Tiny Noticeable Touches –
An interview with Bea Tollman, Founder and President of Red Carnation Hotels.

Featured in Business Day’s Wanted Magazine August 2013

Download the article in PDF here.

With the over-emphasis on luxury travel, social networking and haute cuisine these days, it’s easy to imagine an owner and founder of a successful global hotel empire as an international jetsetter caught up in the accoutrements of the industry. Someone who is constantly quaffing Champagne, tasting titbits, booking spa appointments, hopping from hotel to hotel, seemingly myopic and out of touch with the realities of the industry: paying guests and the staff who serve them, the price of a room or a Scotch, or the meaning of quality service.

Not Beatrice Tollman. The absolute antithesis of such an image, president, founder and proprietor of Red Carnation Hotels (RCH) and European Hotelier of the Year 2012, she is the true custodian and keeper of her guests’ experiences.

She really isn’t there as an icon, standing back, watching — she is there as an active presence, working alongside her people.

Mrs T, as she is affectionately known by her legions of staff around the world, is someone who cares. She knows almost all of her staff by name, and when I met with her just before Christmas, she was wrapping and addressing close to 4 000 presents for the guests, staff and suppliers of her 15 five- and four-star family-run boutique hotels in London, Dorset, Guernsey, Geneva, Florida, SA and Ireland. “I take great pleasure in personally thanking every one of our global team. Without them we wouldn’t be where we are today,” she beams.

I had the good fortune to lunch with Mrs T at her Twelve Apostles Hotel, which was recently voted number one city hotel for “world’s best service” in the category Top Hotels: Africa and the Middle East in the June issue of Travel + Leisure. As we were finishing our starters (chicken soup for Mrs T and scallops for me), her assistant arrived with her favourites, her two long-haired dachshunds. Tollman, who travels everywhere with her dogs, has made all three luxury RCH Collection properties — the Oyster Box, Bushman’s Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Wellness Retreat and The Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa — pet-friendly.

“And why indeed should our guests not be allowed to enjoy their stay at these prestigious hotels along with their favourite canine and feline friends? We’ve included special pet menus, linen and sleeping baskets, and offer dog-walkers and a collection and delivery to the parlour.

“My driving passion is to make every stay memorable for every single guest. To make them feel truly welcomed and special. I believe having this at the heart of everything we do is what has led to the success of the company.”

For Mrs T it has always started, and ended, with her team. Viewed as an extension of her family, and indeed some are, she treats them accordingly. She believes that service and staff are the user interface between the hotel hardware and the guest, and that this interface defines the guest experience. RCH has displayed its commitment to its staff the world over, and through the care and development of its employees, its delivery of excellence can be assured. As an acknowledgment of this RCH has, for two consecutive years, been voted by The Sunday Times UK as one of the top 100 companies to work for. “She really isn’t there as an icon, standing back, watching — she is there as an active presence, working alongside her people,” says her son Brett.

Tollman’s journey is the journey of RCH. Her husband, Stanley, is the son of a hotelier, whose love for good, honest food and hospitality laid the foundations for their vision of establishing the first chic hotels in SA. “We leased a small property in Johannesburg and called it the Nugget Hotel. I was initially placed in charge of starters and desserts and the dishes on offer were pretty basic: the likes of grapefruit or crayfish cocktail, and desserts such as ice cream with hot chocolate sauce. It was a beginning, and together we made an efficient team. We learned by experience from the start, and we relied very much on each other.”

After the Nugget came The Colony, named after the supper clubs of New York, and which was the inspiration for the restaurant of the same name at the Hyde Park Hotel. “We offered 42 items on the Colony ’s menu, ranging from smoked salmon to fillet steak. Back then, for 25 shillings you could eat all you wanted.”

This formed the platform for their culinary reputation, with Tollman continuing to create her menu in the kitchen. “Delicious comfort food has always been my specialty, with each dish highlighting the ingredients and none being overpowering. I believe that most people, when dining out or staying at hotels, want good value, tasty and satisfying food, without too much complication or fuss,” says Tollman.

Stanley, who was known for wearing a red carnation in his lapel, is a larger-than-life character whose global vision started with the purchase of The Chesterfield hotel in London. From this base the pair created The Red Carnation Hotel Collection, named after Stanley’s endearing idiosyncrasy.

In his recent biography, Recollections of a Lucky Man, Stanley describes his seven-year battle with the US government over bank fraud and tax evasion charges. The scheme to defraud several banks through hotel-related financing occurred between 1991 and 1996, while the tax evasion allegations dated back to 1994. Led by prosecutor Stanley Okula, the US government launched an extradition bid to force a trial in the US. The affair affected their personal lives and business, and resulted in their son Brett’s arrest. However, according to the New York Times, a British judge dismissed the extradition request due to “the loss of certain documents” and Tollman’s ill health. In a plea agreement with the US government, Stanley won his freedom in exchange for payments amounting to more than $100m.

Notwithstanding his legal trouble, Stanley recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Travel Weekly Globe Awards for his significant and far-reaching contribution to the travel industry, but he acknowledges his wife’s contribution. “Bea’s uncanny talent for the business, her instincts, her meticulous attention to detail, her concern for her staff’s engagement in pleasing her guests make her one of the world’s most talented hoteliers.”

Having been a guest at Bushman’s Kloof in the heart of the Cederberg Mountains and The Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga Rocks, I can attest to the qualities that win Red Carnation so many prestigious awards: true luxury, the uniqueness and exquisite locations of its properties, generous hospitality, and a sense of respect for the local environment, culture and cuisine.

For Tollman, it always comes back to food. “As a wife, a mother and now a grandmother, it always gives me great pride and joy to serve a delicious meal to a big, boisterous table of family and friends. That is what our family’s life has always been, with food at the heart of it all; one large table, where all of our loved ones have a place and where the food is always good.”

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