By Susan Young
Like many people, Murray Thomson came into hospitality more by accident than design. He had originally wanted to be a pathologist which is a far cry from the role he has now as General Manager of Glasgow’s Kimpton Blythswood Square Hotel.
Today he has almost 30 years in hospitality under his belt and is joint-chair of the Greater Glasgow Hoteliers Association, but it all could have been so different. He explains, “Hospitality wasn’t really on my radar but when I was still at school my friend got a summer job at Edinburgh’s Scandic Crown pre-opening and they persuaded me to apply too. My first job was as a linen porter. I pushed a blue buggy around collecting linen and I really enjoyed the experience. In fact, I loved working in the hotel so much I decided to take a gap year before going to Uni, work at the hotel and save some money for a car. My mum and dad weren’t too happy!”
He continues, “Over the next seven months I went from housekeeping to being a switchboard operator but then the gulf war happened triggering a downturn in business and I got made redundant. I didn’t want to go home and tell my parents so I went to the jobcentre and applied for a variety of jobs from double glazing sales to hospitality. I got offered a job at Norton House on the reception team. The hotel was part of Richard Branson’s Voyager Hotels at the time and it was a great experience working there. I had a fantastic General Manager who allowed me to do day release and gain an HND in Hospitality Management. That’s where it all really started.”
His first management role was with Stephen Carter at The Glasgow Moathouse. He worked there alongside Laurie Nicol, Robert Cook and various other hospitality stalwarts who have gone on to further professional success.
Murray recalls, “I was only 19 when I joined the Moathouse as Night Manager. It was an extremely busy hotel and it gave me phenomenal experience. Many of the people I met there are still industry friends.”
Murray came out of operations and went into a global sales role with Hilton International based in Edinburgh. Then he moved to the Glasgow Hilton as Sales Manager. That was a bit of an eye-opener for the Edinburgh-born Murray. He explains, “I was the last one in so got the ‘not so sexy’ accounts, and allocated the east of the city as my territory.
To familiarise myself with the area I drove out along Alexandra Parade and kept on driving. At the time there were businesses there like Honeywell and Terex, and I ended up doing some good business with them.
I also looked after the hotel’s entertainment accounts and many of them are still clients today. That’s one of the things I love about this industry is that the people you meet through the business become part of your life. My life today has been enhanced considerably by my connections and the relationships that I’ve made, and continue to make.”
From the Hilton in Glasgow Murray headed back along the M8 to Edinburgh and Rocco Forte’s Balmoral Hotel as Director of Sales and Marketing, followed by a wider UK Sales position. Roll on ten years and he resigned. Murray says, “My personal life had changed – my daughter Alexis had arrived and I was spending a lot of time travelling and leaving my wife Audrey on her own. It wasn’t the right work-life balance. So I decided to set up my own business with her, a representation company MTC Marketing.”
Audrey had a travel background and that combined with Murray’s sales experience made for a winning combination. The two built a client base ranging from car hire businesses to the Duke of Roxburgh’s hotel. It’s a business Audrey still runs. Says Murray, “It’s been a great success. We enjoyed working together and didn’t really argue about anything except maybe admin. Both of us preferred to be out meeting clients.”
It was while Murray was running his own business that he first got involved with The Blythswood. Fiona Strauss who was in charge of sales when Peter Taylor owned the hotel was off on maternity leave and Murray stepped in to fill the role. When she came back to work he was offered a full-time role
as Operations Director. Said Murray, “It was both a difficult and an easy decision to make giving up working for my own business– but Townhouse was a very attractive company to work for and making a move into operations was a big tick box. I thought I was still young enough to become a GM in due course, so it was hugely appealing.”
One of the barriers he believed was the perception that some people thought he was too five-star to get his hands dirty in a GM’s role. So he had something to prove. And that opportunity came following the opening of the new Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow which had at its helm an old colleague of Murray’s – Laurie Nicol, who was looking for a hotel manager. Murray smiles, “I definitely got my hands dirty! It was the busiest banqueting hotel in Glasgow. It seemed to be much more than a hotel it felt like a multi-faceted venue. And it was fun.
Great fun because we had a great team. I’m still friends with them today and everyone has gone on to good roles. I was also awarded a HIT Scotland Scholarship to Cornell University of Hotel Administration on their GM Leadership course. HIT Scotland and David Cochrane do an excellent job and this was a fantastic opportunity.”
In 2014 Principal Hayley was sold to Starwood Capital, and although he had just accepted a GM role with another company, before actually starting he was offered the opportunity to take on the GM’s role at The Blythswood.
