When a chintzy run-down hotel business almost landed in his lap when he was fresh into his twenties, Charlie Salisbury didn’t have much choice but to take the bull by the horns and learn the ropes of hospitality, and fast. Now eight years and three properties later, together with his wife Charlie, has built up one of the most talked about boutique brands of the last few years. Here, they talk to Zoe Monk about combining creativity with business, the sought-after work / life balance and how art really is at the heart of their Artist Residence portfolio.
From the outset, Charlie and Justin Salisbury seem like any other ordinary couple. A young family in their late 20s, they’ve just welcomed their first baby and are settling into life with a newborn, juggling the late nights with their business they run alongside.
However, delve a little deeper and you’ll uncover quite a story that makes them extraordinary in many ways. When the family hotel business almost landed on Justin’s lap when he was just 20 after his mother was badly injured in an accident, he didn’t have much of a choice but to step in to take reins. The clapped-out tired guesthouse in Brighton’s Regency Square, needed a complete overhaul, so Justin dropped out of University and started his hospitality journey.
“I literally got into it by standing on the doorstep and somebody coming up to me asking if we had a room,” he explains. “Our story has always been about growing organically. It’s like a weird paradox that we even exist because the whole thing is an accident!”
While that catapulted Justin into the industry, it certainly wasn’t all plain sailing. Armed with no prior experience, no money and no resource, Justin knew he had to be innovative and so posted an advert on Gumtree to invite artists to come and decorate the bedrooms at what was The Malvern Hotel, in return for board.
“I suppose it was very ‘Brighton’ and it was a way of trying to stand out in the market and do something different,” Justin says. “I realised that I had a run-down guest house that was being rated by some people as worse than squats and somehow I had to make it better but with no money. So I was already interested in art and wanted to make a splash, but I hadn’t thought about how to manage the call for artists, you can’t just have people come in.”
And with that, the Artist Residence was born and Justin’s girlfriend, Charlie came on board. Having met just two days into their time at Leeds University, where Charlie was studying history of art while Justin took on a degree in finance and accounting, when Justin had to drop out, Charlie continued to finish her course and then naturally gravitated towards Brighton to get stuck into the hotel project.
The chaos that ensued caught the eye of Channel 5’s Hotel Inspector, Alex Polizzi, who turned out to be a bit of a life saver for the couple and their struggling hotel. Justin says: “To be honest, for the first three years it wasn’t really a business and that’s probably why we ended up dong the Hotel Inspector because it was just so bad.
“But that was the turning point for us. I remember when I called Charlie to say they had got in touch and I just thought I’m going to look like a complete idiot on TV but it will be invaluable and nobody has ever taught us anything. Off camera Alex was really helpful and she helped set up a lot of systems that we still use today.
“I was like 21 and you think about what you’re like at that age and I probably used a lot of excuses; she just made me realise that I had a really good opportunity in front of me and that I just needed to grow up a little bit.”
The younger sister of the Artist Residence Brighton opened in 2010 in Penzance after an extensive renovation that Charlie spearheaded. She took a derelict building and turned it into an eight-bedroom creative masterpiece, just with a carpenter, an electrician and painter and decorator and a plumber on site for company. “I had no idea what I was doing!” Charlie laughs. “Somehow I managed to refurbish eight rooms on a very tight budget.” Now Artist Residence Cornwall is home to 17 bedrooms, 2 apartments and a newly-renovated cottage, which Justin recently oversaw from start to finish in just six weeks.
Despite the initial struggles, it’s this organic growth that the couple alludes to as the backbone to the brand. Getting stuck in and learning everything from scratch has meant the pair knows the businesses inside out. Charlie continues: “The organic growth has been the best thing because we’ve had to learn how to do things. Everything from the operations we learnt very early on because we didn’t have any money to invest in much, so with the service we had to make sure it was better than everything else to compensate.”
Justin adds: “We’ve had Brighton for eight years and every year any money we’ve made we’ve just put back in to the business and it’s slowly ongoing.”
Taking on the capital
The two hotels slowly but surely started to make their mark in Brighton and Cornwall respectively, and the groundwork was put in to guarantee success. Their design pushed boundaries, their style became talked about and their bedrooms flaunted a look that hadn’t been seen before – with quirky artwork, plenty of exposed brickwork and all manner of rakish touches such as tea crates and authentic milkstools refashioned into bedside tables.
