“I read every single comment…”

She’s one of the most influential women in the hospitality industry, so how does Beatrice Tollman run a global hotel group?

Johannesburg-born Beatrice Tollman may have been in the hospitality industry for over 60 years, but she’s as passionate as ever. Having first opened a clutch of hotels with husband, Stanley Tollman, in South Africa in 1954, the couple moved to the UK two decades later and established The Red Carnation Hotel Collection – named after Stanley’s signature flower. Today, the brand is considered one of the fi nest luxury hotel brands on the planet, with 17 properties across the globe – as well as a fleet of boutique river-cruise liners – and Bea is still a driving force in the business. How does she do it? With a keen eye for décor and a firm grip on customer feedback.

Break the mould “I am a self-taught chef and learned my craft through trial, error and tastings. When my husband and I were starting out in South Africa, I offered to manage our kitchen at The Nugget Hotel – despite the fact that I was a nursery school teacher by profession. “I used to get lots of compliments, but whenever a guest asked to meet the chef, so that they could congratulate ‘him’ in person, we had to tell them that ‘he’ had gone home, because it was so unusual for a woman to be the head chef in those days. I brought out a book of my own recipes in the end, so I was obviously doing something right!”

Take risks “When we opened the Hyde Park Hotel, Stanley decided that we should off er a dinner deal that was 42 courses for 25 shillings. You could have a course of smoked salmon and then asparagus, or fillet steak, or whatever you liked. People said we were mad to do it – and we probably were, to be honest – but it became wildly popular. “Our name grew and the next thing we did was to book some of the world’s best cabaret artists – big names, such as Petula Clark, Jean Sablon and Trini Lopez. The guests liked what we were doing, the business grew and we had put ourselves on the map.”

Keep it in the family “My husband doesn’t get too involved with what I do now; we don’t step on one another’s toes professionally. Obviously, we do have a common interest and I find it helpful to go to him for advice occasionally – he has a lot of experience to draw from and a sense of style. My daughters and son also work in the business and it’s a way of working that makes sense for all of us.”

Do things that scare you “We weren’t in the market for a big project, but – by chance more than judgement – we found ourselves buying Ashford Castle, a landmark estate in Ireland. It had been neglected for many years and when we realised the full extent of the project, I really thought we’d taken on too much. It leaked, it needed a complete refurbishment and modernisation, and every single detail needed to be looked at. “Two years later, the job was all but complete and I’m proud to say that we have done the place more than justice. We were committed to the staff that were already there and to turning our dream of a castle hotel into a reality.”

Discover how your business really works “Every single day, I read our guest comments. I take time out in the morning to read all the feedback from each of our hotels and I always maintain that our guests teach us our business. Without reading that direct feedback, I wouldn’t know what we are doing well and what we could be doing better. I make it my business to respond to every comment and the result is that we have held the position of numbers one, two and three on TripAdvisor for London hotels for more than six years and our other destinations are very highly rated.”

Look after your staff “I am probably at my happiest every year at the Staff Appreciation Party. It’s when I have my own immediate family and my Red Carnation family all in one room. We have over 2,000 staff – they all receive a Christmas present from us – and Red Carnation was ranked No 2 in The Sunday Times Top 100 Companies to Work For (2015).”

Encourage upward movement “There can be a feeling in the hospitality industry that a job is a job, but I really work hard to ensure that my team members reach their potential. Most of the General Managers we employ have worked their way up from different areas of the business, be it the kitchens or housekeeping, and I do my best to encourage, train and present the opportunities to those who show passion and aptitude. “If I can learn this business from the ground up, so can anyone. It’s so important to reward and encourage – happy staff means a happy guest.”

Surprise and delight “I think one of the reasons that our guests come back time and time again is that we deliver a genuine personalised service. As I mentioned earlier, I read every comment and keep a close eye on people’s likes and dislikes. And, when we can make a real difference to someone’s stay – by ensuring that they get a room we know they prefer, their favourite breakfast items or even just offering a different soap fragrance to them – we will. Our approach to guest service is ‘No request too large, no detail too small’, and it’s something that our staff carry out with real sincerity.”

Stand out from the crowd “Every room in every property and on every ship is individually decorated and it’s important to me that each has their own identity. I’m very involved in this side of the business and will buy paintings and furnishings from auctions, commission craftspeople to restore historic features and put a great deal of thought into every detail. “I want every guest to have a memorable experience and remember the room that they stayed in – we don’t want to be the boring beige that is instantly forgettable.”

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: http://www.ink-live.com/emagazines/easyjet-inflight