When an interview starts with the words, ‘Vol au vents for everyone!’ you know it’s going to be good, and Mark Jenkins, star of Channel 4’s The Hotel and hospitality expert, didn’t fail to deliver. With his charm, gusto and Great British ‘making the best of it’ attitude, Mark won the hearts of viewers right from the get go as we watched him run his own seaside hotel, The Grosvenor in Devon, and more recently, transform the fortunes of neighbouring hotel, The Cavendish. As a big fan of the show myself, I couldn’t wait to chat to him...
Mark is instantly likeable; from his unrelenting enthusiasm for the hospitality industry to his love of 70s party snacks, ‘Because who doesn’t love a vol au vent?’ he embodies everything the British tourism industry is famous for. Coming from a family of entertainers, and having been in hospitality right from age six when his parents bought a hotel in Torbay, Mark had a lot to say, and the insight he gives us into the industry is funny, useful for anyone considering it, and, just like Mark himself, totally unique...
So how did you originally get into hotel management?
It was an accident! I was sort of half going through a divorce and I had young children and I decided that if I was going to be a single dad, rather than employ someone to look after the children, while I go off to work in an office every day, I thought; if I buy a hotel, that's big enough that I can live in it, then I can work from home. Plus, the children would have some company; the guests, and in the summer, the children guests.
Did you enjoy it right from the start?
I took to it like a duck to water really; it just took over and became my life, especially living in the hotel. It was quite a small size, about 110-120 guests and 50-60 odd bedrooms, and I just enjoyed looking after the guests and catering for their every whim.
I mean, when people go on holiday, what are they paying for? You know, if you save up and buy a new three piece suite, you've got that three piece suite for however many years and it lasts. If you're paying to go on holiday for a week or whatever, when you go home, you haven't got anything to show for it, apart from, you know, some tacky old gifts and a fading tan. What you're actually paying for when you go on holiday is memories, and to me, that's what's so important.
The first series of The Hotel involved a place in the Lake District and The Grosvenor wasn’t featured until the second series... What do you think it was that made them come back for a third and fourth one instead of going off somewhere else?
Well they decided I had actually ruined the whole format of the TV show and that if they went back to a normal hotel like the first series, it wouldn't be the same! So that was why they came back to me. And then, even when I sold The Grosvenor, they still wanted me on it so that was when I ended up in the Cavendish.
You definitely make good viewing – what is it like having the cameras film your every move? Did you feel conscious of it or were you just doing your normal job?
Not at all. What you have to realise is that the way the episodes are filmed is all with fixed cameras, just like the Big Brother house. You never see anyone from the production company so you just have to do your job. And really, that's what makes it such a unique series.
So would you say that what you see on TV is completely reflective of what it's like to work in the hotel and hospitality industry?
Yes. Obviously it's edited to enhance dramatic effect and the comedy; I remember saying to my staff when they filmed the first series, ‘If you work across with a tray of cups, you'll do that 100 times and that's fine, but the one time a cup falls on the floor, that's the bit that will end up on TV.’ So what you see on the show is a kind of condensed, dramatic version of real life but yes, I do think it's a fair reflection.
What would you say is the hardest thing about hospitality management?
For me, as the boss, it was the staff. The staff are always the nightmare and you saw a bit of that in this series! As a manager, even if you're not keen on the odd guest, they go home at the end of the week. The problem with the staff is they're there every week!
I mean, the real problem with hospitality is that unless you're lucky, generally speaking, it's just not the highest paid profession. But it's unique. It's the sort of thing people should only really go into because they love it. You can't really go into it for money.
What is it that you really love about it?
For me it's putting on all the events and seeing the guests really happy. Even in my own hotels, it wasn't so much about the accounts and counting how much money I was making, it was when you used to get really nice thank you letters or cards. Or people shaking your hand and going, 'This is the best holiday we've ever had, thank you so much, it's been absolutely marvellous.' That's the reward.
The hospitality industry is like no other because of the atmosphere. Yes, it's stressful and hard work, but lots of jobs are stressful and hard work. What makes this job unique is that with the stress and the hard work, you have to maintain a big smile. Whereas a lot of people can do a job that's stressful and hard work but they don't have to smile all the time. I mean, if you're having a bad day, you have to appear happy. It's not the guests' fault and they've paid for a memory!
So can you tell us a bit about the Party Nights tour you're now running - how did that come about?
Well I'm hopefully making another TV show this summer but I'm not allowed to tell you anything about it because it's a secret so I came to the end of the last series of the Hotel and I just thought, what can I do now? I need something to keep me busy and I did a few party nights in Torquay last year and they sold out instantly. In fact, I had people shouting at me because they couldn't get tickets!
So I knew that party nights were really loved and I thought ok, well I haven't got a hotel at the moment and I'm hopefully going to be making more TV programmes and doing other things, so I thought why can't I take my party nights to other people?
Is it hard work?
They're quite unique - no one else is doing anything like it. I've realised though, the reason is that they're not that easy to organise! I've set the first lot up and it's like organising 20 giant weddings! You've got to find a good venue, in a good location and with the facilities, then I'm having to make sure we've sold tickets, then there's seating plans. It's like doing a wedding over 20 venues for about 4 or 5 thousand people.
You sound like you really love it though...
I just want people to come out the door when they leave a party night to say, ‘Wow that was something else.’
Ok last question, do you have any advice for people considering a career in hospitality?
Yes, don't do it! Run away and become a doctor or a lawyer or something!
No, I’m joking, it's a job where you create happiness and memories and what other job gives you that? There is no better line of work! You find though that most people, once they're in the hospitality business, they never leave it. They get hooked. More people join it than leave it.
Decide what you want to do and go for it. You could rise up to management in a five star hotel or work as a chef and you can earn very good money. It has to be said though that the majority of people in this industry are not there for the money; they're there because they love it. I used to say to the staff that the only difference between the staff and the guests is that the staff pick up a pay packet at the end of the week. They're all on holiday!
Actually, on that note, would you ever consider opening a hotel somewhere a bit more exotic?
Oh of course, I'd love it. But what makes holidaying in this country wonderful is when you've got the weather as well. When it's nice in the UK, you don't NEED to go anywhere else in the world. When the sun doesn't shine, I can forgive people from getting on a plane.
But that’s one of the great things about working in the hospitality business. When you've got a bit of experience, you might be asked to go on, say, a cruise ship, or you could go all round the world. There are transferable skills and a lot more opportunities than just the hotel above the pub at the end of your road.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Are you coming to a party night?
I’d love to!
And on that note, we parted – Mark, back to planning his events and me to wander back to my desk dreaming of my next hotel stay. If you fancy following in Mark’s footsteps and making a career out of holidays and events have a look at the hospitality management courses available