by L, Aruna Dhir, Featured Contributor
TO SAY THAT the job of a Hotel Communications Head is that of a master juggler would be quite an understatement. It is a bit like the tight rope act, only with a pole in your hands and a water filled pot on your head. Having said that; it is a lot of fun activity, like the circus, with all that background preparation and hard work blending harmoniously with the grease paint and glitter of the forefront.
Out of all the Communications based roles out there, I do believe that the one at the hotels is one of the most checkered, eclectic and a dynamic mix of wide range of responsibilities and a big bag of different functions. And the demands on the position can be well, so demanding.
I remember, once, while with the Hyatt hotel in New Delhi we were hosting India’s first ever truffle promotion at our famous Italian restaurant. We were all very excited about introducing the culinary marvel to the local plate and palate. But the Top Boss was so much more, that he wanted us to put the news out in the primetime bulletins of no less than Star TV. It was with a lot of careful tip-toeing around the sensitive issue that we managed to pull the Boss’ enthusiasm several notches down, getting him to be pleased with large coverage albeit in the weekly food show of Star and in the feature sections of several other print and electronic media.
Then there was a time, when another of my Hotel employers – really the Grand daddy of hospitality in India – thrust the mantle of an experienced researcher on to me egging me to conduct an Image Study & Positioning Analysis for the Chain’s regional property and some of its facilities. The assignment, that made me burn the midnight oil on several nights, was not only nail-bitingly exciting but also extremely challenging and satisfying.
The thrill of the task in Hotel Communications also comes from the tall order it has of you, the Communications expert. There are mornings when you may be getting your hands dirty preparing promotional material or writing a difficult Press Release or running around getting professional shots taken by an ace photographer; come lunch and you will need to tidy up for a propah meal with a national or international celebrity or a prima donna editor of a game-changing publication; then go back to negotiating rates with the Printer or another vendor before getting into a gritty-grotty meeting with other relevant departments for an upcoming mega event. The entire day, nay the nature of work itself is one filled with trepidation and exhilaration with huge dollops of feverish activity coupled with big sighs of satisfaction.
And if you have been lucky enough to be part of opening hotel teams then you would have got your bit of unbeatable professional high unveiling new luxury suites, spas, restaurants or the entire hotel with palpable excitement to a brand new consumer base.
While ensconced in Corporate offices, as against the livewire operational hotels, you end up developing PR training modules, writing out an array of PR specific manuals, establishing synergies between all the PR departments in the Group, handling a clutch of consultancies offering diverse set of services and creating communications-based company-wide strategies.
Once while on a Cultural Ambassadorship to the United States, I enjoyed the privilege of both a professional orientation and an insider’s look at some of the finest international hotel brands – Ritz Carlton in Pasadena, L.A., The Pierre – then a Four Seasons Hotel in New York, Marriott in Washington D.C, Loews L’Enfant in Annapolis, Fairmont and Campton Place in San Francisco. The wonderful interface helped me to exchange tips, compare notes, study the Best practices and dig into a rich information base. The incomparable exposure has helped me fine tune my tactical approach and shape up my strategies time and again. To this day, I think this was made possible by the Hospitality Hat and cloak that I wear.
Hotel PR is, obviously, different from PR in other industries. Understandably so, as the brand, its image and the product you are selling here are completely dissimilar to what is on the plate in FMCG, Diplomatic, Government, Finance, Automobile, Insurance, Health, Pharmaceuticals, Real Estate and other industries. The other places may, variedly, have elements of Investor Relations, Corporate Affairs, IPO announcements, Lobbyism and the like woven into the broad Communications or Public Relations role. Public Relations in the Hospitality industry is significantly different and specific to the industry form.
So, here I am putting forth a summary of PR Pointers and key traits that should make for a noteworthy Hotel PRO. To be safe and so as not to show any bias, I present my list in an alphabetical order.
More often than not, the aspect of brand advertising is part of your portfolio. So, on one hand you will need to understand the need from your top boss or the Sales & Marketing Head or the Director of Food & Beverage, develop a brief and then have an interface with your advertising agency so as to convey the company’s expectation in terms of creatives and the main idea. You must, then, know all about pegs, pitches, 4 Ps of Marketing, artworks, positives, final proofs, colour separations, media buying and the annual media plan.
