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The Big Interview: Suzanne Speak, General Manager at Bolton Whites Hotel

Bonnie Howard 6 March 2017
The Big Interview: Suzanne Speak, General Manager at Bolton Whites Hotel

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to your current role?

I have been very fortunate with the opportunities given to me and so there are far too many to name. I am humbled to say that I have risen through the ranks very quickly to where I am now and some may say that is the luck of the Irish but I say gift of the gab!

Right from the outset I knew a career in hospitality was for me and being selected for the Hilton Graduate programme was a dream come true.  After six international interviews I flew to New York just a week before my graduation and haven’t looked back since.  Six months into the training I was promoted to Front of House Manager and was awarded many accreditations during my three year spell with them.  Needless to say, I have some very fond memories with Hilton which put me on a solid path in the industry.

I was headhunted whilst in America and at the time it felt right to return closer to my roots, so I joined Preston Marriott progressing quickly to Operations Manager before I moved on to a project consultancy role with the group.  I then made the move to De Vere as General Manager and the rest as they say is history!  

Once part of the De Vere group, Bolton Whites has now operated as an independent hotel since 2013 and is quite unique in the fact that it is fully integrated into the Macron Stadium, home to Bolton Wanderers Football Club so as you can imagine we have to make commercial decisions bearing in mind team performance both on and off the pitch!

What do you find most challenging about your job?

Being a part of the Macron stadium, I find myself operating in a man’s world and that in itself brings challenges you just have to face head on.  It also means the headcount I am responsible for is far more than the industry norm.  With 122 team members across many divisions and a further 200 + employees we manage via a catering contract, it is imperative to strike the right team ethic and to ensure everyone receives support to maintain excellence of standards and service.  I believe that respect is earned and this is relative to some of the decisions I have to make which don’t always make me popular, but the team understands my motives and are very supportive.

It can be a lonely job as you have to remain at the top of your game to drive the business forward taking everyone on the sometimes bumpy but unquestionably exciting journey with you.  As an independent hotel I don’t have head office feeding me market information and so I have to keep my finger on the pulse of the bigger picture by constantly reviewing trends, budgeting and forecasting as we see fit. Unlike other hotels, we are also affected by the success of the football team which by nature has its ups and downs and so my goal is to ensure we comfortably stand on our own two feet.  

What is the best part of your job?

Without doubt, my team.  I am surrounded by dedicated people who live for this industry and for Bolton Whites Hotel.  We have had a roller coaster ride in recent years and I can hand on heart say that the team dug deep as one team together and we emerged even stronger, celebrating our most successful financial years.

What do you see as the most important elements in developing your hotel brand?

When we became an independent four years ago, we literally moved away from two internationally renowned brands in a short space of time as at the time it wasn’t long after the relationship with Reebok itself came to an end.

I wanted to create a brand that doesn’t rely on football and we have done that.  Now, we need to further enhance our quirky, somewhat unique proposition and personality and you will see that with the launch of three new websites and more focus given to the International Football programme we have recently collaborated with the football club on.  As far as revenue generators go, this joint offering is already exceeding all expectations and we plan to capitalise on that with a move into other sports this year too.

What are the key issues for the sector at the moment?

It is difficult for me to answer this as we are not a stereotypical destination led leisure hotel.  People come to us for a reason whether that is for a game or exhibition and we always see the demand for that.

Have you noticed any hospitality trends emerging this year?

We’ve certainly noticed trends bespoke to us and what we offer as a ‘venue with rooms’.  Bookers are looking for something that bit different, something unique that makes their event stand out from the rest.  With a venue like ours that acts as a blank canvas, people are pushing the boat our, not only financially but creatively too.  Over the years we have had water tanks for divers, inflatable pools on the pitch, BBQ’s on the pitch and ice skating rinks to name a few!

What makes a great hotel?

Its people and an unrivalled experience at each touch point.  

In general, how do you think the hotel industry is performing at the moment?

Despite the uncertainty of Brexit and with it being early days, we are still seeing a buoyant marketplace.  There seems to be confidence building and I think this will continue.  Momentum and demand doesn’t seem to be waning so I think that the industry is performing well but being so niche ourselves, it is hard for me to comment wider for leisure destinations.

What are your plans for the future?

Our plans are very much about re-investing in the hotel and ensure that every touch point has a fresh face.  Whilst we are not a budget brand, we have seen budget brands heavily invest in their product offering so we now need to up our game once more to keep a wide gap between us in terms of service and offering.  

We also intend to capitalise on the demand we get for events at the hotel as we can offer everything from pitch concerts to high profile boxing matches and everything in between!

Quick fire questions…

Last hotel you stayed at?

Hilton Manchester Deansgate

Your favourite food?

Thai food

The one item of technology you can’t live without?

My mobile phone

What is the most important life lesson you’ve learnt?

Never take anything for granted.