What makes this collection of hotels so distinct?

An interview with Matthias Mahr,
Revenue and Marketing Director,
Hand Picked Hotels

Why individuality, a family-feel and clear brand values are the answer.

Key points
  • Individuality is key to this collection of country house hotels, whether that is the individual people who welcome guests or the buildings themselves.
  • Success is all about making customers feel special because they too are treated as individuals.
  • This company recognises that brand values can be very powerful but don’t see the need to be disruptive to stay relevant but do need to be innovative.
  • All staff are encouraged to use their initiative and to spot opportunities to proactively help customers or address a problem, if necessary.
  • Creating and perpetuating a culture when most of the people are not in a single head office location but spread out geographically over twenty is difficult.

In theory, company values should be timeless, but as Matthias Mahr, revenue and marketing director of Hand Picked Hotels points out,

“When you’re a service company, talking with one voice is important. It sets the tone and the language. In a founder-led business it’s in your being, but reinforcing it and making sure it can be articulated in a clear way is an ongoing challenge.”

Matthias Mahr,
Revenue and marketing director


He believes it is vital that people should be able to remember the brand values easily so the business shortened and updated them, to ‘welcoming, individuality, initiative, and local engagement’, with the over-arching value of ‘family’. “The vision is represented by a country-house experience where guests feel special and colleagues feel like family members,” Mahr explains. The aim is to uphold the tradition of ‘pleasure’ that was intrinsic in the old-style country houses that Hand-Picked have turned into hotels.

“It’s not pretentious,” says Mahr. “We want guests to feel they can kick off their shoes and feel at home when they stay here. Hotels are a mix of product and service – we see it as a service with a product behind it, a quality four-star product differentiated by bespoke service.”

The business uses the word ‘collection’ for its twenty properties, avoiding the word ‘chain’ with its connotations of same-ness, with each hotel promoted with its own individual name as well as the company brand. “We celebrate that individuality, combining it with consistent standards of service and cuisine,” says Mahr. That individuality applies to staff as well as buildings; they’re encouraged to use their initiative, an example of an evolved value.

“The word we used previously was integrity,” says Mahr. “But that implied that we didn’t expect our staff to steal from us, something that should be taken as read. Initiative is about taking a positive approach to address a customer’s problems, taking opportunities to help them.”

Then there is the value of ‘welcoming’, something that customers perhaps want most of all. “If we behave in this way to reflect this value, then customers will feel this way,”

Mahr explains.

“It’s about an attitude: displaying the right ecosystem of behaviours, each linked to values. If a company can manage to line all this up then brand values can be very powerful. Those few words can make your message very clear.” And clarity is essential, he assets. When Mahr joined in 2016 as the company’s first marketing director, he found a degree of confusion about the brand values, notably the one with the heading ‘mutual’. “People didn’t really know what that meant,” says Mahr. “So we replaced it with ‘local engagement’, which refects that we have a policy of buying from suppliers local to a hotel, that we recruit locally, and organise events which engage with the community.”

As part of the brand-value refresh, the visual identity and tone of voice (as seen on the website and in other marketing material) were revamped, with the aim of being “elegant, engaging and natural.” Mahr confesses he has in mind an unofficial standard to aspire to in terms of tone of voice: a certain glamorous and mellifluously spoken British actress of a certain age. “We often ask ourselves what would she say?” he says.

With 1500 colleagues (staff), Hand Picked Hotels have the obvious challenge of how to embed values and culture throughout a geographically diverse workforce. One tool was a video in which founder and chief executive Julia Hands explained to staff the improved vision, visual identity and tone of voice. Training has been enhanced, particularly for new starters, to include role-play.

“How do you create and perpetuate culture?” ponders Mahr, “when most of your people are not based at head office. So the culture cannot be easily imposed from the top down. We rely on our general managers to engage everyone. We cannot decree it or magically make it happen remotely; we can only keep reinforcing it, keep it alive all the time, so that over time it reinforces itself.” One of the ways in which Hand Picked Hotels do this is pick one of the values and ask the hotels to focus on it for a particular week or month.

We might say ‘we expect you to do three activities that have something to do with family in the last week of February’, for example, but we leave it up to them to decide exactly what they do,” explains Mahr. One hotel, for example, enabled every colleague to post how they would contribute to enhancing the ‘family feeling’. Having a clear set of brand values can also enhance the recruitment decision-making process as well as staff retention, he maintains.

“Our values help codify what kind of person we are looking for at the recruitment stage and makes it easier to assess them at interview. If a candidate doesn’t share those values, we can see from the outset that they are not the person for us.”

And social media requires a strategy to protect and perpetuate those values, especially in terms of responding to feedback (good and bad). There is a centralised social media function at head office but each hotel has its own Facebook page, run by a social media ‘champion’ who responds to comments and publicises local activities. “The challenge is finding the right people: those who are able to express our values on social media and who are happy to do so in addition to their existing duties,” says Mahr.

It’s sometimes said that a brand needs to be disruptive to stay relevant but Mahr thinks the mot juste is innovation rather than disruption. “Brand values don’t replace the need to keep innovating,” he maintains. “You can’t just go ‘job done, this is such a great brand that people will be attracted to it for ever’.

“In a sense, there’s a danger that values could almost restrict growth. “We want to grow but that’s limited by the fact that we have a niche position as a welcoming, country house hotel group. We are always looking for new properties to buy but it’s a slow process because they have to fit our image and enable us to deliver our values.” The average age of the customer is fifty-two and Hand Picked Hotels are focusing on reaching out to the thirty-five-plus demographic, which Mahr says is a “big sea” to fish from without having to try and lure a younger market.

“Being in the best position to attract the right new customer is another reason why a company has to re-visit its values.”

“It’s not that potential customers would think we are unwelcoming, it’s just that not enough realise we are welcoming. I think we deliver well once we have got customers through the door but it’s getting that message out there which is the challenge, one which is harder without having the platform of clear brand values.”

Researched and written by Decision Magazine as part of a special report commissioned by Greenfisher, called ‘Business As Unusual - Secure the Future of your Brand’.

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