YTL Hotels has rapidly expanded its UK portfolio since opening its first hotel, the Gainsborough Bath Spa, four years ago. Now a diverse group of five, Katherine Price meets the team to discuss their latest project – Monkey Island
Monkey Island Estate, a seven-acre island sitting in the river Thames in Bray, Berkshire, has been given a new lease of life as a 30-bedroom hotel by YTL Hotels. As well as a three-year restoration, the Malaysia-based company has introduced a set of culinary concepts and a floating spa to create an experience intended to keep guests coming back.
The island, accessible only by boat or footbridge, has an 800-year history as the haunt of monarchs, aristocrats, writers and artists. It has been said to derive its name from the monks who settled on the island from the late 12th century. However, it became renowned for the anthropomorphic monkeys painted inside the pavilion while under the ownership of the 3rd Duke of Marlborough in the 18th century – which is now the backdrop to the estate’s ‘monkey lounge’.
The property has operated as a hotel since 1840 and has been returned to its former glory by Champalimaud Design, which also oversaw the refurbishments of its sister hotels, AA Hotel of the Year 2017-18 the Gainsborough Bath Spa, and the Academy in London’s Bloomsbury.
The relaunch of Monkey Island
It was, in fact, the founder of YTL, Yeoh Tiong Lay (the company’s name takes his initials), who happened upon the property in 2015 while visiting the UK, fell in love with it and bought it one year later. YTL Corporation is the parent company of YTL Hotels. Unfortunately, Yeoh never got to see the finished product, having passed away at the age of 87 in 2017.
A memorial statue to the group’s founder looks out from the island’s riverbank.
“Monkey Island was not in a particularly good state and it needed a lot of money spent on it,” says YTL’s vice-president Andrew Jordan.
Jordan trained as a chef at the Savoy London under industry legends Silvino Trompetto, Anton Edelmann and Willy Bauer, and during his career has overseen the restaurants in Harrods department store in London, and worked as assistant F&B manager at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok under general manager Kurt Wachtveitl and resident hotel manager of the Empire hotel in Brunei. He joined YTL eight years ago.
Jordan points to the building’s listed status as the cause of its delayed relaunch – it was originally slated to open in the late spring or early summer of 2018.
Problems included buckles in the building from movement over time, as well as stains, cracks and bulges in the artworks from water damage and several layers of ‘clumsy’ painting.
“With all these heritage buildings there are always problems,” explains Jordan. “It’s Grade I-listed, so you have to be sympathetic towards that and you have to do the right thing. Inevitably, you’re going to be delayed.”
A floating spa experience
However, the restrictions on what they could do with the property also forced them to get creative – a spa boat, for example.
YTL Hotels’ spa consultant Melissa Mettler explains: “I put forth a beautiful conservatory spot, but we couldn’t expand the building’s footprint. I was looking at the plans one day and I saw these little boats on the architectural plan, and I thought, ‘why couldn’t that be the spa?’”
As a result, a traditional English river barge has been transformed into a 13ft-wide spa boat with three treatment rooms, moored on the banks of the island.
Mettler took inspiration from the river Thames when designing the concept. Herbs and medicines were once traded off boats on the river, with the Chelsea Physic Garden, London’s oldest botanical garden, established by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1673 to grow medicinal plants. The garden still occupies four riverside acres.
Each spa guest receives a tin of herbal pastilles and Mettler’s treatments have also been inspired by monk-made medicinal liqueurs such as Bénédictine and Chartreuse (the estate’s bar also features a ‘monk elixir’ cocktail list). The spa’s signature massage takes place on a water bed.
“None of our menus are driven by vendors. We create and choreograph all the treatments,” says Mettler. “The days of vendor-driven spa programmes are, in my opinion, numbered.”
Jordan adds: “It’s about experiences. People want experiences today and that’s what we’re going to give them. You’ve got to give people a reason to want to come and stay with you.”
