The Caterer interview: Jason Carruthers, managing director of Leonardo Hotels

27 January 2023 by

After a busy year retiring the Jury's Inn brand name and acquiring the 114-year-old Dilly hotel, the managing director of Leonardo Hotels speaks about what's next

Buying the Dilly in London seemed like an unusual step for Leonardo hotels – what was the appeal of the property?

We were working on the deal over a number of months. The appeal for us is that the Dilly is a very well-established but unbranded hotel which gives us the opportunity to bring it into our group. We see very clear opportunities for improvement from the guest perspective and opportunities to grow the business. It's a well-established hotel that's been trading for over 100 years and it's got a solid and long-serving group of staff and team in the property which was hugely appealing to us as well.

We know that it's very well located on Piccadilly – you couldn't have a more prominent location in the UK. It's not an exaggeration to say there's a global appeal. People from around the world will recognise that address.

What are Leonardo's plans for the luxury market?

David Fattal [founder of Fattal Group] is very keen to develop more luxury properties. The ambition is that in the next two years we will have 15 or so hotels of that nature which are one-offs in terms of style and will fit under the banner of Limited Edition Hotels. The Dilly compliments our strategy of growth, and we have hotels under development at the moment in Tel Aviv, Switzerland and Cyprus, which will be similar in nature as luxury properties.

The openings will be across our entire portfolio worldwide. We don't currently operate that much in the luxury segment so it's a new opportunity for us. There are individual hotels that either we could develop, build or acquire that don't fit into our current suite of brands but that we know we could operate very well, and that's the appeal.

We could well open or acquire more luxury hotels in the UK. We would actively look at those kinds of opportunities. Realistically, they would be in the key cities where those kinds of hotels would operate most effectively, so London, Edinburgh, Manchester, Brighton and Glasgow.

You're planning to invest £90m into the Dilly – what can you tell us about the redevelopment?

We completed the deal in October and took on the operation of the hotel towards the end of 2022. We will renovate the hotel towards the second half of 2023, so there's a lot of planning involved. I'd imagine that renovation will take around 12 months to complete and then we'll relaunch the hotel as a luxury property. We're hugely excited about it as an opportunity.

What other hotel developments is Leonardo working on?

We've been working on extending the Jury's Inn in Edinburgh to turn it into a Leonardo Royale. We're also building a Nyx property adjacent to it which is well under way and we are building a Nyx hotel in Dublin which is ‘out of the ground' from a development point of view.

In 2021 we opened the Manchester Leonardo Piccadilly hotel, which has been very well received. We've had some of the strongest guest feedback for any property in the group: people really like the design and the fact that it's quite an iconic building. For a new building to make that impact in the city has been really encouraging.

The Jury's Inn brand name was retired in 2022 after 30 years and its hotels were due to relaunch under the Leonardo brand. How is that going?

The rebrand is by and large completed and was due to finish in Q4 in 2022. It has been complex because we had to acquire planning permission for each of the properties to change signage, so it's quite an undertaking to do that for 50 hotels.

We've been renovating prominent Jury's Inn hotels in Glasgow, Galway and in Birmingham, which is the largest Jury's Inn that we have in the business.

Each time we renovate a hotel we don't take a cookie-cutter approach to the design; we make specific improvements relevant to the markets they operate in. Something great with the Leonardo brand is it isn't overly prescriptive in terms of how we want it to look and feel.

What other areas are you changing as part of the rebrand?

In tandem with the physical changes, we're also taking the opportunity to constantly monitor and improve the customer experience. We've been really pleased with how the Leonardo brand has been accepted and recognised. Before the rebrand we were at 17 Leonardo-branded hotels but we're constantly looking at how we can make things better for our guests. That means looking at how we handle the check-in to make it more efficient and easier for the guests with pre-arrival check-ins.

We've also introduced welcome drinks and snacks in all the hotels. We're constantly improving the breakfast product and looking at the quality of the coffee, the machines we use, and how we can we give people more of a barista experience in the restaurant. We're also working with nutritionists in our restaurants to make sure we're reflecting trends and offering people some healthier options and maybe educating our guests a little bit in those areas.

How has the type of guest visiting your hotels changed since the pandemic?

We're constantly monitoring the change in business mix. Our hotels are more domestic leisure-orientated than they were two years ago. And there are different demands from our other guests in terms of what time they want to access the room, how long they want to stay there, and wanting to extend the checkout time. There are often more guests in the room than there used to be as people are now travelling with children, so we're constantly adapting the offer relevant to that.

What are your expansion plans for the UK?

We're still very active in terms of growing the business and further acquisitions. We're actively looking at several development opportunities that would support the direction we're working towards of appealing to different segments within the business. So there's lots going on.

We've got most of the major cities in the UK covered, but there is opportunity within some of those same cities [for further sites]. So, if we had a core brand Leonardo in an area we might be able to operate a Leonardo Royale in the same city or a Nyx. Or if there was a smaller boutique hotel that could also fit into our suite of brands. We know of addresses in cities we've been operating in for a number of years where we'd like to open another hotel because we know those locations quite well.

Have you seen a return in the number of international guests?

We saw a very significant shift in international travel from July 2022 onwards when it was easier for Americans to visit the UK with the lifting of Covid restrictions. There was a very significant improvement in London, but also in Edinburgh and Dublin, and that hasn't changed. We also know that Chinese tourism hasn't returned at the level it was historically, both from a leisure and corporate perspective.

We are seeing international congresses return to major cities as well which is a key driver for hotels. Since April the demand has been exceptionally strong. We were ahead of where we were in 2019 since April and throughout the summer 25% and 30% same time in 2019.

How are your corporate bookings now compared to before the pandemic?

It's different in the sense that demand is concentrated over fewer nights, but the actual overall contribution to the business is a similar level to how it was historically. That was a phenomenon through the second half of 2022 as certainly over the first few months there was reticence to travel, and we only really came out of travel restrictions in March.

In the second half of the year, it was almost completely back to normal.

I've seen it myself. I was in London recently during the week and it was the busiest I'd seen the city since pre-pandemic levels – you could really feel the difference. I did a walkaround of our hotels and kept hearing different accents. You can tell the tourists have returned, which is great for business.

Jason Carruthers CV

2017-present Managing director, Leonardo Hotels UK and Ireland

2016-17 Managing director, Jurys Inn UK and Ireland

2014-15 Group chief executive, Andrew Brownsword Hotels

2013-14 Vice-president operations – Mercure Hotels, Accor

2010-13 Director of operations –Novotel UK, Accor

2005-10 Operations director, Shire Hotels

2001-05 General manager, Aztec Hotel Bristol (Shire Hotels)

1999-2001 General manager, Audleys Wood hotel, Basingstoke, Hampshire (Thistle Hotels)

1997-1999 Hotel manager, Stakis Dunkeld hotel, near Perth

1991-1997 Assistant/deputy general manager, Shire Hotels

Leonardo Hotels fact file

  • Leonardo Hotels operates 52 hotels, including four in Ireland.
  • It is a member of the Fattal Group, which operates over 200 hotels in 17 countries.
  • The group is also a part of Pandox AB, a European hotel property investor and owner with approximately 31,600 hotel rooms in 15 countries, including 20 Leonardo freehold hotels.

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