The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Robert Cook

28 May 2012 by
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Robert Cook

Just four months after being appointed chief executive of mid-market hotel group De Vere Village, Robert Cook is making his mark with a relaunch of the brand. He tells Janet Harmer why there is so much to shout about the mid-market group

What encouraged you to take over the helm at De Vere Village in January, after eight years as chief executive of Malmaison and Hotel du Vin? Eight years is a long time in one job and I was ready for a new challenge. Once I announced I was leaving Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, I was inundated with offers, including several for jobs which would have involved a lot of overseas travel but, with a young son, I wasn't very keen on taking on such a position.

Andrew Coppell (chairman of the De Vere Group) called me in for a chat and I was immediately interested as I have huge respect for Andrew and was keen to work for him. I liked the idea that the Village brand was one that could be put up in lights and that there was an aggressive growth strategy over the next three to five years. Village had been run exceptionally well by Gary Davis (now in Cook's old role at Malmaison and Hotel du Vin), but I knew I could approach the role from a different point of view.

What are you most proud of regarding your time at Malmaison and Hotel du Vin? There was a lot of cynicism when MWB took over Hotel du Vin, with suggestions that the brand would lose its identity, but we successfully ran it alongside Malmaison, with each retaining its own distinctiveness. But, what I'm most proud of is the number of great people we grew, and opportunities we provided for them, through the cross-fertilisation of the brands - assisted of course by Sean Wheeler and then Mike Williams as group director of people development.

What do you see as your biggest challenge at De Vere Village? It is a relatively unknown brand which has always sat under the umbrella of the De Vere Group, and it is my job to get its name out there. It has its roots in the North-west and is well developed across the North of England and the Midlands, but has yet to make an in-road into Scotland or the South-west.

Many people regard it as a budget brand with a swimming pool attached, but it is much more than that. It is a mid-market brand encompassing everything under one roof - great bedrooms, good food and beverage, hugely complex health, fitness and spa facility, as well as large function spaces.

You mention an aggressive growth strategy. How many new Village hotels are being planned? We hope to open 15 to 18 new-build hotels within three to five years. Four are confirmed for Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Ports-mouth, which are all expected to be open by the end of 2013. Then we are looking at other sites around the M25, such as Bracknell and Crawley, as well as university cities including Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, Bristol, Durham and York.

Traditionally, the hotels have been outside the city walls, close to motorway exits and within prominent business parks. We're still looking at these sites, but we also want to jump over the city walls and move closer to - but not in - city centres. This way we will introduce Village to a wider audience.

What are the criteria for a new-build Village hotel? We currently have a mix of some older properties, alongside the five newest hotels which are situated within the iconic black Village box. Each new one will replicate the black box with 122 bedrooms, one key food and beverage space and 20,000sq ft of leisure. We need a site of around 3.2 acres for every new development, which is quite considerable for the size of hotel, but we need that amount of space for the extensive car parking required for the leisure facilities.

How will the expansion be financed? It will cost around £19m to develop each hotel and the cost of the initial four is expected to be met by the sale of four hotels within the De Vere Group (140-bedroom Royal Bath in Bournemouth, 192-bedroom De Vere Daresbury Park, Warrington, the 173-bedroom Grand Harbour, Southampton, and the 119-bedroom University Arms, Cambridge). We have also got a very supportive bank in Lloyds, which is keen to see us grow. The company currently owns all the Village hotels, but we expect growth to be through a mix of owned and leasehold properties.

How are you putting your own stamp on Village? First and foremost we will be announcing a new brand name, along with a new strapline, next week on 31 May. Within that brand, we will have several sub-brands, which we have already started to introduce: Victory Pub & Kitchen, Velocity Health & Fitness, Viva Urban Spa and Upper Deck Village bedrooms.

How are you developing the food and beverage? Currently the hotels have two kitchens serving the Victory Pub & Kitchen on one side of the property and the restaurant on the other, which is either the Verve Bar & Grill or Buca di Beppo, the American-Italian concept which we run under licence from American-based restaurant entrepreneur Robert Earl. However, all the new hotels will have just one kitchen serving the newly named Victory Ale & Chop House in which the pub will move through into a restaurant. One kitchen will allow the F&B to function more efficiently.

