David Taylor has been at the forefront of a succession of the most innovative hotel openings in recent times. The Hotelier of the Year 2018 tells Janet Harmer how he has carved a niche for himself in realising the vision of some of the most creative operators in the business
David Taylor’s drive and ambition to succeed was evident from the outset. At just 15 years of age he walked into the Hyatt Regency Birmingham and told the duty manager that he was looking for work experience.
“Normally you have to be 16 for work experience, and so it was probably good fate that I spoke to Sophia Chan (now regional vice president human resources, Asia Pacific, Hyatt). With her blessing, I was gifted to the team of bell boys,” explains Taylor. “The head concierge regarded me as something of a project.”
The year was 1992 and Taylor, now 42, loved being immersed in hotel operations. Nothing was going to sway him from pursuing his ambition. Hence, with a successful batch of A Levels under his belt, he eschewed a provisional place at Oxford Polytechnic and turned the weekend work experience into a full-time trainee position at the Hyatt Regency.
Later, having moved from Hyatt, via spells at Jarvis Hotels and Forte, Taylor discovered his real niche at the opening of an exciting new hotel offer for London, the Great Eastern [now the Andaz London Liverpool Street], which proved to be the springboard into a succession of roles with some of the most creative hotel launches of recent times – the Hoxton, the Edition and an entire new brand in Principal.
His involvement in shaking up the traditional hotel offer with something more innovative across a succession of properties, combined with a solid focus on people engagement and development, is what led to Taylor being revealed as the 2018 Hotelier of the Year earlier this week at Whatley Manor, near Malmesbury, Wiltshire, where the 2017 winner Sue Williams is general manager. The accolade took Taylor totally by surprise.
“I was utterly shocked,” he says. “Although I’m proud of what I do, I did not expect to receive this level of recognition from my peers, bearing in mind the former winners and the timing. I’m thrilled and delighted.”
Taylor’s reference to the timing of the award concerns his recent appointment as vice president operations at Principal Hotels within InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), following the £858m sale of the 13-strong Principal brand by US-based private investment firm Starwood Capital Group to French investor Covivio. The new owner appointed IHG to operate the hotels, resulting in Taylor finding himself as an employee of a global behemoth – something of a surprise for a hotelier whose recent career appears to be the antithesis of everything the corporate hospitality market has to offer.
But he doesn’t see it like that. “The Principal deal is a catapult for expansion in the luxury sector for IHG. I’m excited by that. IHG like what we have done with our people, our approach to food and drink, our design and our clever deployment of capex. We have made this group of hotels successful and it is critical for IHG that they remain successful – they want me to ensure that the next chapter is written correctly.”
It is a relief to hear that the Principal hotels will continue to be loved and nourished, despite being split between different IHG brands. Praise for Starwood’s work on transforming a group of tired, under-invested hotels and – under Taylor’s guidance – turning them into vibrant venues, relevant for today’s guests and to their cities, has been fulsome.
It is no surprise then to learn that there was widespread interest in the Principal brand – numerous other global entities were keen to snap up the collection of hotels – before the Covivio deal was secured.
Taylor’s experience prior to his appointment as chief operating officer of Principal in 2015 stood him in good stead for what lay ahead. Two spells at the Great Eastern – initially as business development manager and then later as director of sales and marketing – opened his eyes to what can happen when operators start to think outside the box. As well as working for Sir Terence Conran, the designer of the hotel, he was also introduced to Nicholas Rettie, the managing director of the hotel and one of two individuals Taylor highlights as having had the most significant impact upon his career.
“I used to describe Nicholas as ‘Mr Savoy in an Armani suit’, because Rettie carried the skills of a traditional hotelier but imparted them with great style. This was when I decided I wanted to be involved with things at the beginning – not because I regard myself as highly creative, but I see myself as someone who can work with people with a vision and help them deliver on that vision.”
The second most influential personality to inspire Taylor has been Sinclair Beecham, the founder with Julian Metcalfe of Pret A Manger, who went on the launch the Hoxton hotel. After leaving the Great Eastern, Taylor spent what he describes as “six amazing years” as general manager of the Hoxton. “While always being commercially minded, Sinclair was totally focused on enhancing the guest experience. I genuinely felt I was gifted with a very high-end business coach; I think it helped that he was a non-hotelier.”
Taylor points to numerous examples of initiatives dreamt up by Beecham that drove publicity and ultimately guests to the mid-market hotel, one which he refers to as a “Holiday Inn on steroids”. They included flash sales of rooms at £1; breakfast bags filled with yogurt, granola, freshly squeezed orange juice and a banana; one hour’s worth of free phone calls at a time before mobile phones had taken over; and a lobby shop selling items at retail prices in place of mini bars. The latter idea was the forerunner of the corner shops Taylor later introduced into Principal hotels.
