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From team management to respect for the identity of this luxury hotel built in 1870, Sophie Volant takes us on a tour of her everyday life at the Hôtel du Cap Eden Roc


From team management to respect for the identity of this luxury hotel built in 1870, Sophie Volant takes us on a tour of her everyday life at the Hôtel du Cap Eden Roc

Category: Europe - France - Interviews and portraits - Interviews - Industry leaders
Interview made by Vanessa Guerrier-Buisine on 2023-12-20

A taste for travel often leads to a career in hospitality. Sophie Volant embarked on this career thanks to the many trips her parents took her on. A taste for other people is frequently the second deciding factor, and the sociability that characterizes Sophie Volant reinforced this choice. Proud of French excellence, it was to the Institut Paul Bocuse (now Institut Lyfe) that she turned.

At the age of 19, she did her first stage in catering at the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz, but it was abroad that she planned her next step, determined to combine experience in Asia with experience in the United States. The school didn't yet offer internships abroad, but it didn't matter. After sending in almost 500 handwritten CVs, her boldness and perseverance landed her a placement at the Oberoi in Bali, this time in accommodation, from reception to reservations and guest relations.

Her third internship would prove crucial to her future career, as she landed at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, working with Philippe Perd. The Belgian-Burgundian, as she defines herself, then flew to the United States, to Disney World, for the visa facility at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. The United States became her adopted home for a few years, when she landed at the New York Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue, a hotel with 1,000 rooms. The American social ladder responded to her ambition, and she moved up quickly, from Front Office Manager to Guest Relation Manager, before becoming Tower Sales Manager. Returning to Europe in 2007, she made a stopover in London, before landing on the French Riviera at the Hôtel du Cap Eden Roc, where she has remained ever since. Philippe Perd, who runs the hotel, saw the value in her when she worked at the Crillon.

Sophie Volant talks to Journal des Palaces about her career, her vision of the profession and her love for the Hôtel du Cap Eden Roc, its guests and its teams.

What characterizes Hôtel du Cap Eden Roc the most?

Firstly, we are a seasonal hotel, and secondly, thanks to the hotel's history, we are very fortunate to have a very high rate of loyal guests, who have been coming back to the hotel for 20, 30 or 40 years. Some of them for 50 years, religiously, every year, on the same date, in the same rooms.

We are also blessed with hoteliers and employees who are just as loyal. This year, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of some of our employees, and around ten of them have been with us for 40 years.
So there's quite a unique relationship that develops between these loyal customers and these loyal hoteliers - it's almost like a family relationship.

I remember when I first arrived at the Hôtel du Cap Eden Roc. I saw employees giving big hugs, patting the guests on the back and kissing the guests' children as they arrived because they had simply seen them grow up. Our guests don't see our staff as employees, but almost as family friends and therefore don't see the hotel as a hotel, but as their summer home. Sometimes even young children who stay here choose to get married at the hotel when they become adults.

How many people work at the Hôtel du Cap Eden Roc?

At the height of the season, 550 hotel staff are present, for 111 rooms, giving a ratio of five people per room. When the hotel is closed, 100 people are on permanent contracts, including gardeners and technicians. We also have employees who, in the summer, are on duty, chefs de rang or maître d'hôtel. In the winter they stay on and don their painter's coats to paint all the staff rooms or guest rooms, sand the wood and maintain the hotel.

You emphasize the loyalty of your employees. Is this also the case with the new generations?

That's a good question with generation Z. You get the impression that they're more inclined to change easily - it's in the air of the times. But we're lucky enough to belong to a hotel group where we try to develop people in the hotels Oetker.

Some of them fall completely in love with the hotel, young people who are pearls, who have stars in their eyes every morning when they come to work. They're always in a good mood, so caring, pampering the guests as you would your beloved grandmother. It's quite exceptional, and they really don't want to leave.

You are the Director of the Cap Eden Roc hotel in Antibes. What are your main responsibilities?

My duties are divided into four main areas:

Obviously, there's the guest experience aspect. With the help of the teams, you always have to come up with inspiring concepts, restaurant concepts, SPA concepts, experience concepts, and so on. You have to anticipate their needs, that's luxury, and you have to transform their precious moments, which are their holidays, into magical memories for the rest of their lives.

When you're a hotel manager, the whole hotel/staff/recruitment aspect is critical. We have to give our teams the tools they need to do their jobs well, develop them, train them, and make sure they are fulfilled so that they want to stay.

What's more, being a hotel manager requires you to have a very global vision, to protect and maintain the reputation of the property. In our case, at the Hôtel du Cap, we have to protect a heritage, protect the soul of the place because modernizing a hotel for the 21st century, while protecting its history, is not necessarily easy. Protecting a heritage for future generations is something I constantly keep in mind in all the decisions we have to make.

Finally, the last aspect is the safety of everyone, guests, hoteliers, and partners who come to work at the hotel. This includes the safety of property, the safety of people and digital security, which is a real issue these days. We need to be able to protect our customers' data and their privacy.

You were honoured with the Best Hotelier of the Year award at the DUCO France 2023 event. How did you react to this recognition?

I was surprised because I didn't know I'd been nominated until late on. It was someone I knew on social media who sent me a message congratulating me. Faced with this extraordinary panel of experienced hoteliers, the Plaza Athénée, the Four Seasons Hotel George V, the Bristol Paris, the Carlton Cannes, the Ritz Paris… It's an honour, but I accept it with the greatest possible humility. Above and beyond the hotelier and the woman that I am, this award goes above all to the 550 hoteliers behind the hotel because I can't do my job without the others.

