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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Monkey Island Estate, the king of the swingers

MIE Aerial view 03

New luxury hotel Monkey Island Estate is set amongst good company in the village of Bray, which boasts a total of seven Michelin stars in just over 6,000 acres of land. So how will this new addition make its mark? Powered by YTL Hotels, the hotel’s general manager Lee Kelly is confident that the property has fine-tuned its offering to appeal to both locals and visitors attracted to the area’s reputation. We find out how business is faring for Monkey Island Estate four months after launch.

Despite opening almost a year later than planned, the hype surrounding the launch of Monkey Island Estate continued its momentum, culminating in one of the biggest fanfares of 2019 when the luxury hotel was finally fully unveiled in April.

The property situated on the slither of island in Bray had been undergoing a mammoth renovation since being acquired by YTL Hotels in 2015, with millions ploughed into creating a masterpiece that did its extensive 800-year history justice. And understandably, transforming a neglected Grade-I listed building took some time.

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The hotel was originally the vision of Yeoh Tiong Lay, the founder of YTL Corporation, the parent company of YTL Hotels, who instantly saw the potential in the building during a visit to the UK in 2015. Sadly he passed away before seeing the project through to fruition, and a statue has been installed in his memory.

The name Monkey Island Estate has been derived from its history, dating back to the 13th century when it started life as a prime spot for carp and trout farming by a small band of monks, gaining the name Monks Eyot, the old English term for Monk’s Island.

Over the centuries, it was sold, bought over and inherited by many a nobleman and aristocrat and during the ownership of the 3rd Duke of Marlborough in the 18th century, monkeys were painted inside the pavilion, cementing its Monkey Island title.

With talking points aplenty, now the new-look Monkey Island Estate boasts 30 stylish bedrooms, an F&B operation headed up by Welsh chef Will Hemming, and a ‘floating spa’ that offers treatments from its own bespoke barge in the Thames.

With any delay, you have to make the most of it”

New York-based Champalimaud was tasked with styling the interiors of the hotel’s rooms and suites, adding the project to its portfolio alongside previous work carried out at other YTL Hotels including Gainsborough Bath Spa and The Academy in London.

So after a long wait, Monkey Island Estate is finally open for business. General manager Lee Kelly joined the hotel at the end of 2017, stepping up to his first role as head honcho prior to the launch.

“With any delay you have to make the most of it,” explains Kelly. “It enabled us more time to fine tune things, review things, make sure our cocktail programme was what we wanted, and our food menu was right. We were also able to do more training with the team and a lot of staff were sent to some of our sister hotels – The Academy, The Gainsborough – to not only assist but continue with their development prior to opening.”

A year is a long time to keep up momentum surrounding the launch of a new product to market. Engaging the locals and keeping them up to date with development is important to ensure they are still there when the doors open. Kelly says he introduced the hotel ‘several times’ at Town Hall meetings and notes went sent through the doors of local Bray residents encouraging them to come and visit.

During the delays Kelly explains that the hard hat tours ‘didn’t stop’ and a scheduled trip to Kuala Lumpa saw the team introduce the property to the media in Asia to whet their appetite in a country with strong recognition of the YTL brand.

The F&B side of the business opened first, with the modern, British brasserie hosting a soft launch for residents prior to the unveiling to the general public.

On March 22, Monkey Island hosted its first event, with bedrooms opening on April 11 at full capacity. Job done.

“The phones are definitely ringing and people are aware that we are here,” says Kelly. “We’ve had a few corporate events, with several weddings already confirmed for August, September and October and that market will obviously grow.”

Kelly also stresses that the Island, only accessible via a footbridge over the water, is ‘very much open’ to non-hotel residents and the Bray community, with a series of events on the agenda to drive business from the local area.

“We are starting to look at our activity programme, with yoga classes, cooking classes and utilising our Dragonfly boat to charter private Champagne trips and dinner on the River.”

Area

Bray is already on the map in so many different countries for its fine dining; the village is home to a total of seven Michelin stars, and two of five three Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK, as well as a host of other reputable eateries. Heston’s got three places there; The Fat Duck, The Crown and The Hind’s Head, while The Waterside Inn run by Michel Roux’s son Alain and Diego Masciago is renowned around the world.

Berkshire as a county is home to the likes of five-star properties Coworth Park and Cliveden House, so Monkey Island is in good company.

So is Kelly even attempting to go to battle with this exceptional competitive set?

“We wanted something that didn’t compete but complemented the village,” he says, “that’s why we were very strategic and put a lot of thought into our F&B offering and what we wanted.

“It’s amazing to be part of this village.”