During the process of Beecham selling the Hoxton in 2012, Taylor came into contact with hotel design guru Ian Schrager, who at the time was looking for a London property for his Public brand. Schrager was also working on creating the Edition lifestyle brand for Marriott International. Taylor was enticed by another hotel opening and took on a major challenge. The launch of the London Edition was regarded as critical to the success of the brand, following the failure of the first two properties in Hawaii and Istanbul.
“The general perception of Schrager is that he creates sexy spaces, but the service in his hotels is usually terrible. I looked at how we could use his vision to deliver a global concept, that included creating an exciting restaurant [Berners Tavern, in partnership with chef Jason Atherton], bars and a nightclub, with a service experience that could compete with hotels on Park Lane and in Mayfair.”
Central to the London Edition’s success – the hotel scooped the Hotel of the Year – Group award at the 2015 Cateys two years after opening – was the customer-centric approach Taylor had taken from the Hoxton combined with building a strong, loyal team. “If you can get the people piece knitted together very early on, then it is going to make it so much easier to create a successful business. In all my roles, my wingman has been my people person – at the Edition it was Jon Dawson [now director of human resources at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London] and at the Principal it’s Sean Wheeler as director of people development.”
With Taylor’s involvement in the expansion of Edition globally – he has an input in the creation of the Miami and New York hotels and there was talk of him taking on a role in the US – he had no intention of moving on. But then he received a call from Cody Bradshaw, head of international hotels at Starwood Capital Group.
“Cody caught my interest with the opportunity of building the Principal brand at a time when I was umm-ing and ahh-ing about moving abroad. When you consider how some other investors quickly flip assets, the proposal was quite unique. Starwood Capital wanted to do the job properly and spend money on making the hotels great. It wasn’t just a matter of rebadging some old hotels.”
Looking back now, Taylor is pleased that he didn’t head off to the States: “I feel like I have had 10 years of life learning in the past three to four years. We were blessed with some of the best buildings in the best locations as we set out to create a group of British hotels that were local at heart, with a deeply ingrained people culture led by Sean.”
Taylor knew that Starwood Capital would eventually sell, but the decision to do so perhaps came earlier than was previously expected. It was a relief when Covivio was revealed as the new owner.
“Covivio is going to be here long term, probably 20 to 25 years, which in the business of big hotel real estate is very rare. My concern was that the hotels would go to a group of people who were going to destroy what we had created by stripping out all costs and then selling them in five years’ time. I feel comfortable that I can look the team in the eye and say that is not going to happen. Genuinely, if I wasn’t comfortable with the new ownership group, I wouldn’t be sitting here today, as from a moral standpoint, I can only represent something I believe in.
“The day-to-day running of the hotels now is not that different to what it was before. For the staff, working for a global hotel company opens up all sorts of opportunities. If someone wants to go and work in Germany, for instance, we would be able to offer them the opportunity to do so with the opening of the new Kimpton in Frankfurt.”
Taylor’s current role is focused on overseeing the integration of the Principal hotels into existing IHG brands, with a focus on ensuring their continued success. One by one, each hotel has to be plugged into the IHG system, whether it be for IT, finance, HR, sales and marketing and check-in systems.
The first hotel to be rebranded was the 334-bedroom London flagship of the Principal brand, which last month relaunched as the Kimpton Fitzroy London, marking the entry into the UK of IHG’s luxury, lifestyle Kimpton brand. The Fitzroy name reflects a link to Charles Fitzroy Doll, the architect of the hotel that originally opened in Russell Square in 1898.
The transformation has been largely seamless, with a swift change in collateral and artwork. “The service DNA between Principal and Kimpton is so similar that, apart from some Kimpton guest experiences being rolled out, little has changed in the service delivery,” explains Taylor.
The other Principal hotels that are also set to be rebranded as Kimpton properties are in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh (March 2019), Blythswood Square, Glasgow (April 2019) and Manchester (September 2019). Currently under development, the former Grand hotel in Birmingham will join Kimpton in 2020.
Meanwhile, St David’s in Cardiff has just become one of the first two hotels in the world (alongside a property on Australia’s Gold Coast) to take on the moniker of IHG’s newest brand, Voco, an upscale proposition aimed at the leisure market. Oxford Thames (January 2019), Oxford Spires (April 2019) and the Grand Central Glasgow (September 2019) will also join Voco.
The Principal Edinburgh George Street will see the return of the InterContinental luxury brand in June following an investment of around £5m; the hotel previously operated as an InterContinental property until its sale by IHG in 2005.
In Leeds, the Principal Met will be repositioned as an Indigo hotel in 2020. A decision is yet to be made about the Principal York and the development project in Liverpool, while Wotton House, near Dorking, is likely to remain unbranded.
Taylor says that while the team at Principal were initially sad that the brand would not continue in its current form, he hints that it will live on in some guise as IHG has acquired the intellectual property rights of the name. Given that IHG does not have a soft brand to represent hotels that wish to remain independent, along the lines of Marriott’s Autograph Collection and AccorHotels’ MGallery, it could be that is where the name will be employed in future.
