“It’s a mistake to try and complicate hospitality”: David and Kate Levin talk hotelkeeping

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If the walls of The Capital in London could talk, they’d definitely have some astonishing stories to tell from the hotel’s near 50-year history. One of the longest standing family-owned properties in the city and champion of the term ‘boutique’, the independent hotel has built its legacy on a business model that has generosity and sincerity at its core. We sat down with owners father and daughter David and Kate Levin to discover just what keeps them going after all this time.

David and Kate Levin, the inspirational father-daughter hotelier duo, really need no introduction. David Levin, a true pioneer of the independent boutique hotel movement, and his daughter Kate, an inspirational and talented young leading light in our industry, and I was lucky enough to sit down with them both for a chat.

For David, his route into hospitality was a fairly simple one. Born in Belfast into a very middle class family by his own definition, by the age of 14 he already knew he was destined for a career in hospitality – “I used to be in awe of a hotel and think I almost saw it as theatrical; it was fantastic”. Driven by this initial spark, he took his first steps on the hotel path in 1952, as a commis waiter at Malmaison restaurant at Central Hotel Glasgow.

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Fast forward 15 years and a fuelled desire to ‘swim against the tide’ in traditional hotelkeeping, David bought The Royal Oak in Yattendon Berkshire, a pub with eight bedrooms, which was to be his first solo vessel for creativity.

However, his dream was always to come to London and build a small exclusive hotel, something that many of peers scoffed at, but that didn’t deter David one bit. In 1971 he opened The Capital, a 49-bedroom luxury and fine dining hotel in the heart of Knightsbridge, carving his own niche in a market dominated by brands and big players. Ten years later and the Levins acquired L’Hotel, the property adjacent on Basil Street to complete David’s vision of a grand hotel in miniature. Throw into the mix a Michelin star restaurant headed up by famed chef Nathan Outlaw and you have a recipe for success. This significant list of achievements saw David named in the 2015 New Year’s Honours List subsequently adding an MBE to his name.

Having a dad – or papa as Kate affectionately refers to him – with credentials as impressive as this, would be daunting for anyone, let alone when you’ve stepped into his shoes to take over the running of his hotel on a day-to-day basis. But if there is anyone who can do it, it’s Kate. While she may not have taken a traditional route into hospitality, swinging back and forth into the industry in her twenties, she counts her time away from the family business as crucial to her success today.

But, as Kate explains, it was never a forgone conclusion that she’d be guaranteed a job in the family business – “we’ve only worked here when it’s been suitable for the business and us” – it was only when the time was right in 2009 that she took the reins from her father, and became one of London’s youngest female GMs.  Kate’s got all the right ingredients to secure the hotel’s future for a very long time and day to day she continues to build on the Levin’s family values of love and sincerity with her own passion and genuine care. And now she’s building up a trophy haul in her own cabinet, since winning the title of Independent Hotelier of the Year at the recent Independent Hotel Show, and will soon take over her father’s role as chairman of Pride of Britain Hotels.

It’s quite a story, so when I sat down to chat with them both in the lounge of The Capital one chilly October, I knew I’d be in for a treat.

How has the hotel industry changed since you started out David?

David:  I think there is a lot of change, as I stand back more, I see these changes more – not for better or worse, primarily because of legislation which were there but not enforced all these years ago – I’m talking 40 years ago, it’s a lifetime. We’ve gone through a lot here; IRA bombing, strikes, all sorts of things that have been incredibly difficult but we are still standing. I’m not too sure that many people in the business have been exposed to those sort of things.

What have been some of the biggest surprises for you?

David: When I opened the hotel, I wanted a fine restaurant and everyone in the hotel said don’t do it, ‘nobody eats in a hotel’, and that was true, but primarily because the food in hotels was incredibly poor. I wanted to establish a restaurant with rooms and nobody understood that. That lasted for 15-20 years.

What hotels did to compare with that, is they brought in a named chef. The likes of Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White established themselves in hotels because they didn’t have the finance to open their own restaurants. I felt that if you had a really good restaurant – it brought business to the hotel. I always wanted to do everything I wanted as a customer – I wanted a good laundry, restaurant, – I felt the restaurant made the hotel come alive.

What have been some of your biggest learning curves Kate?

Kate: I’d never opened a restaurant here at the Capital before so that was a big learning curve for me – Nathan (Outlaw, executive chef) had never worked in London so it was a big learning curve for him too and I think we’d both admit we made terrible blunders…

David: that’s not true!

Kate:.. but we’ve got it right now and it’s a different restaurant to how it used to be because people’s demands and tastes have changed. Yes we do have to go with trends and times but the fundamentals are still the same – they still want a comfortable bed and delicious breakfast and want to be well looked after. So yes, Papa has seen many changes with the hotel, and I have as well having the pleasure of growing up in the hotel, although I wasn’t entirely aware of it aged 6! But dad always says, its hotel keeping, it’s pretty simple stuff, it’s not too complicated. And it’s a mistake to try and complicate it.

What has changed for you both, industry-wise?

David: When I talked to people back then and said I’m building a hotel that was going to have 50 rooms – that was the concept – people said oh it’s a boarding house, I said no, it’s going to be a five star hotel and they said oh it can’t possibly be it needs to have 200 rooms at least, with a choice of restaurants. I said no it’s a grand hotel in miniature and then boutique came along. Now boutique has gone mad! Some of the big companies are talking about having a boutique division which won’t be more than 170 rooms and that’s madness – if that’s the definition then I don’t want to be a boutique hotel and I’d like to start a new word – we are a private hotel. We own it, we don’t have shareholders.

