Experienced hotelier Brian Williams, formerly of Mandarin Oriental Hotels and the Ritz, has returned to the UK to launch a new breed of discernable, yet affordable, city-centre hotels. He shares the philosophy of Chapter Hotels with Janet Harmer
In creating a new brand of hotels for UK towns and cities, Brian Williams is clear about what he wants to offer. "Good quality and good value are the key essentials of Chapter Hotels," he explains.
"We're trying to introduce what you can find in spades in France and Spain - an excellent product for the discerning traveller, without charging the Earth. There are few doing it in the UK, maybe Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, but not many, and particularly not in towns and cities."
When it comes to quality, Williams is talking about the likes of 200 thread count linen sheets, a 3G iPod touch in all the bedrooms and a menu sourced from top notch British produce, while the value elements are highlighted by a £125 room rate, a glass of Perrier-Jouët at £10, and a free in-room bar.
It appears that Williams has hit a cord with guests to the Montpellier Chapter - the first in the group which opened at the end of 2010 in Cheltenham - if the superlatives on online review sites are anything to go by. The high-quality fixtures and fittings, the generous extras, and the enthusiasm of the staff are mentioned time and time again.
Williams is delighted and confirms that he is on the right track in establishing a group of Chapter hotels in prime towns and cities across the UK. Work is already underway on the transformation of the former Victorian eye hospital in Exeter into a 60-bedroom hotel, which is due to open in April 2012, with a third Chapter scheduled to be launched in Bristol in 2014.
Each hotel will be named after the immediate area in which they are located, with the Cheltenham hotel taking on the name of the upmarket Montpellier district of the town. Hence, the Exeter hotel will be known as the Magdalen Chapter.
For Williams, who is based in Hong Kong as managing director of Swire Properties Hotel Holdings, the launch of Chapter Hotels marks his return to the UK market. He joined Swire - the owners of Cathay Pacific - in 2006 following a high-profile career which has included roles as chief executive of the Scotsman Hotel Group, vice-president of development (EMEA) for Mandarin Oriental, and general manager positions at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong and London, as well as the Ritz, London.
"My remit on arriving at Swire was to look at the geographical diversification of the company's property portfolio," explains Williams. "But since the global financial crisis, the appetite for investment has waned."
However, despite moving at a slower pace than originally planned, Swire has gone ahead and launched two hotel brands in Asia - the House collection of small, luxury properties (Opposite House in Beijing and Upper House in Hong Kong) and EAST, a large-scale, business brand with a 345-bedroom hotel in Hong Kong. While the hotels in Asia are focused on cutting edge design, the Chapter brand in the UK is built around beautiful period buildings, with contemporary, but sympathetic extensions.
The opportunity to launch Chapter Hotels came with Swire's acquisition of the Alias Hotel Group in 2006, which included properties in Cheltenham, Exeter and Brighton. The Brighton hotel - the Seattle, a new-build property on the marina - does not fit into the Chapter branding and continues to be run independently. Meanwhile, the third hotel, after Cheltenham and Exeter, joining the Chapter brand is the Avon Gorge hotel in Bristol, which was bought by Swire from Peel Hotels in 2007.
"All Chapter hotels will carry the same DNA - period buildings, with great rooms, a nice spa and fabulous restaurant, but the design of each will be different," says Williams.
The look of the Montpellier Chapter in Cheltenham - known as the Kandinsky under Alias Hotels - has been created by the architect and design studio Make. Additions to the property include a crescent-shaped extension of 16 bedrooms linked to the original Grade II-listed, Georgian building by a flamboyant clear glass structure known as the veil which wraps around a newly created internal courtyard.
The new crescent bedrooms feature oak flooring, walls of Bath stone and bathrooms incorporated into the bedrooms, which are generally favoured by younger guests. Meanwhile, original elements of the main part of the hotel have been conserved and enhanced, including the renovation of a conservatory with a specially commissioned chandelier by glass artist Isabel Hamm, the repair of the original art deco entrance doors and the restoration of fireplaces and sash window.
Muted colours and thick carpets have been used in the original bedrooms to enhance the traditional spaces with their high ceilings and mouldings. Bespoke solid-wood furniture by British designer Matthew Hilton appears in both the classic bedrooms and the public areas.
Meanwhile, the quiet palate throughout the hotel is enlivened by specially commissioned paintings, photographs and sculptors created by graduate students from Central St Martin's College of Art & Design in London and other contemporary artists.
From the moment guests arrive at the hotel, Williams want them to have minimum hassle and maximum enjoyment. Hence, there is a paperless check-in, no mini-bar charges for the available beers and soft drinks, and PDF invoices to allow regulars to pay their bills after leaving the hotel.
Regarding the mini-bar, Williams says he hates being ripped off by being charged £4.50 for a can of Coca Cola. "At least we don't have to deal with the embarrassing questions regarding in-room drinks at check out," he says.
