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Robin Sheppard, chairman, Bespoke Hotels
A determined entrepreneurial streak has ensured success for Robin Sheppard throughout the four decades he has worked in the hospitality industry. Throw a wicked sense of humour into the mix and you come up with someone who is regarded as one of the most engaging of hoteliers who has said that the most irritating thing about the industry is "hotels that take themselves more seriously than their customers."
After studying hotel administration at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University), he entered the industry at the Adelphi in Liverpool, then part of British Transport Hotels, before working up to his first general manager role, at the age of 27, at Bodysgallen hotel, Llandudno, North Wales. Other hotels he went on to manage included the Lygon Arms in Broadway, Worcestershire; Royal Berkshire in Ascot, Berkshire; and the Bath Spa in Bath.
Created in 2001 to manage and inject value into the often overlooked regional mid-market sector, Bespoke has burgeoned into a business that now has an international division and comprises more than 170 hotels, 8,000 employees and £815m of assets. The company has a financial stake in a small number of properties including one of its biggest successes to date, the award-winning 60-bedroom Hotel Gotham in Manchester, which is now set to expand to other regional cities.
However, in the midst of building Bespoke into the successful business it is today, Sheppard was struck down with a virulent illness which at one point left him paralysed. He was found to be suffering from Guillain-Barré syndrome, which affects the peripheral nervous system. Sheppard had to relearn how to sit, stand and walk and has been left without a sense of smell or any feeling in his fingertips or toes, resulting in a loss of all fine motor controls and restricted mobility.
Despite a two-year recovery period, Sheppard was never going to let the illness hold him back from continuing to work in an industry that continues to inspire him. Indeed, it has led him to campaign on behalf of disabled guests who he believes are often treated like second-class citizens by hotels.
"There is not much chuffing joy at being disabled and rocking up at a hotel knowing you will end up being put into a basic room next to the lifts," he said.
In order to encourage a more "joyful experience" for disabled guests, Sheppard has played an instrumental role in launching the Bespoke Access Awards in conjunction with the Royal Institute of British Architects. Winners of the first set of awards, with prize money totalling £30,000, were announced this week. "The awards are not about rules and regulations; it's about changing hearts and minds, he says."
Sheppard ultimately wants everyone to enjoy and feel welcome in every hotel - both within his own company and the wider sector. For the commercial success he has enjoyed throughout his career and the inclusivity he continually promotes, Sheppard is the perfect winner of this year's Outstanding Contribution award.
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