German-born Heiko Figge was appointed managing director of Guoman Hotels and Thistle Hotels at the beginning of 2010 but his association with the hotel industry and the Thistle brand goes much further back as does his commitment to helping employment in the hospitality industry.
After training in Bonn and working in operations and management roles in hotels around the world, Figge worked as a general manager for Thistle and Whitbread before taking a step up in roles with and Paramount Hotels and Marriott in the UK.
He returned to Thistle as chief operating officer in 2008 and took his new position more than two years ago when he was tasked with leading significant investment in the brands and developing the distinction between Thistle and Guoman. Figge is also on the board of hospitality employment charity Springboard and helped lead the recent industry event on jobs - The Big Conversation .
Our goal is to take really good care of our customers. It doesn’t matter what type of brand you are affiliated with – the task is pretty much the same. We have different qualities of hotels – Guoman predominantly being four-star deluxe and five-star while Thistle is four-star. Other than the range of offers being slightly greater in a Guoman property, in terms of actually running the brand there are some distinct similarities.
Brands evolve. As far as Thistle is concerned we have been through a very significant investment programme over the last three years to upgrade our properties and tidy them up. It is fair to say they got tired over the years and lacked investment.
We want to be one of the key players in the UK marketplace with both our brands. We have a huge presence in London and we have a good representation across the country.
We want to grow the Thistle brand. We already operate two successful hotels in Malaysia and we are about to build a third there in collaboration with our parent company.
You only have to look at our geographical spread in the UK to work out where we don't have a Thistle hotel at the moment and where there is an amazing opportunity to grow.
When we open new hotels in the future I want other organisations to look at us and say ‘this is good, we want to copy some of this’.
Being good will simply no longer be good enough. You have got to be great at what you are doing because, more so than ever, customers clearly have a choice. In the past you may have been able to hide your performance - you can no longer do that.
Social media has changed how hotels operate. It is an open world now – you can express your opinion very quickly and reach an enormous audience if you choose to do so.
Hotels must accept and embrace the growth of sites like TripAdvisor. This feedback is meant to improve our performance. We have learnt to live with it, take it constructively and act upon it as that is usually very well received. This feedback is very valuable to us and allows us formulate our plans for the future.
When you stay in a hotel now guests just simply expect decent Wi-Fi connectivity and 3G reception. We did have very challenging feedback on this in a number of our hotels and we have made investments to improve – soon we will probably have some of the best connectivity of any hotel group in the country.
Seeing people develop their work with us is great fun. Watching people who might not have thought about joining the industry prosper and develop into fine managers is a real pleasure.
Improving youth employment in the industry is massively important to me personally. It is important to go into schools and tell people what a fantastic opportunity it presents to them. We also have a responsibility that those kids that join us for short periods of time leave with a positive impression. We may not always have done this.
I dislike some of the red tape and Government enforcement that is around the industry. Restrictions in employing people that want to come and join us from abroad, some of the visa restrictions that are out there and the level of VAT compared to some of our competitors are not helpful.
Respect your colleagues you work with and look after your guests – how much simpler can it get?
My family are my biggest inspiration. They are why I get up in the morning and go to work.
Marriott is a fantastic organisation which I have a lot of respect for. They understand that unless you have really good, solid operating standards that are well communicated and everyone understands you don’t achieve the level of consistency you want.
When you run a bunch of regional hotels it is a different world. When you don’t have the brand behind you that supports you and drives business you have to be far more entrepreneurial.
I admire anybody that achieves higher occupancies or better room rates than we do.
I have been able to work at some fabulous places all over the world because I have been attached to this industry over other industries. Young people would be amazed how quickly they can progress - It is a very young and transient industry. If you want a career, you want to travel, meet new people – what better industry to join?