Interview: AccorHotels' Russell Scott
For someone who entered the hospitality industry by sheer default, Russell Scott is doing very well indeed.
Now the vice president of food & beverage for AccorHotels’ Luxury Brands in the Middle East, Scott has a lot of plans for the brands and restaurants under his remit. And it’s not just restaurants that are already operational; Scott reveals that the number of restaurant openings sitting on his desk amount to 61 between now and the end of next year.
Talking about his introduction to the industry, Scott reveals that after redundancy due to cuts in the UK, he interviewed for a management trainee programme at a company that had just opened its first outlet in the country: McDonald’s. “That’s how hospitality started for me,” reflects Scott.
He admits that he owes a lot to his time with the golden arches, commenting: “When I reflect back on it, it was pioneering because the UK did not have branded restaurants at the time. It was bold, it had modern technology, it had modern thinking and it knew to prescription what it wanted to deliver.
“But from a management trainee programme, it’s probably the best I’ve seen. It was prescriptive, but then you learned things like transactional analysis and learned the psychology of motivation in the workplace.”
Scott stayed with the company for five years, ran the largest McDonald’s in the world at the time (Marble Arch in London), and ended up as the regional operations director for London and the West. After that, he joined Whitbread PLC and worked as the regional director for Beefeater, where he also worked on the merging of the Berni Inn steakhouse brand into the company. Then, it was off to Harry Ramsden’s as chief executive — where he got his first taste of the Middle East, with an opening in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. After joining Scottish & Newcastle to run its branded pub division Premier Lodge (which merged with Travel Inn to become the now well-known Premier Inn, owned by Whitbread), Scott decided to move out of the UK.
He notes that he wanted to “try something different” from corporate life. “My first experience in the Middle East was with Alshaya and I went out to Kuwait,” Scott says. At the time, he looked after the setting up of the company’s food retail division. After a return to Terra Firma in the UK, Scott was back in the region. He joined Jumeirah Group as VP of asset management where he was responsible for the original separation of hotels and restaurants — now called the Jumeirah Restaurant Group, which he was asked to run as managing director.
And now he’s with AccorHotels. Scott states that the operator has an “amazing portfolio of hotels, and amazing locations”, and continues: “The energy I get is that we have a restaurant business that hasn’t really started, it’s in an old hotel formula and the excitement is that we can regenerate.
“If you think about it, we generate 30% of overall revenue currently from F&B. Can you imagine what that’s going to be when we start shaking sleeping giants?”
Scott is excited by the hotel openings over the next few months, which bring a multitude of F&B outlets along with them. Some of the properties he name-checks include: the Sofitel Amman, which will be a rebrand of the Le Grand Amman — managed by AccorHotels, in 2019; the newly opened Fairmont Amman; the upcoming Sofitel Dubai Wafi in Dubai; and the 25Hours Dubai Hotel.
Scott comments: “The nicety of this is that we can start creating an environment for restaurants that meet current needs. The thinking can be outside of the hotel generic to ‘what does the marketplace require’, ‘what’s the price’, and ‘who do we want to come’.”
“To me, it’s all about the guest. We always think about what the décor looks like, and about the positioning, but we never spend a lot of time on — what do I want my guest to do when they arrive at my restaurant, where do I want them to go, what do I want them to eat, how much do I want them to spend and when do I want them back again. We get indulgent in terms of décor or environment, rather than, do you believe the food was great, was it a good price, will you come back?”
The ability of hoteliers to run restaurants is a topic that has been under much debate over the last few years; with the advent of entrepreneurs in the F&B business, the threat of independent restaurants for those located in hotels in the region is real. I ask Scott what he’d say to those who say that hoteliers cannot do F&B properly.
Candidly, he responds: “If I’m honest, I’d say I agree with them!” His answer isn’t surprising, as he continues the conversation.
“F&B in hotels is getting better. A lot of our competitors are also doing good stuff. But overall it’s still old school formulaic in that it’s worked on margin and it’s still a by-product of the room. We are all fighting quite hard to change that,” he says.
Running with the philosophy that hotel restaurants operate more efficiently and profitably when run as an independent concept (the thinking behind JRG, which he helped set up), Scott explains: “I think hotel restaurants operate better when running on their own. It is all about thought process: the general manager of the restaurant runs the restaurant, nobody else does. When you start getting that sort of attitude where you only have to look after one thing, you get love, passion, buy-in, all the brand ingredients.” In Scott’s ideal world, he says, he would like the operator’s signature restaurants run without any interference from executive chefs. He adds: “We will separate out, where we can, our signature restaurants and run them independently, with their own P&L, with their own management teams, looked after probably by the director of F&B, but the executive chef won’t have a say.”
While he’s happy to run concepts as standalone from the hotel, what he isn’t a fan of is the leasing out of prime hotel space. Scott comments: “I’d rather take a franchise and run it independently than outsource it to somebody else. Because you’re giving away part of your world and it is out of your control. It’s a viable way of getting rent, but you are then unfortunately forced to rely on how good the operators of that restaurant are. And if it sits in a key position in a hotel, it’s quite high risk. There are as many failures as successes here. You’re not in control of that. So managed franchises work better.”
Another change he wants to bring about is the ban of the phrase ‘all-day dining’. Scott feels strongly about this and shares an example: “All-day dining should be ‘a restaurant that does breakfast’. We managed to create this in the Sofitel Wafi with the restaurant which has 200 covers and does breakfast. We have managed to close off 120 covers in a way that you won’t notice and then we have created a French brasserie [in the evening]. So you have an 80-cover French brasserie that will do the classics, but with a little twist.”
But with 61 openings on his plate, the challenges of finding good chefs is something that is currently at the forefront of his mind. The conversation, Scott says, is about developing the company’s chefs, and perhaps setting up an academy for skills training, and encouraging younger chefs. He adds: “In this day and age, it’s a big issue. Is there an academy for chefs in the UAE? Collectively we should all be getting together and talking about the development of the youth, of the people, of skills.”
He discusses the importance of mentorship in the industry, and states: “Big leaders don’t spend enough time with the young leaders.” Scott says he already mentors numerous individuals, some of whom are even outside the industry. He continues: “I see myself as the coach, not the star player.”
Part of this drive to develop chefs also focuses on gender diversity. Scott asserts that AccorHotels wants to further encourage female head chefs, and is actively working on programmes to encourage chefs to either come in from other parts of the world or develop junior female chefs already within the region to become leaders. For example, in partnership with the Jordanian Culinary School, AccorHotels currently has eight graduates working at Fairmont Amman, and in Saudi Arabia, the operator works closely with King Abdul Aziz University, Technical & Vocational Training Corporation, providing an opportunity for fresh graduates to enter the hospitality industry.
Scott says his goals with the company for career development are two-fold. “Firstly, I want to get the F&B within Accor recognised as being quality, entrepreneurial and interesting. Secondly, I want to create an environment for the people that believe they can join us and move through all the levels [of the business].”
And any personal goals? “I would love to be able to learn knife skills as good as a professional, without losing my fingers. And I’ve been saying that for 30 years now,” he chuckles.