Interview: Bill Burnett

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A Young ‘Veteran’ by Susan Young

Hotelier Bill Burnett has been in the industry 35 years and I caught up with him three weeks into his new role as Regional General Manager for North UK and Ireland for hotel management company Cycas Hospitality.
Bill Burnett has recently been described as an ‘industry veteran’ and he is indeed when you consider he has 35 years in hospitality under his belt. But he did start young. He started straight out of school and has moved up through the ranks at a steady pace. His experience has taken him from Glasgow To Edinburgh , Aberdeen and now Dundee and that’s where we caught up at the Staybridge Suites which forms part of a dual-branded property alongside Hotel Indigo, which also comes under his remit. The brands – Indigo and Staybridge, are part of IHG – and are managed by Cycas. Says Bill, “I have spent 15 years working with IHG in various properties. Our two hotels in Dundee I believe, offer the best bedroom product in Dundee, and a fabulous restaurant, Daisy Tasker that everyone is talking about.”
Over the years he has opened, managed and rebranded hotels for leading hospitality companies and multiple hotel brands but it all started at The Crest Hotel in Erskine. Bill started out working part-time there while at school. He was doing room service duties in between studies and he says, “I got the bug.”
He continues, “The General Manager John O’Malley was a big influence on me. He had the film star looks, a fast car and was at the top of the ladder. I thought to myself his job looks great. A year later, after my Highers, instead of going to study Architecture at Uni I decided to go straight into working full-time at The Crest and I was lucky enough to get on their Development Programme in 1986.”
At the time, he reminds me, The Crest was one of ‘major’ hotels in Glasgow’s and had its fair share of VIP’s and celebrity entertainers of the time. Two of the nicest he was introduced to being Bob Monkhouse and Frankie Vaughan but there were many others. The Queen Mother even visited for lunch – she was there after the launch of a ship on the Clyde.
While at The Crest Bill worked in every department learning the grassroots of the trade. Over the next few years, he worked in the kitchen, restaurant, reception, housekeeping, conference sales and banqueting to name but a few. That was probably also the last time he filled in a timesheet. Since then he has worked as he needed to work. He admits, “I don’t think I have ever worked a 40 hour week in my life.”
Over the next few years, Bill moved to North Berwick and worked for Trust House Forte at the Marine Hotel, then he went to the Excelsior in Glasgow (now the Holiday Inn) before joining the Central Hotel in Glasgow.
Bill remembers his days there fondly. “It was a busy hotel and I looked after some fantastic events. At the time it was part of a group owned by Friendly Hotels. It was a tremendous learning experience and possibly the happiest days of my life. When I was there it was the largest and top performing hotel in that group and Glasgow’s biggest three-star hotel. I learned a lot of management skills, improved my F&B experience (it was a big F&B hotel) and also learned about maintenance. It was a big old hotel and I was there during the winter of the big freeze when it went to -20 degrees. The day before Hogmanay one of the water supply pipes on the roof burst at about 10pm – the water flooded seven floors – the fire brigade was involved and our hotel emergency teams. We had to fight to shut the water off, and the flood took out the electricity all around much of the building. Water had collected on a flat roof at level 2 and had formed a swimming pool. But the fire brigade was fantastic, helping us pump out the water and providing drying equipment to help us dry out areas of the hotel. We had a full house for Hogmanay! Our carpets were soaked, our settings were all ruined… but there was a great team spirit and we managed to reset and dry out (as much as we could) and host a Hogmanay Ball which went off without a hitch. It was a real team effort and a straight shift of 30 hours! Coincidentally it was my last month as Deputy GM there. I was delighted when I heard it was being re-developed many years later.”
After leaving the Central Hotel he re-joined The Excelsior (now the Post House) and learned a new skill, Room Revenue Management. Says he, “At the time it was just starting to be a real thing.” It led to his first GM post at the Post House at Edinburgh Zoo. Says Bill, “During my time it was owned by Granada and it changed brand from being a Forte Posthouse to becoming a Holiday Inn. It was the biggest Holiday Inn in Scotland and at the time outside of London. It was my first introduction to a brand and it was fascinating. I had to take my team through the cultural change and I learned about the process of rebranding a hotel.”
Five years later he moved from Edinburgh to Aberdeen to take over a new Holiday Inn. It was to be his billet for the next 12 years, although not his family home – that remained in Erskine.
