Susan bland took over the role of managing director of rbh – the uk’s leading independent management company last month. Susan young caught up with susan,who is also chair of the hospitality employers group (heg),to find out more about one of scotland’s leading hospitality operators.
I am a great believer in meeting people face to face and despite the current climate when I suggested interviewing Susan Bland the new Managing Director at RBH, she didn’t hesitate. We met at the Ibis Styles in Glasgow’s Waterloo Street – one of the hotels that RBH look after. Susan, who hails from the North of England, has hospitality in her blood. It was her auntie who really got her into it.This aunt had a hotel in Clacton-on-Sea in Essex and Susan used to visit her and from the age of 12 she would help out in the hotel waiting tables and such like. She tells me that’s when she got the hotel bug. So it seemed natural to follow her Business degree from the University of Newcastle with a post-grad in hotel and catering. And of course, she funded her education by working in hospitality. Says Susan,“I worked wherever I could doing whatever I could from cleaning bedrooms to waiting tables.”
Roll on 30 years and Susan has worked her way up through the ranks and has just taken on the role of Managing Director of RBH. She was previously RBH’s Chief Operations Support Officer for the company which she joined nine years ago. Her new role includes overseeing operations across the business, as well as looking after its commercial side.
As Chief Operations Support Officer, Susan was responsible for multiple operating functions including commercial, leisure, spa, procurement, F&B,IT and HR.Now she has the opportunity to merge the responsibilities to help navigate the business through and over COVID-19 pandemic, which remains one of the most challenging periods ever for the hospitality industry.
Susan is a genuine role model. She now leads
a company which manages a diverse collection
of over 45 branded and private label hotel properties, with an annual turnover under management in excess of £200m, and RBH works in partnership with five of the most prestigious international hotel brands, including IHG, Hilton, Accor, Marriott and Wyndham.
I can count on one hand the number of women I have met who have risen to the top in the hotel industry in Scotland, but as Susan reveals, it is not just Scotland that sees women under-represented at management level. Susan says, “There is no denying the statistics.There are fewer women in leadership roles than there ought to be.The vast majority of senior roles in corporate companies are still occupied by men.And if there is any gender pay gap it is being driven by the gender at the top.”
She continues, “One of the reasons there is still in inbalance is exactly because of the lack of female role models. I feel like the exception.
“I think senior people in leadership roles should encourage more women but this is not about positive discrimination.We are all working in a more flexible world – and the home world has changed for both men and women.Whether it is home schooling or cooking, home tasks are now shared.
“Men and women often do approach things from a different perspective, but I think that is a good thing. I perhaps have challenged the ways things have been done and that is something that I encourage in my management team. One
of my worst bosses was a woman who tried to emulate some less appealing male traits such as being overly aggressive, and over dictatorial in their approach. I believe you can influence and make an impact with a consultative approach.And it has never been more important to be personable and take people with you than now.
“Our approach puts flexibility at its core and when we compare women in leadership roles in this business we have fared well compared to our competitors with 33% of our General Managers being female and 50% of the team female.Teams benefit more from diversity whatever that looks like whether it be the teams you work with or the teams you manage.”
The RBH business has 100 hotel specialists operating in London and Glasgow.The portfolio unites over 5,700 rooms and over 1,900 colleagues across the managed and leased hotels.
One of the things that Susan loves is having the ability to influence the culture in a company and the ability to get people to work together. She believes this is what helps create a successful business. But what has led to her own success?
After leaving Uni she joined Swallow Hotels and took on her first management role as a trainee manager.The experience she had gained while working her way through the food and beverage side of the hospitality business while at school and then University stood her in good stead and she was soon promoted to Deputy General Manager.
She says, “My goal then was to be General Manager. However, when I got there I realised that this wasn’t a role I wanted to do. In those days the deputy and the hotel team dealt with customers and the General Manager dealt with things in the office on the computer. I wanted to be out with the guests ensuring that our customers had a good time and I could do that by really focussing on the hospitality team and helping to develop them. When you were a General Manager (then) it was not part of the experience.
