Heart-to-Heart Hospitality

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By Michael Cervin

There have been no locks on the front door of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel since 1906, so being open 24/7 takes energy and dedication, and a new General Manager.

Paul Tormey became the General Manager and Regional Vice President of Fairmont San Francisco on Nob Hill in 2016. That may not mean much to you, but if you’ve stayed at a Fairmont property, it has affected you in ways you may not realize. The hospitality industry can be thankless and arduous, where guests expect you to be at the top of your game at every moment. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. 

Originally from Newton, Massachusetts, Tormey graduated from Northeastern University with a major in transportation and logistics, which has nothing to do with hotels. Paul had a relative who worked for ITT Sheraton, and he invited Paul on a business trip with him, visiting Seattle, Anchorage, and Los Angeles. “I was fascinated and impressed with the people we met, and it just clicked,” he says. A seasonal job opened in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and Paul took it, beginning a career in 1980 with Sheraton Hotels & Resorts. In 1999, he became the hotel manager at the Plaza Hotel in New York, and it’s been an upshot ever since, with stints in the Caribbean and British Columbia.

But now Tormey finds himself at an iconic property. “This hotel has a mystical hold on people. Our guests often have a personal relationship with a bartender or bellman, and our concierge staff is near rock star status,” he says. “There are political figures and celebrities who come in and ask, ‘Is so-and-so working today?’” With just under 600 employees, that’s a lot of rock stars. But getting to know them takes time. “With new staff, I try to spend a lot of time initially to establish the relationship with everyone. I want to show them I’m working with them, they’re not working for me.”

Tormey says he never changes anything initially; he simply listens and observes. The issues a new GM must address are small, not major strategic changes. “It’s typically something little like we need more spoons, but supplies and uniforms are easy to fix.” What’s less easy is the human element.

“I often suggest that maybe our eye contact needs to be more genuine, or we use our guests’ name more often, or we respond with emotional intelligence, something that our customers so desperately want at a property like the Fairmont. So, we aim to be less transactional and make it more of an experience.” After all, he says, people don’t spend an extra $400 a night for efficiency. “Our guests expect a big fat hello, a recommendation of a local favorite haunt. They already expect clean rooms and great views; that’s why they chose us in the first place. What sets us apart are personal relationships and interactions.” And that is exactly parallel with hospitality trends where online booking has dominated the industry. “It makes it harder for us to be in direct contact with our guests. At this level, people do not want a call-center; they want a semblance of relationship and would prefer to speak to someone from the hotel directly.”

To balance his work, Paul reads “non-hotel stuff,” loves history and sailing, and takes annual sailing trips to the Caribbean. “There’s something about being on your boat, the sound of the water on the hull, the wind in the sail,” he says. But he also admits that, having sold his boat, there are two red letter days in the life of a boat owner: the day you buy and the day you sell.

For now, sailing takes a back seat to what’s most important: relationships with family and friends. He recently officiated a relative’s wedding in Florida. “That was a lot of fun, and really special,” he says. Under his purview as Regional GM, including San Francisco, are the Sonoma Mission Inn, the Claremont in Berkeley, Fairmont San Jose, and the Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica. No doubt, Tormey will build relationships at these hotels, too, with grace and professionalism.

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