NURTURE: A welcome change
“We’ve improved the experience, we’ve invested back into the business, and we’ve really trained and encouraged our people to be the best they can be. Without your people getting behind it, nothing happens. That’s how we’ve achieved this massive shift in our business.”
Interview: Sue Wilcock / Anna-Marie Casas Pictures: Pagepix
David Scott talks to Suffolk Director
The hospitality sector has faced more than its fair share of challenges over recent times. The double whammy of Covid lockdowns and staff shortages beset an industry that was already struggling with employee retention and high turnover rates.
But as the sector looks to a brighter future, one Suffolk hospitality business leader is putting people at the centre of everything, nurturing staff development and their desire to be part of the success story and giving customers exactly what they want.
David Scott, 46, is the Chief Executive of The Hotel Folk, comprising six destinations in Suffolk: The Brudenell Hotel, Aldeburgh; The Swan at Lavenham Hotel & Spa; The Crown & Castle, Orford; The Crown, Woodbridge; The White Lion, Aldeburgh; and Thorpeness Golf Club & Hotel.
Formerly heading up divisions for big brands, since his appointment – initially, in July 2018 as Head of Marketing and then Chief Executive just nine months later – David has harnessed skills honed over two decades as a marketer to rebrand The Hotel Folk and propel it into a new era.
He has distilled the company’s essence, identified values and goals, consolidated and improved its offering, and set out its stall.
With research, data and insight on what customers want signposting the way ahead, The Hotel Folk’s people are the engine driving the strategy. Investment in training and development, coupled with effective communication to get everyone onboard, are the well-oiled wheels ensuring the experience sold in its promotions lives up to the promise.
It is a strategy that is clearly working. During his five-year tenure, David has taken the business from making a loss, to achieving £1.3m profit in its last financial year.
“We’ve improved the experience, we’ve invested back into the business, and we’ve really trained and encouraged our people to be the best they can be,” says David. “Without your people getting behind it, nothing happens. That’s how we’ve achieved this massive shift in our business.”
David’s desire to get under the bonnet of what makes customers tick, his personal approach towards both staff and guests, his ability to convey the business challenge and goals, and to engage and motivate those around him to want to be part of the journey are paying dividends.
The early days
A slick communicator, David owes many of his natural traits and innate business sense to his father, who ran an antiques business with his mother.
As a child, he would marvel at the procession of trinkets that arrived at the family home, briefly forming part of the furniture before they were dispatched to the auction house or picked up by an enthusiastic collector.
The eldest of three children, David was born in 1977. Initially, the family lived in the small Yorkshire Dales village of Langthorne, before moving a few miles down the road to Ripon.
“Dad was a farmer’s son, and his first job was selling cattle, but he was always interested in antiques,” he reflects. “He worked for an auction house and then set up his own auction business. He was the extrovert of the family and could sniff out a bargain from a mile away.
“Mum did the accounts and finances. The kitchen would be filled with stuff everywhere. You’d have to weave your way through until it was sold. It was a real family affair. When my parents went out they’d often leave me with instructions on who would be coming to collect the antiques and what I should give them. However, on one particular occasion, someone called, and I couldn’t remember what they had said; there was so much stuff to choose from and I handed over the wrong thing to the customer – a mistake that Mum and Dad have never let me forget!”
“When you’re a child and involved in a business like that, it really gives you social and communication skills – how to talk to and how to treat people.”
The experience in the family business prepared David for the hospitality career he would eventually go on to follow.
“Dad had a real attention to detail. Everything was cleaned before it went into a sale. That has stayed with me throughout my life; I love walking into a room and it being spotless and polished. It’s all about the presentation. You have to walk the business as the customer sees it.”
While David’s love of antiques has never abated, he was not inclined to follow in his father’s career footsteps. Instead, his younger brother eventually took over the business.
“The way the business was run, to me, felt so disorganised and unstructured, which I didn’t like,” he explains. “As kids, it was always a bit chaotic. Looking back now I realise it was actually very well organised, but it didn’t look or feel that way at the time.”
