Unleashing Innovation.
By Ian Graham
Monday, 17th December 2012
How strong leadership can nurture out-of-the-box thinking in our largest hotel companies.

Those of us fortunate enough to have worked at the Damascus Sheraton Hotel in Syria have been pained by recent events. However these circumstances have brought some of us back together again after many years of separation.

Valentino Bertolini and I worked there in the late 1970's when we were both at the beginning of our careers. Valentino now leads Starwood's cluster of hotels in Florence, Italy. My wife and I were vacationing nearby recently so we passed by and had dinner with Valentino and his wife Francoise. Our dinner conversation served to prove how close we still are after all these years and also allowed Valentino to show off his rooftop restaurant.

4Hoteliers Image LibraryYes, ROOFTOP. Received wisdom has it that one should never build a restaurant on a hotel's top floor. How do you get food and staff up there? How do you get the townspeople not only to come into the hotel, but also up to the roof? How do you get planning permission? It is madness surely!!

Here is a glorious example of how one of our industry leaders, Starwood, has created and sustained an environment of encouraging innovation in which Valentino was able to succeed.

Very occasionally, a hotel restaurant can be much more than just a place to eat. In the best cases, a restaurant can transcend its original remit and become a brand of its own, its reputation growing beyond the walls of the hotel.

It becomes a profit centre and adds value to the hotel. SESTO, a rooftop restaurant on the 6th floor of the Excelsior, a Westin hotel in Florence, challenges our received wisdom.

The hotel is a historical building which dates back to the 14th century and is located in Piazza Ognissanti overlooking the Ponte Vecchio, the Arno River and the surrounding hills. The restaurant is on the 6th floor and occupies an area of about 900 m2, of which 500 is indoor and 400 outdoor. In the historical part of Florence, buildings normally have a maximum height of four floors, and with some exceptions have a 5th, but no private buildings have a 6th floor. To conceive of a restaurant up there is truly thinking outside the box.

There was a massive multi-year challenge in obtaining permission to build such a place from the local authorities.

The vision was to build the most spectacular food and beverage facilities in Florence: a place with spectacular views, a fine dining restaurant, and a sophisticated bar and private room for high-power events. In short a place that would become the 'talk of the town'.

The sides of the restaurant are made of glass and offer a stunning 360° panorama of Florence. It is open to hotel residents as well as non-residents and patronised by local Florentine guests. There is a separate all purpose room that can accommodate up to 80 people and is used for weddings, cocktail parties, luncheons and dinners. There is a bar with its own terrace and also a cantinetta (wine cellar) which offers a choice of about 400 labels from different Italian and French regions. The bar serves mainly as a cocktail bar and is open from 12 noon to 2 am. The restaurant can accommodate about 50 guests indoors and an additional 40 outdoors.

Valentino and his team wanted to create something outside the classic restaurant template where there is only one table top and set up. At lunch time they use place mats that are different indoors from outdoors; and in the evening tablecloths are used with greyish candles, but on special occasions they are changed to chocolate brown. There is a complete change in mood from day to night.

They have three to four different types of table arrangements throughout the restaurant in order to add to the experience. The same applies to the chairs, which are arm chairs with cushions of different types, shapes and colours; basically there is no standardisation. The menu also changes and the service is attentive and stylish, without being too formal. The restaurant has a separate independent kitchen brigade that is fully dedicated to the restaurant, with its own chef who has more a restaurant rather than a hotel background. This is essential to guarantee exceptionally high standards.

In order to cater to the specific conditions on the sixth floor, there is an A la Carte kitchen for the preparation of hot, cold and pastry items which is almost fully independent from the restaurant and bar. Some of the very basic preparation, like fish, meat and vegetables, is done in the main kitchen on the ground floor. For the banqueting rooms (on the sixth floor) the food preparation is also done in the main kitchens on the ground floor, but by a different kitchen brigade with its own chef, and taken up plated by trolleys and served. There are two service lifts. At the moment of service, in order to avoid delays, one lift is blocked for the sole use of the sixth floor. The daily wine cellar, fully refrigerated, as well as the liquors and soft drinks' stores, is located in the restaurant on the sixth floor. The main beverage stores are in the basement.

The collateral and the menu cover have been developed to take into account the restaurant's close proximity to the Arno river, as well as Florence's handicraft tradition. The menu cover is like that of a book; the paper used is textured in a way that echoes the movement of the Arno's water when the wind is blowing.

The entrepreneurial instincts of Valentino, the Starwood corporate executive, has enabled him to work with each of (a) the city of Florence, (b) the brand champions, and (c) the staff, to dream of and then deliver processes that few others could.

Starwood decentralised its decision making. Starwood and Valentino had to be failure tolerant and had to learn to venture in new and different directions as the project proceeded. There had to be a culture in which Valentino and his team were purpose-driven.

Here is a marvellous example of how innovation can be fostered even within the largest of our industry giants.

Is your hotel business capable of fostering such innovation? I hope so.

Ian Graham, CEO, Hotel Solutions Partnership. Ian leads and contributes to complex advisory assignments for hotel owners and operators around the world, leveraging his deep understanding of the goals of the guest, the hotelier, the investor, the lender and the brand owner - and all this from a unique base of experience that has seen him working on hotel issues in more than 60 countries.


The Hotel Solutions Partnership Ltd. Reprinted with permission

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