TALK: Jonathan Slater, former MD Chester Grosvenor

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Jonathan Slater has spent the last 30 years working tirelessly in the industry, not only as MD of The Chester Grosvenor, but also taking on an active role to give the North West the recognition it deserves in the tourism sector. Add this to founding, what is now, one of the biggest luxury hotel consortiums in the world, and you could say retirement was well overdue. We caught up with Slater to discover what’s next for the renowned hotelier.

After more than three decades dedicating your life to the hospitality industry, you could be forgiven for thinking ahead to your retirement with a slight air of fond anticipation. But for renowned hotelier Jonathan Slater, 30 years spent delighting guests, growing his business and founding one of the biggest hotel consortiums in the world, has only added fuel to his fire that continues to burn brightly for the hotel sector. And despite his retirement announcement in January, his passion shows no sign of being extinguished anytime soon.

March saw Jonathan Slater step down as managing director of The Chester Grosvenor, bringing his legendary 30-year post with the Cheshire venue to an end. Slater believed it to be a “fitting year” to retire, given that the hotel recently received a Michelin star for the 25th consecutive year and celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2015.

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Slater’s long career began aged just 28 when he joined The Chester Grosvenor as general manager and within three years he was promoted to managing director. He has since managed two substantial refurbishments of the hotel and has played an active role in promoting the City of Chester and the North West, helping to attract visitors from around the world. Not only this, he was also one of the founding directors of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, where he spent 21 years on the board, including nine as chairman.

He came from a strong background and credits a lot of his success to the mentality that his father instilled in him – “My father never not wanted to go to work and it’s been the same for me”. This positive attitude has meant that his retirement certainly doesn’t signify the end, as his work with the Grosvenor Estate continuing and his association with the Oddfellows boutique brand reaching an exciting turning point with the launch of its second site this year.

We sat down with the man himself to look back over some of his highlights and discover what’s next for Slater in what’s expected to be another exciting chapter of his life.

As your time at The Chester Grosvenor comes to an end, can you pick out some highlights during your 30 years?
The renovation projects we’ve done; our kitchen project most recently and the reworking of La Brasserie, the creation of the Spa and prior to that, the dramatic refurbishment we completed in the 1980s when we truly transformed the infrastructure of the hotel to what it is today. It was an enormous task masterminding these changes, but an enjoyable one. We kept the guest experience in the forefront of our minds and every change we made added in some way to that experience. The satisfaction of watching your guests enjoy the way a refurbishment or renovation has changed an operation is hard to beat.

It’s also been a real pleasure watching the team here grow and flourish. We have a HR strategy that encourages our team to ‘grow with Grosvenor’. We support them and help them to advance their careers. Because of that we see longevity of our team. Paul Cookson, our GM, has been with us for 13 years, Simon Radley over 25 years. Carlo Iulianella our director of food and beverage started as a waiter with us. He went away to gain more experience but came back and now runs that side of the operation. It’s a very close knit team and I will miss their companionship and support. It’s been an absolute privilege to work with some great people over the years – I’ve had the same PA for 31 years – and I shall really miss them all.

In what areas of the market have you seen the most change in this time?
Dining in hotels has revolutionised over the past 30 years. Thirty years ago, hotels had a dining room, where hotel guests could eat. The Chester Grosvenor was ahead of its time in some respects, as it, like some other hotels of its time, has always attracted local clientele to eat and drink within its confines.

When we completed our refurbishment of the hotel in 1988, we introduced what is now our Simon Radley Michelin star restaurant but also La Brasserie, a bustling Parisian style bistro, where the dining is distinctly more casual. No tablecloths and tables fairly close to one another was, although it is hard to believe now, a fairly radical concept back then. Especially in the provinces! I’d seen it work elsewhere though and was determined to push the hotel forward.

Now, a hotel must get its F&B offering absolutely right. A hotel restaurant needs to be a draw for outside clientele and stand alone as a viable business in its own right.

How has the guest changed over this period? What do they place importance on now compared to when you started?
The rise of the experiential traveller has happened over the last 30 years. Those that travel for new experiences – specifically unique experiences. We saw this market expand and it prompted the forming of Small Luxury hotels of The World. It used to be that only the very privileged had the pleasure of leisure travel for the sake of it, but the opportunities to travel are infinite now, for every sector and demographic.

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What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome during your career, both at the hotel and in terms of tourism in general in the North West?
Part of my role as the MD of The Chester Grosvenor has been to champion the North West and it has been my great pleasure travel globally to market the region, the city and the hotel. The challenges of being a regional hotel are also opportunities. We may be out of the capital, but we are unique because of it. We may not have the same access to direct flights from international cities, but at the same time, we then become to the traveller more of a discovery – a prize if you like.

There is much talk amongst 5-star hoteliers based outside of London about the difficulty of recruiting top notch staff. It is probably harder than in the capital and as such we have to nurture our own senior team by growing and training them in-house. Junior recruitment can also be tricky but we tackle that with our apprenticeship programme. We launched Simon Radley’s Kitchen Academy in 2012 to face the challenge of recruiting young, talented chefs. The answer is ‘you train them yourself!’ It has proved a great success and Simon is an amazing mentor for these young men and women. We’ve since rolled out apprenticeships around the hotel – in the marketing, HR and even engineering team.

You have retired from The Chester Grosvenor but will continue to be involved in the consultancy side as well as being a driving force for Oddfellows – what exactly will these roles entail now?
Oddfellows is an exciting project for me. We took the business on in 2011 and have evolved it dramatically since then. At the time it was a restaurant and members bar with four rooms. We completely renovated it, with a new build of another 14 bedrooms and changed the space to form a secret garden courtyard, a restaurant, event spaces and bar. Whilst a completely different operation to The Chester Grosvenor, it has also become a success in the city.

As I retire from The Chester Grosvenor, I will be responsible for taking Oddfellows forward as a business.

With the expansion of Oddfellows Cheadle under development, how are you approaching this?
It is a tricky brief expanding Oddfellows. Our Chester hotel is successful and popular due to its uniqueness, its quirky interiors and sense of fun and as such it is important to remember it is not a branding exercise – where we roll out a cookie cutter approach in expansion, because that stands against everything Oddfellows stands for.

We will remain true to the owner’s reasons for buying the Georgian townhouse that Oddfellows sits in; a genuine desire and passion to breathe life in a building that needs some restoration. Add to that a touch of humour, a sense of fun and playfulness in the interior design and service that is spot on. Oddfellows hotels won’t need to look the same; indeed the interiors may be very different in each – but there will be a common thread that our guest will recognise. This will evolve over time which is exactly the way a business like Oddfellows should grow.

We are also passionate about our price point. We are unapologetically very good value. We don’t need to price ourselves high to determine ourselves as a boutique luxury brand – our customers are much too clever for that.

What are the future plans for both Oddfellows and yourself now?
We have the Cheadle Oddfellows currently with the planners. If all goes well, we will hope to have the project ready by the end of the year. The building is in fantastic condition given its age and our architects, designers and contractors are all brilliant to work with.

I see the group growing organically – the building itself is important and the location too, so any future sites will have to have both.

I will work on Oddfellows, continue my association with The Grosvenor Estate as a consultant but I am also planning to fulfil some dreams that I haven’t had time for up till now – like sailing across the Atlantic later this year. I was a schoolboy Dinghy champion and the love of sailing has never quite left me. I am also looking forward to some quality family time. I am now a proud grandfather of two and plan to enjoy watching my grandchildren grow up.

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