‘It's about giving something back': Adrian Ellis on winning Hotelier of the Year 2022

03 November 2022 by

Adrian Ellis has worked his way up from bellboy to general manager of the Lowry and industry champion, winning the Hotelier of the Year 2022 accolade

Adrian Ellis is leaving no stone unturned in his mission to inspire school leavers, college students and university graduates to make hotels their career of choice.

And he is not just thinking about the benefits his actions will bring to the Lowry – the five-AA-star, 165-bedroom hotel in Salford, Greater Manchester, that he has run as general manager for seven years. His actions are very much geared towards helping the wider industry.

"At this stage of my career, it's all about giving something back and getting young people into hospitality at a time when there is such a dire shortage of staff," Ellis says. "It's about doing things for the greater good."

Since arriving in the north-west of England eight years ago from an exemplary 17-year career overseas (more of which later) Ellis has not only overseen a total refurbishment of the Lowry, he has also established an extraordinary presence in the wider hotel community, both within Manchester and across the UK, supporting and growing the sector through a raft of projects. As well as recruitment initiatives, he spearheads programmes to promote the city, grow business, raise the profile of sustainability issues and run charity events.

It is no surprise to learn, therefore, that he was the unanimous choice of the judges when it came to awarding this year's Hotelier of the Year accolade, sponsored by Casna Group. He was praised by one judge as being "an unsung hero" who has done more to raise the profile of hospitality in the Midlands and the north of England than most other champions of the industry have achieved collectively across the rest of the country. "Adrian is not only winning the recruitment battle for himself, but also for so many other businesses."

A man of great humility who remains totally unflappable even during the most stressful moments, Ellis, the 39th recipient of the most prestigious award in the hoteliers' calendar, says he was "knocked sideways" to learn of his success. "I have attended the presentation lunch for the past five years now, but never thought it would come to me. I was shocked, stunned and surprised."

Jack of all trades

Being feted by the great and the good of the hotel sector is a long way from his first job in the industry as a bellboy at the Castle hotel in Norwich. "It was a Saturday job, and I was basically a jack of all trades, carrying bags, fixing TVs, serving teas," he says. "I loved it." Encouraged and guided by his parents and grandmother, it was a natural move for him to then join Norwich Hotel School to take a three-year HND course in hospitality and catering.

On graduating in 1982, he spent the early years of his career as a trainee with Commonwealth Holiday Inns of Canada, moving around different departments across Holiday Inn properties in London, Glasgow and Newcastle. He followed up with a food and beverage role at the Olde Bell, Hurley, Berkshire, and then a post as front office assistant manager at London's Grosvenor House hotel.

His next career move came out of the blue. A trip home to visit his parents led to what became his first general manager position. "I decided to take a look around a new hotel being built alongside Norwich airport," he says. "I was shown around by the owner, Keith Shaw, and ended up being offered a job as his assistant."

The position at the Airport Ambassador (now the Holiday Inn Norwich – North) ended up as something of a baptism of fire. Over a six-month period, Ellis fully fitted out the 140-bedroom hotel, set up the finance department and recruited staff, despite having no experience of opening a hotel. "It was hugely stressful, but a major learning curve, which, looking back, has proved to be one of the proudest moments of my career," he says. Once the hotel opened, Ellis was appointed general manager at the age of 26, and three years later he also took on responsibility for nearby Dunston Hall (now part of the QHotels Collection).

Ellis's first working stint in Manchester came about after meeting his future wife Audrey on holiday in Kenya. At the time, Audrey was living in Preston, and Ellis took the decision to join her, leading him to take up the position of deputy general manager at the Victoria & Albert hotel in Manchester. The general manager left soon after his arrival, and Ellis was swiftly promoted to the number one job. A rebranding of the hotel to the Le Méridien Victoria & Albert (the hotel now operates under the Marriott brand) following the acquisition of Forte by Granada turned out to be hugely significant. It resulted in Ellis being offered his first international positing – at Le Méridien Singapore.

And so began that 17-year period overseas. During it, Ellis moved from Singapore on to Poland, Hungary, Azerbaijan and finally Bali, in a variety of roles for Le Méridien, Corinthia Hotels and Fairmont. The experience, he says, was enormously valuable for his development as a hotelier. "I learned so much about understanding and respecting different cultures, something so important in this industry."