Kate: Sales and marketing certainly changed because that now has to be at the forefront of what we do, people have such choice now in London. So we have to shout about it and make sure we are positioning in the right place in front of the public. Unfortunately the days of being able to manage without sales and marketing are long gone so we have to work really hard at that and use the right avenues and resources to ensure we are getting the right business mix.

David: We don’t always get it right either…

Kate: We try!

David: We do have a very high percentage of return guests; 60% of our guests have been with us before. What is interesting is that one in four people dining with us here in the restaurant are staying in the hotel and that’s unusual, it’s fantastic!

Do you try to keep up with trends?

Kate: Definitely we do, but some of the things we do go against them. At the moment I think there is a trend to have a real international feel at your hotel. But things like that we are aware of but we aren’t following it all the time.

David: But I would be arrogant enough to say we are trendsetters – there were an awful lot of things that we did – having an open kitchen and getting our chef to meet the guests…

Kate: so obviously Papa was a trend setter when he opened and now I’m just in the corner here mulling along, not setting trends…

David: You’re still setting trends!

Kate: I think that as long as you’re generous and honest, then that’s all you need to do to set trends. As long as the important things work – the best Wifi, really good showers – other trends will come and go. I think it’s a generosity of spirit that’s important to us and I don’t think that’s a particular trend at the moment.

I’m incredibly lucky that my boss hates it if I’m sat in front of a computer doing spreadsheets and he says to me constantly, why aren’t you at the front desk and I’m so lucky that I get to be the fun part of the job and papa would always much rather me not have the figures to my fingertips than looking after someone.

Kate: I think my forte is trying to make people feel comfortable; I grew up in a family home that was always trying to make people feel comfortable and was hospitable; there was never a meal time without other people there – my parents were always entertaining. I’ve grown up with that, I’ve married into that – my husband’s family (the Harts, who own Hambleton Hall) are some of the most hospitable people I know as well. Luckily I’m better at being hospitable than I am at figures!

Kate: The panic from the guests if dad isn’t on site is quite amusing too – ‘well where is he?’ Having a day off, ‘oh, well why isn’t he here!’

David: Somebody came in the other day and said, ‘where is he?’ And they said he’s gone to the dentist; ‘why?’

 

Are you aiming for two Michelin stars with Outlaws restaurant?

David: We did have two stars for a long time but I felt that people only really saw it as a bit of a special occasion place. So I wanted to scale down pricing and stiffness, I thought it was irritating when the waiter used to come and say oh is everything alright?

So I talked to Nathan and tasted his food, and it’s great for Kate to work with someone who is lovely and not aggressive, like a lot of the chaps are, which is a shame.

One of my main things was how will he treat Kate, because that was really important to me. Would he only say he wants to deal with Mr Levin, that type of guy, which is very common. And Nathan wasn’t like that at all.

People say, yes but your job is to make money, well yes but we do make money and I have to tell you that with the two-star restaurant we didn’t make any money at all.

What are the main challenges of the business today?

Kate: Recruitment. It is tough at the moment but then I don’t think there has ever been a time when it hasn’t been tough, we’ve always found it difficult to find brilliant people but that’s obvious, brilliant people don’t grow on trees. So it’s up to you to find the right person and make them brilliant.

David: If you look at how many restaurants have opened in London alone in the past few months, it’s staggering, so where have those staff come from? How can we be short of staff? Yes we might be short of brilliant staff but our principal here has always been we take people on who we can get on with and mould.

Would you ever want a hotel of your own in London Kate?

Kate: Well I’ve got two already!

David: If the opportunity came along, I would certainly back Kate.

Kate: I don’t think I could go to a bank today and convince them to give me several million pounds… although there are some wonderful country house hotels, I just think it’s different in London. Even if they came here and saw how successful we are I don’t think I could get them to back me in the same way. To start as a new business today in London is few and far between.

David: I borrowed all the money from Barclays for this – £850,000 to fit this building out; it was originally a block of flats that we knocked down. That money in 1969 is equivalent to about £28m today.

Kate: I can’t see anyway else in London right now, I can’t see what else I could bring. I like being ‘in’ my businesses. To split ourselves up, never say never but I don’t see it right now. I have my husband opening restaurants, I have to keep dad happy here…

David: … and that’s quite enough!

Kate: That’s enough hospitality chat around the Sunday lunch table for now!

What are some of the biggest things you’ve learnt from your father Kate?

Kate: How to run a good hotel. I think that’s it – and patience. Not to expect things instantly. And to be a bit calmer, I was a bit flighty when I arrived and dad’s seen the hotel through everything, when I come flapping into the office gasping and saying ‘Brexit’ and he says, we’ve done financial issues in the past we just have to keep doing what we are doing and respond appropriately. I couldn’t do it without him. We learn from each other all the time actually.

David: When I see Kate having lunch with new employees, and refers to the ‘team’, she’s much more team orientated, whereas I’ve always been known as Mr Levin but that was how it was back then and never David, but Kate’s never known as Mrs Hart, she’s known as Kate.

What would you want your legacy to be?

David: You’ve surrounded by my legacy, this is it. You’re breathing it…

Kate: And I just have to look after it, polish the silver…

 

 

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