Director of AB Hotels Rafi Bejerano talks balancing business at two luxury boutiques

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Rafi Bejerano gets to see the best of both worlds as his role of director at AB Hotels. Overseeing business at Sopwell House in Hertfordshire and The Arch in London he experiences the varying market conditions that come with owning a hotel in the regions alongside a boutique in the heart of the capital. These challenges alone certainly keep him busy. Zoe Monk sits down with Rafi to uncover his secrets to success.

Juggling and plate spinning are two major skills that Rafi Bejerano has perfected down to a tee. His role as director at AB Hotels, where he runs the strategic side of two boutique hotels, The Arch in London and Sopwell House Hertfordshire, means he is a very busy man.

But does he complain? Not one bit. He embraces every side of the company’s two businesses and constantly challenges himself, and his team, to find better and more efficient ways of working.

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It’s this mentality that he has inherited from his father – who took over Sopwell House 30 years ago – and along with his own passion and natural love of the hospitality industry, have all become key drivers to the success of both Sopwell House and The Arch.

“I was here every day at Christmas and New Year,” says Bejerano, “motivating the team and with my notebook writing things down that we can improve next year – I like to go round and see it all with my own eyes.”

Bejerano was almost destined for a life in hospitality – “it comes naturally to me; even if we sold up tomorrow I’d get another job in a hotel” – and since gradually taking over the two hotels operation by operation from his father, he has grown with the business and now become an indispensible part of AB Hotels.

His first memory of Sopwell House was when the family moved to live there over three decades ago, and since then it has grown from 26 bedrooms with a small restaurant to a hugely profitable boutique business with 128 bedrooms, a spa, gym and two on-site eateries.

The Arch came later as Bejerano dipped his toe in London’s big pool of hospitality for the first time and this year marks the 82-bed hotel’s sixth year in business. The luxury boutique has fought its way to success among some of the capital’s most finest establishments, making a name for itself with a consistent offering that Bejerano doesn’t dare get complacent with.

On paper and for any typical hotelier, his role presents a series of challenges. Aside from the logistics of driving between one property and the other on a weekly basis, he has his hands full with taking charge of the strategies, sales and marketing, HR and general business, which are all different for each hotel. But Bejerano embraces every hurdle.

“There are a lot of differences between running The Arch and Sopwell,” explains Bejerano. “The Arch is a simple operation; we have all-day dining, a couple of small event rooms and provide guests with an overnight stay and breakfast. There it’s all about everything being perfect and pristine and providing a high level of friendly and efficient service. Then it’s all sales strategies and trying to sell bedrooms at the highest rates. Plus you can get staff a lot easier in London too.

“At Sopwell, it’s very different. Firstly it’s harder to get staff as straight away they have to be able to drive to work here; there aren’t those sorts of problems in London. Plus it’s all about the bedrooms, conference and events, weddings, spa breaks – there are more strands to the business. We do around 250 afternoon teas a week and we did 85 weddings last year. Our leisure business is very good too and we did a record December in 2015, revenue wise, the best in 29 years.

Bejerano adds: “The challenge at Sopwell is that you have to fill a busier hotel, with very high fixed costs because we are squeeze from commissions from agents, business rates, utilities, you name it.”

Balancing act

Balancing one business in the capital and one on the outskirts in the Hertfordshire means Bejerano has to have a firm grip on the varying market conditions that each business has to contend with. He had no previous experience of the competitive London set prior to launching The Arch, but has adapted well; Bejerano certainly isn’t afraid to implement bold changes or make new decisions.

The hospitality landscape surrounding Sopwell House has changed dramatically since Bejerano’s father purchased the property, with the likes of The Grove and Luton Hoo popping up just a stone’s throw away, plus the newly-launched Center Parcs throwing a new concept into the mix.

“Usually I’d say London is more competitive,” says Bejerano, “but last year we were rocking in London. London is year round business and you’re fighting for trade for bedrooms and from small groups, so it’s less of a market but all international and you rely a lot on US business too. We see guests from all over – Australia, Europe, the Middle East – I’m pleased to say our biggest market is the UK however. We have a lot of British guests who know what they want and who can afford to go to other places so that’s always a compliment.

The restaurant at The Arch – Hunter 486 – boasts a menu developed by head chef Gary Durrant.  Named after the 1950’s dialling code for Marylebone, the eatery does solid trade throughout the seasons, but it’s an area Bejerano believes has more potential.

“The restaurant does well – breakfast is good, dinner is fairly good and lunch can be a bit hit and miss. I think that’s true of London at lunchtimes for many places without a celebrity chef. Plus tourists and business guests go out all day and so the lunch trade is generally residential or from the local area. On a good day, we might do 34 covers as opposed to four on a quiet day.”

For Sopwell House, its spa is integral to its success. Having launched in 1991, it was the one of the first to establish itself in the area, but now has to battle hard for trade as the competition has stepped up significantly.

Bejerano says: “Our spa is very successful, but it is very competitive now, so my job is to make sure I keep levels up across the business.

“Last year we had a 16% profit growth at Sopwell House, which is high considering we’ve been stable here for quite a few years. But we have to keep pushing in every area; rooms and rates are important, but every market now is so competitive.

“Conferences and events are very important to us now too; they are a real mid-week driver and help fill bedrooms too. We try to compete with the big boys – the likes of Marriott and Hilton – and we are passionate people who sell with passion. We have the advantage that we can keep everything very personal.

