Nick Jones, founder and chief executive of Soho House & Co, has been named the 2015 Hotelier of the Year, sponsored by Casna Group. Janet Harmer finds out how he has created a business that has comprehensively shaken up the way hotels look and operate today
It is something of a surprise to discover that the stiff and starchy styling of homes in suburban Surrey in the 1970s was the catalyst behind the effortlessly relaxed look of the Soho House & Co portfolio of properties, which,
when combined, comprise the largest pool of hospitality members in the world today.
The highly distinct style of hotels and members' clubs within Soho House, which Nick Jones founded 20 years ago is, he explains, a reaction against the middle-class background in Cobham where he grew up.
"It was all about swags and tails and uncomfortable dining room chairs. I wanted to create the opposite of that."
Not only has the much-lauded and copied design ethos of Soho House been an antidote to the domestic interior design of 40 years ago, but it has also been revolutionary in comparison to the rigid regime to which hotels had
previously adhered to.
He was a disruptor in hospitality long before the term was ever applied to the sector. With Babington House - launched in Somerset in 1998 - Jones kicked off the concept of laid-back luxury mixed with glamour
within a country house setting. And more recently - just three months ago - he opened Soho Farmhouse: a unique resort-style concept for the UK market, with its offer of 40 individually designed cabins and extensive
eating and leisure outlets within a 100-acre Oxfordshire estate. In between he has created a whole raft of ground-breaking city properties, both at home and abroad.
The judging panel of the 33rd Hotelier of the Year award was hard-pushed to think of a more influential hotel operator who has maintained a hands-on approach to running his business in recent years. Gordon Campbell
Gray described Jones, who wins the coveted accolade 25 years after winning an Acorn Award, as a hotelier who is totally in tune with the here and now: "Nick is a man who sees no boundaries and is a total original
with an amazing sense of bravado. He curates exciting, sexy places."
Robin Hutson, who worked alongside Jones for a period as chairman of Soho House, is equally as enthusiastic, calling him "one of the bravest and most inspirational people" he has met in the hospitality industry.
"Never bogged down by the weight of convention, Nick bases his decisions on what he would like to see, eat and experience," he says. "He is a tough operator who never shies away from those tough decisions; obsessed
with details and doing things differently - he relishes being ahead of the fashion curve. He has the full range of skills: diplomat, designer, gourmet, entrepreneur and, above all, he has the ability to sell an idea."
Jones' journey to the top is a remarkably inspirational one when considering the battle he has endured along the way with dyslexia. He was diagnosed at the age of 10 or 11 and went to Shiplake College in Henley-on-Thames, an independent boarding school which he credits with encouraging pupils to reach their full potential.
For Jones, dyslexia has probably played a significant role in helping him to think in a highly creative way, but he also recognises that there is no way of telling which way the condition will take you. According to the
National Literacy Trust, around 60% of the UK prison population is said to have difficulties in basic literacy skills.
From early on, a career in hospitality was on the cards - he enjoyed working behind the bar in the local rugby club as a teenager, as well as undertaking a summer holiday job as a waiter at the French Horn in Sonning-on-Thames. Initially rejected by the Savoy Management Programme - having been interviewed by the esteemed Olive Barnett - Jones went on to join the Trusthouse Forte (THF) training scheme, which he describes as "hugely beneficial".
"It was unusual then, 35 years ago, for a middle-class, private school-educated boy to go into the industry," he explains. "Catering was what people ended up doing if you couldn't do anything else - I thought that if
I was with people who didn't want to be there, there was more of an opportunity for me." The training took Jones through all departments and a raft of London hotels, starting with a role as breakfast chef at St George's
hotel, Langham Place. "One of my earliest memories was of a guest sending back a dish of porridge, saying that it should be sent to the maintenance department."
Stints followed at Brown's in the front office and bar; the Westbury in housekeeping; Grosvenor House, where he was appointed marketing manager at the age of 21 under sales and marketing director David Elton (now director of Lime Wood Group and Home Grown Hotels); and the central office in Slough Jones' last job at THF was as back of house manager for the Hyde Park hotel (now the Mandarin Oriental) - a position he describes as "brutal" - working from 6am to midnight.
