'They don't have a clue': British hotelier pans Australian service

The Levin Suite at The Capital Hotel, London. It has for more than 40 years been regarded as one of the world's top boutique hotels.
The Levin Suite at The Capital Hotel, London. It has for more than 40 years been regarded as one of the world's top boutique hotels.

One of Britain's most successful hoteliers has fired a broadside at Australian hotel service and accused television cooking shows of making restaurant cuisine too complicated.

David Levin, owner of the award-winning Capital and Levin boutique hotels in London and a mentor to leading chefs including Gary Rhodes, says guests are being offered lower standards of hospitality in many top Australian hotels than they might enjoy in their own homes.

“Many of the staff in leading Australian hotels don't understand the meaning of hospitality – a lot of them don't have a clue,” says Levin, who has visited Australia every year for 42 years and has just concluded a six-week visit to Sydney and Melbourne.

"It is a tragedy that Australia has so few privately-owned and managed hotels," Levin said yesterday. "Most hotels here are run by large groups who are rewarded for their efforts by earning a share of the hotel's profits. That naturally means that corners are cut in terms of quality furnishings and staff levels. It's a conflict."

And Scottish-born Levin, who began his hotel career as a waiter in the Malmaison Hotel in Glasgow in 1952, says restaurant meals in Australia are far too complicated.

"Thanks to shows like 'My Kitchen Whatever', there are far too many ingredients in some dishes," Levin says. "People are simply trying too hard. Often simpler would be better and people might be encouraged to eat out more often. If you have a lovely piece of turbot, or plaice, you don't need to do much with it. It simply tastes good. Sometimes 25 ingredients can be too much."

Levin said he hoped his comments would be a wake-up call to Australian hotel owners, some of whom, he said, were charging more than in other major cities in the world.

"And they've forgotten about service," he said. "You can't say to a guest who is maybe hungry and jet-lagged that 'breakfast service is over'. You should be giving your guest what they want. That is the meaning of hospitality and it seems to be getting lost."

Levin has a career history of being ahead of the curve in the industry, opening Britain's first gastro pub – The Royal Oak in Yattendon, Berkshire, in 1965 – and the Capital Hotel in London in 1971. It has for more than 40 years been regarded as one of the world's top boutique hotels.

The Capital's restaurant gained a star in Michelin's first British guide in 1974 and later earned two stars. Levin has also created the L'Hotel (now known as the Levin Hotel) and Le Metro Bar & Brasserie and has been importing Australian wine into Britain for 40 years, having been a close friend of the late Len Evans.

He also owns a state-of-the-art winery in the Loire Valley, France, which sells wine to several leading Australian restaurants, including MoVida, Hu Tong, Paco's and China Red in Melbourne and The Ivy, est, Watsons Bay Hotel, Bambini Trust, Bistrode and Tetsuya's in Sydney.

His comments come at a time when the Australian hotel industry is concerned by an ongoing shortage of skilled staff. The most recent Tourism and Transport Forum MasterCard Tourism Industry Sentiment Survey said a quality labour supply remains a key concern for the industry. Many roles are currently being filled by unqualified backpackers and there is a major shortage of chefs and pastry cooks, among other staff.

"It is extremely hard to find and keep good staff," says Kim Seagram, co-owner of restaurants Stillwater and Black Cow Bistro in Launceston. "The only way to hold on to really good staff members is to make sure they get serious on-the-job training so they have a career path with you and don't want to leave."

And now the hospitality industry is faced with a new problem: how to adequately service the growing numbers of big-spending Chinese tourists – now second only to New Zealanders in terms of incoming tourism arrivals.

"Preparing for properly servicing the needs of the Chinese visitor is vital," says Felicia Mariani, managing director of the Australian Tourism Export Council, the peak industry body. The Accor group, which includes Mercure and Novotel chains, has already implemented optimum staff standard requirements for dealing with both Chinese and Indian guests.

The federal government in 2011 launched the T-Qual grants program that aims to stimulate sustainable economic growth in the Australian tourism industry to refresh its offering and boost competitiveness in global markets.

Do you agree with David Levin's assessment of Australian hotel service? Post a comment below.

This story 'They don't have a clue': British hotelier pans Australian service first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.