THE BIG INTERVIEW: Opening the new Nobu


Opening a new hotel is a challenge, let alone when the country is in the middle of a pandemic. Here, Grant Campbell, general manager at Nobu Hotel London Portman Square explains how the business is worked towards its December launch, managing staffing levels in the current climate and navigating lower expected occupancy levels.

Nobu Hotel London Portman Square was originally scheduled to open its doors in July. While the coronavirus pandemic may have derailed these plans, it hasn’t thrown off course the passion, confidence and determination of the property’s general manager Grant Campbell and his team.

Grant was appointed to head up the new 249-bedroom hotel, situated on a corner of Marylebone’s Portman Square, in February, as pre-opening GM Matthew Beard moved to the role of managing director at sister property, The Strand Palace.

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Now open, Nobu Hotel London Portman Square became the second in the Nobu portfolio in the capital, joining Nobu Hotel Shoreditch which launched in 2017.

The hotel is owned and developed by L+R Hotels, owner of Cliveden, Chewton Glen and 11 Cadogan Gardens, among others and is third collaboration between L+R Hotels and Nobu Hospitality, the brand founded by Nobu Matsuhisa, Robert De Niro and Meir Teper.

The hotel is also home to London’s flagship Nobu restaurant which is to relocate from its Berkeley Street home once the hotel opens, after 15 years, and according to Grant is already picking up bookings from loyal guests.

We caught up with Grant ahead of the opening to discover his expectations on launching a hotel in one of the most challenging years in the hospitality industry’s history.

What has been the main impact of the pandemic on the opening of the hotel? 

The main impact has been to delay the build and the opening itself. The 250 contractors on site in February was reduced to just 70 from April to July. Luckily, we were able to continue construction throughout lockdown by putting in place new Covid-secure processes and making sure everyone adhered to social distancing guidelines. Secondly, the challenge of forecasting business volumes, guest intent and expectations have not been as predictable as in previous years. This is overlayed by changes in government guidance often at short notice, which have not always been straightforward to implement. Although our timeline has shifted, I am very proud to have a team who are working really hard to get us open as soon as possible. 

How have you managed the staffing process ahead of opening? Were you able to use furlough? 

Initially we made use of the furlough scheme and worked as a reduced team from April through to the beginning of June, but thankfully by June we were able to bring back all of the senior team. We have slowly been reintegrating the team as we have closed in on opening. 

Our recruitment for new roles continued throughout lockdown as we want to be as prepared as possible. Eventually we are expecting the hotel’s full complement of staff to be around 400 which is really positive news, given the challenges the hospitality industry is facing right now. However, when the hotel opens in December, the total team number will be at about half that level. 

The recruitment of our available roles was and continues to be quite an overwhelming experience in that we have had significant number of applications from all levels. It has been a challenging recruitment period with and the People team have been exceptional managing this with empathy and professionalism during this time. 

What are your expectations for business when you open?

We know the current landscape is a difficult one to open a hotel into, but we are really keen to open as soon as we can. We made the decision to open the hotel in December as long-term commercial view for the benefit of the business, rather than waiting until Central London’s footfall levels increase. It is also part of our long-term strategy to develop relationships and be visible in the market. Even though corporate travellers are not travelling at the moment, it is important to be on their radar. 

We are expecting the opening to be phased and for it to take a while for occupancy levels to reach pre-Covid targets as we expect that the luxury hotel market in London will not see strong improvements until 2022. 

On a positive note, we have already seen a huge demand from loyal Nobu customers who are excited to make a booking for the restaurant. Having this brand loyalty at launch is very encouraging. 

What are your main concerns around reopening?

With the lack of corporate business and fewer international travellers right now, understandably it will take a while for occupancy levels to reach pre-Covid targets expectations. Our goal is to open sooner and be present in the market, meaning we will be in a better position for when the industry, and footfall, does bounce back.   

How will you look to encourage people to visit the hotel and the capital?

For the initial months, we are going to focus on targeting the domestic leisure and business market, encouraging visitors who may have been planning holidays abroad, to visit Nobu Hotel London Portman Square instead. We are located in Marylebone, one of London’s most picturesque and iconic neighbourhoods which is also right in the centre of London. The neighbourhood is full of wonderful independent businesses, offers some great attractions such as The Wallace Collection and Wigmore Hall and is just a stone’s throw away from some of the best shopping the most amazing park spaces in the city.

As one of the first major luxury hotel openings in London since the pandemic, we are hoping this news will generate buzz and excitement to visit London, especially as we will be opening in the lead up to Christmas and New Year, when London is a desirable destination.  

What’s your future plans for the hotel and what will be its main USP?

For so many reasons, this hotel opening will be a unique and special one which we have big plans for in the coming months. It will be a phased opening which gives people something to look forward to. We will be unveiling our most exclusive suite, The Nobu Penthouse, just after launch and then our wellness and fitness offering early next year which we are quite excited about. Later we will launch our beautifully designed 600-person ballroom, which we see as being one of London’s best events spaces once the events sector opens back up again.

How are you preparing to launch the hotel in the new ‘Covid secure’ trading environment?

We actually took a quite early decision of removing as many touch points in the guest rooms as possible – guest directories, room service menus etc – and have been developing an App that will be launched with our opening. The App will alleviate a lot of these touch points, and also enhance the customer experience, with some wonderful functionality planned; such as a fully integrated chat function, keyless room entry and remote check-in.

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Zoe Monk

The author Zoe Monk

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