“We do a lot of bespoke events now too. Everybody wants to do their own thing and has their own ideas, and if we can’t be flexible or deliver then they go somewhere else,” he adds.

Family business

Despite his father taking more of a back seat within the business, family is still very much at the heart of AB Hotels. Bejerano works with his brother who deals with the ‘behind the scenes’ aspect of the company, keeping a hand on things such as all the finances, contracts, legal requirements, and IT installations. “Basically all the dull stuff!” laughs Bejerano. “But it is a real family feel here; we believe hospitality is all about how hospitable do we make it for the guest. It’s about going back to our core roots. I come from a Jewish family and we used to do a lot of entertaining where my mum was very much the host of the house, constantly offering guests food and drink. It’s all about making people feel comfortable with genuine care and attention, warmth and a nice welcome.”

Learning curve

With hospitality running through his veins since an early age, it was inevitable he would take over from his father when the time was right. Six years ago, he was responsible for the pre-opening and launch of The Arch, before handing over the day-to-day running of the property to a general manager with a greater grasp on the London market, while he focused on overseeing the operational side. Sopwell House was more his father’s domain, until he realised what a huge buzz The Arch was creating and wanted to use some of the ‘Rafi magic’ to recreate this success at Sopwell.

“My father used to do it all at Sopwell and I’d be at The Arch,” explains Bejerano, “then we started to get better and better and my dad said, you know what, you’re doing a good job over there, you can come over here. Since then I’ve never looked back and I like a challenge – I set my standards very high.”

Bejerano is fiercely passionate about, not just his business, but the hotel industry in general and improving standards across the board. He was elected to the board for Small Luxury Hotels last year and is on the London committee for Springboard; encouraging people to take hospitality as a career seriously is a big deal for Bejerano.

He also isn’t shy to seek advice from some of the top names in the industry and soak up ideas from the sector’s most inspirational figures. “I always look upwards and ask how can we be better?” Bejerano comments, “I’ve met with the likes of Danny Pecorelli and Jonathan Raggett and asked them about what they do and we’ve shared knowledge and information; I want to aggressively catch up with these leaders in everything we do.

“I’m happy if the general quality of the hotel service industry goes up in the UK. I think it has in the last few years but now I want to strive for Sopwell to be the best country house hotel in the south.”

With big ambitions come big responsibilities, and Bejerano isn’t fooled into thinking that the next year in business is going to be all plain sailing. With the impending National Living Wage due to hit this April, Bejerano knows both hotels will take the impact full on, but will strive to embrace the changes.

He says: “In 2006, I came back to work for the family business and said that we would offer WiFi for free, something which no other hotel nearby was doing at the time. And we just absorbed it like another cost. It’ll be the same with the minimum wage. I think we can whine about it or just get on with it and control costs better in other areas. We hire great people and go for quality over quantity, but we’re not a famous brand name so we do have to offer something good to attract staff here. I look at what the best companies are doing to retain their staff and see how we can improve and what new incentives we can offer.

“In general I do a lot of research – you haven’t got to always reinvent the wheel – if someone is doing something well, you can think how you can adapt it for your business. The best thing with us is that someone can have an idea and we can say, right let’s do it tomorrow; we haven’t got to get through the hierarchy of the big co-operations, as we’re free to run as an independent,” he adds.

Onwards and upwards

The Arch and Sopwell are constantly evolving and Bejerano knows he needs to keep a firm grip on every inch of the businesses to ensure standards are always on the up. So what’s on the cards for 2016 at AB Hotels?

“At Sopwell in every January and February of each year we spend between £1.5m and £3m refurbishing the hotel – lightings, fittings, furniture, carpets, artwork, curtains; it’s everything. New hotels are opening all the time, so you have to be a minimum of a very good standard otherwise you’ll struggle quickly.

“We know we have to be really good at service and really good with our product, so we invest every year as part of a five-year plan to upgrade the whole of Sopwell House. We still want to do a big spa extension, which we now have planning permission for.

“The Arch is now 6 years old, so we will be reviewing it in the summer. We are thinking about the potential of a co-branded suite, to give us a story to talk about. We’ll work on its brand and image and the perception that people have of The Arch too.

“We joined Preferred Hotels and Resorts in August 2015 too, because I want to attract more international business.”

New heights

Sopwell House and The Arch look well on track to continue on their upward climb towards hotel superstardom, but that won’t stop Bejerano from considering new projects and expansions. So does he predict this expansion will come in the form of a third hotel?

“The answer would definitely be yes,” he explains, “but because we always own the hotels it makes it very hard. We wouldn’t do it in London because it’s so competitive at the moment; everybody wants a hotel in London. I get asked all the time, do I want to sell The Arch. London is so strong right now that it resists all the market conditions to a certain degree.

“I think if the right opportunity came along we would definitely look at it.”

So as hoteliers go, Bejerano is certainly one to watch. With a headstrong ambition for growth, a passion for putting hospitality on the reputable careers’ map and a desire to make our industry one of the world’s greatest, Bejerano has all the ingredients to become a sector titan. “I’m not afraid to speak my mind; whatever I say though it’s always for the good of the industry and if I’m critical it’s only because I care; I’m not just a ‘yes’ man!”

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