Case studies

How a devastating fire led the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to an engagement initiative with a difference

28 Mar 2019 By Lauren R Brown

The luxury hotel's HR team had to think fast to retain its employee base in advance of a multi-million pound relaunch

In June last year, following the most extensive renovation in its 127-year history, the five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel overlooking London’s Hyde Park was busy preparing to cut the ribbon on its imminent relaunch. Two years and more than £100 million of investment had seen the hotel’s 181 rooms, public areas and dining spaces completely overhauled, as well as the redesign and expansion of its luxury spa facilities. Behind the scenes, its HR team had also been working hard to make sure its people strategy was up to speed with the ambitious plans – involving hiring more than 200 new employees to take the workforce to 750, as well as developing a refreshed talent strategy and L&D framework. As HR director Jon Dawson succinctly puts it, people operations were “totally revamped”.

But just days before the relaunch was due to be unveiled, a devastating fire broke out in the hotel’s interior courtyard. One resident at the time, no less than singer Robbie Williams, described seeing “billows and billows of smoke” rising high above the buildings of Knightsbridge. Thankfully, the swift actions of the Mandarin Oriental team meant the building was fully evacuated in under four minutes, with no reported injuries – but with the hotel closed for the foreseeable future, the majority of Dawson’s newly expanded workforce had no jobs to go to.

Rather than laying off hundreds of staff, the team looked at ways they could keep them. “It was a very intense week – we were faced with the possibility of having to start our entire recruitment drive again at a later date,” Dawson recalls. “But under the leadership of new general manager Amanda Hyndman, who only started two days before the fire, we asked ourselves how we could use this setback as an opportunity to not only thank the local community for its support, but also give employees the chance to develop new skills. We had invested substantially in training our people for the relaunch, so it made business sense to not throw that away.”

Just one week after the fire broke out, staff were invited to the undamaged ballroom in groups of 200 and given the news that they wouldn’t need to find another job, and instead would have the opportunity to either travel overseas to work at other Mandarin Oriental hotels, or volunteer with charities across London – and be paid while they did so. “Their astonishment was palpable,” says Dawson. “And they couldn’t believe we’d managed to organise it all in just seven days.”

A total of 77 employees were seconded to Mandarin Oriental sites abroad, including Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei and Milan, with the majority volunteering closer to home with charities such as Oxfam and Age UK under the strapline ‘FANtastic London’ – a reference to the company’s logo. A skeleton staff including HR, finance and engineering stayed at the Hyde Park site to oversee the repair work.

With the opportunity to broaden their horizons while not losing out financially, Dawson highlights that the opportunity to work in the community has given staff a new perspective on their own roles. “A supervisor in our concierge team went to work with a homeless charity, and said he now feels more able to support and empathise with colleagues and guests. That will have a direct impact on the service we provide,” he says. 

Adding an extra element of collaboration, Dawson’s team also offered a night’s stay in the new penthouse suite overlooking Hyde Park to the staff member who took the most creative photo during their secondment. “We noticed people were starting to share pictures, so we decided to add a social element to the project,” he says. “That created a lot of organic engagement.”

The plan for the employees’ return to Hyde Park after their stints away was no less exciting. Following a week of classroom-based learning getting to theoretical grips with areas including the bars, restaurants and rooms, the rest of the six-week ‘MOve Back’ training programme – designed to get staff back up to speed with the hotel’s smooth running – allowed each employee to put their knowledge into practice and, most importantly, experience the hotel as guests.

“It helped them understand each other’s experiences,” he says. “Those who were taking care of their colleagues at one of our restaurants, for example, could practise their skills from the classroom while their colleague enjoyed the experience as a guest and vice versa. They’ve experienced every aspect of the hotel from the other side of the check-in desk, and consequently understand it in much more depth.”

With the hotel now in the process of reopening, the team is more united than ever before. “It’s hard to describe how the atmosphere has changed – it’s brought the whole hotel together,” says Dawson. “Before the fire, we were more siloed, but now there’s a real sense of collaboration.” 

Dawson is firm in his belief that the strong foundation his team built in the run-up to the hotel’s thwarted relaunch enabled them to not only weather the crisis, but transform it into a hugely successful opportunity. And it isn’t over: one of the team’s goals for this year is to build on the FANtastic London initiative, and they have committed to donating 10,000 hours of volunteering time back to the community.

“The fact that we already had strong processes and communication channels in place meant we could be agile when we had to change our strategy,” says Dawson. “It re-emphasised the importance of having a plan that can be flexible. The levels of engagement we have now are outstanding – even higher than before the fire. It has taken the hotel to a whole new level.”

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