“It is not the same today.”Although she qualifies that by saying ‘well maybe for
some’ before continuing,“Generally General Manager’s are more front-facing. I certainly believe the best engage with people and look after their guests and they need to be out there to do that, in effect they need to be Mr and Mrs Hospitality – and the good ones get that.They are passionate about their people, their hotel, and the industry.
Susan admits that for many years hospitality has had a poor reputation for long hours, low pay and unsociable shifts. And that is a preconception she wants to change. She revealed that last year during a presentation to hospitality students at Strathclyde University she invited them to guess the wages of various roles in hospitality using RBH’s wages model.“They estimated the wages in every role too low. Maybe its bad reputation was justified at one point but not now. It is such a good industry to be part of – it is flexible and dynamic, I honestly don’t think there is anything better.There are so many opportunities to grow and develop. Career progression is there for everyone and when you add travel into the proposition – because it is one of the few careers where you can travel the world – it’s is a great career.” she says.
However, she admits, “We have to influence parents that hospitality is not just a holiday job or a job when you are studying – that it is a good career with great prospects. Despite what is going on at the moment everyone will always want to socialise.”
From Swallow Hotels Susan left the hotel sector to work in the branded restaurant sector and she tells me that she learned a huge amount about finance and business while there.
Her next role was at leisure company Invicta, that was subsequently bought out by Esporta. It was a highlight in her career. She reminisces, “My job was to open health and racquet clubs. I was right there from the start – from making the plans to wearing the hard hat on the building site. I opened clubs around the country. Once you got one up and running it was on to the next one. It was a great experience. I loved recruiting the teams, creating the culture, embedding it, and getting the people on board.”
The job she loved coincided with meeting a man she loved. And once that happened she had to stop travelling so much and as a result stepped back into the hotel world, where she has remained ever since.
Says Susan, “I realised that a lot of the stuff I had enjoyed in previous jobs was around people, culture, engagement and recruitment. So I joined IHG in a training development role. I subsequently did my CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) qualification and spent ten years with IHG becoming HR Director UK and Ireland for the company. It helped me greatly on my people journey.
“One of the great things working for a huge brand like IHG is the support and opportunities you have. One of the frustrations is that you are a tiny cog in a huge machine.Your span of control is quite restricted. In brands it is also very political – you had to play the game to get your stuff done. When I left to join BDL, now RBH, the role was to look after 70 hotels, the same number as I had been looking after at IHG, but it was a totally different world.
“Franchise is much more entrepreneurial and you can think out of the box, and can change things through guidance, and implement decisions straight away.The buck stopped with you. If it goes wrong it’s you. I’m glad I did it that way around. It’s also positive that we can work across brands – the Hilton, Accor, IHG as well as unbranded hotels.You can learn from the best and use bits of each to help the wider por tfolio.
Utilising a hotel management company like ours can help you navigate. For instance, if you are opening a new hotel we can look at making it fit in the market.We might already know there are three brands in the area – so we would work with the client to ensure that we offer a different brand proposition and advice on the best approach to use in that location.We have a lot of resources and can do a lot of research. For instance, the current focus on being more environmentally friendly has been implemented and resourced by the bigger brands work.The intel and the suppliers that they have sourced means that all our hotels can benefit from their knowledge. But brands do take longer to turn as they
are a bit like a ship. It is more fast-paced in franchises and this adds to the passion and the excitement.”
Susan’s background is also operational, and she took on the role of Chief Operating Support Officer for RBH two years ago. Her remit included procurement, revenue, marketing, sales, housekeeping, F&B, HR and learning and development. She worked alongside the Chief Operating Officer.When he left, the role of MD was introduced which meant the operational team and the other teams were brought together. In fact, it has been one of the few pluses of the pandemic. She explains,“Since March we have worked as one joined-up team. It has been more cohesive. Everyone is working from home and we have daily team calls. It has put hotel operations at the heart of everything.
