Mike Warren’s experience as COO at Hotel du Vin stood him in good stead to replicate that success in his new venture as managing director of coastal hotel group, Harbour Hotels. Here, he speaks to Zoe Monk about driving the business in a way that exploits the hotels’ beautiful coastal locations and making sure the staff remain at the very heart of it.
Walking into the Christchurch Harbour Hotel on a beautifully warm day you’re immediately hit with a feeling of relaxation; the world seems to slow slightly and thoughts of busy city life evaporate as you catch a glimpse of the coast from the restaurant’s terrace. It’s this very view that is at the core of the business model for Harbour Hotels, and something Mike Warren is keen to capitalise on in every way.
“We are a group of five hotels, with four of those being on the water, that exploit their natural locations,” explains Warren. “We are very food and beverage driven and realise that running a hotel isn’t just about the bedrooms, it’s about so much more that makes up the entire experience. Our USP is our naturally beautiful locations.
“I want to take this USP and use it for the building blocks of the brand. For example, the view you get from the hotel in Salcombe and on the website is now on all the bottles of our house wine. It’s a subtle way of promoting the brand in our other locations, but it really captures people’s attention. We’re also looking into using this imagery on a range of Harbour Spa treatment products.”
Warren’s most prominent role on his CV is the two decades he spent with boutique brand stalwart, Hotel du Vin, working closely with Robin Hutson and Gerard Bassett as the group’s popularity shot through the roof. After opening the largest Hotel du Vin in Birmingham in 2001 as general manager, he then went on to become COO of the group in 2005, in what he describes as a very interesting journey for both the businesses and himself personally.
Warren explains: “I saw the Hotel du Vin business grow from one property with 19 bedrooms in Winchester turning over £2m, to 15 hotels of varying sizes turning over £52m; it was such a fantastic experience to be part of this growth and I learnt so much. I learnt the importance of branding and came to realise that brands evolve from a reliable and consistent foundation and are not just built from sitting around a table. From this, each brand needs a culture, with a focus on the bedrooms, food and beverage operations, spas, service; a combination of lots of tangibles and intangibles and we are working on developing this.
“Hotel du Vin and Malmaison are distinctly different groups and attract slightly different audiences, but they are run by the same company – this is a success story in itself that they haven’t been allowed to become one. Of course they share things behind the scenes and benefit from being part of a bigger chain, but at the front end guests will go through the doors and not realise the two brands are linked, and that’s a good thing.”
While Hotel du Vin expanded at a rapid pace and is a hugely successful model which many groups have gone on to emulate, with five establishments making up the Harbour Hotels’ portfolio currently and plans for more in the pipeline, does Warren not worry that expanding too far could result in the risk of dilution of the brand’s cultures?
Warren says: “Yes you do run the risk that some dilution could occur when you go over double digits, so I think under 10 is where I’d draw my line in the sand. I do not want to have a group of hotels where we use the cookie cutter approach – everything is the same, corporate, predictable and almost a sterile environment. I think if some of the idiosyncrasies are left to the locals, the general manager and their team tend to have a more enjoyable environment, both from a guest and management perspective. We want to grow but not super impose from head office inflexible brand standards. The overriding brand standard will be creating an environment which is fun for the guest and the employer.”
Coming from such a strong, well recognised background has armed Warren with the tools and know-how to replicate this success with Harbour. But, as he explains, it was the fact that the group is relatively unknown which originally attracted him to the role.
“It’s a group that isn’t automatically recognised among consumers and I liked that. The senior team have strong ambitions to expand and we have the potential and finance to enable us to do it. The vision is clear, that we will be the coastal hotel in the UK; we’d like the industry to consider us as being like the Hotel du Vin or Malmaison on the coast.”
Another key focus for Warren is creating consistency with the hotels’ food and beverage operations, making it a talking point among both tourists and locals. “Chewton Glen and Hotel du Vin were operating with more of a ‘restaurant with rooms’ mentality and I want to ensure our general managers are thinking like that. We want to make sure our dining facilities become almost a local attraction and locality remains at the heart of all menu creations.
“The Jetty restaurant here, run by chef patron Alex Aitken will be rolled out across the group and I’d like to ensure we have some brand cohesion with our food offering.”
Harbour Hotels is all about its locations and making the most of its natural surroundings, and this holds the potential to target a number of key markets with an exciting innovative offering.
“We want to exploit the meetings and events and away day business,” says Warren. “Our facilities are ideal for that. We are developing MICE collateral at the moment and we will be targeting local businesses with the thinking of ‘get away, fresh thinking, refresh the mind’.
“The next three years we will be highly protective of our success drivers, not losing sight of our food and beverage ethos, culture and style, which will always be significant.
“We shall continue to refurbish; we have a £5m programme scheduled for all our existing bedroom stock and continue to increase awareness of the group of hotels. We’ll also ensure we remain at the forefront of online sales well.
“In regards to new hotels, we look actively for new establishments, engaging with hotel brokers, keeping our ear to the ground and walking the streets. We understand there is competition; the economy is turning but we believe we have proven expertise in operating coastal resort hotels and a seasonal business.
“A market that I’m keen to exploit is Bristol, Brighton, and even locations inland; our name doesn’t mean we will restrict ourselves to coastal properties.”