In its May 2004 edition, the staff newsletter of the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) featured an article about the open-air dinner for around 2,500 senior citizens from volunteer organisations and NGOs held earlier that month. The event took place on the forecourt of the Sha Tin racecourse and, according to the report, everything went "without a hitch". That may be true, but it is hardly telling the whole story!
Earlier in the afternoon, with everything prepared and only the guests to arrive, there had been a sudden rainstorm. With potential disaster looming, staff swung into action. Glasses, table linen and cutlery were cleared away and speedily moved under shelter. Electrical wires and decorations were dismantled, and contingency plans were immediately made known to the roughly 80 chefs and 500 other staff on duty.
Fortunately, the storm clouds passed and, as the weather forecast said the evening would be fine, a decision was taken to maintain the full original plan. With time pressing and without a word of complaint, the whole team pitched in again. Everything was reassembled, over 200 tables were reset and members of staff willingly leant a hand wherever they were required. The eight-course "dinner extravaganza" started on time, ran like clockwork and was hailed as a great success by guests, who were none the wiser about what had happened in the preceding few hours.
Fritz Sommerau, the HKJC's head of hospitality services, still recalls the day with a sense of pride. "It was an example of where things had to come together under adversity and it was amazing how everyone excelled," he says. "There was a lot of passion involved and you could feel a spirit of 'we can do it, we will do it', with the whole team caring about the customer and about each other."
It was also an example of the benefits of the in-house "Journey to Excellence" training programme which has been run since 2001. This is designed for all employees of the membership services division, of which hospitality services is a major part, comprising as it does 1,020 full-time staff as well as more than 700 part-timers for race days. Their scope of responsibilities covers all food and beverage operations at the three clubhouses, and the restaurants, private boxes, trackside cafeterias and food courts at the two racecourses.
Staff must be prepared for anything
The programme began after external benchmarking and internal staff assessments led the HKJC to identify service gaps and realise that, while they were good, they could do better. "Today, members are travelling all over the world and have an appreciation for things that maybe did not exist 10 to 15 years ago," says Mr Sommerau. "Our business is about making people happy and we strongly believe in a philosophy of providing service excellence with professional staff. It is a continuous challenge, so we remind employees that every encounter every day counts."
Since HKJC members are generally affluent and may belong to more than one club, staff are taught to strive to go beyond the ordinary. As a result, the training programme emphasises practical skills plus having the ability to think on one's feet. It includes understanding the different requirements of fine dining and family dining in western and Chinese styles and being able to cope with the "hundred little things" which diners or members of the public may expect. Clear standards are set and are summarised in a training manual for each restaurant.
"The aim is to create a change in mindset so that staff are prepared for anything and know how to recommend an alternative rather than say no," Mr Sommerau explains. "In a service environment, the unpredictable is always there, but you have to be able to find a solution that will please the customer. Also, a smile can often defuse a difficult situation."
Part of the process is to record role-plays on video, allowing staff to see and then change possibly involuntary expressions or gestures. In addition, trainees are shown how the customer relationship management system can be used to advantage by highlighting, for example, which guests are known to be allergic to garlic or prefer their coffee with a sweetener.
The programme focuses on specific work-related environments and is followed by assessments which reinforce the positive. "It is quite a major investment but absolutely money well spent because it helps our employees to gain confidence and to have drive, pride and passion for the profession," says Mr Sommerau.
These qualities are first identified at the recruitment stage where the HKJC looks first and foremost for personality and a positive attitude. To find people with the required characteristics, an informal afternoon tea might, for example, be arranged as a second interview to see how candidates behave and interact. Anyone who retreats into the corner and has nothing to say is unlikely to get a job!
Applicants with hospitality-related degrees or diplomas will generally have an advantage and the HKJC works closely with local institutes to provide opportunities. In partnership with the Institute of Vocational Education, first-year students of the three-year higher diploma in hospitality get practical on-the-job experience twice a week during the racing season. Similar longer-term programmes have also been set up for chefs and captains in cooperation with the Vocational Training Council and the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute.
In looking to the future, Mr Sommerau expects to keep raising the bar. "There are always new challenges and new ways to excel," he says.
Keeping on track
- Journey to Excellence training programme to set high standards
- Every encounter with a club member regarded as important
- Customer relationship management system used to personalise
- Partnership with local institutes to provide practical
- Look for attitude and personality in recruits rather than