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.

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