So we deliberately hire people based on their personality, and we don’t try to script them or hide them behind a uniform or tell them to answer the phone in a foreign language. We really want our staff’s personalities to shine through, and the guests really take to that.
Q. You’ve worked for some of the other groups and now with Ovolo. They are really breaking all the traditions and making some bold statements in their marketing: You guys love the F word! And your campaigns say things like “No BS if you drop your pants/rates”. How have you found the transition to all of this, and are your guests loving it?
For me it’s never really been a transition. I’ve always moulded myself to another persona – I spent twenty years as a person in a suit answering the phone in another language – but I’m definitely in a far more genuine role now.
I feel more comfortable and I’m more myself now. I’ve always been the black sheep of the big international five-star hotel chains…but now I’m home!
I adore the Ovolo concept, and our guests do too. It’s really built from our founder Mr G (Mr Girish Jhunjhnuwala) who has a great saying about nickel and diming, which was born from him being overcharged for the minibar when he took his kids on holiday.
So we really appreciate our guests and we don’t take advantage of them. “Our new “NFW policy” is a prime example of this: Not only do we offer the best rate but when you book direct – if we’ve dropped the rate when you check in, we will proactively give you the discount or give you hotel credit if you’ve prepaid”
So it’s really about recognising who’s actually paying the bills and thanking them for that.
Q: Trust in the workplace – What does that mean to you and how does it influence culture?
Trust, respect and honesty are really, really critical for me and I think they’re the only way to build a high-performing team. So when I go into a new property, I start by sitting down with the leaders and talk about how we’re not always there to agree and to come up with the same answers.
I think a difference of opinion is always healthy as long as you’re respectful around that. We’re pretty open with the team with what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well. I think when people know a bit more and buy into it, they’re happier to kick their performance up and get more involved. Our guest feedback always reflects that.
Also, I completely trust my staff to do whatever they need to do in the moment whether a manager’s there or not. I frequently say no one ever gets in trouble for making a decision but they get in trouble for not making one. I don’t care whether it’s the right or the wrong decision as long as they’ve made one. If there’s some coaching afterwards to identify another path we could have taken, that’s a positive thing. But I’ve been there, I’ve worked my way up. I remember being an assistant manager with the building on fire, someone at the front desk complaining and the car park leaking!
I know the staff sometimes need to make hard decisions on the spot, so we support their decisions 100% – that’s the decision, we’ll back it.
Q: “Fabulous. Unconventional. Never Boring.” – Give us some more insight into that.
That’s one of our brand pillars but I’ve also stolen it for me because it fits me so well. To me, it’s just about doing things differently, asking “why not?” instead of “why?” and ensuring there’s spark and creativity in everything we do. For example, I have a pet peeve for people who give a bottle of wine or a cheese platter to a guest on arrival. I just can’t stomach it because I always think you could put some more effort into it.
For example, when I arrived here we were doing a make-your-own cocktail that came with a one-page explanation and all the ingredients. It was a good idea but it didn’t really pop so we bought some little storage containers with a few drawers for the ingredients. We had them decorated individually by a calligrapher, put fairy lights around them and put all the ingredients in the drawers. So now they pop a bit more when guests see them, and they’re on our Instagram feed constantly, so people are talking about them.
We don’t set out to make things Instagrammable – that’s just a nice bonus. Also, we do like to have a little bit of fun with our regular guests. For example, one of our regulars always gets an upgrade to a room with a bath. When we couldn’t provide that for her on one occasion, we went out and bought a kiddie pool with some rubber duckies and set it up in the corner of a giant suite with a note saying “We’re so sorry we couldn’t get you the bath. Let us know if you want us to fill this one up.”
By adding a bit of fun and novelty, people love it! In a similar way, I’ve actively banned towel animals from our hotel (unless a guest’s child talks about how much they love them) because I think we can do something a bit more original.
Q: If you could tell someone just starting out in Tourism that aspires to be a GM something useful, what would it be?
I do a programme called the Young Tourism Leaders where I go to school and unis, and give talks about career paths etc. I tell everyone the industry’s something you can build a career from, not just something to pay you a wage. No one’s going to finish a uni degree in hospitality management and then walk into a GM’s gig: You just need to start wherever you can, get experience and build resilience.
Working in lots of different roles is extremely beneficial too. I started in room service and have worked my way through every role in the business apart from housekeeping. (I did that for three weeks in 2008 and I have the utmost respect for housekeepers. It is a hard job!)
So if you can genuinely relate to people in their role because you’ve been there and done that, they’ll respect you more. So I’ve always taken every opportunity that’s been thrown at me.
That’s a wrap!
So there you have it! According to someone who’s actually managed to reach that elusive Number One spot on TripAdvisor, the secret is…there is no secret!
From the time I spent with Nick, it was very clear to me how genuine he is and that he really cares about the whole team, as well as about his hotel’s guests. Lots of things jumped out at me from talking with Nick, and I’m sure all of them can help you in your own career goals, whatever they might be.
The main things that jumped out at me are:
Be yourself and be genuine. Trust, respect and honesty are essential in everything we do.
If you’re starting out in your career, don’t expect it to be handed to you. As well as finding and doing a job, you need to build experience and you need to build resilience as you progress along your career path.
Focus on building – and maintaining – a genuine connection with your guests or clients (depending on your business). Recognise that they’re the people actually paying your bills, and treat them accordingly. Don’t try to “nickel and dime” every last penny out of them – treat them fairly and they’ll value it (and respect you more).
Don’t be afraid to have a bit of fun with your guests. Be respectful but help them enjoy their time with you, especially if you can personalise things to your guests. They’ll love you for it.
Try to look for ways to do things a little better and a little differently rather than sticking with the status quo just because things have always been done a certain way. Try asking “why not?” more than “why?” – this will help you bring spark and creativity to everything you do.
Focus on building – and maintaining – a genuine connection with your staff too. Your staff’s personalities are a one of their biggest assets, so make the most of this and give every member of your team the chance to shine and to let their personality show through.
A difference of opinion is healthy as long as you’re respectful around that.
When your staff know a bit more about what you’re trying to do and they therefore buy into it, they’ll be happier to go the extra mile because they’ll feel (and be) more involved.
Similarly, if you take every opportunity to work in different roles in your field – and especially if you’re willing to get in there and get your hands dirty when times are tough – you’ll be able to genuinely relate to the members of your team because you’ve been there and done that rather than being a paperwork, knowledge person. The members of your team will notice that and will have lot of respect for you (and you’ll probably have a bit more respect for them having seen what they go through and how hard their job can be!)
Remember the members of your team sometimes need to make hard decisions then and there, so support their decisions 100%. If there are learning points to be explored after the event, that’s fine – it’ll help improve things for the future.
Hopefully this Q&A has inspired you to take a step back and reconsider how you can reach your own career goals more effectively, whether you’re working (or hoping to work) in the hospitality field or something different. I’d love to hear what you think about this article, so please get in touch.