Hiring a General Manager? 4 Questions to Ask When Evaluating CandidatesMarch 27, 2014 by Taylor Short
Hotel brands are enjoying the benefits of an economic upswing, which includes increased consumer travel spending, a growing segment of young adult travelers with disposable incomes and increased growth as new hotels are being built to meet current demand.
While this is certainly great news for the industry, it also presents significant challenges, as hotel brands must find a way to respond to this demand quickly and effectively. As they develop more and larger properties, hotel executives will need to hire general managers (GMs) with the talent and expertise needed to run them.
With this challenge in mind, we interviewed four experts from top hotels around the U.S. to identify the most important educational and professional traits hospitality hiring managers should look for when evaluating general manager candidates. Here are the four most important questions to ask.
In What Country Did They Study Hospitality Management?
There are several dozen major hospitality schools around the world, located in countries such as Switzerland, France and the U.S. During my research, however, I found that many of the GMs working with the world’s top hotel brands studied in Europe.
“A lot are coming from European hospitality schools, have a [four-year] degree and are European-trained,” says Scott Samuels, founder and president of Horizon Hospitality Associates, a hospitality recruiting firm that helps staff hotels and restaurants.
According to Tom Roelens, general manager at the Four Seasons Resort Lana’i at Manele Bay in Hawaii, many of the world’s most highly regarded hotels are located in Europe, and staffed by GMs from Europe’s top hospitality schools. As such, hotel executives often seek out European-trained GMs to add to their staff in the hopes of propelling their brand to a similar level of prestige.
In general, Roelens says, European schools tend to have a more vocational approach to training and provide students with greater hands-on experience at hotels. The American approach, on the other hand, places a greater focus on traditional education and the business theory of the hotel industry—centered around the “how” and “why” of hospitality business decisions.To explore both education models, Roelens studied at the Catholic University College of Bruges-Ostend in Belgium, and also took summer courses at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. He says that while neither institution was superior to the other, he learned different aspects of the business from each.
“From a technical point of view, the European school offered more in-depth product knowledge, such as wine tasting and nutrition classes,” Roelens says. “It was a more hands-on approach to learning things like culinary skills, but had much less focus on the business side.” During his courses at Cornell, however, Roelens says he gained more business-centric knowledge, including advanced management and leadership skills.
Taking a closer look at each school’s curriculum supports Roelen’s experience: the Catholic University College of Bruges-Ostend’s degree program emphasizes a focus on practical training, knowledge and attitudes, while Cornell offers much of its hands-on training as optional programs.
Samuels doesn’t recommend strictly hiring GMs based upon where they attended school, but says hotel hiring managers should be aware of the different management styles each type of school imparts to graduates.
For example, an American-trained GM might be more effective at managing large properties of an international resort brand, while the hands-on skills of a European-trained GM may make them a stronger choice for a popular boutique hotel. But every candidate is different, and Roelens says a combination of these educational backgrounds can make for a well-rounded manager.
What Type of Restaurant Experience Do They Have?
Another important thing to look for in GM candidates is a restaurant background, or another type of food and beverage training (e.g. catering). Many GMs have this type of experience on their resume, as it often provides hotel professionals with useful skills that translate to managerial positions later on in their careers.
Craig Thompson is the general manager at Portland’s Hotel Monaco, a Kimpton property with a 95 percent rating on TripAdvisor. Hebegan his career while still in high school at a Spokane Washington hotel, and worked as a busboy, bellman and room service waiter before earning his Bachelor’s of Science in hotel and restaurant administration from Washington State University.
Thompson says restaurant and/or food and beverage experience can be an instant affirmation of an employee’s service skill level and attention to detail.
“Food is an area where you can’t fool anyone, and that kind of service level is so personalized that I think it leads into the whole guest experience,” he explains. Thompson says his food service experience drove home the importance of delivering quality guest service, and taught him that while providing great service doesn’t cost anything, it can make a huge impact on a guest’s impression of the hotel.
“I tell my employees, you’re not here to check people out, you’re here to make people feel comfortable,” he says. “The price-to-value relationship must be expressed in the service.”
