TALK: Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa’s new GM

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After more than four decades spent working in the industry, Jonathan Stapleton was ready to semi-retire from the hotel business. But after being approached to take on the GM’s role at the newly-refurbished Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa in Bath, he realised it was too good an opportunity to turn down. BH caught up with the man tasked with reinventing this prestigious hotel and his strategic plans for success.

Jonathan Stapleton joined The Royal Crescent Hotel and Spa in Bath in mid October and despite joining after the extensive renovations of the historic hotel had been completed, he still had his work cut out to transform the establishment’s fortunes after it fell into the hands of Von Essen.

Now, the decadent property is under the firm control of Topland Hotels, who oversaw the upgrade of the hotel’s 45 bedrooms, 18 suites, and all public areas, and have now tasked Stapleton with the job of bringing back customers to experience this fantastic boutique in the heart of Bath.

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Stapleton boasts an impressive number of big brand names on his CV, and has spent 42 years in hospitality, working in some of the top five-star establishments around the world. He had semi-retired when the opportunity to become general manager of The Royal Crescent arose – “I was actually on the cusp on buying my own luxury B&B in the countryside when this come along” – but his decision to get back into the heart of the hotel business was an easy one for him to make.

So just six months into his new role, Stapleton has already made a significant impact on the hotel. We got the chance to speak exclusively to Jonathan to find out exactly how he plans to bring the hotel back to life.

You arrived at the hotel in mid-October, what elements did you focus on initially and how did you want to position the hotel in the marketplace?
“It was great to arrive at a time when the renovation process had finished, but as we all know in the hotel business that’s never the end of it. There was a lot for me to think about, particularly when the hotel had come out from Von Essen. It had lost some of its clientele and market position, so for me it was about bringing a new thinking to the hotel and devising a different strategy and direction for its growth.

“As always there are three main important things about the hotel, and that’s location, location and people, and it’s hard to destroy those first two. Royal Crescent benefits from being one of those locations, that if you’re in Sydney, Singapore or New York, you’ve heard of it. So coming out from the renovation, I wanted it to be seen as ‘an iconic hotel reborn’, and I think that was the right expression to reflect the refurbishment, but I also wanted to emphasise that it’s one of the most iconic hotels in one of Bath’s most famous locations.

“In terms of setting a new strategy, it stems from how do we take the hotel from where it is now as a finished new product, and bring it to life to a new element of the market. We’ve always been traditionally strong in the UK and US, and then a cross-section of European countries.

“Firstly I set targets, and though where do we want to be by the first of June 2015? That was key and we broke it down into three areas. Strategically, where do we want to position ourselves with our rate structures, our conferences and events, weddings, and F&B offerings and how do we go about personalising the experience for the customer. Improving that customer journey was the first point of call.

“I wanted to indentify a true set of goals and a mission statement, to break those goals down into action points as well and then setting a strategy that will take us from the end of December to March 1st and then onto June 1st. Then we looked at how we sell, looking at room rate strategy and room categories. It was the same with our conference and events and weddings and celebrations offering, clarifying that and working out rates. Basically defining the offering, so that the sales people are clear about what it is and how it is delivered.

“I always presented any plans to the owners, including a new budget strategy and vision, which I did so by January 12th. They knew exactly what the 391 action point list was and where it was going.

Your afternoon tea offering is a key driver of business now, how did you go about devising the plan for this?
“Afternoon tea should be a major driver for the hotel – we have an acre of garden and can seat 120 at one time, so we created different afternoon tea experiences as opposed to just the one. We will have an offering – due to launch on March 12th – from 1.30pm until 6pm which slightly changes throughout the day. It was about saying, ok if afternoon tea is a key commercial driver for us, as well as an experience in the garden, how are we going to deliver this?”

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What other changes have you made to the hotel’s F&B offering?
“We wanted to reposition the restaurant, especially since the lunch business isn’t really there anymore; I find it’s very hit and miss unless you’re in a corporate environment. So what I decided was I wanted breakfast to be more important, so extended the hours and wanted to have more coming from the kitchen. Instead of having two chefs on at breakfast, we now have five, have taken lunch out and run breakfast later and start afternoon tea earlier.

“This also means we can bring our dinner offering earlier as well, to 6.30pm, to give guests an early bird dinner, then a later a la carte and six-course and eight-course tasting menu.

“It also enabled me to think, and gave us a dinner concept that I could deformalise into a chefs and waiters serving combination. So it didn’t matter who was serving the food – we are three rosettes and we’ll be pushing for four next year – but the chef might bring the food to the table, and customers love talking to the chef. Plus when you’ve prepared the food, you’re that much better at talking about it.

“We also created a Champagne bar, meaning we could put in an all-day dining menu here, which is based on a grazing style concept. It’s eclectic, offering a selection of shared dishes or individual plates and means we can increase the seating capacity in that area.”

Where did your ideas come from? Do you look at the trends from the marketplace or play to the hotel’s strengths?
“I think you’ve always got to know what your strengths are. In terms of afternoon tea, we wanted to brand it of its own right, so promotion-wise I can go out into the marketplace and tell people about it, saying, you might not be staying with us but you can certainly have afternoon tea with us.

“The garden for us has created more of a social hub too, for residents and for the locals of Bath. People say to friends, meet me at The Montagu Bar – it’s still a deformalised environment but sophisticated none the less. There are plenty of pubs and casual bars around here, but sometimes people want something a little more intimate and there really isn’t anywhere in Bath to do that right now.”

What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
“The main challenge I face, as an hotelier and a businessman, is that you simply cannot be all things to all people. What you have to do is be great for your audience; hence with the afternoon tea I was keen to create a bit of interest in it, as opposed to having one afternoon tea which everybody does. I want to make it more of a talking point. It’s all about looking at it strategically and me being new, perhaps it meant that I saw it a bit more clearly and with a fresh perspective.

“You take that same strategy into the bedroom stock, the public spaces and the dining areas. For example, in order to make The Montagu Bar a social hub we created a separate entrance, through a door that had always been there, which will enable the Bath residents to simply swipe a card and come in, so they don’t have to come through the main entrance.

“It was important to look at things strategically, but also considering what the market most desires, and what do we desire from a commercial point of view? There is no point putting money into something that might please the customer but doesn’t give us any return.”

So once you’ve met your June target, what comes next?
“Firstly we will assess all the points and ask if we have met our aims, reviewing our strategies properly and asking how effective they are. This will give us the opportunity to adjust, but also the strength to determine 2016 and how we might look at that. We want to double our profit this year and we are absolutely on target to achieve this.

“Our goal is to say that every guest who stays with us, will have a spa treatment, will have dinner and will have afternoon tea. We make a point to know what time our guests are arriving, what car they are driving, what their children’s names are, because the more you know about your guests before they arrive, the more you can anticipate their needs.”

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