Our spotlight interview for May is with Julie Cheesman, Brand Operations Director EMEAA. Julie is working towards opening a further 200 hotels in the next 5 years with the rest of the voco™ team. She has worked extremely hard to get to where she is today, read her spotlight interview below to find out what she has to say:
1. Tell us about your professional experience within the industry so far and your journey to being Director, Brand Operations?
My Career started back in 1995 where I spent a year in Industry as part of my College placement, I was lucky enough to be accepted into a graduate programme in the Queens Hotel in Leeds where I was given an opportunity to shine. During my year of industry after working in all departments I ran the C&B outlet over a busy Christmas and new Year period. From there my first General Manager Mr Jim Stephenson always said to me when you have finished your HND in Hospitality management then come to me first and I will find you a job. So I took him at his word and that enabled me to take a variety of operational leader roles in City Centre Leeds, Leeds Bramhope, Sheffield and then in Leeds Selby where I became a GM at the age of twenty one a real achievement in my short hotel career and this set me thinking of what next! I then transferred to Wakefield and then York and back to Wakefield in General Manager roles, and then during a company takeover I took the opportunity to move into a regional training role which then opened up a number of opportunities for me to take on larger regions of hotels across the UK over a period of ten years. The North East ( 12 hotels ) , Midlands (17 Hotels ) and then ultimately into a regional HR Manager role for our hotels in the Heathrow M4 corridor area ( 13 hotels ). After taking a short secondment back to the role of GM at Holiday Inn Colchester in 2009 – 2010 I decided to move into a Corporate Operations role in 2011 working across the UK Franchise Hotels, latterly also supporting our UK managed portfolio responsible for performance consulting with hotels and driving performance and working with key owners and operators of IHG. I was extremely excited to be given the opportunity to join the voco™ team as Operation Director EMEAA my job is simply to “activate the brand on the ground”. Sounds simple however, working across many different time zones to activate this is a huge opportunity. I am very lucky to be working with many talented IHG colleagues across the regions who are pulling out all the stops to launch and activate IHG’s newest upscale brand. Currently we have five hotels open and targeting 200 hotels in the next five years.
2. What have been your highlights and most proud moment so far working in the industry?
Becoming the youngest General Manager in the company at the age of 21. Supporting and running a chef apprentice training programme with HMP across the Midlands alongside Manchester City College. A 16 week programme fully supported by a member of my team. A wider team in the latter part of the programme were involved with recruitment and interview techniques. Being recognised locally and nationally for best innovation in Chef recruitment by personnel today in 2010. Also making the many friends I have along the journey who are now my hotel family.
3. Can you talk about some of your biggest challenges in your career and how you overcome them?
Yes firstly being so young in a key leadership role I would often be challenged by longer serving employees on the fact they had seen previous managers come and go. They would wonder what was it that I would bring to the hotel team that is different and why they shouldn’t just continue doing things they have always done.
My other stand out challenge was closing a hotel that I had personally worked in as an operations leader and returning as the regional HR manager to dispose of the property though a sale process, for alternative use which meant leading the change and redundancy process with a high performing team that meant a lot to me. A very emotional experience for me and the team involved.
4. Given all your experience in the field, how would you say client expectations have changed versus the industry itself? (Has the industry kept up with the expectations and needs)
I think times are indeed changing, people nowadays have less time for service interactions and are looking for a quicker process that is often tech savvy so, for me that means that service is key in our hotels. It needs to be attentive but not to fussy, making a connection but not hanging on the guests every word or move, this is why voco™ is the right brand to help support this. At voco™ we are dialling up three areas of key guest interactions with our brand – welcome and reception ( come on in ) the guest room ( me time ) and the bar & lounge experience ( voco™ life ). As well as our hosted service philosophy, a distinct level of service that is welcoming genuine not to stuffy or pretentious.
5. Do you see any trends that are emerging when it comes to the branding of hotels and venues?
Competition is tough more and more brands are evolving. Many travellers are moving away from traditional hotels and opting for more experience led. In hotels we have to stay current to understand the basic needs of guests. For me it is important we also make a nod towards sustainability by looking at sustainable supply solutions as much as possible to help reduce our footprint on the everyday world. At voco™ we have started to think about these elements with our bedding being made from recyclable plastics, removing on average 150 plastic bottles per guest room from landfills. The use of aerated shower heads using less water and removing the use of single use plastics across the hotels brand where possible. I am sure we can do much more and I look forward to evolving these elements of the brand as we evolve and grow.
6. Can you summarise what a typical day in your shoes could look like?
Wow that’s a difficult one as no one day is the same in the evolution of IHGs newest upscale brand at the moment. Mondays are full of voco™ team meetings and check ins with my team and procurement team to ensure our supply chains are stood up to support our growing pipeline of hotels across EMEAA. Tuesdays and Wednesdays ideally, I like to be out and about supporting our hotels in the UK. I also spend time with owners and investors and other global teams that are supporting us with the activation of the voco™ brand. Thursday mornings tend to be my Australia check in days when I check in with the in region NHOP & Hotel Operations team across the two hotels we have open in region voco™ Gold Coast & voco™ Kirkton park. I get to check in with voco™ Dubai our latest fast track voco™ opening in the middle east just a small one with 471 rooms! We have opened five hotels in six months a record-breaking achievement here at IHG.
7. What does your ideal weekend look like?
I like to spend time with my family and friends. After travelling most of the week it is key to get some family time in, my brother and his family have just returned from living in the USA and are now living an hour away from me. I intend to make the most of them living so close by after being separated by 9 hour flights, and relying on facetime for a number of years to check in with them, not to mention the time difference to contend with.
8. If you had could have a super power, what would this be?
Someone offered to buy me a “yellow voco™ cape” the other day! Seriously though this is not one I can easily decide on – it would probably be time travel – not because I want to change anything in my past as it has got me where I am today. The ability to say a proper goodbye to people who have left this world suddenly and also the ability to travel into the future to see what is ahead and be prepared for it both personally and at work.
9. If you just won the lottery, what is the first thing you would do?
Ensure my wider family are supported and consider a number of charities to support that are linked to hospitality as this is very important to me. Also spend more time volunteering to support young people using my experience to help coach and support people to a future in our industry. An industry that can be overlooked by many as too hard - for sure it is however, it can give you great rewards and job satisfaction at all levels.
10. Do you have a dream holiday destination or favourite place to visit?
Travel is in my blood being involved in hotels and travel through work. I still have some bucket list items to cover – northern lights, Rio/Brazil and the Maldives. So, we will see where this year takes me with voco™.
I travel to Cyprus twice a year as we have a family home in a small traditional village away from the tourist areas, peaceful and tranquil, just the place to revive and re-energise. I was also married in Cyprus (not in a hotel on a yacht) so it is a special place of special memories with many more to experience I am sure. One of my most memorable travel moments a few years go my husband and I travelled to Moscow & St Petersburg with friends which was an amazing local experience, travelling with friends who spoke the language was a real opportunity for me to experience some of the real Russian culture as well as some of the tourist sites. A great experience to be able to visit a beautiful country.