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Proud of his teams, the man at the head of the family group focuses his attention on their development and on the authentic experiences offered to his customers


Proud of his teams, the man at the head of the family group focuses his attention on their development and on the authentic experiences offered to his customers

Catégorie : Monde - Interviews - - Interviews
Interview réalisé par Vanessa Guerrier-Buisine le 29-09-2023

Jonathan Raggett CEO of Red Carnation Hotels

Jonathan Raggett, CEO of Red Carnation Hotels
Crédit photo © Red Carnation Hotels

Red Carnation Hotelsis the fruit of a love story. From the red carnations worn by Beatrice Tollman's husband, Stanley,a collection of 20 hotels that cultivate a taste for tradition and the loyalty of their staffhas grown. These properties are located mainly in the United Kingdom, but also in South Africa, Botswana, and Switzerland. Destinations selected by love at first sight, and for their exceptional potential.

A unique group where objectives are set transparently and decisions are taken quickly. A group that combines excellence with attention to detail. The fresh carnations worn as buttonholes by the teams may have given way to more durable brooches, but the passion passed down from generation to generation by the Tollman family remains at the heart of every member of staff.

Loyal guests are happy to find reassuring Red Carnation Hotelslandmarks, such as the Leopard bar and the curry room, which can be found in several of the group's hotels. But each property has its own unique charm, history and personality.

At the helm of this collection is a loyal colleague of the Tollman family, Jonathan Raggett. The CEO, who joined Red CarnationHotels in 1998, wears the red pin and the values that go with it with pride. Generosity and kindness are the first impressions left by this man. His vision and passion are clear to see when he talks about his approach to management and teams. His commitment was recognized at the AA Hospitality Awards 2023, where he received the AA Lifetime Achievement Award.

In a fascinating interview, Jonathan Raggett gave Journal des Palaces his recipe for ensuring that Red Carnation remains an iconic brand in the world of luxury hotels, far removed from the race to innovate.

Journal des Palaces: What is the DNA of Red Carnation Hotels? How do you stand out from other luxury hotel collections?

Jonathan Raggett: Red Carnation Hotels is family owned and family run. That's the important factor that decisions are always done with the mid to long term in mind. We invest a lot of money into our training and development of our people. We have something in the region of 100 different training courses taking place throughout our hotels, mandatory or Red Carnation way, but many for the development of the individual team member.

Furthermore, we want to give everybody an opportunity within the hotel to be the very best they can and to get where they want.

You yourself joined the collection in 1998 as General Manager of the Rubens at the Palace. What is it about the brand that makes employees so loyal?

Many people have been in the company for 10, 15, 20 years. A lot of this is down to the fact that we give people an opportunity. When I joined the company, we were three hotels, and we're 20 hotels today. I've been part of that growth with the stakeholders. I very much enjoy the ethos of what we are and what we stand for. They're not my hotels, but I think it's as best it could be because I'm given autonomy, trust to get on and do the job.
We're a company that really looks to develop people, to make this industry one that's professional. The members of the Tollman family genuinely care and want the best, and I enjoy that. Out of it, we're very big into sustainability practises, which again stands well with me. That's the way I like to work things.

How does being a family business make a difference compared to other hotel groups?

We make decisions very quickly and perhaps that's more relevant. If we want to do something, it's me and the stakeholders. There's no kind of “we have to ask this person, this person and this person”.
That's very important and that can often give us the edge. The big companies have many layers they need to get through before a decision.

What do you expect from your General Managers?

I've got a very direct way of working. Every 12 weeks, we organize direct reports during a one-to-one, to set up objectives for the next weeks. They tell me what they believe doing, me what should be doing, and we agree. After 12 weeks, we look at those objectives and I expect them to be done.

Now, if the objectives will not be met because other things are happening, then we'll agree we can extend or change it. They know what's expected, and this is in addition to running the hotel. These are proper objectives, and I think they enjoy the transparency of that, they understand what their role is, and it gives them the chance to get on. It’s very clear, it's understood and it's consistent.

To what extent do you pay attention to detail to deliver a unique experience?

This is a big part of what we do. I always say that a general manager can't run his hotel behind the desk, a general manager needs to be out with the guests, out with the team, checking it.

I often go to see some university students to tell them about the business, but I had a question given to me: “can you describe your job in three words?”. So, I gave this answer: “Check, check, check”. Because that comes down to the attention to detail, checking everything you do. The attention to detail comes from people who understand what the standards are. And then, having the right people who are motivated to make that happen.

