Guillaume Marly, the fourth individual to head the Set Group’s Hotel Café Royal since it relaunched in 2012, has made some bold changes in his bid to make the five-star property London’s finest ‘modern grand hotel’. Rosalind Mullen meets him
Guillaume Marly comes across as someone who could balance a Martini (shaken not stirred) in one hand, and put out a fire with the other. Certainly, this self-proclaimed straight-talking Frenchman has shown a cool hand since taking on the role of managing director at London’s five-AA-star Hotel Café Royal in November 2017. As for his mission: “I have a clear goal to make the hotel the best in London,” he says.
So far, so good. Last year, he generated a £4m improvement in revenue, while in terms of TripAdvisor scores in London, hotel spa Akasha has just taken the number one slot, up from seventh, and the hotel itself is now at 25th place, up from 56th in 2017. As Marly says: “No one in London has grown in reputation that much.”
It’s no mean feat. Owner-operator the Set Group relaunched the original Café Royal as a 160-bedroom hotel in 2012, but in the first five years it was dogged by knee-jerk responses to teething problems and a revolving door of top staff, with two general managers, Louis Sailer and Anthony Lee, leaving in quick succession. Thomas Kochs, who came in as managing director in 2015, handed the baton to Marly two years later, when he left for the Corinthia Hotel London.
Marly dismisses the fact his predecessors didn’t stay in the post for long. “It was down to circumstances. With openings, sometimes you feel you have achieved what you set out to do,” he says.
Arguably, the relaunch of the historic restaurant and meeting place in 2012 as a hotel was akin to turning a tanker around and was always going to take time to settle. The original Café Royal, which opened in Regent Street in 1865, was home to a boxing club and famed for public rooms such as the Grill Room, a favourite haunt of absinthe-quaffing bohemians such as Oscar Wilde, politicians such as Winston Churchill and more recently rock stars like Mick Jagger. The new hotel, which cost £200m, embraces not just the original Grade II-listed building, but the former county fire station on one side and a former bank on the other, and when the huge property reopened, the public wasn’t sure what it was offering.
“It was very confusing to the outside. Was it a club, a restaurant or a hotel?” says Marly.
Happily, the “size of the opportunity” was exactly what attracted Marly to the job when he was approached by Set, which also operates Conservatorium in Amsterdam and Lutetia in Paris. Not least, having spent 25 years working through London’s ritziest properties, his experience chimes with the group’s aim to create “modern grand hotels”. Most recently, he was described as the “well-connected general manager” at fashion-forward ME London, having previously overseen the launch of André Balazs’s A-list hangout Chiltern Firehouse. He has also held senior positions at the Ritz, the Connaught, Claridge’s, the Jumeirah Carlton Tower and the Dorchester.
What he has brought to the hotel is clarity and consolidation. “I define things in terms of objectives. I am the fourth [hotel manager], so the team I inherited lacked direction. I told them ‘stop, pause – we will make a plan’,” says Marly.
One area of confusion was the members’ club, so he closed it. But his most important decision was to change the flow of the hotel, which he saw wasn’t working. In particular, the balconied space that would have been perfect for a grand lobby was being used instead as the Ten Room restaurant – which had been tweaked a bit in 2014 in response to critics describing it as being “vacuous” and “like a morgue”.
“The lobby was the restaurant, so the hotel didn’t have a grand arrival. It didn’t make sense,” he says.
By last April, just five months into the job, he had replaced the Ten Room with a £5m palatial yet contemporary lobby, designed by Piero Lissoni. “Whatever your age or nationality, you feel comfortable in its design,” says Marly. “We marry modern and old very well.”
The restaurant was moved to the first floor and relaunched as grill and sushi concept Laurent, which has gained two AA rosettes under chef Laurent Tourondel. He also added the intimate Ziggy’s Bar in a nod to David Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust. However, the Grill Room, which hosts traditional afternoon tea, and Green Bar were left untouched.
Clearly on a roll, last November Marly invited former El Bulli chef Albert Adrià (brother of Ferran) to introduce his Cake & Bubbles idea into the former Papillon café. The menu is a twist on afternoon tea with inventive, sugar-lite desserts, such as Adrià’s famous cheesecake, paired with Champagne.
Last year, F&B contributed 29% to hotel turnover, underlining the fact Marly never does anything without purpose. “I ask, what is the difference we offer?” he says. “Cake & Bubbles is giving to London. It is meaningful as opposed to just another cake shop. Anything I do has to have these elements in place – how do they contribute and make the guest experience better and how do they bring financial returns?”
Above all, Marly values authenticity. For instance, Ziggy’s has integrity as “a real story” because David Bowie waved off his alter ego with a party in the Grill Room in 1973.
“Everything has to be relevant; it should never be easy and cheap. Legitimacy is needed to weather the times and be timeless,” he says.
One reason why Marly is so well-suited to running a five-star hotel is that he understands luxury first-hand. His father was a director at fashion houses Chanel and Givenchy, so he grew up in a sophisticated world. “I always liked luxury from a young age,” he says.
He insists all aspects of the hotel, from marketing to staff uniforms, must fulfil four qualities: modern, grand, sophisticated and elegant. “When you instil those words with the staff they understand those attributes and use them,” he says.
