Caroline Lowe, director of HR for Hilton London Heathrow Terminal 5, was single-minded about wanting to work in the hotel industry.
As a result, she undertook a degree in hotel management and, on finishing her studies, went straight into the operational side of the business.
“I just always enjoyed being in hotels: the look and feel of them. Once you work in one, it’s the people and the fun that keep you there,” she enthuses.
But after having taken on a few operational and managerial roles, Lowe found her niche in HR. For her, the two make a winning combination. “While HR is similar in many ways across all businesses, the autonomy, flexibility, creativity and ability to make an impact is evident in hotels,” she explains.
Her first HR role about 15 years ago was at the Radisson Edwardian. Lowe obtained a CIPD qualification while there in order to supplement the on-the-job experience that she was gaining. “Radisson Edwardian was a privately-held hotel group and it offered great grounding. It’s a unique brand with innovative ideas,” she says.
From there, Lowe moved to another major hotel chain, Marriott Hotels. “It was a fantastic company – very, very structured, very warm. The way it operated, people were always at the forefront and I learnt about working for a big brand,” she says.
Lowe spent five years there, becoming an assistant and then HR manager in her own right at the organisation’s Marble Arch (London) hotel. She was subsequently appointed cluster HR manager and made responsible for three hotels. But on having baby, she decided to leave the chain and move to Le Meridien, Heathrow.
There she was responsible for the same number of rooms (900) as she had been at the Marriott but, because they were all in one place, she found it easier to balance work with her new family responsibilities.
Major projects at the hotel included the rebranding it to become the Park Inn, Heathrow, overseeing a major extension, which included a new conference centre and restaurant, as well as gaining environmental accreditation.
But a restructure of the HR function also led to a new role for Lowe as people development manager for London Central at the Rezidor Hotel Group
, where she looked after four Park Inn hotels.
“I love the HR role within the hotel environment. It’s fun and you can make a huge impact on people’s development in a relatively short time,” she says.
Another bonus, Lowe believes is that the industry tends to be very responsive to creative ideas. Moreover, big brands offer “excellent career progression, a fantastic working environment and a wide range of training and career paths for people for six months,” she points out.
Lowe’s next step, however, was to join the pre-opening team at Hilton London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5. “I joined a building site and was based in a portacabin,” Lowe laughs. Because it was the first hotel opening that she’d been involved with, she found the project exciting, not least because it entailed a massive recruitment drive.
As the hotel is a franchise, it has the support of the Hilton network. But because it is privately owned by Shiva Hotels, the management team also had an opportunity to stamp its own creative brand on the initiative.
The prospect of working for a new luxury hotel likewise attracted people from outside of the industry – recruits joined the team after having worked in supermarket chains and garden centres as well as coming straight from school after having completed their GCSEs.
But the secret to success in Lowe’s eyes was simply whether they displayed passion and a warm personality. “For us, attitude, personality and passion are the key for entry-level positions. That doesn’t go away as you move up the career ladder, but you do balance them with experience and qualifications,” she points out.
The idea is that, if new recruits are able to demonstrate the three qualities required, the hotel only needs to focus on teaching them the necessary technical skills.
In a bid to nurture its young talent, meanwhile, the Hilton London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 has started a three-year chef apprenticeship scheme and has developed links with the Academy of Culinary Arts
and the University of West London
to this end.
But Lowe has likewise worked with consultant Marcus Childs to develop a bespoke employee training programme entitled ‘Inspire’ in order to support the creation of a positive and generous service culture.
Many of the 130 staff at the hotel, which celebrated its first anniversary on 31 August, are now looking for new challenges, however. As a result, Lowe’s key aim over the next 12 months is to focus on building employee engagement and developing an effective succession planning scheme.
And things certainly appear to be off to a good start – the hotel won Best Medium Group Hotel Employer in Caterer.com’s 2012 Hospitality Awards, an accolade that was voted for by its staff.
Nonetheless, Lowe acknowledges that, while it is easy for personnel to be enthusiastic when a venture is still new, the real key to success will be keeping it all going in the years to come.
Who do you admire most and why?
On the personal front, I admire any working men and women who can combine career with home life and have a good work-life balance. I also admire motivational speaker Marcus Child, who’s been working with us on our bespoke training programme, Inspire. He’s incredibly positive and motivational.
What’s your most hated buzzword?
‘Journey’, although I have found myself using it many times!
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?
Don’t make rush decisions – always sleep on it. In the HR world, making decisions can affect people’s career and their lives.
How do you relax?
Weekends away at other Hilton hotels as all employees receive fantastic discounts. But I also love spending time with my family.