The culinary concepts
The hotel is in good company; Berkshire is also home to the five-red-AA-starred country houses Coworth Park and Cliveden House; the village of Bray to culinary powerhouses including the three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn and Heston Blumenthal’s the Fat Duck. How does it plan to compete with such esteemed neighbours?
“We’re not here to compete with Heston or the Roux brothers,” says Jordan. “We’re putting a brasserie into the property which we want to be affordable. We want everyone to be able to come and experience and enjoy the island without having to spend vast amounts of money on food and beverage.”
Former Savoy F&B director Lee Kelly is overseeing the property as general manager. Monkey Island Brasserie, headed by executive chef and former Simpson’s in the Strand head chef Will Hemming, is there “to complement what’s happening in Bray,” he says.
The 60-cover brasserie, with a 40-cover riverside terrace, focuses on British cuisine and produce, particularly local suppliers. Dishes include smoked salmon, slow-cooked lamb rump and ‘Monkey Shoulder cranachan’ cheesecake.
Kelly describes the grounds as “fundamental” to the concept, whether that be providing herbs for the spa and bar operations or the culinary experience. The estate has beehives for honey, chickens, a kitchen garden, two shepherd’s huts (one is a bar called the Shepherd’s Tipple, in the other, Shepherd’s Delight, guests can enjoy a four-course meal), a Victorian greenhouse and a custom-built hickory smokehouse. Guests are invited to collect their own eggs and can learn smoking techniques.
The team also intend to develop the estate’s weddings, high-end events and retreat business. The seven acres of land will be available for exclusive hire, and the property has boardrooms and a ballroom that can accommodate 130. As for retreats, although it’s early days, they anticipate strong weekend occupancy, particularly from the domestic market.
“That’s where our Bath hotel has been very successful as well. Bath is a strange market – mid-week is relatively quiet and you probably do 60%-70% of your business on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” says Jordan.
“Staycations have really worked well in our favour… I would say from the day we opened [the Gainsborough] we’ve probably been full 95% of the weekends, which is quite incredible.”
Recruitment and development
However, while the Brexit effect on the UK’s staycation market may have helped the group, its recruitment for the new property has been hindered. Jordan describes the recruitment process as having been “challenging”. He adds: “It’s nothing that we can’t overcome. It’s not all doom and gloom, it’s not as bad as people say.”
Kelly adds: “We really encouraged all our interviewees to come to the property. We spent a lot of time explaining the concept, how it’s different and showing them the island so they really bought into it.”
Every department is tasked with one of the estate’s ‘projects’ – the reception team has responsibility for the chickens, the chef keeps the bees, and the greenhouse is under the care of the spa and bar teams. “While it hasn’t been easy, I think the people we’ve hired have been the right people for this type of property,” he says.
The fact the group is a global company also helps. “We’ve sent five or six people from the Gainsborough abroad to further their careers,” says Jordan.
“It gives you a loyalty and they’ll continue to work for you because you’re invested in them and you’ve shown that it’s not just words. We can’t do it for everyone, but for the right people we will definitely develop them. If they want to broaden their horizons and spread their wings, why not? We’ve got the ability to do it.
“As a company, we listen to our employees, we spend a lot of time and effort with them and we encourage debate and ideas. We want to listen to what they’ve got to say because there are a lot of good ideas out there.” Jordan says this trickles all the way down from the group’s family of owners. Founder Yeoh’s children are all involved in the group, including his eldest son Francis Yeoh, who is managing director of YTL Corporation, and Mark Yeoh, executive director of YTL Hotels; while many of the grandchildren also work in the company.
“Our owners encourage debate; they listen to us,” says Jordan. “Of course, nobody gets everything they want, but it’s very democratic and it’s very fair. Mark Yeoh gives us the freedom to explore these concepts and, providing they make some kind of sense, we’re given the opportunity to put them into place and run with them. We’re going to have fun with it, and that enthuses the staff. If you don’t make them part of that process, then it just becomes another job to them.”
YTL’s approach is guided by its managing director’s strong Christian faith and the family’s belief in their roles as stewards, with the goal to pass the business on to the next generation.