Back to Britain

By 2015, Ellis and his wife had decided the time was right to put roots down in the UK again. When the job offer for the Lowry came up, it seemed serendipitous, as it was pretty well halfway between his home city of Norwich and Audrey's of Edinburgh.

Since arriving at the hotel, Ellis has overseen a full refurbishment of the property – the first during its 21-year history. The final element in the modernisation of the spa facilities included installing a new fitness studio, cryotherapy chamber and flotation tank to add to the eight new treatment rooms and gym just completed. Costing £7m, the improvements have undoubtedly helped drive business back into the hotel following the pandemic.

Manchester remains behind London in its recovery from Covid, with annual occupancy at the Lowry currently at 72%, compared with 82% in 2019. "Leisure bookings have come back strongly, but the city is still struggling to see the return of corporate and international business," says Ellis. "However, we are hopeful, this will return over the next 12 months."

There is a great deal of economic activity in Manchester to suggest that revenues will climb in the coming year, with a second terminal having opened at the city's airport last year. There are also major new developments set to complete next year: Co-op Live will be the largest live entertainment arena in the UK with a capacity of 23,500 and up to 32 bars as well as restaurants and a food market, and Factory International will host cultural events including the Manchester International Festival. However, with "a ferocious development of hotels" under way – 10 new hotels will be open by the end of 2022 and a further nine are set to launch in the city in 2023 – it remains to be seen whether demand will keep up with supply. With no end to new hotel openings, it has become even more imperative to take action on recruitment. That is something that Ellis, always exuding positivity, has undertaken with enthusiasm since arriving back in the UK. A year after settling into his role at the Lowry, he took on the chairmanship of the Manchester Hotel Association (MHA), a 52-member body that represents the key hotels within the city centre and the Greater Manchester area. He set about giving it a clear direction with a focus on business growth, sustainability and charitable events, as well as recruitment.

Recruit and retain

One of the first steps he took to encourage more young people to choose hospitality as a career was to launch a mentorship scheme in conjunction with Manchester Metropolitan University. The scheme sees general managers from 15 hotels supporting 15 students every year with their dissertations and coursework and by dispensing career advice.

"The aim of the scheme is to inspire the students to stay in the industry, and I'm pleased to say that the number of alumni that have been retained in the industry is increasing," Ellis says. He also directly employs three university graduates each summer to undertake an individually designed 18-month programme that leads to the offer of a first managerial position upon its completion.

The success of the work undertaken by MHA with university students encouraged Ellis to next turn his attention to 16- to 18-year-olds at colleges. "I found to my surprise that there was not really a strong hospitality link with the colleges," he says. "So last year we introduced a 45-day placement programme for 60 students across 12 hotels. The students, who have had little or no practical hotel experience before, come from courses in business studies, spa and beauty, hospitality and catering, and tourism and events. The idea is to produce a pipeline for the universities."

To feed into the colleges, Ellis has created what he says is the most ambitious scheme to date: working with 14- to 16-year-old school pupils. In conjunction with Jason Benn, industry manager at skills development organisation City & Guilds, a programme showcasing the career opportunities within hotels was launched. Now in its second year of operation, the scheme involves 22 hotels hosting a series of special days with 22 schools that include an introduction to the workings of a hotel – "many pupils were astounded that we had 14 departments across the Lowry" – cookery demonstrations, a spa day, bedmaking competitions, and running an afternoon tea service. Meetings are also held with parents, something that is regarded as vital in order to gain their support, and to forge links with colleges and universities.

There has been great enthusiasm among general managers for all three elements of the recruitment drive, and excitement among pupils, students, undergraduates and parents alike. "Next summer we hope to collect data to show how many pupils are signing up for college courses and taking jobs in the industry," Ellis says. "We are looking at the long term here. It is going to take time.

"At one point Manchester had 4,000 hospitality vacancies, and business were stealing staff from one another, meaning we were never reducing that figure. I believe that looking to education will be the best opportunity to get that figure down." In the meantime, interest has been expressed in the recruitment initiatives from other hotel associations across the country, with a view to launching their own.


