‘Some of the best ideas come from talking to the staff’ .jpg

‘Some of the best ideas come from talking to the staff’

Caroline Cunha meets Flavio Bucciarelli, the new general manager of Sheraton Algarve

FLAVIO BUCCIARELLI is the new general manager of the Sheraton Algarve. At 38-years-old, he is one of the youngest general managers within Starwood Hotels and Resorts Inc, but, after meeting him, it’s not difficult to understand why he has been so successful in his career.

Fluent in five languages, Flavio has a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and a magna cum laude (high academic distinction) from the Lausanne Business School, with a major degree in marketing. He also holds an MBA in strategic management from the UK’s Henley Management College.

Following his academic achievements, Flavio joined Starwood Hotels and Resorts in 1997, as area sales manager in Milan, quickly being promoted to sales director. His rise within the company did not stop there though, as in 2000 he was promoted to sales and marketing director, with responsibility for the city’s Hotel Principe di Savoia, Westin Palace and the Sheraton Diana Majestic. He later became resident manager at the Westin Palace Milan, before moving to London to become the general manager at the Sheraton Skyline Hotel & Conference Centre at London Heathrow Airport, for four years. His next stop was Portugal and the general manager role at the Sheraton Algarve.

Intelligent yet self-effacing, a strong commitment to service and an obvious love of people seem to have made this man born to work in the hospitality industry, and that’s before you consider his in-built, friendly, Italian charm.

Flavio is married to Samantha, who is English, and the couple have two young daughters: five-year-old Jaz and three-year-old Savannah.

Bem-vindo, benvenuti, a warm welcome to the Algarve!

The Resident: When did you arrive in the Algarve and how are you settling in?

Flavio Bucciarelli: We only arrived two months ago, but it feels like home already! We have put our children into the Vilamoura International School and everything is going well. We are adapting quickly, maybe because it’s another Latin country.

In terms of the job, I have worked for Starwood Hotels and Resorts for more than 10 years already and so, even though the market is different, I don’t need to learn new systems and the culture of the company is reflected in every hotel in the group. We all “talk the same language” and that makes it much easier ….

T.R: How does working in Italy compare with working here in the Algarve?

F.B: In Italy, you have a lot of historic hotels where you have colleagues who have been working at the same hotel for 20 and 30 years. We are talking about jobs for life. The Sheraton Algarve opened in 1992 and, therefore, we don’t have people who have worked here all their lives. However, the staff are very passionate and proud to be working here, and this I had not really experienced in Italy. There, I found the staff to be more mixed: some were supportive, others were pulling back in terms of their willingness to progress and accept changes. Here, everyone works very well together, it is a real team atmosphere and I think the guests feel that.

T.R: I understand you are fluent in Japanese (as well as in four other languages). Where and why did you choose to learn this difficult language?

F.B: I lived in Tokyo for one year, 15 years ago. Being the second strongest economy in the world, I chose to learn the language. I thought I’d need to work with them, or serve them during my career and, in order to understand them and their culture, which is very protected and reserved, it is essential to learn the language. The language provides the key to the ethos of the Japanese people, how they behave and how they do business.

T.R: You worked as the general manager of the Sheraton Skyline Hotel & Conference Centre at London Heathrow Airport before coming to the Sheraton in the Algarve, so you obviously got to know the British market during this time. Is the proportion of British guests staying at the Sheraton Algarve quite high? What is the percentage?

F.B: Thirty-five per cent of the guests at the Sheraton Algarve are British and this is our main market, followed by the Germans and Portuguese. It was more of a corporate market in London, whereas this is a holiday resort. Having said that though, we opened a 600 capacity conference centre here last May and we have had a number of car launches staged here, among them Mazda and BMW events. This is a perfect location for test drives and car launches due to the amazing landscape and perfect weather conditions.

T.R: What is, in your opinion, the secret to being a good hotel general manager? There have been some interesting stereotypes on TV ….

F.B: The life of a general manager is balanced between the time spent managing the business (there are 500 employees at the Sheraton Algarve in the summer serving guests, including waiting staff) and the time spent on sales, marketing and PR, meeting clients and talking to guests to see if they are happy. A general manager needs good technical skills and must also be a people person.

It is important to motivate staff. I’m still in the early stages here, but I usually like to walk around, talk to the staff and get feedback. Some of the best ideas come from talking to the staff. I much prefer this to formal communication and I think the staff do too. It is also very important to thank staff for their work. Employees these days are not only interested in earning a salary, but also in having job satisfaction.

I have to admit that I’m a fan of the book and BBC TV series, Hotel Babylon. I find it entertaining (a new series is planned for 2007)!

T.R: What has been your greatest challenge since taking over as general manager of the Sheraton Algarve? Any funny or difficult moments you can report?

F.B: Yes, something quite funny did happen the other day. I was walking back from the beach with my family and we met a friendly gentleman, who was speaking to our elder daughter. The man offered her two golf balls and explained that he comes to this spot, close to the huge cavern known as Devil’s Parlour (a golf hole on the Sheraton’s nine-hole course that requires a ball carry of around 150m), at least once every week, and has been coming for around eight years already. He told us how he loves to collect the balls the golfers have lost and that, so far, he has collected around 12,000! He asked me if we were on holiday here, at which point I told him “no”, and that I was the general manager of the hotel. He suddenly looked really scared, his face was really something. I told him it was not within the hotel grounds and he shouldn’t worry!