Is it easy nowadays to find those people?

We’ve got plenty of people who have been in the company for many years; our heads of departments, our managers, and they're fantastic people.

When we are recruiting from outside, it takes a bit longer. Quite recently, a lady who was cleaning bedrooms – we ask our room attendants to clean 10 rooms per day (editor’s note: a suite accounts up to three or four rooms) – and this lady resigned, saying she wanted to work at a budget hotel. So, we asked why, and she said, “the problem with this job is everything I do, I have somebody telling me what I've got to do”.

But if somebody doesn't have that kind of DNA, that psyche, then you're not going to make that happen. It was quite interesting because she wanted just to fairly clean and get out. We can't accept that; everything has a place, the lamp shades must be absolutely right, the television controls too, and it's having people to check that. There are people that can't be bothered, haven't got the energy, but we need people who understand that.

Does the presence of couples in your general management teams foster the family spirit?

I think the couples are in the more remote areas, in the countryside. It's not a thing we've done purposely, but we have just found that if we're looking for the manager, very often, he or she, has a partner and it comes together that way. They treat the guests as though they’re coming to their home.

How would you define luxury hospitality?

Everybody defines luxury in a different way. I think luxury hotel is a guest coming into a hotel, a restaurant, or a bar, and being made to feel really special. Nothing is too much trouble for the guests. To me, that's luxury.
Time to time, I bring 20 guests that are regular with us, and a facilitator, to understand how we can be better. Lately, we asked those guests, “what is luxury to you people?” One of the guests said luxury to him today was to be able to check in, go to their bedroom or their suite, and not talk to anybody. They wanted to be able to order their room service, order their forgotten iPhone cable, an extra pillow… All the other guests agreed to this statement.

Identifying and understanding what people want to create, what they feel, might be luxury.

You are committed to sustainable development through “Make travel matter”. Could you cite some concrete actions you have taken to raise awareness among your teams and customers?

We're on a mission to reduce our carbon offset and measuring all of that. We're not there yet, but we're working towards that. You will find no single use plastic in any red carnation now, in the kitchens and from our suppliers even. We've lost two good suppliers because of it, but we don't tolerate that. We also measure our food waste. Likewise, we've already reduced our bakery by something like 30%. Measuring our food waste, we're being more careful, and our food cost has naturally come down.

We also give all our employees two extra days, in addition to their holiday, to go back into business of any charity they want to do. They get fully paid, and can work within that charity for that day to give back. Some of my peers say to me that's a waste of money. They should understand that, as I give you that opportunity to do that, you come back motivated, feeling good about what you've done, feeling good about the company.

What exclusive experiences do you offer your customers who are looking for more meaning and authenticity?

We have these “Make travel matter” experiences. One experience that I quite like here in London is, one of our senior chefs often takes couples, even families, to the “Borough Market”, a local market. They'll learn about where the products come from, buy the food and take it back to the hotel to cook that food. It has a full circle, so everybody's winning.

Around our beautiful Ashford Castle, in Ireland, there are many little businesses, and a nice family that weaves baskets. Our guests go and learn how to weave, and they'll buy a basket.

We’ve got countless experiences. The Rubens Hotel is opposite Buckingham Palace, we get access to the part of the palace which no one else can do. We have a hotel next to the Royal Albert Hall, the greatest music venue, we can get people into there to see the back of the house and the organ. The British Museum is the biggest tourist attraction here in London, we can get people in early, before it even opens or late for a curator.
It's an important part that people today are looking for, when they're going to book a reservation, looking for not just the room, it's the experience they look for.

We have in all of our hotels four or five different experiences, these make travel matter experiences. Creating more experiences is part of the challenges of our general managers.

Can you mention any services that are specific to your properties?

Sure. One of the things that we're renowned for in many of our hotels are the leopard bars. The Tollman family told us they herald from Africa, and the leopard is their favourite animal, that is the start of it. We dress these bars up with the leopard print carpets, leopard prints, paper, which is great fun.

Our afternoon tea is huge here in the UK, so we've got enormous different ranges of teas, from the flowering teas to the decaffeinated teas, along with obviously the delicious cakes and sandwiches.

We're very traditional, we like the service to be absolutely the very best. Some hotels would have mattresses on the floor, and super lights would be flashing… That's not us. As it is about tradition and beautifully prepared beds and things next to your wards. That’s why our repeat factor of guests, is huge, in some of our hotels, it's above 70%.

