To call 2020 a year of change is something of an understatement. The world today is a very different place, yet it’s clear that by looking forward fearlessly and adapting rapidly, some companies have become even stronger during these challenging times.
Luxury Hospitality is one such success story. Travel bans, social distancing restrictions and closing of borders wreaked havoc and left business partners Peter Vogel, Erik Smit and their team facing a stark choice: introduce a new online training system or languish in limbo waiting for the world as we used to know it to reopen.
‘It’s been a challenging year which has changed everything,’ says Erik, LH’s Operations Manager. ‘We are used to travelling a lot and doing most of our work on board or on site.
'We thought we’d be back to operating normally within a couple of months but even so, from the very first moment, we looked at the things we wanted to do but hadn’t had time for because we were always on the road. We allocated a budget to get things moving and started working out how to continue our business.
‘Until February, almost every boat was looking for good crew to join, there was a huge shortage of talent and people could pick and choose. Covid completely changed the dynamics; lots of boats went to a skeleton crew and those looking for jobs started feeling grateful for the chance to work with us and develop their skillsets.’
With many of their existing clients reaching out to ask how they should progress, Erik and Peter felt motivated by the conversations. They decided to embrace the opportunity to create online courses and a virtual presence and suddenly, company growth accelerated.
‘It’s so easy to stay at home until everything is over and then see what the world looks like afterwards,’ says Erik. ‘We decided to encourage our clients to use this time as we were using it, to emerge as a better person, a better team, a better company than before.
‘I’m convinced that we’ll end up having a bigger impact on this industry than if the pandemic hadn’t happened. Without the pandemic, growth would have been progressive over the last year and I think we’d be at a different point to where we are now. I’m still getting to four continents but I’m doing it in one day and all online!’
Making the business Covid compliant afforded Peter and Erik the rare luxury to pause and regroup, leading to a more energised and targeted business model.
‘Before coronavirus, we had had 15 months without proper breaks,’ explains Peter. ‘It was a shock to the system at first but looking back, I don’t think I’ve ever felt healthier than I do now, and many in our team feel the same way.
‘It was good to stop and identify who we should be talking to. We are known as trouble shooters – anyone with a problem would come to us because we can problem solve and help people – but our main drive is to prevent problems happening by putting systems and structures in place. Problem solving is exhausting and we knew that if we turned it around, we could be way more proactive in what we do and how we do it.
‘In the last six months, this different approach with new ideas and concepts has attracted other clients to us. We are taking calls on an almost daily basis from new clients booking training sessions for next spring. That is a very positive sign.’
While the decision to take LH’s offerings online was a natural step, Erik says it took time and patience to execute, even though the company had been considering the idea pre-pandemic.
‘We thrive on the energy we feel from people when we’re working in the same room as them,’ he adds, ‘and it’s a huge difference to working online. The team needed to move in that direction but our mindset had to change.
‘We are used to meeting with the team online once a week at least but with people you don’t know and need to connect with, online rapport is slightly harder.
‘A good example of how to overcome this is our mixologist Rob Rademaker; we shot a lot of promotional videos with him and the bar training is now flying because he is very comfortable presenting his training course online. We’re finding that other people in the team are ready to deliver now.’
Ensuring that the online and physical courses complement each other is a vital component in making this shift a long-term success.
‘A one-off training course for a couple of days a year is quite pointless, even though we love travelling to these boats to deliver our courses,’ admits Erik. ‘There is a peak in motivation - people know and understand but after a month or two, it drops off until we revisit a year later.
‘Now we are talking about taking people on leadership journeys which involve us interacting with them at different moments during the year and our online presence is a big part of that. It depends on the longevity of the team, of course - if they are on board for years, we can reduce it – and while we like having an impact face to face, this new way of training will change the future.’
Peter nods in agreement, adding: ‘When we started LH 12 years ago, you’d have to fight to get onto the boats for one training session. We’d be told, Interior doesn’t need training, why are we doing this? Now we assist the whole crew with their professional development, personal effectiveness and individual leadership skills, and eventually, leadership of the team.
‘There is a trend for self and personal development in addition to technical ability and the further you can go in this, the more successful you will become, which leads to great fulfilment in each crew member.’
This unique hybrid training approach is already paying dividends with crews enjoying the benefits of a combination of online and physical coaching sessions.
‘We were contacted by the captain of a boat in the Caribbean who wanted us to reassure and calm his crew,’ says Peter. ‘We did that online and I travelled there when it was safe to do so, working with each individual in the 30-strong crew in a coaching setting.
‘We brought in our leadership head trainer Martin Mainey remotely from the UK as he couldn’t travel and had a three-way session with each crew member sitting with me, and Martin on the laptop. The entire crew felt it was useful to be doing something other than just cleaning the boat.’
As a result of the collective increased motivation and assurance, the owner invested in an annual LH development journey for each crew member which will take the format of an in-person day (if travel is allowed) or two half-day sessions online using the same material.
‘Another boat asked us to create an entertainment package for their crew, some of whom were at home on rotation while others were on the boat,’ adds Peter. ‘We organised a band to play for a few hours remotely from the UK and everyone could tune in and ask for requests. You have to be creative – we would never have thought of doing that before corona!’
Peter and Erik are hoping to roll out a number of new incentives and projects over the next three years. One of the most exciting is a collaboration with Alain Ducasse’s cooking school in Paris offering culinary training for the interior and chefs. LH’s Best You programme, developed with IGY, is ready to roll out once unlimited travel and socialising are permitted again and they have also established a digital events team for online conferences.
LH’s pioneering Manager in Charge programme, a food management system focusing on sanitation and public health developed in tandem with the Maritime Food Authority, will roll out in early 2021.
‘Covid has helped us to open conversations about this,’ says Peter. ‘An app has been developed to go with it and we’re very excited to bring a standard to yachting that restaurants, hotels and cruise ships already have.
‘2020 might have put a brake on things temporarily but there are solutions in sight with testing and vaccines coming so we’re thinking not in limitations anymore but in exploring new and exciting opportunities and how best to deliver them.’