2020 has been a year and a half for those leading businesses in tourism and hospitality. Whether large or small, global chain or family business, rural or urban, COVID19 has ripped the sector and it’s supporting industries apart. Over the years, I have been very fortunate to guest lecture at Universities and Hotels schools in the UK and across Europe, normally about entrepreneurship, marketing and technology, but increasingly in leadership.
Anglo Educational Services and The Residence Apartments, where I am CEO, have had a really difficult year but as a team we have kept on fighting to make sure we have the best chance of survival. There have been sacrifices and many difficult decisions that I have had to make on a regular basis, and I know I am not the only leader in the sector that has found this year challenging but in equal measure, have remained determined to keep the business alive and as many people in employment as possible.
From the start of the crisis in February, I have been noting down my leadership challenges and learnings. I have been sharing these in a series of lectures to mainly UK University students, at both undergrad and postgrad levels. As part of the HMA leadership blog series, I’d like to share these with our HMA audience and I hope you can resonate with some of the points below. I have taken a few of the points and elaborated in words rather than speech 😉
I am a positive person in normal times and have never really experienced anxiety (apart from my GCSEs and A-Level exams!) but have certainly had some moments of extreme anxiety throughout the year. The start of March was something quite unbelievable, and the challenge of leading a team and realising there was little that could be done short-term was very scary. I soon realised, with the help of my wife, that I had to get into the right head space and lead like I normally do… with a smile on my face. I didn’t hide the challenges we were going to face but tried my best to make sure the team had things to look forward too. Whether it be our weekly team Zoom quizzes and drinks on a Friday, or regular catch up with the team members, it was essential to keep in touch with everyone.
I also took to reading medical journals such as the Lancet (not the usual reading of Hospitality Graduate!) to understand both the virus but also the movement on vaccines. This allowed me to rationalise things in my own mind, that there will be an end to this, and ignore the doom mongering in the press. This allowed me to remain as positive as possible and give the team hope that there was a way out.
You can’t deal with a crisis with blind optimism, but you also need to not let yourself slip into constant negativity, as it is even more draining than it needs to be. Keeping positive and motivating yourself, and in turn your team, makes a massive difference to all parties.
Learning new things at a rapid pace
Whether it was the extension of lockdown, operational rules and furlough regulations, or new types of business we had to source for our apartments, things were (and are!) changing on a daily basis. As a leader who likes to plan ahead, and normally years ahead with specific strategies for each department, this was all thrown out the window. Although it was essential to have plans in place, it was putting them in place knowing they were likely to constantly change. Being an independent business, with little middle management and located all in one city (London), there was a great opportunity to be highly adaptable as things changed. Whether it was working out how to service in house guests in April, or creating a reference and deposit process for AST customers in our other flats, my team and I had to learn on our feet. What is great is that at both AES and Umi Digital, there is a general love of learning across the team and this helps in these situations.
Being Bold & Brave
They say that luck favours the brave. I can only say that we had to be bold and brave and make very difficult decisions throughout. Whether it was dealing with landlords or banks, or dealing with the really sad but inevitable redundancies, decisions had to be made quickly. As a leader who leads with his heart on his sleeve, and more often than not, in positive situations, having a constant stream of negative decisions was a challenge to me. The fact that these were on a daily and hourly basis through March, April and May, meant I had to dig deep to have the energy and fortitude to continue to be bold and brave.
What I have felt is that remaining strong in the face of adversity, has actually given great clarity to decisions and planning for the future. Although the future is uncertain in many ways, we have worked hard enough to give ourselves as much clarity as possible for what lies ahead. Given how difficult and unsettling things were back in the middle of the year, I do think we have done remarkably well. If that is not good enough then so be it… but the team and I will not have regrets of not giving it 110% and being brave throughout.
Communication is EVERYTHING
Poor communication is for me the number one thing that causes service-based businesses to fail. Whether it is internally up and down with teams and directors, or externally to customers and stakeholders, communication in fast paced businesses is always difficult.
Given the challenges we have all faced not being able to do communication in traditional face to face settings, the importance of staying in touch was felt massively. Whether it was Zoom, or Slack or even WhatsApp, having communication with my team, and in turn their teams was essential. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was shared throughout this whole period, and I think this communication has galvanised the team even further. The transparency of communication has also been important, sharing good and bad news as we have gone along to make sure we are all swimming in the same direction. I think that many teams will become hybrid with their working going forwards, I hope that our vastly improved internal, and external comms will set us in good footing for when normal service resumes.
Keep innovating…. Keep Marketing …. Keep Customers Informed
Out of almost all difficult moments, come innovations. Some big … some smaller ones… and COVID19 has been no different. The innovation across the restaurant space with the “cook at home food boxes” has been a huge thing that I think will last going forwards.
At AES we were able to innovate a lot, whether it was a new website, new products like our Virtual Internship programming, or even developing new ways of delivering service at the luxury end with our Residence apartments. Much of the innovation was driven by team members and followed through by those very people (with a little support for the rest of the team and I), which shows the importance of leading in a way that allowed them to be free to innovate and develop ideas. No matter how big the crisis, there are opportunities to innovate.
Once those innovations are in place, you need to get it out there. Both AES and The Residence are mainly B2B brands, and with many of our target markets either on furlough or working from home, it would have been easy to have stopped marketing. We actually pushed our efforts and involved more team members in ideas and activities. What I have learnt, is there is never a bad time to “market” to your customers, it is about evolving the medium and techniques depending on the situation.
There are many more challenges and learnings from COVID19 and there will be many more in the days, weeks and months ahead. I hope this personal account helps, but am always here if you want to chat or discuss any of the above in more detail.
As I look ahead to 2021 and beyond, the learnings from COVID19 will be to ensure that I am able to continue with keeping the team communicating with each other and our partners, and make sure we continue to be brave and bold when we analyse our business. The adaptability we have shown as an organisation is something we have to be proud of and use going forward as a key strength of the business.
Steve Lowy sits on the HMA Committee and having created the Umi Hotels brand in 2007, followed by Umi Digital in 2010. Steve is now CEO of Anglo Educational Services and The Residence Apartments and lectures across the UK and Europe, to both businesses and hospitality students.