"Having done those kind of hours, I'm not very sympathetic with people who don't work hard."
Going it alone
Inspired to set up his own business, Jones left the corporate world behind him and took on job washing up at Pasta Mania, eventually working his way up to branch manager. "It was a great way to learn about the peration
of a fast food business." A job at Maxwell's bar and grill in Covent Garden as night manager followed, enabling him to spend the days writing a business plan for his proposed venture. Over the Top restaurant launched in the late 1980s, with money raised through friends, family and banks, and eventually expanded to three sites in Soho, Fulham and Whiteleys. However, the concept, by Jones' own admission, was "sh*t".
"Nothing was right - the design, food or service - but the process taught me so much about running a business and all about cash flow," he says.
However, Jones was not to be defeated. The launch of Café Bohème, serving classic French dishes from 8am to 3pm, soon followed. From the outset in 1992, the restaurant was a hit and has been busy ever since.
"It seems strange now that there were few places then where you could go to get a full meal after 4pm. I could never understand restaurants which turned customers away five minutes after the official lunch service ended. We simply tore up the rules that had gone before."
The debacle that was Over the Top didn't faze Jones. "I didn't worry about failure as I always thought if the second business didn't work out, I could go back to work for someone else. Failure should be seen as simply a blip and something you just get on with."
At the time, Jones did not immediately think about expansion, but when the former film office above Café Bohème became available, the then-landlord - strip club owner and soft porn publisher Paul Raymond - asked him if would like to take it on. He agreed to do so, but only after he persuaded Raymond to give him a favourable rent and no money required upfront.
The new space provided the launch pad for Soho House. There had been no forethought about creating a private members' club - it simply became one because the door was too narrow to allow it to be a restaurant. "I'm not a club person and didn't know anything about them," he says. The focus on revolving membership around the film and media crowd came about because they were the people who frequented Café Bohème.
The rise of Soho House
Having opened in January 1995 with 500 members, come May the club was empty. "We couldn't understand why, but quickly discovered it was because all the members were at the Cannes Film Festival. So I decided if our members couldn't come to us, we would go to them. The following May we moored a boat off Cannes for members and continued to return there the same time every year."
The success of the original Soho House - loved by members for its homely vibe and tasteful interior - encouraged Jones to create a country version. On finding a Georgian house set within 18 acres of the Somerset countryside, he set about raising the £1.5m deposit he needed. In the process, he contacted Hutson, who had recently opened Hotel du Vin, a concept Jones greatly admired for having no rules.
"I didn't know him, but he very kindly invited me to lunch in Winchester," he explains. "When I asked him for advice on opening a country house hotel, he said it was a stupid idea, suggesting I might manage to do well at the weekend, but how was I ever going to fill it on a wet Tuesday in February? Fortunately, I didn't take his advice, but we became firm friends and I eventually asked him to sit on our board. It gave me great pleasure to be able to phone him on our first wet Tuesday in February at Babington and tell him we were full!"
The thought process behind Babington House kicked into touch the plethora of rules and regulations he was often faced with when staying away. "Why, for instance, could I never get eggs and bacon in a hotel at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon when, after all, the kitchen was likely to have eggs and bacon?
"I also wanted to create bedrooms that were so much nicer than guests had at home. So we put in Sky TV at a time when hardly anyone had it, piles of fluffy towels and lots of bathroom amenities. It was important to provide a sense of generosity. And we employed general managers who were more like hosts welcoming friends to their home."
Jones' approach, which he has gone on to repeat at all 10 Soho House properties with bedrooms, has paid off with an almost continuous occupancy of 98% at Babington House over the past 17 years. Across all the hotels, including the newly launched Soho Farmhouse, occupancy averages at 90%.
"I'm never happy unless we are full," he says. The fact that Jones has so cleverly tapped into the zeitgeist of what guests want is not lost on Hotelier of the Year judge Fiona Duncan, who has reviewed hundreds of hotels in
her career as a critic. "His innovations - which he probably didn't even realise were innovations, just things he correctly felt were right for guests - have filtered through to so many other hotels: from informal dining in front of
open kitchens to free-standing baths in bedrooms; the abandonment of clunky wardrobes in favour of a simple row of hooks; sawn logs filling old fireplaces; and waiters dressed in jeans and chinos," she says.
