Monday, October 22, 2012

Warning: Christmas is cancelled

Back in the late 90s I worked for a major hotel company. It had its good aspects, but one of the deciding factors in making me realise I was in the wrong place was the CEO's decision to cancel Christmas.

'What? Cancel Christmas in a hotel company? Surely that way madness lies!' I hear you say. Of course, our CEO didn't cancel the customers' Christmas - just the one for staff which happens, traditionally, in the darkest days of January, when hotels are at their quietest.

Working in a hotel in the run-up to Christmas is punishing. Head Office staff were expected to pitch in, so while my efforts out in the hotel estate were brief and less than impressive, I did get to see the routine that saw staff regularly starting their days at 5.30am and finishing by pouring the last of the night's party goers into taxis at 3am the following morning.

Throughout December, staff worked regular 14-16 hour days with departmental and duty managers in particular often working near round the clock for three or four days at a stretch with probably no more than three days off across the whole month. It's a grinding schedule, but hotel folk are used to it.

There's quite a bit of pleasure to be derived from seeing other people enjoy themselves. But more so, there was always the knowledge of a decent bonus to be had at the end of the year, and the opportunity to plan and deliver one heck of a staff party once the tinsel and trimmings had been taken down at the end of the festive period.

Staff Christmases were the talk of the business. These often two-day blow-outs were legendary. In many locations the hotel would close to the public while the staff let off steam at parties that had been planned for months and dreamt of all year - and would be delivered thanks to the generosity of the corporate pocket.

But in my second year running internal comms for this 250-hotel strong group, there was no chance to 'party like it's 1999' (even though it was!) because, in mid December, the CEO decided we all needed to tighten our belts.

The Millennium had seemed the perfect opportunity for the business to make money. Lavish events were planned across the business to tempt in punters - and the sales team, optimistic to a fault, pitched these parties at pretty precipitous prices. The revenue forecast looked impressive - but the actual conversion of glossy brochures into hard cash was rather less so. 1998-99 had been quite a tough year economically. Corporates seemed less prepared to shell out on Millennium parties than our Sales Director anticipated, and many people seemed undecided on whether to celebrate Christmas or New Year in their local hotel (or indeed one of the flagship venues). Too many were opting for neither.

Almost unheard of, but many of our hotels decided to close for New Year - the demand simply wasn't there. Instead of the expected boost to revenue, most hotels were failing to hit their targets. True, they were just as busy in the run-up to Christmas with party nights, office 'do's and the regular Christmas lunch trade. Most were also steady over Christmas Day and Boxing Day, but their expected revenue delivery was about 20% above 1998 - and the lack of New Year bookings over the Millennium meant that such forecasting was way too optimistic.

The decision to premium-price Millennium events was seen as coming from senior management, yet the CEO's decision was that everyone in the business would take a hit. Bonuses were cancelled for everyone at management level, while the planned staff events due for mid-January were cut completely. It was an irony that the decisions were conveyed to me by my boss from a management 'away weekend' at the Forte Village in Sardinia.

I had to go away and write a message for hotel managers to cascade to their teams explaining that due to us missing our targets, it wasn't feasible to hold staff parties in January 2000. This was an across-the-board decision despite the fact that a number of hotels across the organisation had met their targets and some indeed had waiting lists for events - including top-priced Millennium celebrations.

I was one of many middle-ranking employees who fed back reservations to the top team over the next 24 hours. Post-New year celebrations were a tradition in the business - it was wrong to cancel them. Staff out in the hotels were working as hard as ever in the run-up to Christmas and this announcement could even damage business further. This was hitting those people who generated revenue for the business excessively, especially as it had been Head Office dogmatism that had led to the relative failure to sell the Millennium effectively. And, one size fits all would go down especially badly with the venues and teams that were operating successfully.

But, the message went out and was received every bit as badly as we anticipated. For all my wordsmithery, and days spent preparing General Managers for what was due to hit, this really was polishing a turd. Hotel management teams - the people who really drive success in any hotel business - were massively demotivated. The end of year bonus really mattered to them and all felt they'd been tarnished by the faults of a few (and the 'few' were generally in the Head Office sales operation). More junior staff felt cheated. Their bargain with management included the big January blow-out. Just two weeks before Christmas, a very remote management had reneged.

From a senior management perspective, this probably seemed like a quick and efficient means of reducing costs and emphasising the 'we're all in this together' impact of missing sales targets. But it came across as an ill-thought-out move: a knee-jerk reaction which simply didn't consider the consequences of lowered morale and lost engagement.

