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Developing world-class event leadership skills

By Stuart Smith - Posted on 16 April 2015

Stuart Smith, Director of Events and Leisure at The Gleneagles Hotel, discusses the shift in his career from operational to strategic management with the help of the Executive Masters in Hospitality and Tourism Leadership.

Over the past two decades, we have seen the transformation of major events into a platform for brand positioning at a number of different levels:  product based; regional; political; national; and international.   No longer does the value of the event rest merely on the inherent reason for the event – whether sports, politics or entertainment – but now it has the added weight of expectation imposed upon it by a myriad of stakeholders.  This is by no means a negative, as by delivering and leveraging major events effectively, the diverse expectations of the stakeholders can be met and everybody can go home happy, looking forward to the next opportunity.

What it does require though is effective leadership at all stages of the event journey in order to ensure that the delivery and the subsequent ability to leverage the event meet expectation levels.  For the hospitality industry, this is a definite challenge.  The intensity of competition, due to the ease of access into the market, means that we live in a result-driven world which, for many organisations, limits the ability and opportunity to provide effective leadership development

As I reflect on my own career, I’ve been hugely fortunate to have journeyed from the operational intensity of delivering events to a role that has more of a strategic perspective, book-ended by two major events at Gleneagles - the G8 Summit in 2005 and the Ryder Cup in 2014.  The G8 Summit at that time was much more to the forefront than today’s summits, where the recession and the fear of demonstration has ensured a lower profile. From an event management perspective, it gave a fascinating insight into how major events operated.  The challenge of bringing together a variety of different stakeholders, ranging from the Foreign and Commonwealth, police, fire, health and security services, and regional councils through to the delegations of over 20 countries, ensuring that we delivered a true reflection of Scottish hospitality, was a lesson in understanding cultures and effective communication.  The three days of the summit flew by and were marked with both historic and minor incidents – from confirmation of London winning the 2012 Olympics bid and the tragic 7/7 bombings in London that changed the whole atmosphere of the summit through to George Bush falling of his bike and pouring a pint of Guinness for Bono.

In the intervening years, the culture of Gleneagles has allowed me to develop “on the job” covering everything from culture change to major refurbishment/construction projects.  It also gave me the chance to pursue an Executive Masters in Hospitality and Tourism Leadership at Strathclyde Business School.  The benefit of the course was twofold.  It gives a solid understanding of the principal skills of leadership, developing concepts and understanding of strategic management, creating and leading teams effectively and effective decision making.  Just as important though was the connection to both peers and current leaders within the industry that brought the whole course to life.

It certainly allowed me to take a different perspective when it came to the Ryder Cup last year.  Gone was the concern that we would struggle to deal with all the variety of stakeholders, replaced by a holistic view and a collective ambition within the leadership team to maximise the opportunity that the Ryder Cup presented to us.  Without doubt, our own team performed admirably during the week; allied with the delivery of Ryder Cup Europe and the performance of the European Team and assisted by some fantastic weather, the whole event showed the capabilities of not only Gleneagles but Scotland as a whole to deliver truly world class events.

As we look to the future, it is vital that we turn our focus on how we can continue to create leaders from not only an event perspective but throughout the industry as a whole.  For me, the difference between event management and leadership is important.  Within hotels and venues, event management can provide an important revenue stream.  However, effective event leadership can cross boundaries much more easily, creating better opportunities and thus an improved bottom line.  Courses such as the Executive Masters in Hospitality and Tourism Leadership can create a different mind-set within an effective manager, creating a leadership mentality and, just perhaps, setting them up to lead from the front the next time a major event comes along.

What operational and strategic skills do you believe are essential for making a strong hospitality business leader?

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