Gleneagles: Interview with Conor O’Leary
Appointed as Managing Director in 2020, Conor O’Leary is now responsible for the entire Gleneagles operation. He tells Hayley Bortolotti about the new People & Culture strategy ‘Let’s Stay Together’, the launch of a programme of glamorous outdoor get-togethers, glorious food and great adventures, and Gleneagles active role in supporting local communities and businesses.
With many of your existing people returning from furlough, how are you supporting their return to work in terms of engagement and re-training?
Maintaining team engagement and addressing the wellbeing risks uniquely related to the pandemic – especially those pertaining to being furloughed, reduced social interaction, juggling remote working with caring responsibilities, and the many other changes that have turned everyday life on its head over the last 12 months – were our top priorities throughout our closure.
To safeguard the welfare of our team, we created a new People & Culture strategy called ‘Let’s Stay Together’, including the implementation of new learning and wellbeing initiatives and a rich programme of engagement activities. The strategy aimed to foster rapid acclimatisation to team life during the pandemic – from remote engagement initiatives that promoted mental and physical wellbeing during a time of global danger and great personal change, to learning programmes that equipped individuals with the knowledge and skills to adapt safely to unfamiliar working processes when they returned.
To safeguard the welfare of our team, we created a new People & Culture strategy called ‘Let’s Stay Together’, including the implementation of new learning and wellbeing initiatives and a rich programme of engagement activities.
The actions included workouts and mindfulness workshops to promote inner peace; expert nutritional advice and ongoing emotional support; remote social activities, get-togethers and party nights to encourage our people to stay in touch with colleagues; light-hearted cooking, beauty, gardening, DIY and sport sessions to foster discovery and team camaraderie; and volunteering and fundraising opportunities to give our people the chance to support those who needed it most in the local community and across the industry.
How are you dealing with the huge challenge of getting newly recruited teams trained and ready for opening?
At Gleneagles, we use a people engagement platform called ‘Workplace’, an internal social media tool which allows us to reach our 1000-strong team instantly, share rich multi-media content, and facilitate communications (both planned and spontaneous) across and between individuals, groups, teams and disciplines. It has been invaluable over the past 12 months in engaging with our people for training purposes.
We developed a range of remote learning and training initiatives, from mandatory COVID training to virtual coaching sessions to alleviate anxieties regarding returning to the workplace. This included a Daily E-learning programme, with career coaching tips and free online resources to promote happiness and effectiveness in the workplace, as well as bringing in an external coach to deliver virtual returning to work sessions for all members of the team to alleviate anxieties.
We also carried out a consultation process with every single member of our team, giving everyone the opportunity to critique our COVID risk assessment ahead of reopening. This helped to lessen concerns about returning to the workplace.
We also carried out a consultation process with every single member of our team, giving everyone the opportunity to critique our COVID risk assessment ahead of reopening. This helped to lessen concerns about returning to the workplace and has led to the implementation of hundreds of new safety protocols to protect team wellbeing. Additionally, our COVID reorientation programme for all members of the team has served to equip our people with greater health and wellbeing knowledge ahead of the hotel’s reopening, including ‘what to expect on your first day back’.
Are you concerned that newly recruited people from outside the Industry are likely to leave you once other sectors recover? Have you adapted your employee retention strategy to reduce this risk?
We have protected jobs at Gleneagles over the past year and created an additional 174 positions, providing employment to many hospitality professionals who had lost their jobs at other organisations.
Gleneagles’ people culture pivots on valuing and rewarding every single individual’s contribution to the business, regardless of role, age or position, which is reflected in our team demographic that includes many people who are celebrating their second, third and even fourth decade working in the team.
Recognising that our success is owed entirely to our people, we show our gratitude for our team’s efforts and offer our support in a number of ways, not just in relation to engagement, training or development, but in terms of making a genuine difference to people’s lives, including for those who have just started with us, have joined us on temporary contracts, or who are just beginning their careers. For instance, our minimum rate of pay represents a significant uplift from the National Minimum Wage and industry average.
What marketing campaigns are you putting in place to attract the staycation market and what impact are you seeing on forward bookings for the summer?
We feel very fortunate that, as soon as we announced our reopening date back in March, our reservations team had to work around the clock to cope with demand. This summer, to help our guests celebrate the end of lockdown we’re launching a programme of glamorous outdoor get-togethers, glorious food and great adventures, including alfresco culinary pop-ups, month-long festivities for ‘Jubilant June’ and the return of our Children’s Programme.
This summer, to help our guests celebrate the end of lockdown we’re launching a programme of glamorous outdoor get-togethers, glorious food and great adventures.
We’ll be welcoming the return of our much-loved Seafood Bar & Grill; introducing our very own Tuck Shop and Ice Cream Parlour; launching a specially curated Champagne menu in partnership with Moet & Chandon on our Century Bar Terrace; holding Whisky Loch-Downs – a nightly ritual by our private Loch where guests have the opportunity to sample some of the finest whiskies around a roaring firepit; and Twilight Hour – sundowners accompanied by live music to make the most of the long summer nights up in Perthshire.
