The Dorchester Collection is a luxury hotel group owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, a government-owned corporation that reports to Brunei’s Ministry of Finance. The Collection owns and manages nine luxury hotels across the UK, France, Italy and the US. The Dorchester Collection Academy, launched in May 2018, is a training academy open to external clients looking to boost their customer service.
The idea for the Dorchester Collection Academy was born out of the business being approached speculatively by several luxury clients. The chance to use her 25 years of experience in HR to launch a new commercial venture seemed like an unmissable opportunity for Beth Aarons, who was previously area director of human resources at the Dorchester Collection, and is now global director of the Dorchester Collection Academy.
The Academy decided to offer a mixture of set and bespoke programmes, all with the Dorchester Collection’s focus on luxury at the forefront. “Our real focus was about helping our clients to create the ultimate customer service experience, and to provide inspirational leadership. Those are our two areas we offer training in,” Aarons explains.
“For our customer experience programmes we decided to offer half-day sessions on the fundamentals of great service, and another session on creating the ultimate customer experience.”
On the leadership side the Academy decided on three inspirational leadership programmes, all of which last for a day, as well as bespoke programmes in this area.The initial challenge for Aarons was that she had never come across an organisation or people team launching a similar business model.
“We had no reference point when we started,” she says. “Usually when you’re starting a new business you can picture what it might look like because there’s been someone else doing something similar. But this was completely new so that was really quite challenging.”
For Aarons personally the idea involved diving into a number of new departments and skillsets outside the realm of HR.
“While I had been involved in several different openings and launches of new departments, it had always very much been [about supporting] from the people perspective”, rather than commercialising aspects of the HR offering itself, she reports.
“I had no idea how to set up a brand, how to deal with marketing agencies, or how to deal with designers. But I knew that all of these things were extremely important so I quickly got round to making a list of what I would need.”
Reaching out to colleagues within marketing, branding, and business was the key to making sense of the Academy. “I asked for a lot of help from the experts,” Aarons says. “I wasn’t afraid to be really honest. I found marketing professionals and I said ‘I’ve never created a brochure before, how do I do that?’ Even those small details made a really huge difference.”
To get the enterprise underway Aarons knew that she would need to recruit a team made up of both learning and development and commercial experts. She hired two others from the Dorchester Collection’s people and culture division to join her team. One was a learning and development officer, who is now a senior programme facilitator, and another had previously been part of the graduate trainee programme at the Dorchester Collection and is now a programme co-ordinator and PA to Aarons.
“If you’re looking at commercialising look towards people with multiple interests in the business,” advises Aarons. “All the experience my programme co-ordinator had as a trainee working across all aspects of the business naturally lent itself to the new role.”
As well as needing people who understood the brand, Aarons wanted to bring a fresh perspective to the Academy by hiring people from outside of the Dorchester Collection.
“Of course I wanted people who understood the Dorchester Collection but I also wanted new blood. I knew that a lot of these people wouldn’t necessarily come from a hotel background. One of my team members had a lot of experience in the high-end part of the entertainment industry for example. Another I hired was from the airline and cruise industry.”
When it came to finding the right clients, Aarons’ plans of reaching out to fellow people professionals didn’t go quite as anticipated.
“I discovered that the scatter-gun approach was not right at all. I thought I’d be dealing with loads of people in the worlds of L&D and HR, but it turned out to be a very different story. On the other hand people at the top level of management – CEOs, COOs and managing directors – were all on board.”
As the project gained momentum it became clear that bespoke programmes would be the most in demand: “I had envisioned that 40% of the business would be programmes, and 60% would be bespoke. Now I’m finding it’s more like 80% bespoke and 20% open programmes.”
Clients have come from a range of industries and levels – from frontline staff on the day-long sessions to CEOs on bespoke packages. “The majority of the Dorchester Collection Academy’s clients so far have come from outside of the hotel industry,” says Aarons. “We are working with retail and the automotive industry, private jets, commercial airlines, commercial properties, and private healthcare. But crucially they are all people who understand luxury.”
The Academy is still in its first year, but early indications suggest that taking the leap into commercialising the business’ L&D offering is paying off. “At the moment we have achieved our revenue targets, which were really quite ambitious,” reports Aarons. “We went right over our targets for October. And in terms of other areas my ISBC [income before fixed costs] I’ve overachieved on, which is incredible.”
On top of this commercial success, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “I have got one client who is asking us to work on another three projects with him, having already worked on one,” says Aarons.
She recommends that other HR professionals looking to commercialise their skills have a strong sense of their company’s identity: “The most important thing is to have a strong brand, because that is ultimately what people are buying into.”
Aarons also stresses that all internal departments at the organisation must understand the new venture’s aims in order to work collaboratively.
In the new year the team hope to feed back all they’ve learnt from the launch of the Academy to the Dorchester Collection’s people team. “The commercial side and the HR side have to resonate, because if we talk about the importance of offering excellent service within our hotels it has to work both ways,” she says.
The personal and professional rewards for Aarons and her team are considerable, she concludes: “What we have done and created has allowed each of us to flourish. It’s super exciting because we are living up to our purpose.”