The chief executive of the Lancaster Landmark Hotels Company is back at the business after more than 20 years working all over the world.
You rejoined the Landmark London in 2021 having left as hotel manager in 1999. How much has the business changed since then?
It has changed considerably. Since I left as hotel manager I've worked in Spain then Egypt, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, back to Japan, to Dubai and back to London. I've had unique experiences in many places, but it's essentially the same job in every country: trying to provide exceptional experiences to guests, though each country has a different way of doing it.
You have held some lofty corporate positions – does this represent a bit more of a hands-on role with a hotel for you?
I chose to return to the Landmark London because I was chief executive of our business in Japan, senior vice-president for Intercontinental and Jumeirah hotels and I looked after 120 hotels for IHG. The opportunity to come back here was to both be managing director of a company with four London hotels and two in Bangkok, but primarily to manage the Landmark London. As I worked here 20 years ago the relationship with the hotel is something that never left me.
I truly believe this is one of London's finest hotels. While once upon a time our location in Marylebone was a hindrance, it is now a very fashionable area. The opportunity to reposition the hotel as one of the greatest in London for traditional yet relaxed luxury was too good to miss. We're taking an already great business and looking to position it at a different level.
Here you have a combination of being hands-on at the Landmark London and also working with other hotels in the group…
We have four hotels in London and two in Bangkok, so I can definitely influence the hotels in London. The Royal Lancaster is a busy, successful hotel that I can help support, and we also have a new project in Shepherd's Bush with the K West hotel, which for the first time we're going to brand. We've managed to partner with IHG and will put an Indigo brand on the hotel, which will be the first time for us. It's an opportunity for that type of lifestyle brand in that part of the city.
Many London hoteliers are reporting record revenue per available room. What has business been like at the Landmark Londonin the past 12 months?
We have fared exceptionally well. We were one of the few hotels that opened all our facilities from day one [post-Covid restrictions] – and for us it was the right decision. We were able to continue with a high level of service as every guest doesn't want to use every facility.
We could work out the demand so we knew where to put our staff in peak periods and find a way for them to be flexible. We had people working in sales who were doing the bedrooms, and people who worked in bedrooms who were serving food in the evening. We adapted quickly. Our staff worked hard but we were able to reward them with record pay increases, and even during the Covid year we provided generous bonuses. Because of all that our business is now far in excess of where it was pre-pandemic.
You have big plans for improvements at the Landmark London. What changes are you implementing?
We have an iconic space here in the Winter Garden. No other hotel in London has a space like it – it's seven storeys high with a glass roof. Anyone who walks into the hotel is wowed by it. We're doing a complete overhaul. We're not going to touch the structure because it's listed, but we'll change all the tables, chairs, carpets and uniforms, as well as all of the planting. It will be a different colour scheme and we're changing the palm trees to make everything more lush.
We're also installing a Champagne bar upstairs and opening up the space for more people to appreciate, because we want to offer Champagnes that are excellent but at a good price. If I can offer the best priced Champagne in London that's what I'd like to do, in the hope that the guest returns to buy something else in the future.
You're changed the uniform – does it now represent a more relaxed service style?
We're trying to portray an image of relaxed luxury. We don't want our employees to feel as though they're wearing a hotel uniform, so we've brought in a designer that creates outfits that people might wear to a party, or something they wouldn't feel ashamed to be outside the hotel in. Many hotel uniforms look like hotel uniforms. We want our colleagues to come into work comfortable and proud of what they're wearing. If our teams feel special they'll provide special service.
You have also introduced a four-day working week for chefs. How has that gone?
We want them to work longer days but effectively get paid an extra day for it. It has been successful, though not quite as successful as we'd hoped. What some have done is work the four days and moonlight somewhere else, which isn't ideal. It does help us attract new people but our existing chefs aren't so keen on changing habits.
Other departments are keen so we might pilot it elsewhere too. In future we need to be far more flexible in our approach to work and more understanding of when people want to work. We're a hotel business, we're 24/7, so there's no reason why we can't change our working patterns.
Will the menus change when you relaunch?
We now have a new pub, Great Central, run by Matt Fletcher. We'll be doing traditional British food with good ingredients at a reasonable price. Not everyone wants fine dining every time they stay. I'd like to hope that our bangers and mash are some of the best in the country. We've worked hard at the ingredients and the cooking. That will allow us to focus on the Winter Garden and elevate the quality, focusing on our lunch and dinner. We're not looking at Michelin-star level but a little below that. So the price point is still right but we can aim a little higher, as we have the pub option for guests too.
In the Champagne bar we'll focus on seafood and will have an afternoon tea that is based on seafood too. It'll be a unique space showcasing those two products.
Fergus Stewart on the challenges of working abroad
I've enjoyed all the countries I lived in, and sometimes my wife and two daughters have followed me willingly, and sometimes not. But I've viewed every one as though I'm a guest and I've embraced everything that comes with it. Some ex-pats would complain and compare everything to the UK, but I always tried to enjoy the unique challenges presented.
The greatest challenge you face is always the next one. When I went to Japan for the first time I took over the Intercontinental hotel. I thought I was going to a property with 300 bedrooms and two function rooms and ended up at a hotel with 800 bedrooms and 36 function rooms.
On a busy Saturday we would do 20 weddings, and we had our own Shinto temple and our own church. On a busy day we'd take $1m (£811,000). Getting your head around dealing with that scale is a challenge.
The biggest challenge there was the language. I had a permanent translator who followed me around everywhere I went.
The problem was sometimes I would explain something in seven or eight sentences and it would be translated into two, or vice versa, so I was never sure if I was understood or not. But you soon learn to adapt by looking at non-verbal clues like body language. You can still solve a lot of issues.
Fergus Stewart's CV
- 2023-present Chief executive officer, Lancaster Landmark Hotel Company
- 2021-2023 Deputy managing director, Lancaster Landmark Hotel Company and general manager the Landmark London
- 2020-2021 Senior vice-president and acting chief operating officer, Jumeirah Group
- 2019-2020 Regional vice-president Europe, Jumeirah Group
- 2017-2019 Vice-president Europe, Luxury Hotels Division, InterContinental Hotels Group
- 2016-2017 Vice-president operations, Intercontinental Hotels Group
- 2014-2016 Chief executive/head of Japan, Intercontinental Hotels Group
- 2012-2014 Director of operations, Intercontinental Hotels Group, Thailand and Indochina
- 2008-2012 General manager, ANA Intercontinental Hotel, Tokyo
- 2001-2008 Three positions with Hyatt, based in La Manga, Spain, Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, and Thailand
- 1999-2001 Hotel manager, the Landmark London
- 1994-1999 Resident manager, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, based in China, Singapore and Taiwan
- 1990-1994 Food and beverage manager, Marco Polo Hotels, Hong Kong
- 1986-1988 Assistant director of food and beverage, Grosvenor House Hotel London
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