On the other hand, you may be required to write out and develop the advertisements all by yourself. I got this opportunity at The Imperial. Of course, it is back-breaking work but who said Hotel PR would be a smooth ride, all fun & games, wining & dining. The huge reward – the pride and satisfaction of seeing my “The Imperial Experience” advertisements splashed in media as far and wide as The Times of India, International Herald Tribune, Condé Nast Traveller, Travel & Leisure.
As the Head of PR of your hotel or hotel chain, you have a host of agencies reporting to you – PR Agency, Advertising Agency, Market Research Agency, Database Agency and so on.
Please understand that you are on the same page with them and are not, in any way, in competition. Even if they are on the other side of the fence, they are, still, your extended team members. Pool in, assimilate and bring in different talents into the common area to devise strategies, solve problems, generate solutions, ideate and co-create.
Being in Communications you are the chief custodian of the Brand. And with direct access to the media, you are the key Brand Ambassador.
With all the Communication tools and PR strategies at your disposal, you are in that enviable position to build a brand and reinforce its image consistently in the minds of the relevant publics.
Apologies for the offbeat pun, but at least I managed to grab your eyeballs.
By virtue of your position, you end up hobnobbing with celebrities all the time – you plan events around famous artists and musicians, you lunch with a film star or dine with a famous author.
Also, on account of your role, you are in that unique place, unlike most others, where you actually get to build personalities and create celebrities. Think your General Manager, Executive Chef, Spa Manager, the much awarded Head Concierge, Sommelier, Horticulture Manager; even the Chief Engineer or Head of Security at times.
But please, under no circumstances, be under the false assumption that you are a celebrity yourself. Always the king maker but never the king. Be proud of your work, unique set of skills, your remarkable contribution but do not harbour any affectations about your power and position. This has, sadly, turned out to be the Achilles heel for some who may have fallen down this route.
Sadly, I have seen some Indian Hotel PR Managers have a huge attitude stemming out of their Hotel’s brand reputation and their position in the hotel and PR industry. From Rome to Paris, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to the United States – spanning both east and west coasts, I have interacted with PR people from these regions. And they all have been polite, practical and professional. So do yourself and your official significant others a favour and drop that attitude.
By that I mean Corporate Social Citizenship. As the PR Head of your hotel or hotel chain, the onus of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) lies with you. Along with the top boss, it is you who has to develop the CSR plan and budget. You need to focus on the kind of charities you think your organization should associate with in sync with its brand personality – so it could be environment, disabilities, AIDS Awareness, Slum Children, Education for the under-privileged etc. As a CSR team lead then, it is you who is responsible for the implementation of the CSR Plan.
On account of your media associations, of being a spokesperson for your organisation and because of the linkages with other visible publics and their forums, you are a prominent figure in your own right. Use this privileged position to cultivate your own leaning towards personal causes and lend your support, as an individual, to the causes you espouse. At Hyatt Regency I created the Hyatt Environment Brigade along with the Training Director. At The Oberoi, I stretched out to the Walk for AIDS campaign and volunteered with the Blind Relief Society. This is to say that along with the CSR, develop a strong focus and commitment towards PSR – Personal Social Responsibility.
From finding a staple pin in the Crab cakes lunch of a Food Writer, high society escorts conducting business from your hotel lobby, Restaurant Manager failing to recognize the big-headed and irrepressible Restaurant Critic, Housekeeping staff leaving dust and dusters in the suite of a renowned Hotel Reviewer to finding a depressed, Page Three figure trying to drown herself in the Presidential Suite Jacuzzi or a Celebrity TV Personality jumping off the eighth floor terrace to his untimely death or the Hotel inadvertently bumping off regulars for the high-paying royal delegation from an oil rich country – you have handled all this and more.
And this wide range of situations is what makes you a Pro at handling crisis at work and being at the helm of Issues Management.
Develop a Crisis Handling Program and a Crisis Management Manual during peace time and bring them to effective use in times of crises. Be astute, be quick on your toes, be accessible, communicate and be responsive (NO “no comments” line; at least as far as possible, otherwise you let the contradictory viewpoint go to print uncontested), be practical and wisely honest, bring together the key handlers on the same strategy-plank, cut out grapevine as much as you can and centralize information dissemination.
Databases are the lungs of a Hotel PR Pro, as much as they are of any other PR expert. Since your job entails organization of events, sending out of invites, posting out Direct Mail and mailing Newsletters and other marketing literature, you must keep the Hotel Database clean, updated and dynamic.