The relaxed, informal approach of service which Williams is encouraging as a key feature of Chapter hotels, has been an important element of the training which started in the run-up to the opening of the Cheltenham property. The hotel was fully operational for a month before opening to paying guests.
"I believe it is a huge mistake for hotels not to run proper trials - we did it by accommodating and feeding Swire staff and suppliers and think it was an enormously valuable investment," Williams explains. "Staff are very nervous on joining a new hotel and can sometimes get stressed and end up leaving. I was staggered to see how much better the staff were between the start of the trials and the time the hotel opened. The training period really allowed the staff to build up their confidence and develop their personalities, and has contributed greatly to the hotel's success."
With three Chapter hotels due to be open by 2014 - work on the Bristol hotel will get underway once Exeter is open next year - Williams hopes to look at further opportunities for developing the brand in other university and cathedral town and cities. "The most important thing for us is that the location offers demand seven days a week," he says. "Cheltenham is a great starting point as it has strong corporate business from GCHQ and a number of insurance and food companies, as well as tourist demand from visitors to the Cotswolds, racegoers, and people attending the town's literary, jazz and other festivals."
SAMPLE DISHES FROM THE MONTPELLIER CHAPTER
- Spiced aubergine salad with minted yogurt, £7.95
- Roquefort and pear salad, honey and walnut vinaigrette, £7.95/£12.50
- Potato crusted salmon and pollack fishcake with saffron mayonnaise, £7.95
- Lobster salad with new potatoes and vinaigrette, £16.50
- Pork fillet wrapped in Trealy Farm ham, honey glazed belly, crackling, £18.50
- Fillet of sea bass with fennel salad, citrus fruits and olive oil, £18.50
- Treacle tart with caramel sauce, £6.50
- Mango cheesecake with passion fruit sauce, £6.50
- Grilled pineapple with chilli syrup, coconut sorbet, £7.50
Address Bayshill Road, Montpellier, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire Gl50 3AS
Tel 01242 527788
General manager Anne Schaeflein
Head chef Tom Rains
Price from £125 per night, including VAT
Facilities include 74-seat restaurant, spa, fitness room, access to swimming pool and tennis courts at Cheltenham Ladies College five minutes away, library and three meeting rooms
THE FOOD CONCEPT
Chapter Hotels has scored a coup in signing up Simon Hopkinson as its consultant chef. Although it is 16 years since Hopkinson has worked on a full-time basis in a restaurant kitchen - as head chef of Bibendum in London - his influence is still widely felt through his career as a food writer.
And with the launch of The Good Cook, his first TV series, on BBC 1 recently, Hopkinson's enjoyment of cooking and eating foods without fuss or pretension is now being imparted to a wider audience.
Brian Williams was introduced to Hopkinson by Rowley Leigh, chef-proprietor of Café Anglais in London. "I initially asked Rowley if he was interested in consulting, but although he wasn't able to help out, he suggested Simon," he explains.
"I didn't want a fashionable menu with foams, jellies, stacks and smears. I wanted to provide simple, local food, with a certain elegance and style. Within 15 minutes of our first meeting, Simon and I knew we shared the same philosophy of enjoying English food that has a good provenance and is not messed around with."
Hopkinson explains that his role as consultant simply involves talking through menu ideas with the head chef at the Montpellier Chapter, Tom Rains, who previously worked at the Old Bell hotel in Malmesbury, Wiltshire.
"We discuss menu ideas and we talk though how specific dishes may be put together," says Hopkinson. "For instance, having carried out a lot of research into the origins of sticky toffee pudding, I spoke to Tom about the importance of ensuring the dish had a delicious sticky top.
"I emphasise the importance of the Englishness of dishes, but that doesn't mean we can't do an asparagus risotto when English asparagus is in season.
"Ultimately the menu is about careful, unshowy cooking, which is enjoyable to eat."
One thing Hopkinson has insisted on is that all hot food at breakfast is cooked to order. "Breakfast is really one of the most important meals in a hotel and I think it makes all the difference if it is cooked freshly, rather than coming from a buffet," he adds.
1 Know your target customer and their demographic profile/lifestyle preferences
2 Understand your "price-point" and competitive positioning. Mention your price point as often as possible in your marketing communications
3 Know your channels of distribution and cost of bookings
4 Make sure your staff know exactly what your brand stands for, who your customers will be, what the owners expectations are for occupancy, average rate and overall returns. Invest in comprehensive training, appropriate trials prior to opening and brand reinforcement on a regular basis
5 Empower your general managers and senior management on property as they will be the key ambassadors for your brand
6 Don't "promise" something you can't deliver and don't use over hyped superlatives in your marketing
7 Ensure your websites are clear, easy to use and informative. Invest in an active social media campaign
8 And finally, and most obviously, the most important thing to do on a daily basis is to really look after every customer in your hotel TODAY. Every satisfied customer can be an ambassador for your brand
Brian Williams, Chapter Hotels