When Great Northern Hotel joined Starwood’s Tribute brand in September, it may have raised a few eyebrows. Why would a proud independent rooted in history partner up with a big global name? Why does a hugely successful upscale boutique need the global reach of Starwood? Its hands-on owner Jeremy Robson sat down with Zoe Monk to answer some burning questions.
When Jeremy Robson bought the Great Northern Hotel in 2008, despite having purchased near one hundred properties prior, it marked a first for the ambitious hotelier. It was the first hotel that he could call his own and it meant that his vision to create and upscale boutique hotel smack bang in the centre of the capital could now finally get off the ground.
It wasn’t a smooth ride however. While the opportunities were aplenty given the state of the economy, Robson struggled to get investment from the banks that were sceptical to come on board during the recession.
Through grit and determination, Robson preserved and came out the other side, ploughing £42m into the project to transform the building from an empty shell to a thriving boutique. And with that Great Northern Hotel was born, and in 2013 it opened its doors to the public and became one of the hottest new hotels of the decade.
“We had this vision for an upscale boutique hotel and I’m so pleased we did it,” explains Robson. “It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my career, simply because there was no money around. Everybody was saying, ‘oh do a three-star hotel’, but I knew I wanted to do a boutique.”
Last month, Great Northern Hotel became the debut European property to join Tribute, a Starwood brand that boasts the tagline, ‘stay independent’. The move will see the hotel start to reap the benefits of having greater access to huge international markets and a widely-populated sales and marketing platform. On paper, it seems to make perfect sense, but it still begs the question of why now?
After struggling to get the hotel off the ground originally and then maintaining strong, independent core values from the start, could this be seen Robson selling his soul slightly?
Robson says: “We’ve traded very well since we opened two years ago so a lot of people would say, having fought so hard for my independence, why would I want to give it all away and tie up my hotel to a big brand like Starwood?
“But for me it was an easy decision, and it’s because of what Tribute represents. It’s about taking hoteliers like me, independents, and not changing what they do. Blending and fusing to get the perfect union between the big global brand and the smaller independent.
“I honestly think if you stayed here a month ago before we launched with Tribute, and stayed here now, you wouldn’t notice any different and I think that’s important,” he adds.
If you’ve stayed here until three weeks ago before we launched with Tribute, I don’t think you would see any difference if you stayed now and I think that’s important. On one hand, it’s one of the most powerful brands in the world,
Robson is still firm in the belief that he will remain fiercely independent with the hotel still very much having its own identity. Except now with the driving force of one of the most powerful brands in the world behind it.
“We created a hotel that I think is being recognised as one of the UK’s new top boutique hotels, it’s got its own clear identity and none of that has changed so really it was a very easy decision,” he comments.
In the making
The partnership officially came into force at the end of September, but discussions with Starwood had been ongoing since the Great Northern Hotel first opened in 2013. Robson says that the topic of Tribute was only formally presented earlier this year, when strategic plans were put into motion. Robson has long been a fan of the brand, heralding its values and people as something that really falls in line with his vision for the hotel. So what does the partnership involve now?
Robson explains: “What they give us now is the ability to bring Great Northern Hotel to a global audience and we give them the ability to have an independent hotel in the mix. I know that during the process, members of the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) loyalty programme were consulted about their experience with Starwood and there was a voice that came back and said, we love everything you stand for and your great qualities, but what we’d really love is to stay in independent hotels, and what’s where it came from.”
Tapping into the world
The legion of international guests that Starwood has the ability to tap into makes quite the attractive offer for any hotel, but being located at the gateway to one of the busiest railway stations in the UK, surely comes with its own clout on the global market? Great Northern Hotel has a very good international customer base already, so what else will Starwood bring to the mix?
Robson says: “Yes we were full anyway, but I think what will happen is the type of guest will change and I think we will see a lot more SPG members. We’ve been trading for three weeks and the results pay testament to that already. My rates have gone up, my dependence on OTAs has dropped. OTAs are still very important and we have very good relationships with OTAs, but my gross to net on the room side has improved and that’s obviously an important consideration.
“I really can’t see the downside here, especially if Tribute and Starwood maintain the selection criteria to the highest level,” he adds.
