After 10 years in California, Kevin Wood returned to Bournemouth to run the refurbished 102-bedroom Cumberland hotel. Aaron Morby talks to Wood about how he has turned it into a flagship destination hotel on the seafront
Need to know Kevin Wood started out as a young waiter, climbed the ranks and at the tender age of 23 found he was being celebrated as Bournemouth's youngest hotel manager.
After several years running the three-star New Durley Dean, he took what turned into a 10-year career break in California before being lured back by his former employers with an offer to become a junior partner and run the iconic Cumberland hotel.
His hotelier business partners, Brian Shone and Terence Taylor, bought Bournemouth's only purpose-built Art Deco hotel in 2006 and with Wood at the helm have created a flagship destination hotel on the seafront.
Hotels each side of the Cumberland were scooped up when the chance arose and now form a modern, independent resort complex with 280 rooms.
"The Cumberland looks magnificent now but it disguises a chequered past," says Wood.
During the Second World War, the US Army liked its uninterrupted sea view so much they commandeered it as a HQ ahead of the Normandy landings. After that it became a specialist Jewish hotel, complete with large synagogue, before being sold again to endure an inauspicious period as a "bog standard, brown and orange" seafront hotel, explains Wood.
Target audience Now fully refurbished to the designs of Sue Mirco, the stylish-looking Cumberland draws in mixed crowds, from year-round leisure break guests to corporates and a smart younger weekend set.
"We never drop below 60% occupancy in January, which is saying something in a seaside resort," says Wood.
The Cumberland rolls Art Deco, boutique and destination hotel into one. "We like to be elegant with a funky edge and splash of neon. Its not a place to convalesce at the weekend, if you want a quiet and elegant approach, you come during the week."
For a 102-room hotel, the Cumberland carries a legion of staff with 60 full-time and 40 casuals. The team ranges from greeters to smart grey-suited managers and striking pink-shirted brasserie staff who run a liquor service around the hotel. The Cumberland also runs two separate kitchen teams catering for differing dining experiences.
"It's a price we're willing to pay to deliver the best of a traditional service that makes an impact from the outset," says Wood. His time in California transformed his views about quality service.
Marketing The Cumberland actively welcomes different cultures and outlooks, something else Wood picked up on during his stay on the US west coast. The progressive style sets the hotel apart. The hotel advertises in the local gay guide and promotes itself as a gay and lesbian friendly destination. In this vein, it hosts civil marriage services, supports the Bournefree gay pride week and draws in a cosmopolitan pink pound contingent.
Wood is also a big believer in the internet. He says TripAdvisor has its flaws, but he makes a point of replying to every guest's posting, whether favourable or not. "We've had guests come to the hotel saying they were so intrigued by our responses that they decided to come and see for themselves."
The Cumberland also uses Twitter and Facebook, tweeting upcoming events, parties and January offers as low as £30 a night.
As a well-priced deco destination hotel, the Cumberland draws in wedding parties most weekends with conferences helping fill the rooms during the rest of the week. A busy calendar of shows and events contribute about 15% of total revenue. Its most lucrative period comes during the four-day Bournemouth air show in August where takings soar to £150,000 over the week.
Growth The Cumberland has created a stylish brasserie, voted best bar in Bournemouth, which now drives revenue.
The Ventana brasserie is popular as a place to socialise and eat all the year round with both guests and locals. It boasts a dedicated head chef, Ginef Camilliera, and a five-strong kitchen team working alongside the hotel's other main restaurant kitchen staff.
The formula works well and the bustling brasserie now serves up a third of the Cumberland's profits.
"It's like Hell's Kitchen in there sometimes but we keep things apart because we are doing something very different with the food and style at the Ventana," explains Wood.
So far, the Cumberland has coasted the downturn, delivering profit growth of between 9% and 11% over the last three years. Turnover has more than doubled from the £1.5m Wood inherited when he took over five years ago. He expects to set another record this year.
Business advice "You've got to keep ahead of the times and not be afraid to gamble a little bit."
Wood says his long time away from Britain proved an eye-opener because so little had changed in the hospitality industry when he returned to Bournemouth, particularly around delivering more choice.
"You will always get one or two people moaning that they preferred things the way they were, but you have to stick to what you believe and be single-minded."
Favourite supplier Eighty-year-old Gena Sheldon from wine merchant Tolchard & Sons brings a wealth of experience that the Cumberland has grown to trust.
"When we first met her she fought so hard for the business that we gave her a shot.
She's been in the wine business all her life, fights like a Rottweiler, and gets us some very good deals."
Spotlight on the swimming pool
Bournemouth's not Miami but the Cumberland's management maintains Art Deco architecture, stylish swimming pool areas and palm trees go well together wherever the location.
"We've worked hard to make the pool area luxurious and a place to be seen."
Special wind-resistant palms from Brazil conjure up a tropical atmosphere, while double bed poolside loungers up the decadence. Cocktails are served around the pool from May to October.
Weekend chill-out events brought in brisk trade in past years, but this season they are being superseded by fashionable afternoon T-dances, laced with cocktails and ambient music.
"We've just taken a booking for a party of 50, the other day it was a hen party of 40. So it looks like it's taking off," Wood says.
kevin wood's revelations
Favourite hotel Delano Miami
Favourite restaurant The Ivy
Book that has inspired Hotel Babylon by Imogen Edwards-Jones
Motto Can do…
If you were not a hotelier, what would you have been? Architect
Who do you most admire? Richard Branson
Describe your business in five words Driven, dynamic, edgy, passionate, proud
Facts and stats
Managing Director Kevin Wood
Other partners Brian Shone and Terence Taylor
Head chef Richard Howard
Staff 100 (60 full-time, 40 casual)
Average room rate £110
Average food spend £35 per head
Average weekly occupancy 87%