He enjoyed the boom times and also worked through the difficult times in the Granite City. The company that he had joined had closed and redeveloped the hotel and it was set to re-open as the Holiday Inn Aberdeen West. Under Bill’s management, it went on to become one of the most successful hotels for IHG in Europe from a guest satisfaction point of view, winning various awards including IHG European Hotel of the Year. Bill comments, “From my perspective, it was great to open a hotel. It remains one of the highlights in my career that a relatively small Holiday Inn in Aberdeen was recognised internationally within IHG as being a centre of excellence for the brand.” When I asked how he achieved that he told me, “We focused on quality and we stretched the brand standards to the highest end of scale through the influence of the owners, Aberdeen entrepreneurs Ivor Finnie and Alan Wallace, and through the impact and dedication of the team.”
He continues, “When I got there it was a building site and I had to recruit a team of nearly 100 staff by interviewing them off-site. I had to get them to visualise what we wanted to do. You might say it was a blind recruitment audition. But we managed to recruit a great opening team. Right from the start, we were fully occupied, and we delivered, which is a credit to the whole team. People had left successful jobs in other hotels to join the hotel, despite the fact it wasn’t finished when they interviewed. That opening management team stayed together for nearly eight years. I think the closeness of the team drove the success.”
Aberdeen also allowed Bill to expand his career by getting involved in area management and with other hotel businesses and tourism bodies.
He says, “One of the things I was most proud of in Aberdeen was the fact that we worked together with other hotel managers through Aberdeen City & Shire Hotels Association to help promote Aberdeen as a leisure destination. My aim will be to take a similar approach now and do that here in Dundee as well. We had a great mid-week business in Aberdeen but we needed to get the city recognised as a weekend leisure destination. The hotel industry really pulled together in Aberdeen even though we were all competitors. Since I have joined Cycas I have already had a series of meetings with other hoteliers in Dundee and hopefully, we will work well together to maximise the opportunity that Dundee offers as a staycation city.
He adds, “When I was in Aberdeen we used to look at Dundee with envy. The city seemed to be developing its leisure market with its investment in the waterfront and the V&A. It was a smaller city than Aberdeen, but they seemed to be making more infrastructure developments .”
After leaving Aberdeen Bill moved back initially to the Central Belt and the Westerwood Hotel outside Glasgow. During that time, he undertook and delivered the hotels rebrand to a Doubletree Hilton. For Bill this was quite a short tenure – only two years. It was a Q Hotel and a resort operation and he helped put it on the journey to establish itself as a Doubletree by Hilton.
Then the opportunity to join Cycas presented itself. Says Bill, “The timing was right. Cycas had recently taken on the management of the Dundee double-decker hotel, where I now have an opportunity to help build and develop it for the future.”
Bill reveals that he will make the most of the company’s European resources to help facilitate that. Explaining, “Centralisation is becoming a huge benefit. I can Skype colleagues in London and across Europe and make the most of shared resources. It makes our business more efficient. We also have Town hall meetings where everyone dials in at the same time – everyone gets a soundcheck on the company’s developments and changes. It is an opportunity to talk to people at the same level across Europe and share information.”
He says, “There are certain things that experience gently progresses you into. As you develop through management in this industry you realise you need to be contactable. It is not an industry that shuts down because it is 5 o’clock – if your team need your help you respond. My phone is never off. There have only been a few occasions where I haven’t had to respond – and that would be because I was on the other side of the world.” He continues, “I was at a meeting with other hotel managers recently and we all had two phones on the table. Most hoteliers will relate to that scenario!”
However, he does admit some people can be put off by the working hours in hospitality. “In this day and age it can seem easier to search for jobs in other industries. Hospitality does have unsociable hours – breakfast is always from around at 6am, and we are open all day, in the evenings and at weekends – that’s what our guests expect. And sometimes it is hard to maintain enthusiasm and morale when people are working early hours and late nights. However how many industries can you come into without little or no experience and it can allow you to travel the world? I started without any experience. I was fortunate that I had the right people who helped guide me. It is important for me to do that now. A new start today could be a hotel manager in 10/12 years. I speak to people all the time who have just come into the industry. I tell them to focus on what we are trying to teach you and you can travel the world. With six months experience, you can make yourself desirable to other people in the industry. Maybe I could have gone abroad, but my family kept me rooted in Glasgow. I was always keen to avoid moving my children from school to school.”