Some of the industry may criticise Robson’s decision to partner up with Starwood, but so far he isn’t aware of any negative feelings from his peers.
“I’m still being seen as an independent but that’s what we are. If you think about it, what’s the difference between the sales and marketing clout of Starwood with an OTA like Expedia really?” Robson says.
Trading has been constant at Great Northern Hotel since its launch, but that hasn’t meant its growth has come without challenges. As Robson explains, running a hotel in London isn’t easy and it’s been exceptionally hard work to get the property to where it is today, and Starwood will only enhance this growth.
“It’s such a competitive market now,” he says. “We have a great location and a great product, but it’s hard work and this (joining the Tribute brand) gives me the security of my rooms performance.
“It’s not like an economic underwrite – we will learn from these guys – they are exceptionally good at room delivery and room marketing. I can’t compete with that. You can’t as an independent compete with the power of the big brands, so if you can get that power without compromising what you stand for, then I think it’s simple.”
The restaurant business
Plum + Spilt Milk is the famed eatery at Great Northern Hotel. It has carved its own impressive reputation in the industry, headed up by chef director Mark Sargeant and serves up a selection of simple, classic dishes throughout the day. It’s a hugely successful part of the business and one that Robson doesn’t have to worry about.
“We get around 90-100 people through every night at the restaurant, breakfast is about 85, lunch isn’t quite as busy but we are still seeing 40-50 guests. It’s an independent business in its own right and we did that on purpose, so I just don’t have to give it much thought.”
As well as the restaurant enterprise, the hotel is home to three bars and the ‘Kiosk’, a takeaway hatch at the side of the hotel, serving up hot fresh roast baps, targeting the footfall that passes in and out of the station. Another element that takes care of itself.
The next step for Tribute and GNH
Walking around the hotel, it’s true that nothing has been changed or stamped with a big Starwood press to conform to any sort of compulsory brand standards. A small sign by the entrance, the Tribute name on the website and SPG promotion on the in-room televisions are the only things that have been added to align the hotel with the brand. For Robson, joining Tribute has meant that the hotel has to be even more on its toes to exceed guest expectation.
“The SPG guest has very high expectations and people who visit hotels a lot either get very relaxed about it or very demanding and we are seeing a polarisation in that way. Well that’s good for me and it’s good for my staff. We are a competitive bunch and it’s good to have a challenge and the pressure.”
For Robson, joining Tribute is just the start of what looks set to be an exciting time of development for Great Northern Hotel. He is buzzing with new ideas for the establishment, while keeping one eye on the current practises already in place.
Robson says: “This is a listed building so changes we want to make take time, but I’ve recently got consent for a new Martini lounge upstairs which will add weight and gravity to Plum. It will have the same decor and design of our restaurant and will hopefully become a beautiful soft area for people to enjoy during the day and night.
“I also might have a rooftop gym, that would be cool, and I want to reprofile the bar and bring in softer fabrics and some new furniture for outside.
Robson is on the cusp of opening two new hotels next year, one in Barbados and one in Port Cheval, both of which he believes would be great for Tribute. I was keen to ask whether the UK market would ever figure in his plans for another hotel again.
“I’ve got to ideas for the UK at the moment,” he says, “but I’m very careful about the UK because a full-service boutique hotel works when you have corporate demand and they require full input and staff because you’ve got to get revenue otherwise it’s a fool errand – you’ll be busy making profit to cover costs.
“I’ve got something for the West of England that is tickling my fancy and then one up in the Lake District; I think both could work really well. I’d want younger people with discerning tastes to take four-day breaks walking in the Lakes and I think that would work.”
Great Northern Hotel and its construction was one of the hardest tasks in Robson’s career, so much so, that it may have put him off launching another one in the capital in the future.
He explains: “I’d open one in London if I could! The frustrating thing for me is that in 2008, when I was looking, there were five properties that I wanted to do, but I could only do one because I just couldn’t raise the money. They have all gone on to be real top properties too.
“Now loads of money is coming back into the market, and values have shot up, so we’ve done well on that side, but I wouldn’t go back into the water today because it is a complex business to run, and if you get your entry point wrong, I think I lot could go wrong.
“I think the demand in London will continue for a long time, it’s an amazing global city, I love London, but to create a new business now with a point of entry here is too much of a risk for me now.”