After leaving school with aspirations to work for a large company, David was the first person in the family to go to university and went to Nottingham to do business studies. To help the finances, he also took a series of part-time jobs: one stacking supermarket shelves, the other working as a cashier at a petrol station, before he landed a job at Ladbrokes.
“I really loved working there, taking bets. It was the interaction with customers – it was like entertaining. That’s when I really discovered the extrovert in me.”
Becoming a marketer
Unsure of the direction he wanted his career to take, David’s first taste of marketing came with a ‘sandwich’ degree placement at food manufacturer Heinz in London, combining practical work experience with academic study.
He discovered early on that marketing was as much about customer insight as it was about clever campaigns. “Heinz taught me about research, qualitative and quantitative, focus groups, understanding customers and why they behave the way they do, and that’s the bit that really got me interested.
“The worst thing you can do as a marketer is do what you think you would do. You have to listen to the customer and give them what they want. And then you get into the creative. Marketing is also as much about what the outside world sees as what the inside world sees.”
“A lot of people put the emphasis on external marketing, but it’s not just about the customer; how you sell it internally is just as important. You have to get the salesforce excited about what they’re doing.”
It’s an approach that David took to leading pub retailer and brewer, Greene King, in Bury St Edmunds in 1999 after completing his degree.
Initially, he assumed marketing responsibility for brands including Greene King IPA and Abbot Ale before the business bought Morland Brewery with its Old Speckled Hen and Ruddles brands and a portfolio of pubs in 2000. David was then appointed Brand Manager for Greene King’s pub-restaurant chain, Hungry Horse, providing his first proper glimpse into hospitality.
Tools of the trade
At the start of each quarter, David would write a magazine aimed at the Hungry Horse’s pub managers. The intention was to explain each marketing initiative coming along in a way that would grab their attention and encourage them to get involved.
He also began to learn some invaluable tips for employee engagement from seasoned business practitioners that he regards today as his role models.
“The operations director always had this little black book and every time he visited a pub, he would write down details about the members of staff. The next time he was there, he’d refer to his book and it would prompt him to remember particular things about someone. I was really struck by the power of doing that – people felt important because he’d remembered them, and really responded to him.”
David also learnt the value of creating a visual impact with staff when words were not enough.
“To illustrate a point, the MD at Greene King once went on stage at an ops meeting dressed in a lumberjack costume holding a chainsaw; everyone remembered that. I’d be more than happy to dress up in a Hungry Horse costume or create a video montage featuring every single pub manager. We’d also do memorable things like setting the world record for the most people hula-hooping at the same time.
“Yes, there’s the data, the new menus and buying pubs, but it was the fun stuff that got people really buying into what we were trying to achieve.”
In 2007, after seven years at Greene King, David was looking for a new challenge, and he joined Danish brewery giant Carlsberg in Northampton as its On-Trade Customer Marketing Director.
At the time, he was living in Suffolk with his husband, Mark, (David came out as gay when he was at university) who was self-employed and running a wholesale business in the area. Reluctant to leave the county they had made home, they decided to stay in a small village outside Stowmarket (where they continue to live today) with David commuting to Northampton each day.
A new approach
Using insight acquired from his Greene King days as a Carlsberg ‘customer’, David decided to change how the brewery communicated with pub managers.
“Landlords don’t care about TV advertising campaigns and six-sheet posters. What they’re worried about is how many customers are coming through the door, how many staff they have… the operational stuff.” he explains.
“I launched an initiative based around the principles I’d learnt about running a good pub – people, sales and cost. If you have motivated people, who engage well with customers, more people will come through your door. And as long as you manage the profitability of your business, you’ll be successful.”
“Don’t think about the brand. Think about what the customer wants. Taking this approach completely changed our on-trade market share.”
David’s tactics got him noticed by Carlsberg’s international HQ in Denmark and his initiative was rolled out to other countries, earning him a company recognition award.
Promoted to Brand Director, David became responsible for Carlsberg’s biggest advertising and marketing campaigns – and got to experience the true power of a strapline.