T.R: Being in the hospitality business, where do you choose to go on holiday yourself?

F.B: We are nightmare guests! The minute I enter a hotel room, I switch into work mode and find myself looking at the details. For this reason, my family and I tend to stay away from hotels; we like to rent houses to stay in, or go to Italy and stay with the family.

T.R: The Algarve offers a considerable choice of luxury hotels and resorts. How can the Sheraton Algarve maintain its popularity over the competition?

F.B: What we have here is a unique setting; natural and beautiful landscape and architecture. We are always updating our offer and I don’t believe there is a hotel in the Algarve that offers the breadth and quality of services that we do. There’s an extremely wide range of cuisine on offer here, from Moroccan to Italian and, of course, Portuguese. For younger visitors, we have the largest children’s club in the Algarve, the Porto Pirata.

We have so many facilities here: golf, tennis, beach, swimming pools, bars, restaurants, shops and so on, that you can spend a week here quite happily without having to leave the resort.

T.R: How is the year looking in terms of occupation levels?

F.B: The market is looking up. Our three major markets are England, Germany and Portugal, but there are more and more direct flights coming into Faro now. For example, there is now a direct route from Canada, so we are now marketing ourselves in that country too. Now that we have our 600 capacity conference centre, we have another market (groups and meetings) to target, which we didn’t have before.

T.R: How do you measure and evaluate customer service levels and ensure guests leave the hotel satisfied?

F.B: We have questionnaires in the hotel bedrooms for guests to fill out and also questionnaires for them to send from home. We have ‘mystery guests’ twice a year at the hotel, who come for a two-day stay and measure service, efficiency, product, goals and targets.

T.R: Are you planning a summer gala this year, following the success of Bryan Ferry last year?

F.B: Yes, we are, and the details have only just been finalised. This year, the Sheraton Algarve’s Summer Gala will take place on July 24 with singer Roberta Flack. It will be held in the beautiful setting of the driving range, where we previously held the event with George Benson. It is the perfect location as it forms a natural amphitheatre. Tickets are priced from 175 euros up to 475 euros per person for concert and dinner (green, silver and gold tickets can be purchased, the latter offering access to a VIP cocktail area and special surprises). Concert only tickets are priced at 50 euros each.

T.R: Unfortunately, you were forced to cancel the Sheraton’s eagerly awaited Dinner Dance due to the singer being taken ill. Will it be rescheduled?

F.B: Yes, it was a real shame. We had a phone call the day before the event from the band saying they were being forced to cancel due to illness, and it wasn’t possible for us to find another group at such short notice. We offered all those who had purchased tickets a complimentary dinner at the hotel. We plan to launch this event again towards the autumn, as this is an indoor function and, during the summer, people prefer to be outside. I think it will be popular with local residents.

I’d really like to take this opportunity to communicate the fact that I want to re-open the doors of this hotel to the residents of the Algarve. We are open to the public! I’d like residents to use this like a country club and enjoy our facilities. Come for a drink, a meal, play golf, bring the children to enjoy the kids’ club on a Saturday or Sunday. This is a place for residents to enjoy too.  We are not cheap, but let me tell you that we are not really any more expensive than other local restaurants, and the atmosphere here is magic.

I must also mention our Moonlight Golf evenings, taking place on June 9 and 22. You play nine holes before dinner, then, after coffee, you are back on the golf course, this time with fluorescent golf balls, to play another nine holes. The evening costs 95 euros per person all inclusive. It’s going to be great as it will almost be a Full Moon on June 9!

T.R: Do you have plans to improve the signage for the Sheraton? Often people say they have difficulty in finding it.

F.B: Yes, I am in agreement that new signage is needed. We are currently in the final stages of defining the new signage to be used inside and outside the hotel.

T.R: You have appointed a new sales and marketing director (34-year-old Ramon von Schukkman). What will his primary focus be for the next 12 months?

F.B: He will concentrate on positioning the hotel in the local market as well as marketing Sheraton Algarve to the international market. He will also be promoting the new Salão Pinhal (600 capacity conference room) to the meetings and events market.

T.R: The Sheraton Pine Cliffs resort already seems to offer just about everything. Are there any plans in the pipeline to add anything new or to offer new services/events at the hotel?

F.B: A total of 154 new apartments are being built, which will be ready in July 2007, and we will also add a new restaurant just off the golf course. We have plans to develop the golf academy, with Portuguese number one female Pro, Mónica Bernardo, to target female golfers. We will be adding a new section to the Porto Pirata Children’s Club, especially for toddlers (six months to three years), which will be ready for the summer. There are other plans in the pipeline, but I’ll tell you more about those next time ….

• For further information about the Sheraton Algarve and to make reservations, or book for any of the events mentioned in this interview, call 289 500 100. You can also visit www.sheraton-algarve.com