“ Hotel owners are our customers and we have been supporting them. Some have had horrific financial challenges, and we have restructured our team to be much more owner-centric, where perhaps it was split by brands. Communication has been a massive focus – we’ve had daily and weekly calls. Sometimes to keep the engagement going and check on the mental health of the team.We plan to continue that. Everything changes so quickly and it means that everyone gets the same information first hand.We can reassure them that we are keeping their businesses and ours intact.The strength of the team and the communication is ‘the glue’ that keeps our plan intact.
“As we get back to the world people will travel, calls will be more difficult, but it is important to stay joined up and we all have the same goal which is to see our hotels successful.”
Susan revealed that RBH found the furlough scheme “hugely beneficial’ during the months of April, May and June. She reveals, “It allowed us to be flexible and re-engage people.The majority of people do not want to stay home and do nothing. From July everyone was back to work in some capacity.We have built that up over the past few months.
“Clearly we have gone through a consultative process but we have also been able to make savings through reducing hours, allowing people to take sabbaticals and such like.
“Everyone can work from home, although people could come into the offices. It will never be mandatory for people to go back to the office.We were always good at allowing our team to work flexibly and this has just heightened it. Hotel roles too are more flexible especially around childcare and we have to flexible if some have to self-isolate.
“In July and August, of our 45 hotels, a dozen were open throughout for key workers or associated workers.That was hugely beneficial because it gave has a head start before our competitors opened. From 4th – 15th July, we opened most as quickly as we could.”
She reports that after opening, her hotels performed, mainly, ahead of expectations. Saying,“Staycations have been huge for us, for instance in Edinburgh we expected an appalling summer and it was far better than expected for our four hotels there. Inverness was positive and Aberdeen benefitted from the oil and gas business. Glasgow was less so – it relies heavily on corporate business and event travellers and that has not come back and international travel is not back either. City centres and London are definitely the worst- performing which is a complete turnaround from nine months ago. Until businesses return these will continue to struggle.
However, July and August were better than forecasted. September onwards has had its challenges as the Staycation market was not strong and local lockdowns have impacted on people who may have come out.
“This business is working on short lead times, bookings are very much last minute, and we have to offer flexible cancellation terms – so we have different challenges which we are having to adapt to. It is very hard to forecast and although occupancy has been good, rates not so much.The rates won’t return until the corporate market and international travellers return.We don’t have a crystal ball and even using stats from STR – it is a lot of guesswork. City centres and the luxury end of the market will struggle. However, we have still got a pipeline of new builds ongoing – the Hampton in Manchester,The Westin in London and The Gantry in Stratford amongst others. Just recently we took on the management of the historic Crown Hotel Harrogate, so my new role comes into play at an exciting time.
“We have managed to keep our management team intact – we’ve got a great team that has got us through this, and we will need them all going forward.There will
be businesses that close, others will go into administration – some of which we could still work with as a business to turn them around. I believe that although managing costs is very important it should not be to the detriment of the experience. For instance breakfast in a bag was okay at the height of the pandemic but it is not now.
“Our guests want to be kept safe. If they don’t feel safe they won’t come. Cleanliness
is an absolute necessity and staff also need to feel safe. Cleanliness probably comes ahead of service at the moment, but when things start to normalise service will be as important, because that is what differentiates hotels.
“It is certainly going to be challenging over the winter. If people could see an end date it would be a different mindset.When it comes to the restrictions, one size does not fit all. Some people are choosing to bend the rules and are bringing hospitality into disrepute. A lot of restrictions are common sense, but unfortunately not “common enough” and there should be support in play to protect employees from abusive guests.The rules change so much it is difficult for staff and guests alike to keep up.
“Another plus is that Brexit has become less of a challenge because one of the biggest issues hospitality had was the pipeline of people drying up and that is no longer an issue.We now have a pipeline of available talent for all the wrong reasons.”
She concludes,“I’m proud to step up and lead the team as we head into a new chapter, following the most challenging trading period in our history.We are all in this together.”
The last word goes to Helder Pereira, Chief Executive Officer at RBH. He said of Susan’s appointment,“The breadth of industry experience Susan has is exactly what is needed in a leader of a business of this scale.” He is not wrong.