While one of the most distinctive and enduring slogans devised, Carlsberg’s ‘Probably the best lager in the world’ was not thought to be resonating with customers in Asian markets and was replaced.
“Carlsberg had gone into Asian markets where cultures don’t deal with probability – it either is or it isn’t,” observes David. “The UK was always the hub for creative which fed to the rest of the world, but that changed when Carlsberg merged with Russian brewery, Baltika.
“We ended up with very vanilla advertising and started losing market share. I spent a year using insight to try to persuade them to bring the old slogan back, and eventually they did.”
When David was made redundant in 2016, he took the decision hard. “It was eight years of my life. The further you get up the pyramid, the lonelier it gets. I went to work for a couple of companies after that, including Papa Johns, but my heart just wasn’t in it.”
Creating The Hotel Folk
In 2018, David joined what was then the TA Hotel Collection as Head of Marketing and immediately turned his attention to the company’s name and the bigger picture.
“I quickly identified what needed to be changed – not just from a marketing perspective, but the whole business needed unifying. We were the Thorpeness and Aldeburgh Hotel Collection, but actually three of our hotels were in neither. That’s when The Hotel Folk came into fruition.
“The hotels were always going to be front and centre and have their own proposition. But it was something for the employees and the company to hang on to – something to unite them. We really started to think about what makes us different, and that was our people.”
David was quickly promoted to Chief Executive of The Hotel Folk and given the brief to make a difference across the whole business. He began prioritising the harmonisation of internal systems, processes and procedures so that all staff could work at any given venue without physical barriers.
He also harnessed the tools he had learnt to engage and motivate a team, such as storytelling, to full effect. “You need to play to the audience, particularly in hospitality. You might make a compelling business case, but if they don’t understand it, you’ve achieved nothing. When I communicate with staff, I just make a video – everyone will watch a video, but not everyone wants to read a sheet of paper.”
After decades spent working for large corporates, David has also taken advantage of the lack of bureaucracy that comes with running a smaller business. “If you see something that’s wrong in the morning, you can change it in the afternoon, and see its impact by the evening, and then decide whether you should do it again tomorrow; that’s the way my dad ran his business and why I love what I do now.”
Focusing on people
David is also a very hands-on leader, demonstrated by his decision since Covid to work alongside the Head of HR to check each member of staff’s (there are 350 of them) payslip personally before they go out.
“People think that’s a ridiculous thing to do, but it teaches me what’s going on in people’s lives. Why has somebody been off and are they ok? Paying people is how I learn what’s going on in the business.”
The pandemic also provided David with a steep learning curve for running one of his venues when he had to cover for a hotel manager who was ill. The experience provided invaluable insight about the need for training before anything else.
“Whatever people say, I don’t believe you can learn on the job. You can refine skills on the job, but you can’t learn the fundamentals when customers are around and present. You can’t teach housekeeping skills on the spot, waiting tables, and dealing with difficult customers.”
As a result, David created a training facility at Thorpeness Golf Club & Hotel.
“Every single employee learns how to carry a tray, how to lay a table, and how to make a bed. It doesn’t matter if you’re a kitchen porter, in maintenance, or a greenkeeper – you all learn the same basics.”
“There’s a direct correlation between the number of training hours we spend on each individual, investment in our hotels, and the quality of guest experience. If you improve the first two, customer satisfaction follows. Testament to this is that our Net Promoter Score (the method used to measure guest satisfaction) has increased by 10% in the last three years.”
Training and development is also paying off when it comes to keeping staff. “Our employee retention, certainly within our core people, is better than it was five years ago,” he reveals.
David empowers his hotel managers to give “a truly great hospitality experience” and has what he describes as a “sharing tree” of core staff with whom he shares and discusses business information.
“We’re not finished by a long shot,” David concludes. “We’re a third of the way into a refurbishment programme and we want to grow and acquire more hotels, but they have to be in the right location. We’ve just won ‘Large Business of the Year’ in the EADT Business Awards, which has given the team here a tremendous boost. Continuing to invest in nurturing our people is fundamental to ensuring we always deliver the best possible customer experience each and every time.”