Insight article

A tradition is just an innovation we keep

Claridges.  A heavyweight in the London psyche, steeped in royalty and glamour, conjuring up stories in our mind of the world’s most privileged having fanciful wishes taken care of with no more than the raise of a perfectly arched eyebrow.  Glimpse around the door left ajar by the BBC’s behind-the-scenes-documentary and the reality is even more exceptional…

After each visit, guest rooms are photographed so that should that person return, their bedsheets can be turned down at exactly the angle they prefer.  ‘Do we have a room with a Jacuzzi?’ ‘Yes of course’ the plumber is onto it now… Patrons are made to feel that they themselves are the hotel’s raison d'être.  One elderly couple who have celebrated their wedding anniversary each year for the last 40 years with a night at Claridges are even given staff keys on arrival; a symbolic gesture of their being so integral to the fabric of the building.

With that kind of service, there is little wonder that those who can afford it keep coming back for more.  But on their 200th anniversary Claridges faces considerable challenges. Their history is unshakeable, they lay claim to royal connections like no other, providing a unique competitive advantage as each guest revels in having a little piece of it.  As well as appealing to paying guests, the singular history is an enormous source of pride to the staff.  So much so that Roman, the doorman (and internal ‘face of Claridges’), has respectfully guided guests into the Claridges fairytale from the mortal world outside for nearly four decades, and many more have worked there for at least ten years. 

The slick service rests upon this impressive shared identity, each individual acutely aware of the institute they represent and prepared to serve it first and foremost.  This identity not only defines the group but serves to ensure that the impeccable standards are replicated with military position, creating the quality of service that differentiates Claridges. In a hotel where you want to feel remembered, consistency is king. Each waiter has to know that knives and forks must be exactly one inch from the table edge… and care enough about this to actually do it.

Yet these qualities alone will not suffice. Today’s elite travellers expect the very latest technology and innovations to be available at the touch of a button.  The services available have to evolve to stay relevant. As Claridges’ General Manager so eloquently put it; ‘What is a tradition? It is just an innovation that we decided to keep’. And therein lies the dilemma, how to keep a group of employees so tightly bound by their pride in history and keeping things as they always have, delivering a consistent service that is fresh and modern enough to avoid Claridges becoming a stuffy caricature?

This is where stories come into their own.  Sharing the stories of the successes and mishaps of the last services reinforce the principles, values and nitty gritty behaviours fundamental to delivering on Claridges’ promises but also airs the inevitable, if minute, deviations from the norm. What have the latest guests asked for? What worked? How does it fit with existing practice? Stories provide the richness for everyone to stay on the same page but engage in a process of social reality testing.  What will be fascinating is to see how new ‘traditions‘ are selected and then embedded.  With a changing clientele only time will tell what Claridges will become…

Nailia Tasseel