TALK: Ashley Ely, GM The Zetter

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The Zetter has made a huge impact on the boutique market since its launch in 2004 and people across the country are curious to see what all the fuss is about. Zoe Monk sat down with general manager, Ashley Ely to discover exactly what makes the model so successful and his plans for change.

From Le Manoir, Gravetye Manor and fresh from a decade at Chewton Glen, Ashley Ely has quite the impressive CV. So after spending 10 years of his career at one of the best country house hotels in the UK and soaking up every of bit of experience along the way, where does Ely go from here? Straight to the heart of London as general manager of influential independent boutique The Zetter, that’s where. Just six months down the line, he has already fitted right in.

“For me fit is everything,” explains Ely. “After being at Chewton Glen for 10 years, I decided to move at a time when I had been able to develop, and now I have the chance to do something completely different which has been really refreshing. It wasn’t like I was bursting to get out of there – it was a fantastic place and a fantastic team, but when you’ve done 10 years in the business at my age, it’s a hell of a long time.”

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New beginnings
Despite his original plans to dig out his passport and move onto international pastures new, Ely says it was the opportunity to come to the capital and work with two owners who had a genuine interest in what they were doing that attracted him to the role of GM.

“What attracted me was the spark and passion of our owners and the spirit and excitement for what’s going on now and what’s just around the corner. There is so much going right now, in London, the regions and internationally; it’s still such a brilliant industry to be part of.”

The Zetter is located in Clerkenwell, known to Londoners as the artists’ district, and fits into this niche seamlessly. Opened in March 2004, the hotel is the brainchild of fellow restauranteurs Michael Benyan and Mark Sainsbury, who transformed the old Victorian warehouse into the 59-bedroom boutique that stands today. Praised by The Times, Time Out and Wallpaper magazine among others, The Zetter was also voted one of the world’s 50 coolest hotels by Conde Nast Traveller. It’s also won numerous awards for its eclectic design stamp. Ely believes that the hotel’s commitment to originality has been a central part to the model’s success and he speaks with genuine passion when he describes his experiences so far.

“The owners had a vision for something, having worked in the restaurant scene for a long time,” he says, “to create something unique and individual, and ten years on, it’s still that individuality through the concept, the design and the sustainability that drives the business today. Having the conviction to play with something new and not changing things on a whim with every fickle trend or demand that comes along has been crucial for The Zetter too.”

So from his extensive background and 10 years at Chewton Glen, how has Ely dealt with the change of pace at a colourful hip London hotel? He explains: “It’s almost like another world here; the customer’s wants, needs and expectations are all totally different. At Chewton, the mix was 70/30, leisure to corporate, but here it’s more or less the other way round. The way I like to see it is that the guests who are here during the week would perhaps go down to the coast at the weekend. But at the end of the day, it’s bedrooms and it’s food and drink and there is obviously a strong commonality between the two.

“Guest’s agendas are different; I see a lot of people travelling here because it’s their destination for business. From the leisure side, guests are enjoying the bedrooms and facilities but using the hotel as a base to go out and explore, whereas in the country house market, you’re hosting guests in every way a lot of the time.

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New trends
The casual dining sector has been moving forward at a rapid pace over the past few years, with guests wanting to eat all day every day and this looks set to continue as we welcome 2015. Ely says this was a trend that filtered through into his time at Chewton Glen and has transpired at The Zetter now too, which Ely is fully embracing moving forward.

“People’s eating habits have changed and become blurred; this is something I definitely want to capitalise on here. I started to notice it at Chewton Glen, when service and breakfast for some guests didn’t have a finish time. The biggest example I had of this recently was visiting 24-hour restaurant Duck and Waffle in the early hours of the morning, expecting to experience a raucous restaurant, but it was fascinating how it was so normal. It was just like being in a buzzy eatery at 9 o’clock in the evening.

“The lead time on bookings is also becoming shorter and shorter, making the prospect of forecasting hard because the pickup is quite something. Our rate structure is a dynamic one; I came from an environment where it wasn’t static but you knew what the rates were going to be at the weekends and weekdays.”

Looking to the future
The hotel has just celebrated its tenth anniversary and with plans for the newest Zetter in Marylebone, London in place to launch in Q1 of 2015, the next 12 months will be an exciting ride for Ely. Renovation work is also planned at the original Zetter, in a bid to expand some of the bedrooms and adapt a select few to include more storage.

“It’s about keeping things current and fresh; whether that’s putting a blue tooth speaker in each bedroom or keeping up to date with the mini bar to give us another point of difference. It’s one thing having engaged and creative staff, but it’s the physical points too.

“In terms of international visitors, I think that’s definitely a market which could be stronger, but it’s really hard to specify one country to target. I want to really put us on the radar of European travellers and make them aware how accessible the hotel is by train, plane or Eurostar.

“We have work planned on some of the fifth floor bedrooms and we do already have irons in the fire for more sites as well. They’ll all be based in London which is really exciting.”

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