This summer will also see the expansion of our outdoor pursuits offering to help our guests make the most of the great outdoors and the chance to explore Perthshire’s glorious countryside. From Junior Bee Keeping and Aromatherapy, to bug hunts, falconry, off-roading and woodland craft, we have something to rekindle everyone’s spirit of adventure.
At the heart of your local community, you offer a lifeline to small local businesses. Without the international traveller the impact will surely be felt amongst them. How will you encourage the domestic staycation market to engage in what the local community has to offer?
We’re proud to play an active role in the local community. The surrounding villages, towns and cities are not only wonderful places for our guests to visit; they are where our team live and work and where many of our supplies are sourced, so we’re committed to giving something back where we can.
Over the past two years, we’ve taken an active role in using our marketing communication channels (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, The Gleneagles Magazine) to promote and support the economic health, natural assets and cultural heritage of the local area.
From encouraging our guests to use local traders and suppliers and signposting the rich array of cultural attractions and historic destinations on our doorstep, to celebrating the cycling trails, beauty spots and walking routes in the local countryside, our ambition has been to support the people, communities and businesses in the local villages across Perthshire and throughout Scotland.
Our ambition has been to support the people, communities and businesses in the local villages, across Perthshire and throughout Scotland.
Over the past two years, we have run a regular content series of ‘top five guides’ to tell compelling stories to our guests and followers about the local area, including top five museums near Gleneagles; top five historic or cultural attractions/destinations; top five hill walks; top five local beauty spots; top five local suppliers to buy your meat, fish, wine, cake, chocolates, fruit; top five local restaurants in the local area for hearty Scottish hospitality; top five cosy pubs to enjoy a drink by a roaring fire; and top five family days out in the local area.
Even during our closure throughout the pandemic we continued to run this content series, encouraging our followers and guests to keep supporting the local community.
Many businesses have been forced to pivot their offering over the past 12 months; what changes and innovations have you introduced that you are most proud of?
A slightly modified guest journey, updated protocols, and an enhanced set of safety measures that meet or exceed government guidelines have been implemented across our estate to protect the health and wellbeing of everyone who comes to Gleneagles.
However, since opening in 1924, Gleneagles has been a welcome retreat from the stresses of everyday life; a luxury rural escape; a glorious getaway where your cares fade away – so it was important to us that any changes did not compromise that.
Over the past year, we have launched a range of wonderful new guest experiences, often at very short notice, to respond to the ever-evolving public health regulations and restrictions, while maintaining all the aspects of the quintessential Gleneagles experience that our guests love so much, whether that’s luxury, glamour, relaxation, family fun, exceptional cuisine or outdoor adventures.
Of all these innovations, the one of which I’m most proud is the launch of a new outdoor space, The Garden Bar, in collaboration with Moet. For a space that was devised as a temporary solution to a problem, it’s become one of the most popular spots on the whole estate.
Of all these innovations, the one of which I’m most proud is the launch of a new outdoor space, The Garden Bar, in collaboration with Moet, to create an intimate outdoor venue for our guests to enjoy an alcoholic beverage. As soon as the Scottish Government announced its plans to limit the sale and consumption of alcohol to outdoors, we set to work. From concept to creation, the project took just 72 hours and saw our F&B, maintenance, floristry and marketing teams working seamlessly and tirelessly to pull it all together. For a space that was devised as a temporary solution to a problem, it’s become one of the most popular spots on the whole estate.
For you personally what has been the biggest learning curve over the past 12 months?
As a leader, part of your job is to provide your team with information, direction, answers and strategy. But last March, almost overnight, hospitality leaders found themselves in uncharted waters, with no rule book of answers to consult and no precedent on which to reflect in order to forecast what might happen next.
Different businesses in different parts of the world found themselves subject to different restrictions and, as those restrictions shifted every day, short and mid-term planning became hugely challenging. As the enormity of the global crisis began to emerge, and as I asked my team to embark with me on this unmapped and unfamiliar journey, what was greatly reinforced for me was that it’s okay not to have all the answers. At a time of great change and uncertainty, what’s much more important is open and honest communication, engagement and compassion.
When these things are all in place, a team’s ability to adapt, evolve and respond effectively to a volatile or challenging situation, whatever that might be, is strengthened a hundredfold.
Conor’s career in hospitality began in London’s bustling bar and restaurant scene, which led to senior F&B and leadership roles in some of the UK and the Middle East’s finest five-star hotels. Immediately prior to joining the team, Conor led the Hyatt group’s largest food and beverage operation in the world at the Grand Hyatt in Dubai.
He joined Gleneagles in 2016 as Hotel Manager and was promoted to General Manager, and Joint Managing Director shortly thereafter, to steer the team through the biggest period of change and investment in the hotel’s almost 100-year history.
Appointed as Managing Director in 2020, he is now responsible for the entire operation, from commercial functions, people and culture, projects and marketing, to finance, F&B, guest relations and leisure.
When he’s not at work, you can normally find him out running or practising his golf swing; fulfilling his mission to discover the world’s best restaurants and bars; or enjoying the great outdoors with his wife and daughter and his Working Cocker Spaniel, Rolo.