Neil Kirby joined London's Grosvenor House Hotel as pot washer in 1967 and worked his way up through the ranks to become general manager in 1994. He worked at Berystede, Pennyhill Park and South Lodge hotels before opening his own hotel, The Langham, in Eastbourne in 2005. He has just written a book, Celebrity Hotel, about his life in the hospitality industry.
I was 15 and a half when I started washing up in the basement at The Grosvenor. This smart guy came in wearing a navy suit and a white shirt and when I found out he was general manager, I said "I want to be that guy one day".
The biggest step for me in my career was going from being a valet to management. As a valet I was earning a lot in tips and to work ‘above stairs’ I had to take a drop in salary of about £8,000.
The biggest staff tip I had at The Grosvenor was £136,000 from the Sultan of Brunei. That was for a stay of three weeks. It was all dished out fairly among the staff.
I’m dyslexic so making the transition to management was quite tough. I kept it to myself because I was embarrassed about it and would get my wife to help me by typing things out.
Although I became general manager I believe that back of house staff are just as important as the people who make the big decisions. The pot washer has as much of a part to play in the running of a hotel as the general manager. We should never forget that.
I thought I must start remembering all the great stories from The Grosvenor. As you get older you forget things, so I wanted to write a book to capture all the memories, not just those of our famous guests, but also about the things that go on 'below stairs'.
You have to treat celebrity guests differently from other guests. Because of the paparazzi you have to plan their arrival and exit very cleverly and they do have different needs from other guests. Royal guests have even greater needs because of all the added security, but having celebrities stay at your hotel is fantastic for the business.
I once had to find a false leg for a guest when I was working as duty manager at The Grosvenor. I thought it was a wind-up, but I went up to his room and found out he’d lost it through the airline he’d flown to London with. We had to find someone from Harley Street to make him one – it took about 48 hours.
It’s very stressful running your own place, mostly because you’ve borrowed money from the bank. Before, I had to make profits for my owners, but it is different when it’s your own. Saying that, I haven't looked back. The Langham has tripled in value since we bought it three years ago.
Times have changed in the business. I think standards have dropped a little bit here and there in service, but I think it’s down to money. Everything is about efficiency these days, but in my opinion you can never have enough people doing the meeting and greeting of guests.
I love every minute of working in this industry and I’ve been in it 43 years. I’m sure others have said this before, but the day I think I’ve had enough is the day I will probably sell up or move.
Celebrity Hotel, published by Book Guild Publishing, will be out in bookshops on 25 March.