I’ve been in hospitality for 30 years, but I never stop learning
As MD of Dukes Collection, a boutique hotel business with sites in London and Dubai, Debrah Dhugga has developed a keen eye for what customers are really looking for.
She shared her insights with Be the Business as part of her role in judging our Hospitality Hacks Cornwall Awards 2019.
How you have observed the challenges leading a hospitality brand evolve in recent times?
“I think the traveller, whether business or leisure, wants more for less now. You have to be really creative in what you do.
“There are also a lot of new costs that are being absorbed by hospitality companies. Online travel agencies are taking over masses of booking platforms, so it puts a huge cost onto your business, and you need to be creative to get more direct custom. Ten years ago that just wasn’t a cost to consider.
“Next you have to look at the lack of staff. We as an industry have to encourage people to come into our sector and see it as an actual career, not just a job.
“The last factor to touch on is that, because of low-cost airlines, we as British hospitality firms are competing with Europe more than ever. It is as quick and cheap to jump on a flight and be guaranteed the sun than it is to actually stay in your own country.”
What about the biggest opportunities for improvement? Where are those found in hospitality right now?
“I think it is about thinking outside the box and becoming more creative. Consumers are now looking for a more casual than formal experience. Sitting in a restaurant with a tie and suit for dinner is now for a special occasion only. People are looking for a more organic experience and, quite often, healthy eating experiences.”
How you get the most out of your staff? What do you do that is particularly different in terms of training, incentives and target setting?
“First of all, I don’t call them staff and I don’t call them team. We are a family. We in hospitality spend a lot of time at work, and so it is a lifestyle.
“You need to make it an as enjoyable experience to what they are being offered back at house. That comes down to things such as great food in the staff café and a social calendar.
“Businesses can’t be frightened about people leaving, you are training them for the industry and thinking about the bigger picture. Their next experience or opportunity is good for you as they will speak positively about you, especially the training and development they have had.”
How do smaller businesses show there is a career in hospitality?
“It all comes down to what you put into your team. As an example, I had a fabulous lady who was a single mum and room attendant. Her head of department identified her for her social skills. She would ask questions and wanted to do more, so we promoted her to floor supervisor.
“She then applied for a reception job a few years later. Despite having no experience on reception, she knew the hotel and had great customer skills so was able to do the job.
“Not everyone has every set of skills, including myself, so you can train the actual job required. We trained her she’s now gone on to become guest relations manager of Dukes London – and her story started as a room attendant. Someone may not tick every box, but if they have 50 per cent of the skill set then training can fill in the rest.
“Don’t just think that because someone works the kitchen they are going to work there for the rest of their life. Think flexible and think about potential opportunities. The industry is more and more multi-skillset – which is important.”
How do you keep customers coming back through your doors?
“Repeat business is absolutely key. If I just look at Dukes London, 46 per cent of our business is repeat. How do we do that? It’s about a guest experience. When people visit there is a welcome and a goodbye – whatever is sandwiched between that is critical. You need someone to greet them well if they have had the most miserable journey on the aircraft or an awful day at the office.
“For me it comes down to the right training so staff, our ‘family’, know guests are arriving for an experience, not just a stay.”
How do you provide personalisation on scale?
“There is technology you can use, but essentially it is about writing notes about a guest’s experience. I have a very senior individual in business that stays at Dukes in London about ten times a year. All he wants in his room is a big bowl of fresh oranges every time he stays.
“Those fresh oranges are in his room, guaranteed for him on arrival. If they weren’t, he would be pretty unhappy.
“All of this special attention paid, remembering that guest experience, is what makes you stand out from the crowd.”
How do you personally get out and learn from what others are doing?
“I am constantly learning. I have been in the industry for 30 years, but the minute I stop learning is the minute I stop. I have just been on a big international trip, staying in other hotels and talking to the industry – it helps me learn and develop.
“But I also learn from my staff. Within the Dukes family a lot of them are 30 years younger than me, but they have the most creative ideas that I don’t. I can learn from them and build on to it.
“You should never close your door, keep learning, keep developing, travel. I know that smaller companies may say that they can’t afford the trips, but your neighbour might have your next best idea.
“There is nothing that says that you cannot learn from each other, it is all about asking questions and learning. Work with local colleges and universities because some of these young students have amazing ideas.”