His leadership of the MHA and recruitment initiatives is just part of what Ellis is involved in. He is chair of UKHospitality's northern group, a member of Hospitality Action's northern committee and Springboard's north-west board, sits on the executive board of Master Innholders and of Hoteliers' Charter, and is a member of Manchester international strategy committee (which aims to drive the city's trade, investment and the visitor economy).

Aware that students were becoming disengaged with the industry during the pandemic, he also set up the Keep the Faith in Hospitality initiative in partnership with the Institute of Hospitality. During lockdown some 200 students joined a series of 90-minute webinars featuring a panel made up of half-a-dozen leading hospitality operators. "We are continuing to hold them now, as it is another means of inspiring young people to stay in the industry."

With so much extra-curricular activity in his diary, how does he juggle the day job? "I don't actually have to leave the hotel all that often, and when I do many of the meetings are in walking distance," he explains. "However, I want to emphasise the importance of my leadership team at the hotel in supporting me and thank them for their loyalty and commitment in all that they do, which has ultimately made the Lowry the success that it is today."

Having a close-knit team around him is fundamental to Ellis's approach as a hotelier. "I think I'm very attuned with my colleagues and focused on their needs, wishes, wants and development, as well as those of the owners and customers. Of course, it is important to be commercially focused, but I still meet and greet guests and very much enjoy doing so."

Ellis recognises that being passionate and caring about the well-being of everyone he comes into contact with – his team, his guests, his future employees – is the key to a successful hotel. That concern for others is something he exudes in spades and shares unequivocally with individuals both within and beyond the Lowry, for the benefit of the entire industry. It is what makes him a true exemplar of a leading hotel operator and a most impressive holder of the 2022 Hotelier of the Year title.

What the judges said

Thirteen of the past 38 winners of the Hotelier of the Year award made up the judging panel that chose Adrian Ellis to follow in their footsteps. They included Harry Murray (1986 winner), Richard Ball (2006), Andrew McKenzie (2008), Jonathan Raggett (2009), Andrew Stembridge (2010), Stuart Johnson (2012), Stuart Bowery (2013), Danny Pecorelli (2014), Craig Bancroft (2016), Sue Williams (2017), David Taylor (2018), Sally Beck (2019) and Daniel Pedreschi (2021).

Leading the praise, Murray says "the exceptional initiatives [undertaken by Ellis] to encourage and inspire young people to consider hospitality as a career of choice placed him head and shoulders above the other nominees". Meanwhile Johnson describes Ellis as "a consummate hotelier who has championed hospitality in the north west and has worked tirelessly to forge links with education". And Pedreschi says Ellis has taken the need to connect with the next generation to "the next level".

For McKenzie, Ellis typifies "the modern high-end hotelier" who "runs a first-rate operation but still finds time to promote hospitality to an astonishingly large list of third parties", adding that in the current climate "our industry needs more selfless individuals such as Adrian".

The plaudits for Ellis come thick and fast: "an unsung hero", says Stembridge; "a rare individual", adds Pecorelli; "an accomplished hotelier who has managed iconic hotels", chips in Bowery; "an inspiration for our industry", declares Ball; "a seasoned hotelier who works tirelessly to support our industry", contributes Taylor; "he leads from the front", professes Beck; and "a character who truly believes that people are the source of success in order to operate at a high level", volunteers Bancroft.

Summing up, Williams describes Ellis as "a top chap" and "a very measured character with the most infectious smile and positive energy.

"He has impressed us all in galvanising so many hoteliers and educators to take practical steps, to reach out to young people to encourage and inspire them to follow a career in hospitality. He is a tour de force who has tirelessly driven the recruitment agenda, all on a voluntary basis. His efforts will benefit so many people."

The Lowry

50 Dearmans Place, Salford M3 5LH


Owner CDL Hospitality Trusts (CDLHT) bought the Lowry in 2017 from Westmont Hospitality Group, which in turn acquired the hotel from Rocco Forte Hotels which opened the property in 2001. In the UK, the Singapore-based CDLHT owns Hotel Brooklyn in Manchester and the Hilton Cambridge City Centre as well as the Lowry, and is currently seeking further hotel acquisitions across the country.

General manager Adrian Ellis

Bedrooms 165

Turnover £13m

Occupancy 72%

Average room rate £180

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