“It’s about integrity, doing things the right way. We are all made to feel a part of that family unit. That has been the guiding light and the success of the company,” says Jordan.
Its Malaysian ownership also means a focus on imparting an Asian style of service that Jordan says serves the group “very, very well”.
“I would say people’s expectations of service in England have diminished… That’s a sign of the times and the sign of our business,” he says.
Foray into the UK
The newly launched Monkey Island joins a diverse portfolio of five sister properties, including the Gainsborough Bath Spa, the Glasshouse in Edinburgh, the Academy and Threadneedles in the City of London, with YTL Corporation’s hotel division owning a total of 32 hotels, primarily in Asia and Europe.
YTL Corporation is one of the largest companies listed on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange with roots in construction. The group’s foray into the UK market took place in 2002 with its £1.2b takeover of Wessex Water. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
The acquisition was marred by allegations the firm had paid a £1m bribe to Wessex boss Colin Skellett; a subsequent investigation found no wrongdoing. With the Thermae Bath Spa operating contract also under its belt, YTL Hotels then launched into the UK with the opening of the Gainsborough Bath Spa in 2015.
The Grade II-listed building is the only UK hotel with a natural thermal spa and its Dan Moon at the Gainsborough restaurant holds three AA rosettes. A trio of acquisitions followed in 2016 – the Glasshouse in Edinburgh, Monkey Island and the Academy in London, which completed its phased renovation last year – and the acquisition of London’s Threadneedles hotel in 2017 for around £40m.
“I don’t think we have a particular type of hotel… We don’t have a cookie-cutter philosophy here, it’s just if it makes sense, we’ll purchase it,” says Jordan.
“Threadneedles came up, a great hotel in the heart of London, and also happened to be a heritage building, like the Gainsborough – then, in contrast to that, we have the Glasshouse in Edinburgh, and that’s very, very modern: glass-fronted, attached to a shopping complex.”
The hotels’ guest profiles are just as varied – the Gainsborough attracts a predominantly domestic leisure market; Threadneedles, being in the City of London, caters for mainly corporate guests; while the Academy appeals to a mixture, with a strong US attraction. The Glasshouse is predominantly focused on international leisure business.
“Edinburgh is having a real resurgence at the moment; it’s doing incredibly well out of everywhere in the country,” says Jordan.
“Monkey Island is a bit of a wait and see. I think the wedding market is going to be huge, as it always has been at the property. I think it will be corporate-driven in the week and a lot of leisure at weekends.”
Despite uncertainties in the market, the group is still looking at potential expansion in the UK and Jordan confirms that “if the right thing comes up, it will happen”.
The focus for now is on consolidating the properties, particularly Monkey Island and the Academy following their refurbishments. However, as Jordan says, “we never say never, so who knows?”
YTL’s UK PORTFOLIO
Monkey Island, Bray, Berkshire
Opened 4 March 2019
General manager Lee Kelly
Executive chef Will Hemming
A seven-acre island in the river Thames in Bray, Berkshire, the restored and newly relaunched estate consists of 27 bedrooms and three deluxe suites.
Threadneedles, City of London
General manager Cedric Horgnies (also oversees the Academy)
A Grade II-listed Victorian bank, Threadneedles features a Marco Pierre White restaurant – Wheeler’s of St James’s Oyster Bar & Grill Room – and operates under Marriott International’s Autograph Collection.
The Academy, London
The Academy comprises five restored and combined Georgian townhouses in London’s West End and has completed a full refurbishment.
The Glasshouse, Edinburgh
General manager Tom Gibson
The Glasshouse, part of Marriott International’s Autograph Collection, is a luxury boutique hotel originally built in the 19th century, once the Lady Glenorchy Church.
The Gainsborough Bath Spa
Opened July 2015
General manager Brian Benson
A Grade II-listed building which once housed the United Hospital, the Gainsborough is the only UK hotel with a natural thermal spa and was YTL’s first UK hotel.