Building local engagement from the ground-up


This originally appeared in Hotel Management International

As the war for talent heats up and guests display a growing demand for authenticity and a sense of place, local engagement is fast becoming seen as an operational imperative. So how can properties integrate communities better into their offering, and how to strike the delicate balance between identity and flexibility? Carrie Wicks, operations director at Firmdale, discusses the role hotels are playing in reshaping the neighbourhood – and the challenges of taking this intimate approach to a new city.

Hotels’ relationships with the milieu they find themselves in is changing fast. Traditionally hospitality was intended to keep the outside world out, to provide an oasis of calm after a long day, and to provide an air of comforting familiarity, from Mumbai to Munich. But the forces of globalisation – and increasingly adventurous guests – mean that many are looking for something different, a change from the cookie cutter hotel experience of the past and a chance to really experience a place, even if it’s just for one night on a business trip.

But this is easier said than done, and the best way to create a culture of inclusivity and flexibility across a multi-property portfolio, and determining who takes the lead, isn’t immediately obvious. Can this approach, for example, even be mandated from the top of a company, or is it best to let individual properties take the initiative?

London and New York-based boutique hotel company Firmdale has been bringing locale into their properties for years now, taking the authenticity and individual charm of the neighbourhoods they find themselves in and working it into enigmatic designs.

“We want to give all of our guests a unique experience,” says Carrie Wilks, operations director at Firmdale. “You can walk between five of our hotels within five minutes, with the West End hotels, so we’ve got to give them more of an identity.

“They’ve got to have that feel that you know you’re in a Firmdale hotel, but you are not a clone of the other one, it is not a blueprint of the one up the road.”

For Firmdale, embedding the neighbourhood into the property isn’t so much an exercise in diversifying its portfolio but the group’s entire raison d’être, taking every location at face value. As a result, Wilks argues, its properties enjoy something of a symbiotic relationship with the communities the company finds itself in.

“I think what we’ve done is buy into a lot of areas and we’ve helped develop them,” says Wilks. “We started years ago in Covent Garden and that’s a fantastic area now, but when we arrived it wasn’t as it is today.

“I suppose we feel that, because we’re established now that we can add value.”

When the company first set up shop, the area was not the cultural hub it is these days. The capital’s centre was suffering from high crime rates and general urban decay – and the site itself had been derelict for some 30 years. For the hotel it was about engaging with the neighbourhood, as well as making it more hospitality oriented, encouraging the growth of new shops and restaurants, without losing the unique identity of the area.

“Soho’s a prime example,” says Wilks. “We’ve built a whole community with the retail outlets we have here, and we have chosen partners to make sure that we can guarantee we’re helping the new businesses in the area.”

A first step is creating spaces open to everyone. The Ham Yard property, for example, opened in 2014, offers a fountain for the community to use, as well as benches and a park, with a walkway offering short cuts to work.

“We look after the community in terms of the water fountain, and all that sort of stuff, it really has a huge impact on the local community and the local people,” says Wilks. “By adding different things like bowling alleys and roof gardens and theatres and screening rooms, we open ourselves up to different markets and different people, and the local community will work with us and want that.”

Integrating the property into its community can manifest itself in other ways, too.

Take recruitment. Increasingly competitive, especially in cities like London, it’s more important than ever that hotels can turn to a steady stream of graduates to bring on as staff and that employers can stand out from the crowd. Firmdale combines this approach with its local focus, working with colleges in the area to train staff and developing apprenticeships for young chefs.

“We have to engage,” says Wilks. “It’s not salary driven anymore, it’s about the company and the ethos, about what it can deliver. Gone are the days when you just come in, do your shift – it’s a community. People want to be developed.”

One of the ways this can happen is building partnerships. Firmdale in London works with local further education college Westminster Kingsway, offering tours of hotels as well as work experience and internship opportunities. On a broader scale, the company work with Oxford Brookes, Bournemouth University and The Edge Hotel School to bring in bright graduates from across the country.

Part of the ease with which Firmdale integrates the local community lies in its identity as a company firmly rooted in the capital. So what happened when such a resolutely London-based hotel decided to set up a new property in New York City, and how did it take the local approach abroad? With one property on Crosby in Lower Manhattan and a new one in midtown on the way next year, much of it was about redefining identity while retaining the ethos that defines the company.

“Americans come to London and stay at Firmdale because they want the English experience,” says Wilks. “So we had to make sure that we’re not trying to be too English over there, we listened to what the market was about.

“Quite frankly the people who stay with us in London stay in the States too, I mean I see them when I’m travelling on the plane, so our guests are really cross-pollinating between one or the other.”

Despite the good fortune of local customers, it was still essential that the New York properties were adapted to the local community and market, rather than simply translating what was done in England. This wasn’t easy, Wilks admits, but through networking with local restaurateurs and hoteliers, and getting the confidence of the neighbourhood, they were able to quickly become part of the scenery.

“We’ve done an awful lot of work with the community over there, too,” she says. “Making sure there was the confidence that we mean business and we’re kindly people, really.”

It was hugely important that the locals saw the hotel as an asset to their area, as opposed to as an eye sore or a noise issue, she adds, making sure to stay mindful when guests leave at night and to stay aware of licensing when putting on events.

“It’s all about making it work for both of us,” she says. “Because in the end we don’t want to be that neighbour from hell, and they want something they feel they can use as well.”

This is essential. Locals have to be able to feel that the hotel is a fixture of the community, not an imposing entity closed off to everyone but the wealthy. As many of our major metropolitan areas come under pressure from market forces and gentrification, with locals priced out of areas they’ve lived in for years, it’s more important than ever, goes the argument, that hotels put something back: whether by hiring local talent or by giving small business a leg up.

“People that don’t embrace the local community are basically digging their own graves,” argues Wilks. “You are not going to get the support – if anything you’re going to get it the opposite way round where people are boycotting you, and that’s not good for business at all.”

On top of the obvious social benefits of this, it also makes business sense for larger groups: guests can get the comfort and sense of place – and the feeling that they’re having a unique experience – combined with the knowledge that they’re still being looked after by one of the world’s biggest and most accomplished hotel companies. It’s a tempting combination for many, with all the benefits of giving something back to the communities while retaining the brand identity and company hierarchy.

But it isn’t easy, and authenticity can’t simply be shoehorned into property: it has to be nurtured and encouraged to grow, through careful partnership-building and genuine passion. Firmdale has been doing this for years – it’s an approach that boutique hotels have pioneered, partially because their small scale gives them a flexibility to experiment. Whether that can be translated into success for larger companies, of course, is another question.

“Ultimately it’s making sure that everybody’s an individual, and that’s what it’s about,” argues Wilks. “Whether you’re in the local community, whether you’re someone who lives in the neighbourhood, someone who comes to work here – you don’t ring fence people.”

Guests increasingly agree.


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