From fast food to five star — a consultant’s journey

This essay looks at Tony Eldred’s experiences moving from the fast food industry to the five star hotel industry and makes some observations about the strengths and weaknesses of each.

I am often bemused by the attitudes various sections of the hospitality industry display toward each other. The description ‘hospitality’ covers a broad range of business activities — everything from caravan parks to five-star hotels and fast food to fine dining. Often the relations between owners and managers of these related activities seem to be less than constructive.

The beginning in fast food

Started here — 40 years ago. Great management training.

My first experience in hospitality came from a very rewarding period spent in fast food management in the late ’60’s and throughout the 70’s. The fast food industry does not pretend to produce gourmet food; the aim is to provide value for money and consistent product for the mass market. It is a high volume business with a low profit margin, and if its managers do not control everything very tightly the profit disappears. The big fast food companies provide a high standard of management training to achieve this tight control.

5 Star hotel

Later in my career I worked for one of the Hilton hotel chain. The aim was to build a grandiose building and fill it with the highest standards possible. The hire of rooms for outrageous prices tended to subsidise the inefficiencies of the food and beverage operation, and the net result was profitable. The permanent staff had a much higher level of technical skills than I had previously experienced, while the management were mostly untrained in the basic management and supervisory skills.

5 years with the Hilton, Melbourne (now Pullman)

I still remember my first few weeks in the hotel. I was like Alice in Wonderland — one half of me was entranced by the opulence and the glitter; the other half incredulous at some of the bizarre leadership I was seeing. The creativity and presentation of the food and beverage staff impressed me immensely, but I couldn’t comprehend the lack of management concern with the wastage of resources.

When I commented on this to a colleague, the response was interesting: ‘How can you come from running a chook shop and pretend to know about management?’ He didn’t understand where I was coming from, and didn’t wish to try to understand. I found this was typical of my colleagues at the time; it seemed that the hotel industry thought of itself as the pinnacle of management skill. I suppose it’s easy to fall into this type of arrogant thinking when you are surrounded by luxury and mixing with the who’s who of the world.

Not a little chook shop

The chook shop he referred to was the state headquarters of Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC and it’s two main rivals; McDonalds and Pizza Hut, will turn over nearly 10 billion dollars in Australia this year, and make a very, very tidy profit in the process. They are highly sophisticated businesses that have systems of management which other sections of the hospitality industry could well learn from.

I have had the opportunity to work within many other hospitality businesses such as motels, hospitals and restaurants over the last thirty five years. Each has had its own areas of expertise, and each has developed skills that the others could profitably apply if only there was more communication and less parochialism.

A bit of communication and cooperation between the various sections of our industry would be helpful.

Maybe I’m just being idealistic and simply ignoring normal human nature, but I would like to see more co-operation. Even though we are all competing for the available market, the rivalry can be friendly and constructive. Part of being a professional manager involves adopting the assumption that there are infinite opportunities to improve any business. There would be a lot less re-invention of the wheel if we examined our neighbors’ business with an open mind.

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