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The Spiritual GM

The Fife Arms in Braemar has become one of Scotland’s most talked-about hotels over the last few years housing. as it does, one of the country’s finest art collections, courtesy of owners Iwan and Manuela Wirth, of Hauser & Wirth. 

You can sit beneath a Picasso or pass by a piece of artwork by Martin Creed, and there are 1,000’s of objets d’art to enjoy throughout the hotel. Their refurbishment of the hotel was a labour of love, and during the lockdown, they continued to invest with the creation of a new whisky bar, called Bertie’s. They also appointed a new General Manager Marc Denton.

Before I interviewed Marc, I spent an evening in the hotel and I got an opportunity to watch him in action with his guests. He was the consummate professional making sure they were comfortable and checking if they needed assistance.

So it didn’t come as a surprise to find out that he had gone to the famous hotel school in Lausanne. What was surprising was the fact that his father had put his name down for the school when Marc was just 12.

Marc’s father certainly had foresight, and Marc agrees. He told me that his father felt that his disposition and academic prowess would fit with a career in hospitality.

Certainly, it has been a career that has seen Marc travel the globe although the majority of his time has been spent in the far east. The likes of Mauritius, Thailand, Indonesia and India as a resort General Manager, and now he is living in Braemar. Marc smiles, “People are always asking me what do I prefer, but you can’t compare the countries. They are two different environments. It’s the people around you who matter. And to be honest a white sandy beach may be beautiful but you only have to walk half a mile down the road here in the Cairngorms and you can see the most spectacular scenery.”

The beauty may help him destress from all the challenges the Fife Arms and the hospitality industry as a whole is facing. He tells me, “I don’t think the circumstances we are in are a reflection of the profession. No one could have imagined the impact the pandemic would have. I am not saying in the past that we didn’t discuss what would happen if there was a virus or something of the sort, but they were always movie-like scenarios. When it actually hit it was a fascinating evolution of events. Because it was something we were all living in real-time. In other circumstances, we would have turned to leaders and followed their guidance but there was no precedence and decisions were being made based on evidence on social media and the news. We were all going through the process together.”

It’s not the first time that Marc has seen hospitality affected by an external seismic event, he was in Canada when 9/11 occurred. He says, “After the World Trade Centre events international travel stopped with immediate effect overnight. It was a difficult time. But luckily it rebounded relatively quickly.”

This time he was in Bangkok when the pandemic broke out and he returned to Switzerland, his home country and where he trained. I asked him why he thought Switzerland and Lausanne had such a good reputation for hospitality training.

“I think it is a lot to do with heritage. Traditionally there was a lot of Palace hotels in Switzerland. They set up in the golden age of hospitality when there was a romance about travel. It was glamorous. People dressed up to travel and it was generally for privileged people. Switzerland attracted people because it had ski resorts and lakes and in order to create teams for its hotels, the industry created hotel schools. When you think about it, it was a very intelligent and forward way of thinking.”

Marc certainly found his calling at hotel school. He says, “It felt right going down that route rather than going to university. At hotel school, we could alternate between theory and practical aspects. We spent six months at school followed by a six-month internship and it assured you of a career. However, it didn’t prepare us for the shock was when we come out. At hotel school, you are told you are the elite but when you come out you realise you have everything to learn. They cannot teach you experience. The only way you can achieve your professionalism is through the help and guidance of other people. You have to have emotional intelligence and have to have respect and integrity and you need these traits to communicate with other people.”

Marc’s first job was in London at The Waldorf. He found himself working for Lord Charles Forte, the father of Rocco. “I was very proud to be working there and I was very fortunate. Lord Forte always had time for everyone and was very charismatic. That is also one of the fortunate things about hospitality, we have very charismatic leaders and when you aspire to be a General Manager, you observe and learn from the way these people interact with others. I have been lucky in that I have had a number of great mentors and I will try and do the same with the new generation of hoteliers.”

The current recruitment crisis is certainly perplexing him. I asked him why he thought young people were shying away from a career in hospitality? “I certainly think it is part generational, but also due to the world we lived in being completely different from the one young people live in today. We may have felt that we had fewer opportunities. Our mentality was that we just worked hard and worked our way up and hoped to make a career out of it. 

“There is certainly work that needs to be done to promote this profession. It has to come from within the industry to make our profession more attractive. However elsewhere in the world, in countries that rely on tourism, Asia, Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, for example, – there is a Ministry of Tourism and Ministers realise how important hospitality is to the economy. Our industry could do with more support from such a government body, particularly during the current recruitment struggle which the whole industry is experiencing. 

He himself loves hospitality. In fact, he considers it a lifestyle, not a job. Marc smiles, “When people say how do you like your job, I say it is a lifestyle. This is what I do and if I had a chance to live my life all over again, I would do exactly the same profession.

