Red Carnation Hotels' Jonathan Raggett on memorable service, the evolution of luxury hotels, and being present in the guest experience
The Independent Hotel Show speaks to Jonathan Raggett, CEO of Red Carnation Hotels, Chair of industry charity Hospitality Action and recipient of the Outstanding Contribution Award at the Independent Hotel Show Awards in October 2023, about his 25 years at the hotel group, his first hospitality role and how the industry has transformed over the years.
How did it feel to be awarded Outstanding Contribution at the Independent Hotel Show Awards?
Immensely proud. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to be surrounded by a fantastic Red Carnation Hotel team over the past 25 years as well as hugely supportive employers, and although it might sound clichéd, hospitality is an industry that relies heavily on team effort so I couldn’t have achieved what I have on my own.
Can you tell us about your first hospitality job, or when you really got ‘the bug’?
One of my first jobs in hospitality was working in a coffee shop in my early teens. Like all youngsters, my driving force at the time was to earn my own money but I soon realised that I loved the fast pace of service, the buzz of meeting new people and having to think on my feet. I discovered I was really good at it and my delight turned from all the pennies I was earning, to wanting to offer a memorable service to my customer; building loyalty and establishing regulars who came to visit me time and time again.
What have been some of the most significant changes to the hotel sector during your career, and what’s stayed the same?
How we communicate with our guests, both existing and future, has changed dramatically in this digital era. Our mailshots have become more personalised, our social media presence more interactive and expansive and, of course, our pre and post stay communication has doubled to ensure we offer the personalised service we strive to deliver. This has not only helped establish us as a brand but guests feel more connected and in charge of the experience they wish to have with us.
The travel Industry is very lucrative with hundreds, if not thousands, of companies trying to attract new business. People are far more travel-savvy than they were say even 10 years ago so we’ve ensured we are completely transparent with our room rates online and any deals we’re able to offer. With more and more people making their travel plans online and comparing deals, we’ve focussed our efforts on ensuring our direct booking platforms are in line with comparable OTAs.
As I’ve mentioned before, social media now plays a huge role in our day-to-day lives with everyone posting their special moments online. It’s a great way for us to receive ‘free’ PR but with that comes the pressure of ensuring we deliver what we promise we will and offer the very best experiences to each and every one of our guests that we can. Recognising that there may be a tendency for a 20% exaggeration factor on all things online, I highlight the potential for a win-win situation if we can deliver and it attracts 20% more positive attention.
A change which I’m so pleased to have seen in my time in the industry is employees are now paid fairly for the hours they do. Historically, hospitality has been known as an industry where the hours were long and the staff were not necessarily paid commensurately for the overtime they did. With new legislation in place as well as our commitment to being a fair and conscientious employer, I’m proud that our teams are recognised for the work they do.
Within the Red Carnation Hotel collection, staff recognition has always been of utmost importance as it’s very much down to the people you employ and how appreciated they feel, that can impact one’s business. The added benefits we as a company can offer our staff, I believe, is the main reason we can recruit such exceptional individuals and also retain loyal staff.
It isn’t just selling a bedroom anymore; it is selling an experience. People come to the hotel as a destination now, and are expectant of what extras they can add to their visit, such as activities and unique drinking and dining options. People also seek opportunities to contribute and give back during their travels. For this reason, we now offer our own 'Make Travel Matter Experiences,' allowing guests to immerse themselves in giving back to the local communities where they stay, creating meaningful and experiential connections.
What’s one of your proudest moments or fondest memories as CEO of Red Carnation Hotels?
One of the highlights for me as CEO of Red Carnation Hotels was when we made it onto The Sunday Times ‘Best companies to work for’ list. Steadily, year on year, through huge efforts by our People & Culture team, we not only made it onto the list but reached the No. 2 spot. It’s not a list we are brave enough to enter again!
What does a luxury hotel experience look like in 2024?
Our aim, always, is to ensure our guests have a ‘wow’ moment during their stay, whether it be by the room they were allocated, a personalised welcome in recognition of a celebration or a genuine ‘how was your day’ from a member of the team when returning after a busy day sightseeing. Our teams ‘being present’ in our guests’ experience is one of the most important ways I believe luxury is defined now.
To illustrate this, we engage in what we call “TNTs” (Tiny Noticeable Touches) that leads to their expectations being exceeded. This goes hand in hand with genuine hospitality- how we are learning about our guests, their plans, their likes, and creating moments around these.
Can you tell us about your first six months as Chair of Trustees Hospitality Action, and some of your ambitions for the charity going forward?
My ambitions for how I can help move the charity forward are extensive and I’ve no doubt the longer I’m in situ as Chair of Trustees, the list will continue to grow. In the initial phase, my goal is to not only raise more funds for those in need but also enhance awareness of Hospitality Action throughout the industry while improving the range of benefits it provides.
Presently, we have an outstanding Employee Assistance Programme offering helpline support at £6.00 per employee. However, my vision is to expand and enhance this program through a dedicated App, enabling employees to access discounts at various stores. The aim is to diversify the rewards aspect, potentially incorporating cashback per spend in the future. Importantly, this additional feature would only require a modest increase of a couple of pounds per employee for employers to include. It’s clear that in the hospitality industry our people are our best assets, I believe companies investing these monies into accessing this feature of the App will go a huge way to show commitment, support, and investment in the wellbeing of their teams.
What do you think is the most important issue in the hospitality sector just now?
An important issue which I believe should be addressed is for the Government to list hospitality on the skilled work list so that workers from outside the UK can be brought in more easily with the guarantee of a job; it takes a huge amount of skill and knowledge to become a chef, for example, a housekeeper or waiter/ess. These are not jobs that people can just ‘walk into’ without having the necessary training, skills and aptitude to fulfil their duties to an exceptional standard, something which our guests have come to expect wherever they stay or dine.
What’s the most exciting thing about the hotel industry just now?
The old adage of competition breeding excellence rings true for me. There are so many new hotel openings in London at the moment which not only means that we should be encouraged to see the economy recovering, albeit slowly, and vibrancy returning to our cities with people travelling more, but it also means that some of the well-established hotels will need to raise their game. Growth and regeneration are so empowering, and I find it exhilarating having to stay at the top of our game.
Outside of Red Carnation hotels, what is your favourite hotel or most memorable hospitality experience?
I’ve been fortunate to travel to some amazing destinations over the years but what stands out in my mind at the moment is a recent river cruise with our sister company, Uniworld River Cruises. I’ve never thought as myself as a typical ‘cruiser’ but having had the opportunity to enjoy a river cruise around Venice, which was truly exceptional, I can fully appreciate why so many people opt for this type of holiday at least once in a lifetime. The cruise, which was a week in total, treated us to world-class cuisine, high quality hospitality, luxurious accommodation and fantastic shore excursions which I’ll remember forever.
Uniworld offered the same warm, personal five-star service our Red Carnation Hotel guests can enjoy and I must admit, I felt utterly pampered and well-rested upon my return.