You have adopted a very cautious approach to growth and seem to choose your properties and destinations very carefully. How do you select the destinations in which you want to set up?

When you work for a family, that strategy of where and how you buy hotels is a little different from a corporate set up. What we tend to do is that we go to places where we like the location. But we're always looking for a hotel that needs a lot of money spending on it, on the fabric of the building, but also on the people side.

So, all the hotels that we bought in my time have these many millions spent on them. But as important, making a team bringing more people in the training and development and getting that whole spirit of hospitality. If you see a hotel that has five stars and is very well run, then it would not be for us. Because we would believe we could do anything more, or we would not be able to get the value from it.

If you look at our collection, the hotels in South Africa, in Botswana, that's because the family held from there. Ashford Castle was a place to stay held, was visited many years ago and they loved it. There was a desire to get it, and so on.

What are the next destinations in which you would like to expand? Why and when?

A brand-new hotel is opening in Edinburgh in March next year. It was the Royal Over-Seas League club. It was in a real poor state of repair, so we saw that as a great opportunity because it's a very good location, overlooking the castle in Edinburgh. We need to put everything out of it and start again. And I'm going to bring a team of red carnation people into it.

We're 20 hotels now, we understand where things are, how it operates, we know the names of many of our people, we know the guests, etc. And we're not looking to become masters, to become 40 or 60 hotels. We're probably at the right sort of number now, maybe to get no more hotels and just focus properly on what we've got. But that said, if something great came up, then possibly. We're not hungry right now for more hotels.

How do you react to the new hotels coming to London? Do you have plans for your hotels there?

Yes, always, definitely. If you take London right now, there's a new Peninsula, a new Raffles, a new Rosewood. We need to make sure that everything about our hotel is working. We used the word tradition earlier, that's important, but that is not an excuse. Our technology isn't absolutely right; we don't have the fastest Wi-Fi, the Chromecast televisions. Everything has to be what the customer expects today, so I am absolutely looking to spend money that we're making on our hotels, because of the competition, and making sure they're right.

One thing we've got above all of these new hotels coming in are our fabulous people, and these people are the loyal people. These are the people who are Red Carnation through and through. I'm sure they've been offered other jobs, but they stay with us because they recognize they're with a company that genuinely cares about them as well.

No new hotel will start with those sorts of people. Maybe in years to come, but this sort of thing takes a long time to get.

What advice would you give to a young person looking for a career in the luxury hotel industry?

With the experience, it's such a rewarding business because we're dealing with nice things. When people come to a luxury hotel, it's a beautiful thing, they've got great comfort, great food, it's that happy place. And I love this business right now because I'm working with much younger people too, so it keeps me, reinvents me.
To a young person coming in, I would say get your hands dirty, get involved in the housekeeping, get involved in the front office, do every job you possibly can, to understand the business.
From there, if you work hard, and you take opportunities like we offer with our training courses, you will definitely be promoted. You'll definitely earn more money, and you'll get up that ladder. In addition, it gives you the opportunity to travel, to go see places.

If you don't really like people, and you don't like providing service, then this definitely isn't the right business. Because it's a business of people. If you're a person who needs to have every single weekend off, then it probably isn't right for you. But I would say that in any business you work in today, if you want to get to the top, you want to get to management, you've got to put a bit more in.

If you're kind, if you care, if you have a good work ethic, you can get on very quickly in this business, you can become a general manager, certainly in your 30s, but you have to work hard, like any business. You've got to give your very best and, if you like people, if you're a team player, this industry is a fantastic one.

Red Carnation hotels pay attention to every detail, as seen here in room 326 at Ashford Castle

Red Carnation hotels pay attention to every detail, as seen here in room 326 at Ashford Castle
Crédit photo © Red Carnation Hotels

Ashford Castle, one of the iconic hotels in the Red Carnation collection
Crédit photo © Red Carnation Hotels

The cigar lounge is also a must at the Hôtel d'Angleterre in Geneva
Crédit photo © Red Carnation Hotels

The Hôtel d'Angleterre in Geneva also boasts the emblematic Leopard Bar, a signature of Red Carnation hotels
Crédit photo © Red Carnation Hotels

The afternoon tea tradition is very strong at Red Carnation hotels, here at Ashford Castle
Crédit photo © Red Carnation Hotels

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A propos de l'auteur

As a journalist and luxury hotel expert inspired by the men and women who embody it, Vanessa aspires to enhance and sublimate the beauty and elegance of palaces through her writing. "In a palace, simplicity serves the quest for excellence" she admires.

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