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People-centred growth strategy pays off

In the latest of our new 2021 series, Inspiring Growth, Ward Hadaway, in partnership with The Journal, talks to business leaders from across the North East about their plans for accelerating success as the economy opens up again.

Leading the way is The Inn Collection Group managing director, Sean Donkin.

What to do in the face of a pandemic? Batten down the hatches? Or shift up a gear and take off?

That is exactly what extraordinary North East-based business The Inn Collection Group has done over the past 12 months. In fact, their buy and build approach to sustainable growth started well before Covid struck – they simply chose not to be cowed by circumstances.

Current holders of The Publican’s Awards’ Best Pub Employer for the past two years running, in an industry arguably hit hardest and cruellest by Covid restrictions, The Inn Collection Group chose to invest during the pandemic in anticipation of recovery – in its people and places, accelerating its growth, while others were stepping off the gas.

And all this under the guidance of managing director Sean Donkin, a man who it is clear cares passionately about his people, his customers and his business.

“In 2018 we had a plan to grow our estate and projected the group would own 22 sites in five years’ time,” explains Donkin. “Instead, we have accelerated those aspirations and by 31 March 2021, we will achieve our goal, which is hugely exciting. Most importantly, our extraordinary people are at the centre of our growth story – they are the beating heart of our business and we have taken care to wrap our arms around them throughout the pandemic. Team members don’t have a job with us, they have a career.”

What does care look like at The Inn Collection Group? Donkin put everything on the line to make sure his staff felt safe and secure when Covid struck 12 months ago. It means paying furloughed staff 100% of their salary and re-employing former team members who had left to take up new positions that didn’t materialise.

Donkin continues; “We have a responsibility to protect our people. Our staff are our family. I made a point of personally keeping in touch with everyone when Covid struck, I wanted to show them that the business was there for them, that no one would be left behind.

“And we want to help our people progress in their careers. So we’ve invested £100,000 in a bespoke App that gives them access to free training and also created a forum for sharing best practices, experiences and feedback. It’s a safe space where they can be supported, learn new skills and feel like they are making progress in their lives, even if they’re not currently at work. Covid made us evaluate our outlook to teamwork and how we motivate, assess and appraise people.”

As well as training for every member of staff through the App, from bitesize courses through to Level 5 leadership, The Inn Collection Group also appraised managers to provide increased self-awareness and enhanced personal development. It means the team remains at the top of their game while hospitality is in hibernation, placing them at the forefront when the industry opens up again.

Donkin continues, “If we want to be world-class – and we do – we need to equip ourselves and our team with the skills and knowledge to be so. We need to learn from people who are world-class in their field outside the industry too, which is why we have engaged former GB Olympic swimmer Chris Cook to provide mindset coaching for staff during the pandemic.

“In a year where we could have given up, we embraced every challenge thrown at us and we are a stronger business for it. We move forwards together, striving to be the best we can, and that is our collective strength. I’m looking forward to our industry opening up again, and being able to share all that we have learned in the past year with our customers, helping them smile again when they walk through our doors.”

Adding 252 new rooms to The Inn Collection Group portfolio during 2020, with a further 269 planned for refurbishment in 2021 across 21/22 sites in the North means there will be plenty of room for everyone.

Imogen Holland is a partner at Ward Hadaway and works closely with The Inn Collection Group. She said, “The Inn Collection Group has an extraordinary story to tell. In many ways, their strategy throughout the pandemic may have seemed counterintuitive to the situation, but Sean and the team have shown incredible leadership, aligning the team as they have added new sites to the portfolio so that everyone is on the same page.

“They have made some very smart, long-term, measured investment decisions – in people and in property – that will pay dividends when the economy opens up again. They know that the hospitality industry will come back and when it does, they are absolutely primed to embrace their customers, through more and better accommodation, top quality food and a warm and professional welcome. I think we’re all ready for a break and The Inn Collection Group will be ready and waiting. They’re a credit to the North East business community.”

A version of this article originally appeared in The Journal on 31 March 2021.

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