“It is rewarding and it is a dynamic career that gives you the opportunity to travel. Some people might be quite happy to stay in one country, but I have seen the world. I have worked in at least 12 destinations – either being promoted within the company or moving onto a new opportunity in another country. When you travel, you experience new cultures, new ways of thinking, new cuisines. The hospitality industry is a global community of people and when you travel you broaden your horizons and learn that travel builds intelligence – humanity is an extraordinary thing you can only experience when you get out and see the world.

For four years I managed a wellness retreat in Koh Samui called Kamalaya. Before that I was in Greece, I also spent time on the Isle of Jura, which led me to Kamalaya. I have been lucky to work in Mauritius twice and twice in Indonesia, in addition to Canada and Thailand.”

He may have visited a multitude of countries but he tells me it is the people that he has met that have shaped him.

“It is not places that have had the biggest impact on me, it is people. Mr. PRS Oberoi of Oberoi Hotels & Resorts, the son of the late founder, is in his 90’s and I still get birthday messages from him each year. I worked for him in Mauritius and he was a leader with very high expectations. He was very fair and very proper and his attention to detail was second to none. He truly was a role-model for me because if there are leadership traits I want, it is to master that balance between delivering excellence all the time and understanding the people who have to deliver the experience and the circumstances around getting to that final result.

One of the hardest things to do in this industry is decision making, because they usually are not based on rules. Instead, they tend to be spur of the moment decisions founded on experience from previous situations, and I think my professionalism has been forged by Mr. Oberoi.

My Managing Director at Kamalaya made a huge impression on me too.  There I learned how to do what we as hoteliers do every day with a spiritual approach to it. It was a very special place. It showed me how to tackle adversity with serenity. It is too easy to go down the route of losing your composure and your emotions. We are living in a world where the balance of energy is completely offset. There is a lot of hysteria around. I don’t think social media and modern technology helps. People don’t reflect before jumping to a conclusion. I think my experience at Kamalaya, encouraged me to look inwards and get to know myself better as a person, accept the need for personal improvement and work on it. I learned to be aware of the impact I had on others. It is too easy to have an outburst when things go wrong. It makes others feel bad, and you can get that message across in better ways. Sometimes just silence does the trick. That was a human journey for me.

“One of the practices in Buddhism is meditation. It is very hard for me to do especially when you have a busy mind that jumps all over the place when you are trying to focus. 

“When I do have time to myself, I go off and walk along the highland pathways surrounding The Fife Arms, with the heather on the side and the sky above, it is just me and nature. That is my way of meditating and disconnecting. 

He believes a place like Braemar with its natural outdoor beauty could be a wellness, mindfulness destination. Marc explains, “Wellness is one of the fastest-growing sectors in hospitality and is relatively new to the western world, but it has been happening in India, Thailand and other parts of Asia for a long time. When we use the term ‘wellness’, people here think of massages and therapeutic treatments, but it is so much more. Throughout the world, there are probably not many more than 10 award-winning holistic focused wellness establishments. Kamalaya is one – and for two consecutive years it was awarded Worldwide Health & Wellness Destination of the Year by the World Spa & Wellness Awards.

“We took a holistic approach there – which included emotional, physical and mental wellness – all three were combined. If you don’t feel physically well, it affects you mentally and this affects you emotionally and likewise the other way around. Basically, to feel good, one needs to find a harmony between the mind, the body and the soul. The ancient practice of traditional Chinese medicine including acupuncture helps. I used to do it every week and did so for three years. It changed my life and it is great for the mind as it helps you find emotional balance. 

“Everyone has anxieties or has hardships or knows someone who isn’t feeling well, but many of us just put on a brave face and chose not to confront our feelings. When you are true to yourself – when you say I am not perfect and ask for help, the journey of healing begins. As you get to know yourself you get to like yourself better and in turn, you become kinder to others. The world can do with more kindness.

I have been through all these things myself and seen it with others, and I realise that ultimate happiness is obtained from caring for others and seeing others happy. We easily forget this because we are living in an era of consumerism which tends to make us focus on the materialism. But what matters above all is wellbeing for the mind and the body. And when those two elements are in balance, one can actually sense a feeling of enlightenment. 

Changed days he tells me from when he was younger – he apparently was an extremely impatient young hotelier. But he has always had a passion, if these days he doesn’t quite have the same levels of energy.  But his hotel manager Rachael Henley has that in abundance. Marc says,   “When you are more experienced you’ve had the opportunity to gain wisdom, but the older you get the less energy you have, so we balance each other out very well. Rachael is an extraordinary leader who is great with the team, and it makes me very happy to see the determination, the care, and the passion she has.

He concludes, “I am an optimist. The Fife Arms has had a phenomenal year with domestic travel, and people south of the border now know they don’t have to go far to see absolute beauty, and experience authentic Scottish hospitality. So some good has come out of the situation and hopefully next year we will be able to welcome more international tourists back too.”

Now that is something to meditate on. 

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