INTERVIEW: VICTORIA TOLLMAN, DIRECTOR, RED CARNATION HOTELS
Grown from the passion of a family of naturally hospitable people, Red Carnation Hotels is a brand centred around people. Director of the business her mother and father founded, Victoria Tollman tells Sophie Harper why people have always been at the heart of their success.
From the incredible travels and vision of Solomon Tollman, who opened his first hotel 100 years ago, to the grit and determination of Stanley Tollman to follow in his father’s footsteps as a hotelier, and the beautiful love story that followed – from which Red Carnation Hotels bloomed
with Beatrice and Stanley’s passion for hospitality; the Tollman’s history in the hotel industry makes for wonderful reading, and the resulting travel and hotel businesses clearly place people at the very heart of their success.
A young entrepreneur, Solomon Tollman saw something in a run-down old building in a sleepy fishing village in South Africa and, at the age of just 25, opened it up as The Paternoster Hotel. A few years later, Stanley was born and the family moved to Johannesburg where they opened The Palace Hotel. Growing up in the hotel, Stanley and his brother Arnold learned all about hospitality, and by the age of 22 Stanley had made up his mind to run the family business, with a bit of guidance from his father.
Stanley met and fell in love with Beatrice in the 1950s and together they ran hotels and honed their skills and understanding of the hospitality industry. They bought their own business, The Chesterfield Hotel in London, in the ’80s and grew their portfolio, naming the collection RedCarnationHotels–after the bright red flower Stanley was (and still is) so well known for wearing in his lapel every day, which has become a symbol of hospitality and is also worn by every member of their team.
20 worldwide properties later and Red Carnation Hotels is still very much a family-operated business with Beatrice Tollman at the helm. Victoria Tollman, one of Beatrice and Stanley’s four children, is Red Carnation Hotels’ Director and oversees the sales, marketing, and PR for the collection. She tells me how the hotel business has always been such an important part of her life. “I had an incredible childhood in South Africa and remember helping unpack the stock room at the age of five and being so proud to be able to help. I would carry my mother’s work bag after school when she was in meetings and observe how she was with people. I learnt from a very young age the importance of being respectful, kind and gracious towards others. I have seen my parents work hard all their lives, and they have always applied the same values and principles and it was so obvious to me how dedicated they were.”
Now responsible for the day to day management of the business, Victoria didn’t join Red Carnation straight away. “As children we respected the business, it was just part of our lives. My mother was always there for the important things – sports days, school plays etc. I never felt her work interfered with her parenting, but it was a lot for her to juggle as most working mothers know. I had hoped to join the business, but I got married very young and was a full-time mother until my girls were older.” Victoria tells me how she would have liked to work within various roles in the hotel industry, as her parents did, although having grown up in hotels has meant that hospitality has become second nature to Victoria, and with her sunny disposition and positive outlook she seems to revel in the challenges being in business presents, “As I only started working late in life, a lot you have to find out on your own, but they are often the best lessons,” she says.
Ordinarily Victoria’s work involves meeting with the executive team, brainstorming for ideas, strategy meetings, PR meetings, and visiting the hotels. “I try and visit several properties in a week, meet the executive teams once a month and be there for them if there is an important event and meet their guests. You can also see the team in action and see if something is working well. I love being hands on – it’s my favourite part of my role. I also try and respond to guest feedback, and my mother does this daily as well. I meet with guests whenever possible as well as agents doing site inspections. The beauty of our business is that no day is quite the same.” Things have been a little different lately, but Victoria says she and the team have adapted and that although tougher decision making has been the order of most days, they always do the right thing by their team as well as the business.
The best thing about being in the hospitality industry, according to Victoria, is the theatre of it all and giving guests a wonderful experience. “It’s a form of show business, always with the guest at heart. I am very much a people person, and this is a people business. I really enjoy working with our teams and exchanging ideas and opportunities for the guest or the business.” Victoria believes that humility and compassion are two of the most important attributes in hospitality leadership, as well as leading by example. “I try and inspire by kindness, honesty, care, showing nothing is too much trouble to help and support, as well as being positive, inspiring hope and guidance when things are challenging.”
Admitting she’s not a natural at being tough, Victoria takes more of an encouraging approach to leading her team, taking a genuine interest in them, their families and being sincere. “I always make sure to listen to their ideas,
encouraging and implementing them whenever possible; showing praise and appreciation when things are well done. We also always try to make sure there is some balance and fun – maybe some nice surprises to brighten their day such as delicious cakes or after work drinks.” The ethos of putting people first is deep rooted in Red Carnation Hotels, and is evident when Victoria speaks so fondly of both the guests and the team. “My favourite time of year is Christmas, when I go with my mother to each and every hotel to hand out a carefully chosen gift to each and every employee and we all share a beautiful high tea with champagne, cakes and scones together.”
Speaking of the brand’s success, from the iconic Oyster Box on the South African coastline to the beautiful Hotel d’Angleterre at the edge of Lake Leman in Switzerland and the elegant Chesterfield Hotel in Mayfair that started the collection off, Victoria says how important it is that each hotel in the collection, no matter where it is in the world, embodies all that Red Carnation Hotels stands for. “Design is of course very important as it defines the style and personality. It’s so important to respect the heritage and accentuate the heart and soul bones of the property, all while making it beautiful, comfortable and welcoming for your guests.” She adds, “Hospitality is constantly evolving and so much has changed in the last decade. There is more rate transparency and the guest has become our best or worst PR through social media. There is so much more competition and trends to keep up with and engage with.
We have a brilliant team who manage all this very well, but I am proud to say that our principles have and will always remain the same. We make sure to take close care of the quality of guests’ stay, where no request is too large and no detail too small. To quote my mother, ‘we continually strive to ensure the service is caring and passionate, that their experience is fulfilling and empowering your team to do what it takes for your guests to leave happy and with the desire to return.’”
Looking to the future, Victoria tells me that there are three new properties in the pipeline. “We are very excited for Xigera, our first RCH safari experience in Botswana that has been a lifelong dream for my family. We are also opening an elegant boutique hotel in Edinburgh called 100 Princes Street. Lastly, for 2022 we are opening a stunning new property in Dublin called Hatch Hall.”