The partnership between Michael Caines Restaurants and Abode Hotels provides two distinct brands that, although separate, work as one. Ben Walker reports
Michael Caines Restaurants and Abode Hotels hold a unique place in the British hospitality landscape. No other hotel group is in the enviable position of having its food and beverage operation created and overseen by a two-Michelin starred chef.
Unlike Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay, who both attained three Michelin stars before expanding their restaurant empires, Caines did not need to wait for that ultimate affirmation before rolling out his business. In fact, an extraordinary chance meeting helped give him the stable financial platform necessary to take his accomplished cooking to a wider audience.
In 1994, Andrew Brownsword, a British entrepreneur, sold his greeting cards business to Hallmark for an estimated £195m. Nine years later and after investing some of his fortune in two hotels - the Bath Priory hotel and the Sydney in Chelsea, London, since re-branded as a Baby Abode - he was in Exeter, flat-hunting for his youngest daughter who was attending university there. The family decided to have lunch at the Michael Caines restaurant at the Royal Clarence hotel, Exeter, when he asked to meet the chef.
"For me to be there on that day and at that time was lucky," says Caines. "Andrew had heard of me and said ‘It'd be nice to work together' and left with a copy of my magazine Caines Correspondent." On reading the magazine, Brownsword discovered that Caines had been trying to buy the Clarence, got back in touch and, within two months, the pair had purchased the hotel.
"I had met many individuals while trying to buy the Clarence and most were after something for nothing. I had never met anyone like Andrew who was interested in creating something, who understood creative people. We immediately had a good rapport and mutual understanding," says Caines.
So began a partnership and the launch of the Abode brand, which has since grown to five hotels in less than six years. Each of the hotels in Exeter, Glasgow, Canterbury, Manchester and, most recently, Chester, includes a signature Michael Caines restaurant. The chef's brand is also present in all the F&B outlets which provide the balance and appeal of varied price points - Michael Caines Taverns, MC Café Bars, MC Bar & Grills and Champagne Bars, which serve his own branded bubbly.
"Our unique selling point is having Michael Caines in Abode which offers an array of food and beverage experience," explains Abode's managing director Nick Halliday. "For hotels of our size [no hotel exceeds 85 bedrooms] the F&B is very ambitious. Guests can see the added value of coming to Abode and having a variety of dining experiences all under one roof."
In terms of branding, an advantage of the partnership early on was that Michael Caines, who has held two Michelin stars since 1999 for his cooking at country house hotel Gidleigh Park, set a standard of excellence for the Abode brand to reach for and complement.
Before Brownsword's arrival on the scene in 2003, Caines was becoming increasingly frustrated by the mismatch between what the, then Corus & Regal-owned Clarence hotel provided upstairs, and what he was offering guests downstairs. The restaurant's turnover was more than double that of the hotel's. Although the two businesses occupied the same building, they were clearly serving very different markets. Brownsword's timely intervention, purchase and £3m renovation of the Clarence closed the quality gap and marked the birth of the Abode brand and its unbreakable association with Michael Caines.
The first Abode in Exeter is the epitome of Brownsword's vision - a characterful property that sits within the cathedral grounds at the heart of the city. As a word, Abode sums up the values of the hotel brand - tradition, comfort and honesty. The logo also incorporates Brownsword's inititals in capital letters.
"We want our hotels to be a home from home, to embody homely and traditional values, which stem from Andrew's love of country house hotels and the honesty of old-fashioned service and personality - hotels where someone is there to greet you at the door," explains Halliday. The association with Michael Caines further underlines these values.
"Using your own name as your brand adds trust. It says that you are not just a faceless business - in fact you are so proud of what you do that you are putting your name above the door," comments Guy Holmes, director of marketing firm Captivate Restaurants.
The Abode name and logo are present in a variety of playful marketing collateral throughout the properties. Compilation CDs - known as ABCDs - of chill-out music start playing when guests enter their rooms; shower gel is branded as "ABad Hair Day" and body lotion "As Soft as ABaby's". Toiletries and CDs are there for guests to take home. "It's good marketing and it doesn't cost a lot," comments Halliday.
Generally speaking, there are clear advantages to creating separate brands for a hotel and its restaurant. "It is especially beneficial if you are marketing the restaurant outside of the hotel as it helps to remove the psychological barrier that hotel restaurants are only for hotel guests," says Paul West, managing director of marketing services provider Ignite Hospitality.
The trick is to make sure the two brands are distinctive with their own strong identities - they each need to stand up in their own right. Then various communication channels, especially the brands' websites, can be used to cross-support each other.
The Abode and Michael Caines websites are both designed by the same company - Chalk & Ward - ensuring consistency and plenty of opportunities for cross-pollination between the two sites.