“It was funny at my interview they had asked which hotel I thought was the best in Glasgow and I had said The Blythswood, so when I was asked to be GM there I couldn’t turn it down. I’m a great believer in what’s meant for you won’t go past you. And coming back to The Blythswood was a lovely thing. I love this hotel.
“Working for Laurie at Grand Central I had learned a lot. She was a strong operator and had great vision. She gave me a lot of autonomy and left me to get the job done and I learned my style. I spent time there re-energising how the guest relations team were working and looking at how to improve service level experiences. At Grand Central, we all wanted to be a part of the hotel’s success story.”
The lessons learned at Grand Central have stood him in good stead at The Blythswood. One of the biggest learning curves was the fact that although he wants everyone to be happy, it’s not always 100% possible.
Says Murray, “You have to be realistic. When you are working alongside 250 humans who embrace our culture of be yourself, lead yourself and make it count, things can go wrong. We ain’t machines, we are able to connect with our guests in amazing ways, but we also make mistakes. It is how well you recover that’s important. I’ve never worked in a hotel where it all goes right.” Having said that positive feedback from Kimpton Blythswood Square’s guests is very healthy with less than 1% negative feedback which Murray calls “a gift”. “It allows us to put things right and improve what we offer.”
His sales background has also stood him in very good stead. “The biggest thing for me as a sales person, is to sell an experience and bring this to reality. However, I was relying on the team at the hotel to deliver it. Now that I have gone from purely commercial to being a generalist I really appreciate the mechanics of the delivery. Some people think that the hotel runs itself but it takes a huge amount of effort not only front of house but back of house too.”
The Blythswood team do their best for all their customers which these days are mainly leisure guests. The hotel made a strategic decision to change their mix of business a few years ago, and now the hotel, which boasts almost full occupancy for most of the year, is reaping the benefits. But he tells me much of the success it is down to the ‘experience.’
Murray says, “How do we create that experience for our guests and make it count? Especially when they are here for a special celebration or a longer stay. It’s all about heartfelt human connections. We now ask our guests questions, and their answers allow us to make their stay even more special. It’s the detail that counts.
For instance, respecting a guests privacy and asking what time they would like their room serviced? Or “Would they like fresh fruit every day? There is no point in delivering touch points that are not meaningful to them.”
If you do happen to visit Kimpton Blythswood Square there is a good chance that you will come across Murray. He tends to be around the reception and in the dining room particularly at breakfast. Says he, “You can’t work with Stephen Carter and not learn how to be Mr Hospitality. You have to be visible and be accessible to the guests.”
But he, like many others in the same role, finds keeping on top of admin when you are visible a challenge. He has appointed a part-time executive assistant, Claire, to help. Murray explains, “Administration support is fundamental to my success and the hotel’s success. I structure my day so that I clear my admin in the morning, then at lunch and finally in the evening. If I am in the lobby on my phone it is because I am responding to emails. I try and keep on top of it. Technology allows you to be more organised but it creates more admin too, especially when people cc you into emails for the sake of it! You have to get the balance right – being visible but still being commercially focussed.”
Every day Murray walks around the hotel – in the morning he does back of house and the public areas, and during the afternoon he checks the rest of the hotel. “I’ve learned from Stephen and Laurie to pay attention to the details. You become a perfectionist. So much so that if I am having a meeting with one of the management team we often go somewhere else – so that I can fully concentrate on the matters in hand.
“Being offered the GM’s job here at Blythswood Square was a role I never thought would be mine and on the drive in every morning – i thank my lucky stars – I never take it for granted. I think it has taught me to be the best version of me. No two days are the same, and I get to meet some amazing people, but I also have a great team and I love working with them.”
He says, “As a leader, I am never of the mindset that I know everything.
I often ask for their feedback. It reassures me too. Over the last six years, and with the coaching from Cornell, I have a better understanding regarding how your approach and frame of mind can have an impact on people. My team refer to ‘old Murray’ and ‘new Murray’. I have worked hard at being more self-aware and more mindful and I have focused in recent years on my own health and wellbeing. One of my goals is to maintain this”.
He is also hoping to build on the success of the hotel over the next 12 months. He tells me, “We have set an ambitious financial target for the hotel and it’s looking great after last year’s refurbishment. I would also like to improve upon our employee engagement and guest satisfaction.
At the top of his list, however, is gaining five red stars for Kimpton Blythswood Square Hotel. He believes that this year they may get close to achieving the accolade. He says, “The team here are invested in our journey, they want to be here and they believe in our vision for the hotel’s future. The hotel’s success is their success.”
He concludes, “If I get my team to talk about me as affectionately as people talk about Laurie and Stephen – I will know I have done an okay job.”
I don’t think anyone has any doubt about that.