Tell us a little bit about your journey in hospitality…
I feel very privileged to have enjoyed such a wonderful career in the hospitality industry. Providing warm and generous service to our guests from all around the world, as well as helping our outstanding teams of people to achieve their full potential at Red Carnation Hotels, is my passion and what makes me get out of bed every single morning.
I was originally training to be a nursery school teacher when I met and fell in love with my husband, Stanley Tollman, a second generation hotelier. Though we came from modest beginnings, we shared a great passion for hospitality and excellent food, and together we leased our first hotel, The Nugget Hotel in Johannesburg, using our wedding present money to furnish the property. I managed the kitchen, teaching myself how to cook through reading, trialling and tasting, while Stanley looked after the front of house.
Over the following years we opened a number of other hotels, including The Hyde Park Hotel in Johannesburg and The Tollman Towers, which became South Africa’s first boutique hotel, before moving with our children to Great Britain in the mid-seventies. In 1984 we purchased The Chesterfield Hotel in Mayfair. This was the start of The Red Carnation Hotel Collection, which we named after the signature flower that Stanley always wears – it’s become a symbol of hospitality that is also worn by every member of the team today.
Since then we have evolved to 20 boutique luxury hotels, and I am very proud that we remain family-owned and run to this day. We have exceptional locations in London, Dorset, Guernsey, Ireland, Geneva, Florida and South Africa; and we are soon to open outstanding properties in Botswana and Edinburgh.
I have never forgotten my roots, however, and food continues to be an enduring passion of mine. Offering our guests delicious dishes is integral to our business, and I consult with our innovative and dynamic chefs daily. I am so pleased that many of my signature dishes that proved to be so popular in our earliest properties – and that delighted the glitterati of the day, such as Marlene Dietrich, Petula Clark and Michael Cane – are still enjoyed on our menus today.
I have an incredible team of people that help me to make Red Carnation everything that it is today. I have been extremely privileged to work with them, and also alongside my wonderful family who inspire me every day.
What defines The Red Carnation Hotel Collection?
I am so proud of the way in which Red Carnation has grown since we founded it and, by ensuring that our passion for service and hospitality underpins everything that we do, we have managed to stay true to our core values as we have expanded, and I think this has been the key to our success.
Whenever we welcome a new hotel into our Collection we are very careful to look at the local environment, its sense of place and tradition, and to embrace the property’s history. We take meticulous care over our restoration work, using the finest local artisans, suppliers and materials for authentic and sensitive refurbishments, mindful always that we are the custodians over the valuable history of the property and that we must protect it for future generations. This is very much part of our quest to #MakeTravelMatter. We hand-select the finest antiques, artworks and furnishings to complement the hotel, and ensure that all of our properties deliver the luxurious and comfortable touch points that our guests expect when they stay at a Red Carnation property.
What has influenced your success?
My husband has been a constant support and inspiration to me, and, as my partner in life and in business for 65 years, has taught me so much about the hospitality industry. Our family motto is “In pursuit of excellence”, and making every guest’s experience as perfect as possible is what motivates us all.
Our guests also shape and evolve what we do. I read every single guest comment daily, and by listening and responding to their feedback we are able to tweak and enhance our offering to ensure that we are always delivering the very finest service – from the comfort of our rooms and the warmth of our hospitality, to the dishes that we serve in our restaurants and the innovation of the cocktails in our bars.
In addition to helping us to shape our business, our guest feedback is a powerful promotional tool. Our hotels consistently come out top in the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards in the areas where we are situated – for example our wonderful Hotel 41 in London is this year’s ‘UK’s Top Hotel’ and ‘UK’s Top Luxury Hotel’. This gives me so much pride, because they are voted for by the people that our teams, my family and I are all dedicated to serving – our guests.
How do your teams contribute to the Collection’s achievements?
Our mantra of “No request is too large, no detail too small” are words that we all live by at Red Carnation, myself included. The amazing teams of people at our hotels around the world set out to surprise and delight our guests every day, and to create memorable moments that enhance every stay. We believe wholeheartedly in the power of passion, and it is a winning formula when everyone in your organisation is committed to delivering excellence, every day. I strongly feel that is why Red Carnation ranks so highly in hospitality awards internationally, including being voted No. 6 in the Top 25 Hotel Brands in the World in Travel + Leisure’s ‘World’s Best’ Awards this year, even though we are a boutique collection of hotels, and I’m so proud of each and every member of staff for making this happen.
We don’t assemble these teams of incredible people by accident. We are fully committed to nurturing and rewarding the best talent and passionate about the personal development of every member of staff. We have industry leading training and development opportunities courtesy of our fantastic People & Culture Team, and, with the right dedication, anyone can be anything that they want within Red Carnation. We have General Managers who began their careers in the linen room, and Mayfair’s youngest Executive Chef, whose culinary offerings at The Chesterfield Mayfair are out of this world. It gives me great pride that Red Carnation Hotels was the first company to achieve Investors in People’s Gold Standard across our worldwide operations.
As a mark of my appreciation for everyone’s hard work, each year I hand-pick Christmas gifts for every single one of our 4,000 Red Carnation employees. The highlight of every year for me is our annual Staff Appreciation Party where we bring team members from all over the world to London to share ideas and best practice with their colleagues, and to enjoy a joyous evening of banqueting, live music and dancing, at which we recognise and award exceptional employees in various categories.
Are there any challenges you face as a woman in a male-dominated industry?
Thankfully I do think that the industry has come on enormously in terms of opportunities for women since my first days in hospitality. When I started out running the kitchen in our first hotel in Johannesburg we would have to pretend that the chef had gone home whenever a diner wished to pass on their compliments in person, as it was so unusual for an establishment to have a woman in the kitchen. Fortunately women are now thriving as chefs and in the myriad other roles throughout the hospitality sector.
Here at Red Carnation Hotels we believe in total gender parity, and are very proud of the inspiring women who are driving excellence within our organisation. These include our female General Managers, Chefs, Resident Managers, F&B Managers and Executive Housekeepers, as well as my dedicated and dynamic daughters, Vicki and Toni, and my granddaughter Alex.