Group executive chef Keith Shearer, who came with me from Malmaison and Hotel de Vin, has created a menu which is celebrating the best of British classic pub dishes, such as proper pork scratchings, Scotch egg with curried mayonnaise, and mince tatties. The pub element will have a British sports bar feel with football on the television, open fires, a fun atmosphere and great local beers. We've got rid of all pre-prepared food; everything will be freshly cooked.

Each Village also has a Starbucks coffee shop, which works very well alongside the leisure facilities and as a hub for people coming in and out of the hotels.

Health and fitness at Village is a unique offering for a UK hotel group. What do you provide? Village Health and Fitness is being rebranded as Velocity Health & Fitness and will continue to be a key part of the development of all new Village hotels. Our leisure facilities are second-to-none - when compared with what other hotels offer, we are actually competing with the likes of David Lloyd and Virgin clubs.

There are an average of 4,000 members for each fitness club, which drives business all day to the hotel. The extensive facilities include 25m pools, 90 running stations in each gym and aerobic studios with a comprehensive programme of classes.

What are your plans for the spas? We will be converting six of the 16 Healthworks Spas we have into the new-look Viva Urban Spas this year, with the rest being rebranded next year. We are entering into a partnership with Espa, who will become our sole supplier of products and provide training and development for the staff, but we will maintain the management of the spas.

It is our intention to build up the spa break business - which will help drive room rate - by creating more dishes that appeal to spa users in the restaurants and bedrooms which have a feminine and soothing touch through the use of lighter colours. We are currently trialling 10 rooms at the Chester St Davids hotel for spa breaks, which will include a spa bag with slippers, robes and gifts from Espa.

How do you hope to drive up the room rate? It is important that we make the bedrooms work harder in driving up the average room rate, which is currently around £60. As a result, last month we started trialling the UpperDeck offer in 20 bedrooms across three hotels in Chester St David, Solihull and Swansea.

For a supplement of £20, guests in the UpperDeck rooms will get a SweetDreams bed from Sealy with luxury mattress topper and Egyptian cotton linens, full Sky entertainment package including Sky Movies, Bose sound docks, Arran Aromatics toiletries, and an in-room Starbucks hospitality tray. We aim to roll out 20 UpperDeck rooms in 14 hotels by September, with more opening in the rest of the properties during the following six months. Eventually, we will have around 1,000 UpperDeck rooms across the existing portfolio.

Closely supervised revenue management - through our own website and third-party channels - is fundamental to growing the room rate and is going to be the key driver for all business in the coming years. There is a real science to revenue management and I believe the revenue manager is going to become a bigger and bigger personality in hotels in the future as the driver of profitability in what is a volatile market.

the village story
Robert Cook says that Village is a great name for the brand as it is unique in encompassing all elements of village life. "At the centre is a large buzzing lobby, from which you can peel off into different outlets - the pub, restaurant, Starbucks coffee shop, the leisure and spa facilities, and meeting rooms," he explains.

The Village group has had a strong focus on leisure, ever since the original one - still open today - was developed when bedrooms were added by the then owners, brewing company Greenall's, alongside a squash club in Hyde, near Manchester, in 1978.

Today, the 25-strong group, enjoys an annual turnover of £170m, with revenue split £70m-£60m-£40m between food and beverage, bedrooms and leisure. Over 50% of income is generated from within a four-mile radius of each hotel.

robert cook
One of the UK's most high-profile hoteliers, Robert Cook has the business running through his DNA, having grown up in the Swallow Palace hotel in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire.

After graduating from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, he spent his formative years in the industry with InterContinental Hotels and as food and beverage manager of the Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh, upon its launch in 1991.

Cook began his first stint with Malmaison in 1997 and then, after the company was sold, went on to work with the group's founder, Ken McCulloch, as managing director of Columbus and Dakota Hotel Group in Monte Carlo.

In 2004, he returned to Malmaison, now owned by MWB, as chef executive. Soon after, Hotel du Vin was acquired by MWB and added to Cook's responsibilities.

In 2006, Cook was awarded the Catey for Manager of the Year and in the same year Malmaison was named AA Hotel Group of the Year. In 2008, Hotel du Vin won the AA Small Hotel Group of the Year.

Cook is the president of Hospitality, Finance, Revenue and IT Professionals (HOSPA).

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