The hospitality heroine
Emma Deighan chats with hotel inspector Alex Polizzi about schoolboy errors in the trade, her illustrious hospitality background and rescuing restaurants in her latest quest
Around 1,578 hotel rooms will be added to NI’s hotel stock this year, which is setting a higher, more competitive benchmark for those already operating in the sector but there’s no better person to lend some wise words to those who want to up their game than Alex Polizzi.
Alex’s career spans decades of working in the family hotelier business, from her uncle’s prestigious Rocco Forte chain of five-star properties to her interior designer mother’s two boutique hotels, Hotel Endsleigh in Devon and Hotel Tresanton on the Cornish Coast. Both are aesthetic stunners inside and out.
She also trained at the Mandarin Oriental and has an aura of assertiveness and command of respect that has made her the much-admired host of Channel Five’s Hotel Inspector for the past 10 years.
“Hotels and restaurants were my job,” she says, “from setting up restaurants at Rocco Forte to running Hotel Endsleigh where I project managed all the building work and the running of the hotel.
“Hotels, they’re just such interesting places to work for people who like their fingers in lots of pies because you have to turn your hand at figures, people skills and have an eye for detail and get the look perfect but at the same time be practical about cleanliness and emptying fat traps.”
Only recently has she decided to take a back seat in the family business to spend time with her two children, Olga, nine, and Rocco, five.
“However much we talk about childcare provisions, kids want their parents around and that’s how it is,” she says. “My daughter needs me more now at nine than she ever did and I want to be there for her so I take a lot of time off, I keep fit, write and I enjoy doing the tele stuff.
“Nothing has been as much fun as running a hotel. I like being busy, I like the physicality of running a hotel. Having done it for years, this is not a job you can do with small children. It’s punishing, every family event, you’re working and that’s hard for children.”
Her next season of Hotel Inspector is heading to the north of England.
“It’s a mixture of exhilaration and dread,” she says. “You see people who are desperate and your first thought is do not to go to a TV programme for answers but the reality is they’ve exhausted every other avenue. They’ve run out of money, ideas and their energy levels are low. Their business has impacted on health family life and I’m walking into a stressful situation.
“Add to the mix that these are not easy people to deal with. However much they want advice, they still resent it.” Hygiene, lack of development and upskilling are among the most common pitfalls Alex encounters.
“The lack of cleanliness I see astonishes me,” she says. “I say it all the time and it’s as if people just don’t get it and think I’m doing it for television. Cleanliness is non-negotiable. You don’t want to think anyone else has sat on that toilet seat or someone has slept in that bed.
“I once had a stay completely ruined on holiday when I was checking in and another guest said, ‘Alex, you’re not going to like that they don’t have mattress protectors’. I was like ‘oh fuck’. Because we all know what happens in beds.”
Having worked in both multinational chains and independent, boutique-style premises, Alex is well placed to impart such wisdom, which can often fall on deaf ears.
“Sometimes there is no hope. I said to one couple, who were quite elderly and not fit to invest so heavily in the business, to sell up but did they listen to me? Did they fuck.”
Looking at the fast-evolving hotel landscape in NI, Alex lends some advice to those operators ready to take on the shiny new names on the scene. Among those names coming onto the market this year are the Grand Central on Bedford Street, The George Best Hotel, AC Hotel by Marriott and a flurry of impressive add-ons to already celebrated establishments, including Fitzwilliam’s spa and multi-room extension.
“Do sweat the detail,” she says. “A hotel and a hotel stay is inevitably made up of lots of little moments. Know your place. A B&B needs to stand out and be individual and needs an owner on site doing the welcoming and that will make people go back again and again for the personal touch.
“I think a hotel group, even if it’s owned by an independent owner, everything has to be immaculately clean. I can’t emphasise this enough. And make sure that you learn the new skills of marketing and advertising. A lot of traditional hoteliers are really far behind the curve with Instagram and Twitter.
“And don’t ignore things that are a problem and always answer bad reviews online. You need to fight for your share of the market and it’s bloody hard work so create something new to stand out on price comparison websites.”
And Alex’s wisdom expands beyond the hotel world. She’s about to grace our screens again on the new Restaurant Rescue – a similar format to the Hotel Inspector – only for restaurant owners, and this time she’s partnered up with Irish restaurateur, and her brother-in-law, Oliver Peyton.
“It is nice to work with someone who you trust and admire and we always say the Irish and Italians have so much in common,” she says. “We disagree a lot, but disagreeing with someone who you respect is different.”
Production company TwoFour, also the name behind Hotel Inspector, approached Alex to front the show but her powers of persuasion encouraged them to bring Oliver, who has spent much of his time in London, on-board.
“I thought the combination of service and business, which is my thing, and him on food would be a great mix and it’s been great,” she says. “It feels like this time around, the responsibility is shared. When you have desperate people in front of you in a right fucking mess, coming up with a vaguely viable solution is a huge responsibility so having him around made that easier.”
So, what are the issues facing her struggling restaurateurs in the first series which airs this month?
“We see a lot of restaurants, sometimes great ones, come and go because of factors out of their control like choice of location, etc but there is a lot of ‘I will build it, they will come’ — with one exception of a couple who were well-established, then there was a lot of investment in the town, the multiples moved in, and they hadn’t found an answer to compete.”
Many of the guests on the show, she says, are people who lack experience in the restaurant sector. “One might be a good chef but not a business person,” she says. “One we saw had never even worked in the industry; he was a brush technician in a dental surgery.
“I think it was Einstein who said ‘the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. You need to change things if you’re losing money hand over fist. Don’t hope the wind will change, it’s you who needs to make the change.
“You know what, I will make a point of finding a place in Belfast or Northern Ireland for the next series.”
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