The restaurant at Monkey Island is described as ‘sophisticated yet casual’, and champions the British brasserie. Chef Will Hemming was appointed in 2018 to pioneer the new offering.

The Welsh chef has worked in a number of high-profile kitchens, such the Celtic Manor Resort in Wales where his career began, the Ritz-Carlton in Berlin and Sky Garden with Rhubarb in London, as executive sous chef. Most recently, he was head chef of the Simpson’s in the Strand.

The association the village has with such prestigious eateries helps to bring in visitors from around the world, and so target markets will be aplenty for Monkey Island. The hotel benefits from strong links to Asia through the heritage of the YTL brand and already strong interest has been generated there.

Well-placed PR offices help to drive business from most other major cities, such as Gemany, Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and London.

Spa

The ‘floating spa’ is a show piece, but also has the innovation and luxury credentials to back it up. While the site was always going to have a spa, the original idea was to create something on the island, but restrictions regarding the land and the historic nature of the building meant plans had to go back to the drawing board.

YTL Hotel’s spa consultant Melissa Mettler was in charge of creating the spa facility and saw her dream of a spa on a boat come to fruition.

“The original idea was to convert a Dutch canal,” explains Kelly, “but it actually became more viable and more interesting to actually build a boat from scratch – she said she’d never learnt so much!”

Kelly says that the storytelling behind the spa and the guest journey was ‘so important’. The new spa consists of three treatment rooms, a bright wheelhouse reception and Elixir Bar, moored on the banks of the island.

The hotel was the exclusive launch partner of Mose of the Isle and also uses ISun product house for other treatments.

Alongside new and innovative treatments focused on wellness, the Experimental Teahouse grows medicinal plants and herbs that are used at the on-board Elixir Bar, based on the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries’ barge that traded along the Thames in the 1700s.

Each spa guest receives a tin of herbal pastilles following their chosen treatment, while the spa’s signature massage takes place on a water bed.

Lee Kelly

Former F&B director at The Savoy, Kelly has gained the majority of his experience on the food and beverage side of hotels, having spent 12 years working for Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts after kickstarting his career working for Anton Mosimann’s Party Service.

But now he is whole-heartedly embracing his new position and retraining his approach to the wider business.

“It’s been a great challenge and I’ve absolutely loved it,” he says. “As with anything, it’s a learning curve, but I love the fact that this island will have a strong F&B influence and I’ve been able to put an operation together from the very start; it’s been so interesting.

“Our owner is fantastic and allows me to make my own decisions.”

“I think sometimes there is a misconception that a boutique hotel is easier to do because of the size, but there is so much to put together and when you’re doing it to that fine level. From risk assessment to financial planning, it’s the same process whether you have 30 bedrooms or 300 bedrooms,” he adds.

“Whilst I’ve done renovation projects before, this is on a scale of going from zero to 60 and making sure that everything works during that process when transitioning from a construction project to a operating hotel and all that comes with it.”

Business split

With just 30 bedrooms and three cottages in the village, Kelly expects business to be fairly balanced when trading stabilises following the launch. Half of the revenue will come from the restaurant, with a strong emphasis of pushing the local and non-hotel resident business, while the other half will come from the bedrooms, which will also help to drive F&B.

“I think F&B will be a massive component and I think the rooms will drive F&B, whether it be for groups or leisure guests but again the brasserie has to also be in the community, so it’s important the local area knows this is accessible for afternoon tea / lunch, cocktail programmes,” Kelly adds.

Future plans

Now Monkey Island has been open for almost four months, it’s about fine-tuning the offering and ensuring the foundations are set to build on business.

Kelly isn’t ruling out further developments however, and says as a company they will ‘assess when things come to mind’.  

“We are now focusing on business developments,” says Kelly. “We are adding to our three Shepherd’s huts in the grounds, opening them up for BBQs, drinks and private dinners.

“Our first bank holiday was pretty busy so it will be about keeping an eye on controlling reservations during the peak seasons; we are only accessible by the one bridge which can be quite handy!”

The kitchen garden was due to be phased in to the plans but because of the delays, was developed earlier than anticipated. The garden grows herbs and pickling vegetables – “we don’t want to say we are growing veg for the whole kitchen, as we’d need to cover the whole estate to go that!” says Kelly – while the land is also home to four bee hives, a smokehouse and six chickens, all named after famous ladies on the estate.

“We also want to have a good bash at growing our own teas with the Experimental Tea House,” he adds. It seems now the long-awaited Monkey Island is open for business, the hotel is ready to stabilise and with the support of YTL Hotels it looks sure to be a success.

Tags : hotelsLee KellyMonkey Island Estate
Zoe Monk

The author Zoe Monk

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