How would you define luxury hospitality?

It's a form of access to rarity, which can be the rarity of a magnificent and quite unique location, of a view, the rarity of a heritage, of course. But, essentially, it's also the rarity of know-how. Because you can have all the most beautiful views and the most beautiful materials in the world in a room, which is necessary in luxury, but you must also have the rarity of an experience.

And I think that experience, a unique experience, comes from the expertise of the people who are there to serve you. The expertise of a pastry chef or a chocolatier, but also that of a great concierge who knows how to make you feel like the most important person in the world through his or her relationships and exchanges with you.

You also provide access to truly exclusive things that ordinary mortals don't have access to. It's the rarity of what you give the customer to experience.

What challenges are you facing at the Hôtel du Cap Eden Roc?

The challenges we all share are adapting to the famous generation Z, a real issue in all professions, not just in the hospitality industry. Recruitment is today's challenge, that's for sure. We're doing well, because we still make people dream, but it's harder than it used to be. We're doing many things to try to attract people and keep them. One of the challenges of tomorrow that we are all going to face is artificial intelligence. I don't think we've seen the last of that.

Environmental challenges, too, with CSR, are leading us to think a lot, and this is common to the hospitality industry in general: the management of water, resources, and waste. We're lucky enough to be in the heart of a magnificent park, which exposes us to all the environmental challenges.

Are there any challenges specific to a luxury hotel?

It goes back to my definition of luxury, which is the increasing difficulty we have in finding craftsmen with real know-how.

For example, it's increasingly difficult to find people in the dining room who already have experience of cutting and flambéing. We hire them and teach them. At the Hôtel du Cap, we manage our own linen, which is something we're proud of because it obviously leads to higher quality and makes us less dependent on outside companies. But we're having trouble finding ironers, for example. It's a real job. As are dressmakers because we sew for our customers on a daily basis, with magnificent dresses that need to be altered, and it's a real job to know how to alter a dress that costs €50,000.

Today, this kind of know-how is being lost, and in a palace, that's a challenge.

How has your profession changed lately?

When I started out more than 25 years ago in the hospitality industry, we did what we were told and didn't ask any questions, just worked hard.

Today, we manage teams who question everything, who want to understand everything and who won't do what they're told if it doesn't make sense to them. But as we have 550 employees, 50% of whom are generation Z, we have to change the way we manage our teams. We have to give meaning to everything we do.

Young people want meaning, to find a just cause in their day-to-day work and mission. It's all very well not to agree to do everything and anything without asking questions - it's a form of intelligence. And it's true that generation Z wants to work less hard than we've been able to accept in the past. It's a good step forward, but we need to adapt.

What have you changed to meet these expectations?

One very convincing and costly, but necessary, example is that we are doing our utmost to stop offering jobs with breaks, in the restaurant, kitchen or dining room, but also for valets. We also try as far as possible to offer continuous days off. This means adapting schedules, and therefore human resources and additional investment.

Could you mention a few professional encounters that have marked your career? Do you have any mentors, and if so, can you tell us about them?

Philippe Perd, the hotel's general manager, is my mentor because it was through this meeting that I was able to discover the Hôtel du Cap Eden Roc. I've been working here alongside him for 15 years now, and 25 if I count the Hôtel de Crillon. He is an absolutely exceptional person. He taught me how to manage a hotel and people. Likewise, he also taught me how to be kind, respectful and gentle, while being unfailingly demanding. Because in luxury and in these professions, you have to be extremely demanding in terms of quality, even uncompromising. As soon as I meet someone, I try to learn from what they can teach me or bring to the table.

At the Institut Paul Bocuse (now the Institut Lyfe), I met Madame Éléonore Vial, who was very supportive of my decision to work abroad, even coming to see me in Bali when I was 19. She has followed my career, and we're still in touch. When you're young, it's necessary to have the chance to meet mentors who, with a great deal of kindness and respect for your choices, help you to make them come true.

Finally, Laurent Vanhoegarden, who was director of Cap Eden Roc, taught me that the social side of a director's role was absolutely essential. I had it in me, but I hadn't necessarily understood that it was an absolute necessity. We're there to help people, not to bully them. This applies not only to the hotel staff, but also to the outside workers and partners, such as the police, firefighters, gendarmerie, and anyone else who can help out at the hotel. Our local community needs businesses like ours, which bring in a huge amount of work and put the destination on the map. I think Laurent Vanhoegarden taught me that.

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

You have to try to know more or less what you want, and what you don't want, and stick to it. When you're young, it's important to tell yourself that you have to respect everyone and that no-one is superior to anyone else. You have to reach out to others and take an interest in everything, not just catering but also accommodation, linen, housekeeping, finance, sales, and marketing.

Next, I'd like to remind you that you don't become a general manager straight out of hotel school. You have to get your hands dirty, you have to work, you have to experience things, and then you can go on to manage people.

And if you want to be a luxury hotelier, I like to say that luxury means creating emotional experiences for our customers and offering them a rare treat. But to achieve that, you have to be extraordinary yourself on a daily basis. You have to surpass yourself, not be mediocre. To want luxury, we have to be demanding of ourselves, to surpass ourselves, to create the extraordinary.

I think that today more than ever in France, we are fortunate that the hospitality and catering professions remain a passion and a real profession for young people. We need to ensure that this expertise continues.

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About the author

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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