Describing the first stage as taking the hotel from a caterpillar to a butterfly, Marly is now looking forward to the “exciting” part of the job – to develop managers, to train staff to drive excellence and to hone the hotel’s reputation.
“A key aspect is reputation-building and to achieve that I am very detailed. I go into rooms and cupboards. I check bedrooms. I spend 25% of my time in the office, and the rest with staff,” he says. “You can’t turn it on and off. You have to be on it all the time.”
Marly knows his 400-strong team by name and leads by example. “The best way to get people to work willingly is to be visible and present. But I am also tough and firm because I have to make decisions,” he says.
To get results, he sets targets that resonate with every member of the team. “Sometimes CEOs give targets, such as ‘we need to achieve 15% profit’, but that won’t connect with a bartender, or waiter. They connect with Trip- Advisor results because they are tangible. All chambermaids, waiters, the people who do the work, will know the TripAdvisor score and [their desire to improve that] will eventually be reflected in your P&L,” he says.
“[Staff] see me welcoming people and making sure they are comfortable. We use people’s names, talk to them and smile, and that contributes to the average daily rate [ADR]and TripAdvisor. To me, that is key.”
He adds: “In fairness, I am a bit of a control freak – in a good way – but I encourage staff to come to me with ideas and we decide as a team. I have created teams that are accountable and contribute to the results, to a bigger picture.”
Marly’s direct management style is perhaps thanks to the fact he trained as an officer in the French army, which gave him experience of leadership early in life.
“I had to command men at 21 years old – men who had been to war and looked at me like ‘who the hell are you?’” he says.
“We went to survival camp and you go into your inner self to see how far you can go. It is the same in hotels. There is always an internal quest to improve standards. Your work is never done.”
Although he enjoyed the army, he had previously worked at Le Meurice in Paris and that appealed, too. “Running a five-star hotel is like running a regiment. My mind is well-suited to making things work. I am direct – though never rude. It makes life easier. I convey key targets and objectives – although plans can change.”
Occupancy at the hotel, where room rates start at £500, was 80% last year, but to get real growth Marly wants to increase the room rate. “Last year we had an ADR increase of £40 and this year I am aiming for an increase of £80. We will have to be prepared to lower occupancy and increase pricing and you can only do that if you increase value for money. It has to be worth it to the guest.”
He knows this strategy will lose some clients, so he is renewing the sales effort to attract new customers from the US and Asia, who stay longer and pay more than other markets. They also drive the rate because they tend to book six months in advance.
“We have a strategic plan to deliver returns on investment,” says Marly.
And that includes honing service standards to justify the new price-point. “Now, the real work starts to instil excellence into everyone. I want to make sure that in 50 years’ time they talk about this hotel in the same way they talk about Claridge’s. I want to create a wonderful legacy,” says Marly.
Contact and details
Hotel Café Royal
68 Regent Street, London, W1B 4DY
020 7406 3333
The owner Alrov Properties, an Israeli company owned by property and design entrepreneurs Alfred and Georgi Akirov.
The group The Set Group comprises the Conservatorium hotel, Amsterdam (opened December 2011); Hotel Café Royal, London (opened December 2012); and Hotel Lutetia, Paris (opened 2018).
The concept Dubbed in some quarters as “the heaviest hotel in London”, partly on account of its marble bathrooms, the Hotel Café Royal consists of three buildings. In the centre is the original Grade I-listed Café Royal, retaining listed rooms such as seven vast signature suites and the Grill Room. It is flanked on one side by the former county fire station – where suites have unrivalled views of Piccadilly Circus – and on the other by a former bank.
The history The Café Royal was established in 1863 by French wine merchant Daniel Nicholas Thévenon and his wife Celestine. Its location between edgy Soho and cultured St James’s meant it attracted both artists and aristocrats. In 2008, David Chipperfield Architects started work to transform it into a hotel, and in 2012 the Set Group reopened it as a 160-bedroom hotel.
Starting room rate £500
F&B: Laurent, Cakes & Bubbles, the Grill Room, Ziggy’s, the Green Room
F&B contribution to turnover 29% in 2018
Facilities Akasha Spa
Marly on the importance of communication…
He may be a Parisian, but Guillaume Marly has made a point of fitting into British life, describing himself as “very French and also super-Anglicised”. He watched TV shows like Blackadder and Only Fools and Horses, and even studied phonetics to perfect his English pronunciation.
“I am intense about doing things well,” he says. “We have 75 nationalities here and so I need to be clear. It is important to [communicate] well. I have been in the UK for 25 years, so it would have been unacceptable if I hadn’t immersed myself.”
Marly not only likes London – to the extent that he has declined jobs in Paris – he also believes in it as a destination and shares information with other five-star hotel managers in the capital. “We have no interest in jeopardising each other because we want to keep business in London. We help each other out if there is a catastrophe. We promote hotel business for London.”
As for uncertainty around Brexit, Marly says: “I deal with it. To retain staff, we pay them fairly and give them a voice to progress and develop. I am disappointed that people blame things on events like this. We are paid to manage. Real management is how you deal with such problems.”