4 minute read

Eugenio Pirri, chief people and culture officer, on how coronavirus changed HR at Dorchester Collection

In May 2020 The People Space and 10Eighty held a week-long series of webinars to discover the practical steps HR directors were taking to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. We catch up with Eugenio Pirri, chief people and culture officer of Dorchester Collection, to discover the lessons since and which of the changes will now be permanent

Eugenio Pirri, chief people and culture officer of Dorchester Collection, on COVID-19

Business strategy and trading

We finally got to the point where we reopened all of our hotels and while we were nowhere near what we would normally see we had reached a point where we were seeing a plateau from the perspective of steady business evenly distributed throughout the hotels.

And we were seeing some real wins, especially in food and beverage. Restaurants were doing well. even though there was still no indoor dining allowed. So we converted a lot of our outdoor space to amazing restaurants and they've been packed. Some hotels reached pre COVID levels. And then of course, lockdown 2.0 in the UK, lockdown 1.5 in Italy and so on.

So it's been very challenging. And then the US elections always play, as whenever you have an election year people don't generally travel out of the US anyway. So we had people back working at home, no restaurants, a skeleton staff again.

However, one good thing we did is another global survey with our employees and we went back to every single question we had previously asked. More than 5,000 comments were received and we actually beat our year on year score. All 14 of our key drivers are now in the top 5% globally. People have been really happy with how we've handled COVID and how we've taken care of them and tried to do the right thing.

So it's been hard. It’s two steps forward, five steps back. And most definitely crisis is the norm now. So we stopped looking at it from a very panicked approach and realised that these are just the cards we've been dealt at the moment.

We continue to stay true to our employees. So still to date we haven’t made any redundancies. But that came with a lot of sacrifices externally. We’ve renegotiated contracts with more than 70 suppliers across the world and we let go of some contractors permanently, bringing those resources and workforce internally so that people who didn’t have their normal day jobs were doing those jobs now.

We expect Q1 2021 to be very similar to the last quarter of 2020, so not great. In Q2 we think we'll maybe have a 25% lift and by Q3, maybe a 50% lift. And then by Q4, hopefully 75%. We don't think we'll recover next year. It’s a 2022 story. What we’ve put in our budgets with our owners is that we believe by June there'll be enough of the vaccine out there that people will feel comfortable to travel again. And also only by then will companies have money to travel, because many have lost a lot of money during this period and so have to make money again before they can spend it.

New actions and approaches we will keep

1. Build on cross functional training

More than 60% of the workforce is now doing more than three jobs. So they're moving around the business being highly adaptable and highly flexible. What was funny was that we spent the last four years in a very intensive cross training programme because, as a small company, we saw it as a way to keep people motivated and keep their growth and development going. We’ve seen wonderful retention as people are learning new things and having more meaningful work, because they see how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

We couldn't have prepared better. Now people can go and make beds, do check-ins, serve coffee, whatever it takes. And I think people came back extremely loyal to Dorchester Collection because we didn't make them redundant, so they happily rolled up their sleeves. And all the unions we work with supported the practices. Usually they're very touchy about somebody working in another department or doing somebody else's job but they were like, no, we appreciate all you've done. We're all in this together. Let's get through this. So it really paid dividends.

The efficiency and productivity of having people work in different areas has been amazing. People are gaining experiences now that they don't normally get to have, because they’re put in that job and that's what they do until they get moved or promoted or whatever the case. For the first time ever, you've been really doing it on a global scale. There's a lot to be said for the COVID dividend, while still respecting the fact there’s been a lot of sadness.

2. Creative communication

The biggest thing has really been on the communication front. Our commitment was to talk to every single employee every week. We've really looked for creative ways to keep that going. So in many cases the coffee chats with the general managers have continued. They're just onsite with more social distancing. The whole value of working together was elevated.

The most amazing thing was the creativity – the way people came up with ideas to generate new avenues of revenue. In some places we turned our bars that have patio terraces into the gyms. Now we have suites where people who are locked down and choosing to quarantine in the hotels can go for lunch in another guest-room that maybe has a terrace. We’re seeing our engagement levels increase from our guests.

3. New revenue streams

We've identified six or seven new revenue streams that we're going to keep. They’re generating good revenues for us. Click and collect has been huge for us. It seems like a simple thing, and I know everyone in the industry is doing it, but it's been really powerful for us and really helped. The use of outdoor space for dining, that is something we never considered before the use of outdoor terraces.

4. Strengthening and celebrating new ideas and innovation

I always said that putting 10 managers in a room is useless when you can put three employees in a room, because they're the ones that are actually doing the job. They're the ones that are actually having that last point of contact with the guests and they know exactly what the guests want. So just ask your employees to come up with creative ideas and celebrate it. We're very fortunate because one of our five values is creativity. This year, in our values awards, we're doing 10 awards specifically around creativity.

Another good thing that the COVID period gave us is a lot of downtime to train so that when the employees come back, they could hit the ground running. We see the results from the feedback from the guests. Not a week goes by that we're not inundated with guest letters about how much better it is now than it even was before. And we were proud of how it was before!

We took advantage of this downtime to strengthen new ideas. And that's what you had to do, because I think a lot of companies just got into cost-saving, but now, more than ever being ready to get your market share back, to make money again, to become profitable and to continue to protect your legacy, your culture, your people and your bottom line is more important than ever.

Published 16 December 2020

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