There are two ways of doing this – If you are responsible for the Hotel chain then you must employ a good Database Management Agency. And they must be bloody good and responsible set of people who collect, maintain, clean and mine your data. If you have a smaller database for your Company then handling it yourself with your own team and the extended teams from Sales & Marketing and Food & Beverage is the way to go. Also, please make sure that all sets of teams are integrated well and understand the importance of keeping clean and up-to-date database at all times. Otherwise, imagine the downside – the cost incurred and the embarrassment drawn in for dispatching newsletters to corporate clients who have long moved on to a different organization.
And yes, this aspect takes into account intelligent and effective maintenance of the electronic database too. A lot more so now, when we all seem to exist in a virtual world and everyone is just a click away.
As a Communications Crusader, your work involves documentation, filing, maintaining archival backgrounders and reportage. You not only organize the publicity for your organization but must also share the coverage with the significant publics through media reports. Then, there are manuals and SOPs to be documented; collateral to be archived for future reference; press and general events to be kept record of; Best Practices to be chronicled. In fact, most of your work is such that it needs to be systematically filed and documented for reference, training and as record management.
The Hotel PR Head is also the Chief Events Manager. There are hotel events that you plan either by yourself or with your Food & Beverage and Banqueting teams or with an Event Management Agency that you employ for a said event; all depending on the size and importance of the event. Then there are certain internal events that you helm with the HR Department and as part of your Internal Communications Strategy.
So, there would be art exhibitions, music concerts, sports days, golf tournaments, celebrity tennis matches or cook-ins, supper theatres, book launches, specialty speaker engagements, Children’s day, charity auctions………….the palette is as checkered and vibrant as your imagination, creativity and your organization’s stance.
About 50 % of your work centers on Food & Beverage Marketing. There are Press lunches and dinners to organize, F&B newsletters to produce, marketing collateral to develop, media talents such as chefs, sommeliers, bartending showmen to get interviewed, Press Releases and backgrounders to write, innovative food events to create along with the Kitchen’s and F&B team – be it Progressive Dinners, Wine Dinners, Exotic Food Promotions or Country specific Food Festivals. Which means that you need to like the subject of food – not just as something that sustains you or that you relish in it’s out-of-the-ordinary avatar but also in its pedagogical relevance; understand the culinary nuances; know a sizeable amount about different kinds of foods, ingredients and cuisines. This knowledge should also encompass drinks and wines as an additional area of interest.
Additionally, you need to cultivate shades of a food stylist and hone your photographic eye so as to ensure that your food shots are special, uniquely shot and good enough to eat; because it is your food shots bank that will assist you in a whole lot of your marketing and PR initiatives.
In my career, I have had to develop websites and newsletters – external, internal and special, visualize promotional material, create invites, build up business communication manuals and develop standardization of communication and graphics used by the Hotel. This has helped me hone my designing skills and bond strongly with the design team, data operators, graphic specialists and the like.
I have been fortunate to have worked with Brands that gave me a freehand for creativity and graphic representation so much so that I, often, wore a twin hat of an in-house Graphic Designer.
Recently, a job description for a Communications position with an international hotel giant significantly stated Photoshop as part of the key skill set in the desired candidate. So, inclination towards designing and graphics is something that will always stand you in good stead; either to do things on your own or even to be able to get the best out of your creative guys.
Guests are one of the key stakeholders for you. They stay in your rooms, they eat in your restaurants, they use your spas and fitness centers and they are your loyalty club members. So you must meet them frequently and get to know them.
Every hotel has mini events such as GM’s cocktails or one-on-one dinners planned for the long-stays, Annual parties for another set of guests, Year-end galas for yet another set and so on. You must be an integral component of it and be a part of the matrix known well by your guests. One of the finest tricks I have learnt from the international General Managers I have worked with (and it is true that the foreign GMs, even South-east Asian for that matter, engage far more in this than their Indian counterparts; but this is, happily, changing fast as the young Indian managers are imbibing and exhibiting best practices from the global work culture) is to do Lobby duty. Just be in the Lobby during meal times or at the beginning of important events or in the evenings when guests return to their rooms and see how easily you begin to recognize guests, develop a rapport and seal a bond with them.
I hope you enjoy my ABC of PR. I will run through the gamut of the remaining traits in Part Two of this article.