Could I and my colleagues have done more to change the senior management decision? Even now, more than a decade on, I think not. The top team had physically and metally taken themselves away from the business and were focused much more on managing upwards - militating their failure in the eyes of the conglomerate board above them, than turning a failed sales strategy around through the efforts of the 45,000 people who felt penalised across the business.

Mentally at that point I was in the departure lounge. I no longer felt enthused to give my discretionary effort for a management team I felt to be wholly out of touch with the core of the business. I also felt more than ever that IC was merely a tactical tool for this particular business rather than at the heart of its engagement strategy. In fact, I failed to see any engagement strategy.

Two days before Christmas, my boss, a board director, took us for lunch at the Waldorf. The reception from the hotel team was professional but frosty. I often wondered if they'd taken the opportunity to spit in the soup. My boss was oblivious. Her complete lack of empathy simply highlighted the class structure which operated in the Boardroom. They could do what they liked - somehow they saw themselves as being above the busines, while the rest of the business had to pay the price. Indeed, for my boss there was a complete disconnect between cancelling all our hotels' staff celebrations and splashing out on her platinum corporate card for a slap-up lunch for her own team.

Over the coming months, those who could get out of the business did.  The knee-jerk reaction to the Millennium sales failure was the biggest own-goal this business managed over a two-year period of mismanagement. Shortly afterwards it was broken up and sold off. Most of the hotels remain, but under different brands. Doubtless, many shrewd and successful hotel GMs still remember the catastrophic consequence of a CEO cancelling Christmas.

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Freelance Rules #15 - Stay on top of your game

I'm not sure whether this entry counts as a warm-up to the writing I need to complete today or just a displacement activity. I'll tell myself it's the former but it's probably the latter. In fact, my last 90 minutes since I turned on the PC has largely been displacement. I've chased a couple of late payments (when am I not chasing money?); I've set up a meeting in London on Monday to make my day there more valuable and I've done some pretty basic but necessary admin. And all the time, what I should really be doing remains looming on the side of the desk - a 16 page brief for training materials that need  to be completed today.

Think about that: a 16-page brief (with five supporting documents) for an e-learning script that will probably come out around 2000 words.

Much of my time, I'm really engaged by the projects I get involved in. Working to discover the barriers to youth employment has been fascinating; a series of recent case studies around sustainable cultivation in Asia and Africa has opened my eyes to the issues facing small farmers in the developing world; and even helping two very different organisations relaunch their intranets on the SharePoint 2010 platform has been something I've been really able to get my teeth into.


But one of the first things any half-decent freelancer must become acutely aware of is that not every piece of work will be quite so fascinating. Some will present no challenge; others may be on the edges of your skill-set and you might wonder why some other projects have come your way at all. But, as long as the piece of work is within your capability to deliver, you will succeed as a freelancer only if you pay the same care and attention to the piece as something you're passionate about.

You will only get the repeat business that's the lifeblood of freelancing, and only see your name spread positively beyond your direct clients if you bring the same professionalism to the most mundane and boring project as you do to those that really make your heart sing.

I spent much of Wednesday on my particular elephant in the room. My client knows I was reluctant to take it on (I consider creating e-learning materials a very particular skill and it's an area I don't usually get involved in.). But she convinced me that this particular scripting piece within a far bigger project was actually both within my skillset and that she considered me the best person for the job. Flattery really can work.

So, on Wednesday I got my head around the brief and read through all the source material. While I'm fairly neutral on the subject matter, it was frankly hard to get enthused by a series of dry, academic, analytical reports that provide my base material.

Still, I got my material in order, started prioritising what my client sees as the key points and began constructing my argument - essentially my script narrative. I'm about two fifths in now and the job so far is competent, workmanlike and solid. It hasn't yet come to life.


At some point today, drafting the remaining script sections I hope it will come to life. I hope that something clicks and I suddenly get the inspiration that will draw this together as a cohesive whole rather than a series of separate sub-arguments. I can feel the links bubbling just under the surface, but that sustaining narrative hasn't yet percolated to the front of my mind. Often when I'm writing, be it a plan or a script or a piece of editorial, that idea will be there from the start - that makes the end product so much quicker and easier to produce. But sometimes, as with this piece, it's a bit of a grind. It may well be that in three or four hours when I have all the components assembled, I'll look at it and see what I've missed so far.

What I do know is that I have to get a piece that I'm proud of over to my client by end of play today. Anything less lets me down, lets her down and will not fulfil the brief for her internal clients. This may not be my favourite piece of work this month, but it has to stand tall alongside everything else I'm involved in.

I've actually written myself into a better mood for completing the assignment. Now to ensure that the mood lifts a dry subject into a cohesive script - better still if I find that spark that will make it compelling.