Andrew Coney joined Belgraves just five months ago and is already proving to be a breath of fresh air for the traditionally luxurious boutique. Here, he talks to Zoe Monk about welcoming rappers to royalty and keeping up with the Joneses.
A little bit of luxury is what every guest would cite as being a pivotal part of their hotel experience, and right now, the luxury end of the hotel market is proving particularly buoyant. But when your high-end establishment is located in the heart of the upmarket London borough Mayfair, competing for consumer trade requires more than just five-star thinking.
“I want people to see the hotel as a hub of Belgravia,” explains Andrew Coney, general manager of Belgraves, “where people can just drop in when they like. There are some very affluent people around here – lots of cultural bodies, various embassies and art galleries – and I want to engage with all customers on all kinds of level to be seen as an integral part of the community. For me as GM, you have to become a real ambassador within that local community and get to know people.”
Coney joined Belgraves at the end of July, and was chuffed to be appointed the helm of a hotel he had admired from a far for a while. Coming straight from the larger corporate environment that is Intercontinental Westminster where he was in charge of a team of 180, he embraced the chance to get stuck right in amongst the customers and really grow the 85-bedroom hotel.
“I knew the hotel when it first opened and always loved it, so when we first started talking about me taking this role I had to hide my soft spot for it; I didn’t want to seem too eager!
“It was the middle of summer so it was a good time to join. Hotel was busy and it still is, but I think in times past you used to guarantee certain times of the year were busy and others weren’t, but things are a lot more erratic now and there are lots more inconsistencies to business; you’ve got to work that little bit harder now to make sure your full and rooms are filled. That’s no bad thing; it keeps you on your toes and means you go looking for business in places that you didn’t before.”
Diving in head-first is how Coney likes to work, and although Belgraves is part of Thompson Hotels, he finds it refreshingly different compared to his previous role at IHG. Decisions and changes can reach their conclusion a lot quicker and new ideas and creativity are welcomed. “There’s a lot less democracy working at a place like this, I have the opportunity to be the leader of the business and drive it forward, rolling my sleeves up and getting stuck in rather than being driven by manuals. Our owner puts a degree of confidence in me to lead the team, and the hotel, to success.”
A summer job at a small hotel is where it all started for Coney and his passion was fuelled by his enjoyment at creating new experiences for people, something which continues to drive his role at Belgraves. “You take on many roles when you’re at a small hotel and try your hand at everything. As you progress in your career and get higher up the ranks, you can lose sight of the customers who remain at the heart of the operation. You are handed pieces of paper and feedback forms that say people are enjoying your hotel, but it’s only when you get back to a smaller place like Belgraves where you can read a guest’s name and make a point of meeting them and talking to them. That’s where you start to define the experience to a real personal level.”
Based in one of the most prestigious parts of London, Belgraves faces stiff competition from the Kings Road elite all vying for similar trade. As consumers become more discerning, for Coney, differentiating Belgraves from this crowd all boils down to the personal service which is imperative to a guest’s stay. “With most hotel category levels, there is a minimum expectation of quality; people have great stuff at home and want to be wowed when they visit us and it’s then that it really starts to come together through the service. Use people’s names when it’s appropriate and show appreciation when customers are being loyal to you – this kind of service surpasses all loyalty schemes and in a small hotel it’s where you can really stand out.”
Before you even step foot through the revolving doors of Belgraves, there is a doorman on hand to smile and give you a friendly hello – an element that Coney hopes is a slight contradiction to what guests might expect of a hotel in its area. The New York vibe has strongly influenced the feel of the hotel, and shying away from the traditional is something Coney is keen to exploit. “You definitely get a real New York feel when you walk in, and what I’d like to do is bring a bit of Belgravia into the mix now, give the experience a real flavour of Britishness.”
So with new boutiques popping up in pockets all over London, as well as inspirational hoteliers influencing the sector, is Coney aware that standing out amongst them all may require more than just exceptional levels of personal service?
“It’s all about keeping people engaged; yes you always have new hotels opening like The Mondrian and The Beaumont this year alone, but we want to create some substance and introduce things that encourage people to come back. We try to change the artwork once a month and try to bring in musical acts from time to time to keep guests talking, and that’s one of my main missions here at the hotel.”
The future looks bright
With just five months under his belt, Coney is already putting the wheels in motion to develop Belgraves and once the hotel is established in its local area, he is setting him sights on various overseas markets.
“Some markets are really starting to grow, certainly Asia and South America and we now have to put the resources out there to try and grow the awareness of our brand. Our largest market is America and we have a lot of guests coming from there, but we do a lot of work with the Thompson group to continue to drive that, including talking to journalists and key agents over there. Next year I’ll be spending some time looking at new markets, travelling around and being an ambassador for Belgraves. We want to keep the hotel busy, but maintain that the vibe and feel of the place is spot on as we mature.
“Lastly, I’d like to make this one of the greatest hotels to work at in town. In a small 85-bedroom hotel you can really embed the feeling of teamwork and I’d like to say that this time next year, people will be knocking on our door saying they’d like to come work with us.
“For me, I think if you jump out bed in the morning and can’t wait to get to work, then you know you’re only a good thing.”