Breaking Travel News interview: Jonathan Raggett, managing director, Red Carnation Hotels
“I am brutally competitive, and I love what we do here at Red Carnation.
“I know who we are, and I know there is no point in worrying about the competition.
“What I need to worry about is doing a better job than other people.”
After 20 years with the company, Red Carnation managing director Jonathan Raggett is still boundlessly enthusiastic about the hospitality sector.
Over the course of an animated hour-long interview in his office at the Chesterfield Mayfair he touches on everything from the role of Chinese social media influencers and misreported water shortages in Cape Town, to London property prices, voice-controlled booking services and much else.
Everything in the service of the hotel brand which he leads.
Having taken over as managing director of the Travel Corporation-owned brand in 2000 he has grown the portfolio from four to 17 hotels.
“There was a dream, even then, to grow the collection, although no real strategy was in place; nothing firm on how many hotels to buy or where in the world we would acquire these new properties.
“But there was a hunger.
“The remit was to look for properties that were under-performing, properties that perhaps needed financial input, or needed investment in the staff and training, the people side of things.”
From origins in London and Palm Beach in the United States, Red Carnation has expanded into South Africa, the Channel Islands, Ireland and Geneva over the past two decades, creating a collection of hotels known for their generous service, classic décor and fine dining.
“It has been very organic, the growth,” adds Raggett.
While each property holds a special place in his heart – including The Rubens at the Palace, where he began his Red Carnation career as general manager in 1998 – it is of Ashford Castle in Ireland that he is perhaps the proudest.
“Ashford Castle was owned by the Guinness family, but was in a terrible state,” he explains.
“The general manager, who is still with us, used to allocate the rooms on arrival based on the direction of the wind and rain, to make sure people did not get soaked in their beds - it was an awful situation.
“But we now have the best example of what Red Carnation and the Travel Corporation can do, with the investment that has gone in there.
“Where possible we have used local traders to build it and we now have over 400 staff, up from just over 100 when we took the property over.
“It is now a flagship property.”
When it comes to further expansion, Red Carnation may be forced to look outside of London.
While the company has six properties in the UK capital already, prices have risen so steeply that further acquisitions might be impossible.
“The years we did make purchases were right – we had not reached the summit at that point,” explains the managing director.
“There are no plans for another London hotel at the moment – because the prices, and the fact that everybody wants to own a hotel, are unbelievable.”
But that does not mean the company has stopped expanding.
Raggett moots Edinburgh or Dublin – both destinations in which the Travel Corporation already has business interests – as possible future locations for Red Carnation Hotels.
He also reveals the Tollman family – owners of Red Carnation and the Travel Corporation – have recently taken possession of Xijera Camp in Botswana following their divestment of a stake in Wilderness Safaris.
“This will be the next property incorporated into Red Carnation,” Raggett explains.
“It is surrounded by water and offers great opportunities for viewing the ‘big five’.
“But we have taken the decision to close it for 18 months in order to fully overhaul it and create that Red Carnation DNA.”
Red Carnation is unusual in owning each of the properties it manages – rather than operating them for a third party.
As such, the company can move quickly should any opportunities for further development arise.
“There is not a week that goes by when I am not offered an opportunity to sell one of the Red Carnation hotels,” Raggett continues.
“But the message from the stakeholders is clear - nothing is for sale.
“Looking ahead, this means if Red Carnation does see an opportunity, we do not need to approach the banks, we are ready to move, and this is a tremendous asset for us.
“Ashford Castle for example, there were other people interested in it, but we were able to move.
“We then get a reputation and we have become a very safe company to do business with.”
London will see thousands of hotel rooms enter the market over the next couple of years, with Raffles, Peninsula, Rosewood and others all planning new properties.
But rather than worry about what this might mean for Red Carnation, Raggett views the developing competition as a welcome challenge.
“There is a lot of luxury and a lot of budget capacity coming into the market – it is colossal,” he explains.
“If people are looking for a sexy, brand-new hotel type of experience with flashing lights, then I can tell you for sure, Red Carnation is not what they will be choosing.
“If they are looking for something a lot more traditional, solid, with great service – that is what we are.
“I feel confident in the products we have.
“There is a huge amount of investment that goes back into the hotels every year in order to keep them at the right level.”
He continues: “Airbnb is also rising – good.
“It excites me, the new people coming into the business - no good moaning it.
“It is the same as with black cab drivers worrying about Uber; it will not be going away so it is time to adapt.
“You can sit there and worry about it or you can respond.”
On technology more generally Raggett adds: “The world is so transparent today – if you shop online there are a number of sites that tell you the latest prices.
“The same with user generated content; if you have people online saying you have a rubbish product, then you have real problems.
“The majority of people will check online before they make a booking - this means we have to respond.
“Instead of putting our dollars into big ads in daily newspapers, we decided many years ago to put it into people.
“Guests have a positive stay with us and then they share this online, with their friends and that pays dividends for us.”
A lot of this confidence comes from a belief in his staff, with Raggett keen to highlight the work that goes into developing the skills of the Red Carnation team.
“One of the things I am most proud of is that, many years ago, I realised that luxury hotels, five-star properties especially, were all very similar,” he continues.
“There was lots of marble, the towels are very nice, the cotton sheets are as good as money can buy, so what is the differentiator?
“Clearly location plays a role, but there is not much you can do about that.
“It comes back then to something more important - the people, the genuine hospitality and really caring about the guests.”
He continues: “Hiring people, in the first place, with your sense of purpose is vital, people who want to be on the side of the guest.
“People who come to see us do not need to have any experience, but they must want to work.”
Giving these employees the chance to shine is also part of the Red Carnation modus operandi.
“We empower our staff to make decisions in order to make sure that every guest has a stay that exceeds their expectations.
“It sounds a little cheesy and every general manager would say that, but it is key,” Raggett explains.
“We have standards – it is not the Wild West out there.
“But the thinking is our team will do whatever it takes in order to make that guest’s stay a very happy one.
“We are here to do what we can for a guest while they are with us.
“Be that a certain cereal they want, we run out and get it, or other preferences, we keep up to date with guest histories to make sure we are ready next time.”
As with all Travel Corporation companies, agents are another key component of their success.
“The bricks and mortar agents are vital to us,” Raggett adds.
“Especially in the United States, guests book their trips through a travel advisor and I will never try and take those bookings.
“Those bookings belong to them and to cut them out would be the death of me.
“We inform the travel advisor when a guest arrives, for example, and if we put a bottle of wine in the room it is from both of us – we are partners - our guest, their client.”
When it comes to online booking agents, however, he is less circumspect.
“The best business, obviously, is when a guest comes directly to you.
“So, we work very hard on our own website, we work very hard on making our booking engine user friendly.
“But we do suffer because we do not have properties in Los Angeles, Paris et al.
“This drives people to Bookings.com, for example, where they can showcase the rest of the world.
“We cannot compete against them.
“So, what we do is seek to befriend our guests, to encourage them to come back directly to us – cutting the online travel agent out of the loop – which I think is fair in this game.”
Red Carnation Hotels - part of the Travel Corporation - is a family owned collection, renowned for impeccable service and generous hospitality.
Each hotel is a landmark of history and tradition, and individually designed, with a reputation for exceptional dining.
Find out more on the official website.