In 2012, Brighton expanded to encompass eight new bedrooms and the Cocktail Shack was introduced, which quickly became a local hotspot.
Trade was building and thoughts naturally turned to London. The duo set about transforming a Victorian townhouse in Pimlico into their third property and towards the end of 2014, the hotel was launched and marked an important turning point for the couple.
“We had a bit more finance with London,” reveals Charlie, “so we were able to develop ourselves to do more of the interior design side of things.”
With just 10 bedrooms, the couple, quietly growing in confidence by this point, knew they had to offer something a little more luxury to justify the higher price point and make up their margins.
Charlie adds: “We never want to do a cookie cutter thing and we want to keep our characteristics, with the art always running through them, but to create something different as well.”
When the London hotel opened, the space below the ten bedrooms was leased out to a restaurant operator, which ended up going into administration; 64 Degrees, headed up by chef Michael Bremner, closed in June 2015, less than a year in business. The space then, once again by chance, fell into the lap of Justin and Charlie, who decided to step up to the plate.
“We didn’t want to do our first restaurant in London,” says Charlie, “it would’ve been mad! But when the restaurant went under we had to take over the space. Luckily in the meantime, we’d actually done a restaurant in Brighton in collaboration with some chefs down there and that at least gave us a bit of practice before we did this (London) one. That was another hurdle; there are a lot more complex parts involved with running a restaurant as opposed to just rooms.”
The 20-cover The Set restaurant in Brighton is headed up by local chefs Dan Kenny and Semone Bonner and offers guests set tasting menus from Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. The Set Café is a more relaxed venue, embracing small plates, craft beers and is home to a ping pong table.
Artist Residence London then opened its debut full-service restaurant, Cambridge Street Café, in August 2015, with the help of Radek Nitkowski, previously of Dean Street Townhouse, as head chef. The fast-paced London market, around-the-clock dining demand and competitive foodie set meant it posed new challenges.
“I learnt a lot that rooms are, in comparison, very easy,” says Justin. “I speak to lots of people who say the same thing. The hard thing is doing the design, making sure the plugs are in the right place, all the little touches, amenities and the check in. Once you’ve got that nailed down there aren’t many variables from that. Whereas in a restaurant, there are hundreds of different spinning plates and things can go wrong at any given time.
“We opened the three restaurants in the space of nine months and not even very close to each other, quite far away location wise. That was a big learning experience, to not do that again!” adds Justin.
In just eight years, Justin and Charlie have built up a successful boutique hotel collection that strives to be different and adds a new dimension to the market. With the creative force right at the heart of what they do, they’ve almost pioneered the trend for incorporating local art into hotels. They admit they feel most at home when they’re creating and innovating, and the biggest challenges will always come when actually running the hotels.
“We’ve learnt how to run hotels, but we are still learning,” says Justin. “The challenges change. I think back to the beginning, when nobody knows about you, you’re there on your own, as the only person working for that business. The challenge there is to just get the rooms ready for the next day, you’re learning. Then you get to the stage where you think, you can’t do this on your own and you need to employ somebody and then that becomes a challenge at that point in time.”
Charlie adds: “I’m seeing improvements that need to be made – we can never sit still. I’m always trying to think of things we can do better.”
The work / life balance
Following in the footsteps of many iconic hoteliers before them – think Robin and Judy Hutson, Ian and Christa Taylor and Paul and Geraldine Milsom to name a few – Justin and Charlie are building the Artist Residence brand alongside growing their own family unit. Charlie gave birth to their first child, son Blake, just 11 months ago and the new parents continue to be a very active part of the business.
“We are seriously trying to work out how to get a work / life balance,” explains Justin. “It’s really, really hard and I think that’s been the biggest challenge of all. Also not sleeping at night is quite hard as well!”
The company’s next steps
Up until 10 months ago, none of the three properties had their own general managers. Justin and Charlie took the ‘hands-on’ approach very literally and headed up each hotel alongside a long-standing operations manager. Now with such rapid growth, the team has expanded significantly in the last eight months, and nurtured general managers from within, meaning that the Artist Residence culture is already firmly embedded.
Justin says: “We’re still a really tiny company and we are growing now where we need to find people who can take over what we are doing so we can move into new roles.” Charlie adds: “A new project is like a baby, you have to really take care of it, nurture it and show it a lot of love to try and make it special. Then we need to make sure the other sites can operate without us. We pour a lot of heart and soul into each project.”