His new role includes not just Dundee but the Staybridge Suites in Newcastle, Staybridge Suites in Liverpool, and a hotel in Manchester’s Northern Quarter which will be rebranded and relaunched as a Residence Inn in 2021.
Bill says “One of the attractions of joining Cycas was its ambitious growth plans which include hotels throughout the UK and mainland Europe.
“Cycas co-founder John Wagner brought Staybridge Suites to the UK while at IHG, and – believing so strongly in the extended-stay potential – set up Cycas Hospitality. Last year Cycas brought Matt Luscombe – another IHG recruit – onboard as the company’s first CEO to help bring the company’s ambitious European growth plans to life.”
Although only three weeks in his new role, Bill, as they say, ‘is on it’. “I am looking at our core revenue lines. We definitely have opportunities within our local market. My role is to help develop and introduce new corporate and leisure business to our hotels – and to shout about our places. We want to make it the hotel that everybody looks at and wants to stay at. It is a pretty big objective but if I look at the early indicators, it is entirely possible. We are No 1 in ‘Heartbeat’ which is the IHG internal guest recognition programme – for Staybridge Suites and if our customers look at Trip Advisor we are already 2 and 3 in the city – but we want to be 1 and 2. We believe that we can do this.”
Bill believes that Dundee could also stretch itself just a bit further to attract visitors. He explains, “I would like to see Dundee have a convention auditorium similar to Dublin. I think it lends itself to that with its University and Medical history. I think it would a real asset and add to the allure of the city. It’s also about positively harnessing the visitor assets we have got already and making the city more desirable for people to come to.
“The city appeals to the leisure traveller. Dundee has Carnoustie, Gleneagles and of course St Andrews within easy reach. Our guests can use Dundee as a hub, and the city certainly attracts golfers during the summer months. We are already gearing up for next year’s 150th Open at St Andrews which is sure to be special – it’s always been a major event for Dundee and its surrounding areas, and this is the first time our hotels will be able to play their part.”
On the subject of the proposed tourism tax says Bill, “Any tourism tax should apply fairly to all that benefit in tourism. Hotels are an all too easy target. Visitor attractions, retail and transportation to mention just a few are all benefactors of tourism and there doesn’t appear to have been any proposal which could fairly introduce a tax like that across all tourism sectors. If it does happen there has to be complete transparency on how the tax is utilised so that we can see that the money spent is of a direct benefit to its contributors. I think that is a very difficult thing to do. Councils are all under pressure and are cutting costs. There would be continued concerns over whether this new pot of money would be being appropriated to right causes at the right time.”
He also believes that technology ensures the way for better pricing for guests a better customer experience. Bill suggests, “Technology allows our guests customers the knowledge that we are pricing ourselves as competitively. There is a balance between quality and price and we work hard to establish our quality against other hotels. It used to be that our hotel personnel were involved in daily pricing decisions. We are of course still involved, but no-one will be surprised to know that our pricing is largely automated – computers and software systems play a large part in our industry today. Many of today’s guests wants to be able to book a hotel and also check themselves in. In many brands you can also have your own key ‘delivered’ to your smart phone App. allowing you to walk straight to your bedroom. There are many more advances to come.
Technology aside sometimes it’s the old ways that are the best ways. Like taking the time to learn the names of your entire team – Bill’s latest challenge. He certainly talks the talk and literally walks the walk – last week it was across the Tay Road Bridge and back with his colleagues, and he tells me there are other activities such as yoga classes for employees which have been introduced too. He explains, “Health and wellbeing has become a headline for us all in this industry like so many others. It is vitally important for us to recognise this and to play our part in avoidance and if required, recovery. That is a challenge which we are taking on, and which Cycas champions internally through quarterly wellness weeks.”
Before I left I asked him who he admired in hospitality – he mentioned Stephen Carter, a stalwart of the industry, and Stuart Spence of Aberdeen’s Marcliffe Hotel. Says Bill, “I haven’t met anyone who has been a better advocate for the city of Aberdeen and the hotel industry. He is remarkable man.”
Bill is quietly remarkable too and ready for any challenges heading his way.

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Hotel Magazine Scotland News Team

Hotel Scotland is a new publication (2017) from the publishers of DRAM – Scotland’s leading on-trade magazine. Hotel Scotland is a newsy magazine which covers all aspects of the industry in Scotland. From who’s who, to industry issues and refurbishments.
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