x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

One to One with a self-made woman

When Lisa Steel waited on tables as a teenager, she never used a notebook to take customer orders.

Lisa Steel, the chief executive of One to One Hospitality, at her second hotel in Lebanon.
Lisa Steel, the chief executive of One to One Hospitality, at her second hotel in Lebanon.

When Lisa Steel waited on tables as a teenager, she never used a notebook to take customer orders. It was not because she wanted to show off. She was illiterate. "I had it all in my head. I'd walk back into the kitchen and someone else would write it down," Ms Steel says. "I had to find another way. I needed the job. I needed the money." Stung by classmates' taunts and a disinclination for book learning, she dropped out of school at 15. "People called me stupid," she says. "That stupid thing stayed with me for a long time." Such teenage trauma, though, turned out to be a key driver for Ms Steel, who today runs the One to One Hotel in Abu Dhabi. It taught her empathy and forged the ethos of her company: One to One Hospitality. "I like sugar rather than salt," she says. "Treat people with respect and they will get things done." Ms Steel's path to the Gulf started in a tea shop in England. "I first went to work at 12," she says. "It's what we all did ? my sisters worked, my mother worked." The fifth of eight sisters started off washing dishes in the family's hometown of Lincoln, but quickly moved on to cooking and serving. "I realised I quite liked it," she says. "I like feeding people. It shows you care about them more than anything." At each kitchen she worked in, Ms Steel recruited an accomplice. This sympathetic co-worker, the only one to know her secret, would read the menu out loud to Ms Steel, who quickly memorised which words appeared where. When a customer pointed to an item, she would know by its placement on the page what it was they had ordered. "I read their body language," she says, her voice husky from decades of smoking. "I have a really good memory." Like many who grew up in small towns, Ms Steel left home for the big city, moving to London in 1980. She took a variety of service jobs, specialising in the friendly word and welcoming smile. She cooked for a family in a private house in Knightsbridge, where she says "it was just like Upstairs, Downstairs", the British TV show featuring the simultaneous storylines of the wealthy owners on the home's upper floors and the staff below. But sick and tired of being treated as second-class, Ms Steel bought children's primers and taught herself to read at the age of 18. "I knew what letters were, but not how they worked together," she says. Apart from a year in 1983 that she spent travelling around Europe, Ms Steel spent most of the 1980s managing a hotel's reception, or its food and beverage department. But at age 24, she decided to attend university, enrolling at the University of Brighton and studying hotel management. Then, 13 years ago, a call came asking her to come to the UAE. Ms Steel ignored it. Although she learnt to read and write, spelling continued to confound her. And she found the foreign-sounding, multi-syllabic name on the answer machine message simply unfathomable. "I couldn't even pronounce the name, much less write it down," she says, sheepishly. "So I didn't call him back." But Ranjan Nadaraja, a long-time Gulf hotelier, would not be put off. He continued to call, finally reaching Ms Steel when he rang her at her home at 5.30am. She agreed to come to Dubai to become his hotel's training manager for Dh4,200 (US$1,143) a month, a third of her UK salary. "It was exciting," Ms Steel says. "Sometimes you have to take a step back to move 10 steps forward. Actually, it's probably 10 steps back to move 25 steps forward." Dubai in 1996 bore little resemblance to the glittering city of today. Hotels were not the glitzy, seven-star exuberance of a Palm Atlantis or a Burj al Arab, but there existed a smaller, more discreet industry catering mostly to executives passing through on business. "It was a major culture shock," Ms Steel remembers. "All these nationalities to cope with. And they were having to cope with me as well, this very naive Englishwoman. It wasn't easy for them, either." She plunged into the work, though, and counts among her early accomplishments Le Meridien acquiring an ISO 9000, which she says was the first hotel in the Middle East to receive the internationally recognised quality control distinction. In 2000, she left Le Meridien for a position at the Dubai Department of Tourism, now the emirate's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, where she stayed for five years. In recent years, Ms Steel has expanded her professional portfolio. She has opened three hair salons in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, along with her sister and an Emirati partner whom she met within six days of landing in the UAE. "I've been fortunate to have a lot of good people around me," she says. In 2005, she co-founded a consultancy, The Change Associates, to counsel businesses and governments on what has become a lucrative niche in quality control. Among their clients is the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, for which she helped develop the emirate's new star-rating system for its hotels. Does that give her an in, a little boost to the stars her hotel receives? She laughs and says: "We get audited like everyone else." Early last year, she and a Lebanese partner decided to open the One to One Hotel, her biggest challenge yet. "I'm sometimes waking up at 3am thinking 'What did I do? How am I going to pay the salaries of all these people?'" Ms Steel says. Unlike many of Abu Dhabi's hotels, the One to One, which is also called "The Village", is not a self-contained fortress in the Tourist Club district or along the ­Corniche. The hotel does have an official entrance where drivers pull up under a portico and are greeted by valet attendants. But there are also cutouts in the sandstone wall along the grounds' perimeter, which makes the development more like a neighbourhood than a stand-alone hotel. Once a development of villas in a new residential area off Muroor Road, the buildings were renovated to house the hotel's 128 rooms and suites in 18 clusters, which each have a rooftop pool. The sandstone "boulevards" that criss-cross the property create urban streetscapes where strollers can pop into the flower shop or the beauty salon, or head downstairs to the nightclub. For six months before the hotel's opening in August last year, Ms Steel led the staff in dry runs to simulate a customer's experience. Then, she says: "You open the door, and you sit and wait for people to walk in, and that's when you start to think you're crazy." One year into running her own place, Ms Steel, who just turned 44, is now at ease with the organised chaos of hospitality, with a "nagging list that never gets done". She admits to being a taskmaster when needed. "I can be intimidating; let's not lie," she says. Her guidance to staff is simple: we serve comfort along with the coffee. These days, Ms Steel shuttles between the UAE and Lebanon, where a second One to One will soon open. And with all her success, she wryly remarks that some people will still jump to conclusions, just like her classmates 30 years ago. But this time, she's the one having a bit of fun. As a female executive in the Gulf, she says people have made chauvinist assumptions from time to time. When she attends business meetings with her chief operating officer, a man, the others sometimes assume that he is the chief executive and she the subordinate. "We just let them think what they like," she says, smiling broadly. At the meeting's end, inevitably the people with whom they're meeting look toward Ms Steel's colleague for a response. "He just points at me and says 'ask her - she's the boss'." ashah@thenational.ae