When Myhotel in London's Bloomsbury opened in 1999, the feng shui craze was at its height. So it was hardly surprising that when it became known that owner Andy Thrasyvoulou had employed guru William Spear to apply the principles of feng shui to the hotel, the press were excited.
From Feng Shui for Modern Living to Brides magazine, the national media lauded the hotel's principles of rounded curves and natural light, soothing areas and relaxing aromas pumped into the 76-bedroom hotel.
But today, as Thrasyvoulou sits to discuss the £4.5m purchase of the former Pearl Assurance building in Glasgow and his plans to expand, there is little discussion of feng shui. Now, it is all about allowing guests to own their experience and looking for joint-venture partners to finance his expansion dream of 20 hotels in seven years.
So was the feng shui theme a disingenuous ploy to capture the momentum of a passing bandwagon? He smiles gracefully before replying. "We never intended the feng shui to be a headline," he says. "It was an extension of the architecture and the harmony of people in a space. Feng shui is part of the whole project, not the key element."
For something that wasn't intended to garner headlines, feng shui certainly got the hotel noticed. But surviving would be another story. Thrasyvoulou believes that customer service and his genuine desire for "guests to leave feeling they have had an experience they themselves owned" have contributed to 52% of guests returning and paying an average room rate of £140 in 1999-2000. He estimates that the average rate will reach £160 in 2000-01 and stabilise at £175 by 2002. Occupancy in 1999-2000 was 80% and is forecast to be 85.3% in 2000-01.
The idea of "owning an experience" is marketing-speak but Thrasyvoulou believes it fits with the hotel's 25- to 40-year-old professional customers. "Our target audience are self-navigators," he says. "They do not want to be told what to do or when. They want to be unique and involved. They do not like brands. This is ‘my', which to each individual means ‘yours'."
He denies that he is simply paying lip service to individual guest experiences and points to the elements which he believes make the hotel stand out. For example, guests provide personal details before arriving, including which CDs they'd like in their rooms, so check-in requires only a signature, which can be done in the room; there's one phone number for guest services ranging from laundry to theatre tickets; and there's a guests-only library, offering sanctuary from the world, although there are computers and Internet access for those who need them.
Myhotel attracts corporate business from the worlds of media, fashion and hi-tech with clients including MTV, Granada, Saatchi & Saatchi, Calvin Klein and Sony. Of the £4.2m turnover in 1999-2000, 47% came from the corporate market.
But Thrasyvoulou admits that he did not get it all right first time around. The hotel's restaurant, Mychi, was not a success. Last June, Yo! Sushi moved in, paying Myhotel a guaranteed rent and top-up if turnover exceeds a set level. Thrasyvoulou is good at finding silver linings, however, and has begun to explore the idea of partnering with other like-minded brands. "If a site has lots of ground-floor space, we could select a partner to take that as retail space," he says.
Thrasyvoulou is talking to Aveda, which already supplies the bedroom amenities, and to retailer Muji and restaurant chain Wagamama to see if they are interested.
Partners are key for the future development of the company as well. In Glasgow, Myhotel is in discussions with Dawn Construction to form a joint venture to finance the hotel. Each party will invest £1.5m, with bank debt financing the remainder of the cost, including the £5m of development costs for the 80-bedroom hotel.
Planning permission and consent from Historic Scotland on the Grade II-listed building have been granted and the builders will go on site in October. And while feng shui is no longer the hip fad, William Spear will be advising on the Glasgow build, which, like Myhotel Bloomsbury, is being designed by Conran & Partners.
To provide a financial realisation for Myhotel's partner, Thrasyvoulou says the plan is to do a sale and lease-back or buy them out after three years of operations.
Development of more hotels will also need partners, and Thrasyvoulou is drumming up investors for his expansion plans. Assuming that he launches five hotels in a joint-venture partnership by 2005, Thrasyvoulou projects turnover of £23m, not including Myhotel Bloomsbury. A partner would need to invest £6.8m over the next three years in a 50:50 partnership, he says.
The idea is to open a new hotel every six months, and his third is already on the cards. Thrasyvoulou has exchanged contracts on a site in London's up-and-coming Paddington area. In addition, there's an offer in on a site in Brighton and three possibilities in Bristol. He is particularly interested in the development of London's Battersea Power Station site, which has provision for at least two hotels within the planning permission. And then there's Europe - Athens, Berlin and Paris are the dream for five years' time.
Thrasyvoulou is trying to create a brand around "My" while remaining adamant that it is not a complete copy approach. "Myhotel is not about a cookie-cutter," he says, "it is about being in tune with our audience and the location we are in. We talk to our customers and tap into what they want and where they want to be. We will keep the brand recognition through the values of the team. They have the ‘My' ideology."
To achieve this, the director of operations for Myhotel, Chris Oakes, will play a key role in getting the Glasgow operation running.
Thrasyvoulou believes he is on the verge of something big. He has ambitions for the "My" brand to extend beyond hotels, but first he must finance his next step. Presumably, he thinks Spear has put the right feng shui elements in his money corner.
Corporate offices, 38 Bedford Square, London
Tel: 020 7667 6005
Chief executive: Andy Thrasyvoulou
Opening date: January 2003
Planned UK expansion: Paddington, Brighton, Bristol, Manchester, Cambridge, Oxford, London (Kensington and Battersea)
Goal: 20 hotels in seven years
|Year end July||1999-2000||2000-01||2001-02|
|Average room rate (£)||140||159||175|
|Revenue (£m)||4.2\||\\* 5.1||6.3|