Insider Feature: Simon Tucker-Brown – Hotels, Leisure & Travel

18/07/2019
Simon Tucker-Brown has placed hundreds of executives in major hotel & leisure brands, and has held senior and general management roles in luxury and boutique hotels across the UK. He shares his views on industry trends, how hospitality management recruitment is changing, and the skills that hospitality businesses are looking for to drive value.
managing recruitment director

You recently re-joined psd as Managing Director of the Hotels, Leisure & Travel practice – what are your reflections on your first 5 months?

The opportunity to work with Lesley Reynolds again has been enormously engaging from my perspective. The decision to come back was based on a couple of things; to have broader access to the market, and secondly but most importantly, the opportunity to be responsible for leading a full team.  It has been difficult to find really talented recruiters for the hospitality industry in my previous firms and now I have the opportunity to lead an already successful team on to their next set of objectives.

What changes have you seen in hospitality businesses over the years?

The client base has changed significantly. Thinking back 20 years, the vast majority of placements we made were with owner operators. In the last 20 years some of those businesses have pursued an aggressive asset-lite structure, so divested of their assets they have become management companies. Most recently, some of those businesses have taken a further step to focus on becoming franchise brands as well as operators. So whereas our clients were always hotel companies, they can now be owners, franchisors or investment companies.  It’s a broad range in our market, and we have to be very careful to make sure we are servicing all relevant areas of it.

How have changes in the hospitality industry impacted management recruitment in recent years?

Our clients are looking for people who will understand the various different stakeholder agendas.  It’s no longer good enough to have a General Manager that produces a very clean and efficient P&L – we need to find people who can look after assets as well, and drive their value.  Generally speaking, unless it’s a trophy asset, the hold time on hotels is probably somewhere between 5 and 10 years, and they’re looking to achieve the capital values that they want on the exit as well as market leading profit conversion from the operating businesses through the life of the hold.  It really is about finding diversity in approach. I met with a client recently who said his idea of an hotelier is someone who didn’t do well at A-Levels and went to hotel school for lack of something better to do. But that’s certainly changed over the last 10 – 15 years.  We’re seeing business managers and directors coming in with qualifications such as MBA’s as a minimum.

Our clients are looking for people who will understand the various different stakeholder agendas.  It’s no longer good enough to have a General Manager that produces a very clean and efficient P&L – we need to find people who can look after assets as well, and drive their value.

What changes are being driven by technology in the industry?

There is a lot of change coming for the hospitality industry. Typically they have been slow to embrace technology and there is perhaps a reticence because it’s a very people heavy industry. From an automation and efficiency perspective there is a huge opportunity.  We are currently working with a large hotel group on a search for a finance function in Western Europe. Everything they’re doing right now is about business process and outsourcing the parts they’re not subject matter experts on, so their transformation project is enormous. If you look wider than that, the really big area the hospitality industry can monetise is big data.  People offload a considerable amount of data when staying in hotels and in the booking process.

In your experience, how has technology played a part in the recruitment process?

LinkedIn is still very important, often it allows us to confirm what we think we know about the candidate from our own database.  Where we have difficult assignments geographically – and I always tell the team no one comes to us if they’re easy assignments – you need to have the reach that a normal database may not necessarily allow you to have. For example we have just placed someone in Kazakhstan.  On the other hand, what we’re also seeing is clients with internal recruitment teams, even internal search teams. The difficulty they have is educating those teams on what ‘good recruitment’ looks like.  We recently worked with a company that had 6 internal recruiters working on one assignment for 6 months, and couldn’t find anyone suitable for the role.  We came in and shortlisted four very strong candidates very quickly because we know the market place.  We knew where to find the people, we knew their histories.  LinkedIn doesn’t necessarily give you that.

We always ask for feedback following an assignment, do you reciprocate and deliver feedback to your clients?

I do actually, and I can be fairly direct!  I worked with a large hotel in London, and they had a very specific requirement for what they wanted in a General Manager.  It meant engaging with people who wouldn’t normally look at a role like that. The client wanted it to be fast and interactive in terms of the hiring process.  12 stages later, when I did the wash up with them, I explained it was 6 stages more than I had done on many CEO searches.  I think you have to share what’s going on in the market place, how client’s competitors are hiring and engaging, what smart recruitment looks like, and how inertia can affect their ability to attract the talent that they really want.

You have to share what’s going on in the market place, how client’s competitors are hiring and engaging, what smart recruitment looks like, and how inertia can affect their ability to attract the talent that they really want.

How far and wide are you working?

Predominantly our market place is EMEA. To break it down further, the vast majority of work comes from the UK and Europe.  There has historically been more business in the Middle East, but the GCC region has slowed down over the last two years due to a combination of over-supply and geopolitical factors.  In particular there has always been huge demand in Dubai, however that has slowed as they’ve over developed it, there’s too much inventory coming in.  It has become an increasingly transactional market place. I’ve found during the past 4 or 5 years of working in the region that you need to be on the ground regularly. You need to do the major trade shows like Arabian Travel Market and Arabian Investment Conference, but you also need to be seen outside of that. Typically to be successful you need to have a member of the team on the ground 2 – 3 times a year. Europe is a lot easier with connections from the UK. Again, particularly in the hotel world, people buy people and they like to be able to see you. One has to take an investment approach and make the time to meet them on their home soil.

What opportunities do you see in the future for psd in the hospitality industry?

We are very strong in the industry, but there are always opportunities for us to diversify. We’re very strong in luxury hotels, and I’d like to think we can move seamlessly into luxury travel and then possibly luxury goods. There is potential for travel to be a huge area for us, typically online tour operators, online travel agents, and travel management companies. We have the benefit of a very successful sports practice at psd, headed up by Kit Taylor, and there’s a big opportunity to fill the gaps with what we’re doing in the leisure industry with what he’s doing in the sport industry.  One of our big growth areas is addressing the new sectors of the market that are morphing away from the traditional hotel.  Technology led businesses are very interesting – hybrids between hotels and hostels, long stays, the sharing economy – these are all very exciting areas that are going to impact our market enormously over the next five years.