"By using clever marketing we have wrapped up the two brands as one, although they are distinct," says Halliday. "The signature colour schemes - Abode's brown and Michael Caines' orange - complement each other and this extends to the lighting and mood setting in the hotels and details on the staff uniforms."
"We have used the same interior designer since starting which has given us a consistency across all hotels but the design has evolved. If you look at our first hotel in Exeter and our most recent one in Chester, I think you would feel that they are part of the same hotel group and you'd recognise the common threads, although they are very different properties by character," Halliday observes.
The success of the brands is measured in financial terms. "Financially we treat every branded department in isolation, so to be the manager of the Tavern in Canterbury, for example, we are looking for mini-entrepreneurs who are given a fair degree of autonomy, especially in terms of marketing the business and building up a local clientele," says Halliday.
"This gives each business an independent feel and they become very competitive within their own markets," adds Caines. Generally speaking, only 25% of the group's F&B revenue comes from hotel residents.
In the calendar year 2009, the group had a total turnover of £16m which is expected to increase to £19m this year - which will include the additional trade from Abode Chester since May. At Exeter, for example, total turnover this year is a projected £4.2m of which £2.7m comes from the dining outlets, underlining F&B's strong presence (64%) in the business mix.
Halliday says that the group's signature restaurants have seen general like-for-like sales growth throughout the downturn, as have the casual food outlets apart from BarMC & Grill in Glasgow.
In terms of accommodation, sales are stronger in provincial sites - particularly Canterbury, which is showing 15% increase in year on year room sales. "Elsewhere we are largely tracking the previous year levels although to mid year have been experiencing stronger occupancy levels with some dilution to accounting rate of return (ARR). September already shows some growth to ARR across the group and I would expect our last quarter to similarly improve," he adds.
Looking to the future, as with most hospitality businesses in expansion mode, a key challenge for the group is finding capable staff, particularly at senior level. That's why the group is encouraging organic growth and was especially pleased that two staff members, who joined in 2006, were Acorn winners this year.
Christophe Hesbert, operations manager at Abode Chester, and Laura Morgan, cluster HR manager (Northwest) for the whole group, were among the hospitality industry's top 30 under 30-year-olds, joining a group of rising stars who are considered its future leaders. The latest news is that Hesbert will become the general manager of Abode Manchester at the end of September.
Another future challenge is for the Abode brand to match the recognition that Michael Caines enjoys. "To get national recognition takes some time," admits Halliday. "Michael gives us the profile to raise the prominence of Abode."
In addition, the key figures of Brownsword and Caines make the company attractive to prospecitve staff, says Halliday. "For Andrew it's not just an investment, it's a family business, a re-investment of the family fortune to create a legacy for the Brownsword family," says Caines.
Being privately owned by an entrepreneur with no immediate exit strategy gives the company stability. Caines, who is much more visible in the business, gives the group its personality and passion.
In fact Abode Hotels, which now employs nearly 500 staff, was recognised as one of Caterer & Hotelkeeper‘s Best Places to Work this year, the first time employees were asked for their comments as part of the judging process.
The group's next hotel is due to open in Salisbury in 2012. "Cathedral towns seem to work best for us," observes Halliday.
This year the group expects work to begin on the former Post Office headquarters. "It will be part-demolition and new-build, and part-restoration of an old Georgian building; an interesting fusion of old and new, probably around 45 bedrooms with a restaurant and Champagne bar," says Halliday.
when two brands work as one
If you're looking to run two brands together, make sure there is a clear distinction between the brands.
Create an identity
Marketing a hotel restaurant outside of the hotel helps to remove the psychological barrier that hotel restaurants are only for hotel guests. By branding the restaurant separately you can create its own identity and emphasise the key brand attributes more easily.
Always consider the reasons why you are branding separately. If the two brands are really that different then you need to ensure they are both distinctive. There is no point having two different brands if all the attributes, products and values are identical.
Cross pollinate where possible
The key challenge is to communicate them separately but to ensure cross-pollination where possible.
Each brand needs its own look and feel, colour palette, website and URL. But any benefits of the relationship between the two needs to be highlighted.
In the case of Michael Caines, he can promote the exceptional quality of the cuisine that is available at his Abode hotels by emphasising that he is the executive chef at the Abode restaurants and that he has utilised his two-Michelin-star skills in the menus.
Make sure the two brands are distinctive with their own strong identities. They each need to stand up in their own right. Then use various communication channels - especially the brands' websites - to cross-support each other.
Personalise your brand
The main advantage of developing a person as a brand is the tremendous exposure they receive from the media. People are talked and written about more than restaurants. They can also embed their own personalities into the brand which helps to give it more substance.
The primary downside is that the person's actions impact on the brand - Tiger Woods is a great example - so any personal aspects of their life or business failures can heavily impact on the product.
Source: Paul West, managing director, Ignite Hospitality