Similarly, Roelens began his career at age 14 working in the front and back of Michelin starred restaurants in Belgium and France. This experience at some of the finest restaurants in the world, he says, gave him a strong sense of duty for delivering excellent results in all facets of the business, and helped him develop “eagle eyes” that aid in spotting service issues at his current position.
This attention to detail is a powerful skill that Roelens works to drill into every employee that works for him—and it pays off in measurable ways.
For example, he recounts a situation in which a wedding ceremony was scheduled to take place at the hotel, but members of the wedding party were missing specific paperwork required for it to occur. One of Roelens’ staff members noticed this issue, hopped on the nearest ferry to the mainland and retrieved the documents in time for the wedding to take place.
What Kind of Financial Acumen Do They Have?
All the GMs I interviewed emphasized a passion for service and an eye for detail as essential for excelling as a hotel manager. But they also underscored that financial and sales management skills are just as important for operating a property that turns a profit.
“You need the financial acumen to run a successful business, and also the sales background to continue to grow that business,” Samuels says. “Combining those two factors is really important in business these days.”
These skills are especially important given that revenue management has become a much larger portion of strategic operations in hotels today. In fact, it’s increasingly becoming its own position (revenue manager) at hotels that manage the growing number of methods consumers can use to book a room or services (e.g. via online travel agencies, or OTAs, or a hotel’s custom smartphone app).
“[Revenue management] has become extremely technical and changes almost daily, to the point that we’re continually developing specialists in revenue management to analyze distribution strategies,” Thompson explains.
He says a good GM should be able to maintain a balance between providing great service and a strong profit margin. This balance works at Hotel Monaco, which in 2013 reported an average nightly rate of $187 and operated at 92 percent occupancy—a figure Thompson attributes to expanding his understanding and analysis of revenue management.
As revenue management becomes a more important part of a GM’s job, “We’re seeing more people come through different places—through sales, for example—that have more diversity of experience in their backgrounds, which makes them a more well-rounded GM,” Samuels explains.
According to Thompson, candidates with strong customer service experience and an additional background in sales or business finance are strong contenders for GM positions. While candidates with strictly finance-related degrees can also be good fits in certain instances, hiring managers should look specifically for experience in hospitality revenue management or sales. These candidates, Thompson says, are likely to operate with a greater understanding of hospitality-specific financial problems and opportunities.
Do They Have a Degree in a Relevant Field?
Samuels says that nearly 80 percent of GMs at major hotel brands have a bachelor’s degree. But, he emphasizes, the types of degrees hiring managers will consider is expanding, as other areas of study are proving that they, too can provide graduates with skills that translate into hotel management prowess. As a result, he says, a hotel management degree is no longer a necessity.
“Because of what you deal with in this industry—working on an interpersonal level with people—psychology majors, for example, are sometimes a really good fit,” Samuels says. “You do not need a hotel or hospitality degree to excel in this business.”
Take Lola Roeh, the general manager of The Osthoff Resort, a well-reviewed property on the edge of Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin. When she began working at the resort 15 years ago, the property had no ratings and scant guest services to offer.
Roeh’s background isn’t in hospitality, but biology and chemistry. She says her in-depth understanding of scientific process helps her advance The Osthoff Report by allowing her to identify problems, form a hypothesis and test it to find the most effective solution.
For example, Roeh used the scientific method to achieve her goal of earning The Osthoff Resort a strong AAA rating. Since the resort lacked ratings of any kind, she hypothesized that introducing additional services, such as bell service, room service and a concierge, could round out the hotel’s positive features and earn it greater recognition.
The “test,” an on-site evaluation administered by a AAA inspector, proved Roeh’s hypothesis to be true. The Osthoff Resort already had great customer service and a desirable location, so the additional services helped the property gain a four-diamond AAA rating, which Roeh has helped maintain for 16 years.
While Roeh says she uses the scientific method every day, “I do it on a very unconscious level,” she says. “It’s simply an ingrained method for decision making.”
Though evaluating candidates for your hotel’s GM position is certainly no easy feat, the questions highlighted here can help you identify which applicants are most qualified for the position and will likely have the greatest impact when it comes to managing, growing and advancing the value of your hotel. What questions have you found most effective? Share your experience by leaving a comment below.