Despite Taylor being tied up with the logistics of the rebranding process, he ensures that he retains a clear connection with the Principal team, from which he has a clear connection to guests. He explains: “I need a high interaction with people and I never want to lose that.”
When it comes to managing staff, Taylor has an open-door policy, welcoming opinions from everyone and encouraging them to participate in the decision-making process. “I take time to talk to the team about their career and prospects. Brexit worries me to death, and that is why it is so important we look after our people.”
Regarding his own career progression, Taylor, who is married to Vicki and has a six-year-old daughter, Isabella, said that being awarded the Hotelier of the Year title has made him stop and think about what he will be doing in five years’ time, but he has yet to come up with an answer.
He says he has plenty to occupy him in his current job, and would be hesitant about accepting a role that would take him away from working closely with a team or from the guest. “Towards my retirement I can see myself back in a single hotel in an operational role – that will always be my fall-back position.”
David Taylor: career to date
July 2018- present Vice president operations, Principal Hotels, InterContinental Hotels
2015-2018 Chief operating officer, Principal Hotels
2012-2015 General manager, the London Edition, London
2006-2012 General manager, the Hoxton, London
2004-2006 Director of sales and marketing, Great Eastern, London
2003-2005 Director of sales and marketing, Jumeriah Carlton Tower, London
2001-2003 Director of sales, Sofitel St James, London
1999-2001 Business development manager, Great Eastern, London
1997-1999 Corporate sales manager, Forte Hotels
1996-1997 Agency sales specialist, Jarvis Hotels
1995-1996 Trainee, Hyatt Regency Birmingham
What the sponsor says
“We are extremely proud to sponsor the Hotelier of the Year award, as it highlights the excellent work taking place in today’s hospitality industry.
“Being successful at this level takes a huge amount of hard work, 24-hour commitment and a total dedication to exceeding excellence. These are standards and ethics that we share at Casna, and that’s one of the reasons why we are so delighted to see our colleagues in the industry reap the rewards of their hard work, and take their place as a real inspiration to others.
“The Hotelier of the Year award is an accolade of the highest honour, and David is a very worthy winner.”
Nick Appel, managing director, Casna Group
What the Hotelier of the Year judges say
“The timing of David Taylor winning Hotelier of the Year 2018 could not be better. He is a strong, inspirational and innovative leader who engages and motivates his team to achieve the goals and objectives of the companies for whom he has worked. He has an impressive track record of success and, in my view, his style of leadership will be necessary post-Brexit if hoteliers want to achieve future success.”
Harry Murray, chairman, Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa, Colerne, Wiltshire, and 1986 Hotelier of the Year
“These are difficult times for our industry with Brexit looming. Strong, forward-thinking hoteliers are much needed and David is just this. He is an exciting operator and a very worthy winner.”
Gordon Campbell Gray, founder and chairman, CampbellGray Hotels, and 2002 Hotelier of the Year
“David has been at the vanguard of the new face of this industry for a number of years and he is the type of inspiring leader hospitality needs in these challenging times.”
Robin Hutson, chairman and chief executive, Lime Wood Group & Home Grown Hotels, and 2003 Hotelier of the Year
“David is one of the dynamic hoteliers of the moment, with a track record of innovative and award-winning openings and, more recently, bringing fresh energy and vision to weary hotel stock in provincial cities and the capital. He is also one of the most respected hoteliers of our time and his holistic approach to creating new brands and building great teams is a formula that has earned him a very loyal following.”
Andrew Stembridge, executive director, Iconic Luxury Hotels, and 2010 Hotelier of the Year
“David shines as an all-round exemplar of his trade and is a hugely worthy recipient of award. As busy a work schedule as we know him to have, his demeanour is constantly one of the consummate professional who manages to make time to be ever-present on the circuit, always making a very worthwhile contribution to the industry. Over and above that he is a gracious gentleman, a diplomat and has the essential good humour which endears him to all.”
Sue Williams, general manager, Whatley Manor, Malmesbury, Wiltshire, and 2017 Hotelier of the Year
“David Taylor has always stood out from the crowd. When I first met him, then general manager of the Hoxton, I could tell that he had that innate but rare understanding of what it takes to create and run a successful hotel, whether it be an independent or a chain of city landmarks. He’s personable, he’s bright, he’s visionary, he’s a great communicator, he cares about pleasing guests and getting it right and he is a great team player. A terrific role model for future hoteliers.”
Fiona Duncan, hotel critic, The Telegraph
“David Taylor has had an outstanding career to date and has led many great, diverse and innovative hotels, utilising his amazing skill set. He is a wonderful ambassador for the hospitality industry, creating cultures and longevity within the businesses he leads. A truly gifted, passionate hotelier with a great eye for detail who is fully deserving of this most prestigious of awards.”
Giovanna Grossi, hotel consultant