Eric Toren, owner and general manager of four-star boutique hotel The Toren, is reminiscing about his career. Since taking over the Amsterdam-based property from his father in 1991, he has transformed its fortunes, taking it from being a down-at-heel two-star guest house to a byword for bijou luxury.

"I took over The Toren when I was 28," he says, "but I have really been working in hotels since I was 14. When I was young, I worked in all kinds of different hotels, from two-star to five-star, doing all kinds of jobs. At one time or another, I was a receptionist, cook, cleaner and bartender. I did the lot."

Toren credits these factotum years, growing up in hotels, with allowing him to "witness better and faster how our customers view our products". The payment of such dues has reaped impressive rewards: in November, Toren was awarded Hotelier of the Year at Hotel Management International’s 2014 European Hospitality Awards.

Like any successful manager, Toren’s gimlet eye for an emerging trend has enabled his hotel to enjoy year-on-year growth; its room occupancy rate for 2013 was 92.1%, against a benchmark of 75.3%.

For the Dutch hotelier – who is also a qualified psychologist and expert in transactional analysis – the last year, while successful, has not been without its challenges. In particular, he says, the growing influence of travel review websites – namely TripAdvisor, which went public in 2012 – means today’s GMs find themselves under even greater scrutiny from guests.

"Everyone knows the internet has been a game-changer for business," says Toren, who also runs Sebastian’s, a three-star property down the road from The Toren. "Before, it was all about location, location, location. Now, location and service are the number-one combination for guests, according to websites such as TripAdvisor. We need to adapt to this."

Despite his hotel’s plaudits, the problem with TripAdvisor, says Toren, is that due to its policy on anonymity, GMs can sometimes be on the receiving end of unsubstantiated negative reviews for what he perceives to be unjust and inexplicable reasons.

"I would say that some hotels live in fear of being blackmailed by guests. For example, a guest can complain to the front desk that the room is too small and threaten to write a scathing review online unless they receive an upgrade," he says.

"Even more peculiar, some guests will say they’ve had a great stay, and then go and put a bad review on TripAdvisor because they didn’t like the colour scheme in the room, for instance. For a GM, that can be hard to take. It’s a bit like going to the best concert pianist in the world and saying, ‘I don’t like classical music’. Why go to the concert in the first place then?"


Healthy attachment
While The Toren has been able to keep its doors open over the past 12 months, a number of notable European hotels have had to shut up shop for renovations in order to meet or increase desired occupancy levels.

Having closed in 2012, refurbishments at the Ritz Paris are not expected to be completed until early 2015. Likewise, London’s famed Cadogan Hotel, now owned by Belmond, is in the process of being ‘reconceptualised’ and will not open until 2016; Starwood’s St Regis San Clemente Palace, too, is undergoing a €25-million development that will see it closed until the second quarter of 2015.

Each property would do well to take note of the Dorchester Collection’s Hotel Plaza Athénée, which took the brave decision to close its doors last October, during what was the hotel’s centenary year; ten months later, on 1 August, the property reopened with the addition of six rooms, eight suites, new event spaces and a ballroom. The lauded Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée restaurant and Le Bar have also been redesigned.

According to the Plaza Athén���e’s GM, Francois Delahaye – who also serves as the chief operating officer at the Dorchester Collection – the absence of guests during refurbishments did not make his role any less hands-on; on the contrary, he was required to play a leading role in ensuring that the construction process went according to plan.

"I thought it would be much quieter, but not a bit of it!" says Delahaye, the most recent recipient of the European Hotel Managers Association’s Hotel Manager of the Year award. "The GM actually needs to lead the construction, and be on site to check that everything goes smoothly and that the general contractor fulfils its obligations. In essence, my role transformed from general manager to building supervisor.

"But it was essential that I was there. We [GMs] tend to be focused on the minutiae of the hotel; construction workers, understandably, don’t have that same level of attachment to the property."

Delahaye, like Toren, has a rich and wide-ranging background in the hospitality industry. Having trained at l’Ecole Supérieure d’Hôtellerie de Saint Cergue in Switzerland, he started his career as butler to the Duke of Westminster before becoming GM at the Plaza Athénée in 1999.

However, in contrast to his own career trajectory – one underscored by patient diligence – Delahaye has observed, even in the last year, that the "new generation of hotel employees" appears to have become more zealous and exacting in its job expectations.

"In the past, people would literally beg to work in a famous hotel like the Plaza Athénée," he says. "Nowadays, it’s the other way round – we need to go out of our way and prove that we are the right employer of choice.

"Employees have more demands than ever before. Immediately after you’ve hired them, they will ask, ‘What can you, the hotel company, do for me?’. They want to be paid a lot of money and given a pre-packaged career path. Some even want to become a GM in three years."

Does that suggest that some employees are less inclined to earn their stripes to get to the top? "While the motivation is the same as before, they certainly don’t want to go through what we did in the old days," answers Delahaye. "They don’t want to do long hours working various tasks. It’s a real challenge for a GM."


Working outside of the walls
While Delahaye oversees 500 members of staff – who, impressively, all remained in employment during the Plaza Athénée’s spell of closure – Toren’s total workforce is just shy of 100. Operating a small independent hotel, he says, makes it easier to manage staff expectations, keeping them in line with the overarching ethos of the property.

"As the owner and GM of a small hotel, it is my job to communicate a philosophy to staff that leads to the perfect running of a hotel," says Toren. "They understand that the end product is the most important thing, so I train and teach them skills to ensure that even when something goes wrong, it is still good."

Yet, despite operating on a smaller scale, Toren claims he is constantly wary of escalating labour costs. Consequently, over the past few months, he has begun developing his own software to automate some back-office processes.

"Meeting these client expectations with fewer staff is one of our objectives," he says. "When you are running a boutique hotel, you have to operate with high labour costs. For me, as a general manager and owner, it is about trying to do certain processes with 15 people, as opposed to 20, to improve the numbers while getting the same results.

"So, right now, I’m doing a lot of software designing, and making my own back-office software to create follow-up systems to offset labour costs, and cut out unnecessary paperwork and manual tasks."

The role of the general manager has shifted drastically over the past decade. Undoubtedly precipitated by the global financial crisis, today’s GM needs to be well versed in a range of areas, from training and technology to social media and data analytics – even construction foremanship, in Delahaye’s case.

What can 2015 be expected to throw up? An even savvier, more demanding hotel guest, predicts Toren.

"A trend that we have discovered from looking at online reviews is that guests want external products beyond the mere hotel," he says. "They want to know where to go, eat and drink in a particular city; they don’t want to stand in line. Hotels and GMs need to work beyond the limits of their property and somehow meet these expectations. It’s something we’re working on."

One could bet that if asked the same question in a year’s time, Toren’s response might be different. After all, just as the hotel industry evolves, so does the job spec of the general manager.