"His concept of a country hotel (Babington and now Soho Farmhouse) as a club that's accessible to all, is also a first, one that no one has yet had the temerity to emulate."
Despite the expansion of the Soho House empire, Jones has a hand in the development of every new element of the business, whether it is the selection of a specific fabric or item of furniture or the development of a new concept - wherever it is in the world. There is his involvement in the new Soho Home range of furniture, enabling guests to replicate the look of the properties at home, and Soho Works, a creative work-space concept, launching this month in Shoreditch where, for a monthly fee, freelancers will be able to work in a space with a similar design ethic to Soho House.
"Probably to the annoyance of everyone, I like to be in the middle of what's going on. I could never operate from an office - I'm probably only in mine one day every two to three weeks."
Jones at home
Jones tries to achieve some semblance of work-life balance, although he says his wife TV presenter Kirsty Young - would disagree. "I'm usually away three nights a week and try to be back home on Thursday night, spend
Friday at Soho Farmhouse, which is nearby where we live, and be home at the weekend."
He relaxes by cooking and being with his family: he has a son and daughter from his first marriage and two daughters from his second. "There is an intermingling of work and leisure; I don't see them as being two separate entities."
When at work, Jones may be omnipresent, but he recognises the "great team" he has around him, headed by his "brilliant righthand man" and chief operating officer Martin Kuczmarski, that has enabled the growth of the business. He also highlights how loyal the staff are - ensuring strong career development opportunities.
Nick Caton, director of Soho Farmhouse, for instance, is typical. After joining the group as a waiter 16 years ago straight out of university, he has gone on to work at seven different Houses. Most recently he was director of pop-ups, looking after the expansion of the Dirty Burger, Chicken Shop and Pizza East restaurant brands, before moving to Oxfordshire.
Harry Murray said that Jones' track record and ongoing success highlights his passion for people having a good time. "He cares and engages with his own people and puts attitude and work ethic before qualifications. He will be an inspirational ambassador for the hospitality industry at a time when recruitment is a serious issue."
Judge Richard Ball is typical of many hoteliers who have been inspired by Jones. He has adapted his own country house hotel Calcot Manor and is currently creating Painswick, previously known as Cotswold88, with the
aim of appealing to guests who have a desire "to pare back on excess and make more of simplicity". Jones' influence on the country house hotel sector, he says, is impossible to overstate.
"No one dared mix luxury with informality until Nick Jones asked: 'Why do we do it like that?' He ignored outdated guidebook classifications, and reconnected with what our guests really need to chill out in the country.
"Of course, Nick's influence stretches way beyond the country house sector. His freshthinking creativity, innovation, refusal to stay in a box and ability to make a space exciting and vibrant has made our industry sexy again.
Don't expect it to stop there. Just as we catch up, he'll be reinventing."
Indeed, expect much more from Jones in the years to come Soho House & Co: 20 years in the making Despite now operating 15 clubs, Nick Jones hates to think of the business as a corporate entity. He renamed the company from the Soho House Group to Soho House & Co.
"It indicates that we are a growing company, but sounds so much more friendly," he explains.
Looking ahead, there is much to keep the group busy. Overseas, there will be three openings next year in the USA (Soho Ludlow House in New York, Little Beach House in Malibu, California, and Soho Warehouse in Los Angeles), alongside a launch in Barcelona. Subsequent openings overseas are set for Amsterdam, Tokyo and Hong Kong, joining those already established in New York, Miami, Chicago, West Hollywood, Berlin and Istanbul.
Meanwhile, back in London, the original Soho House at 40 Greek Street will close for refurbishment in 2016, while the nearby Soho House 76 Dean Street has recently opened with 40 bedrooms. Also in Soho, Kettners restaurant and private events space will be transformed into Kettners Town House with 24 bedrooms. And in 2017, White City House, with up to 50 bedrooms, a gym and cinema, will launch in the former BBC
Television Centre in Shepherd's Bush.
In addition to plans currently with the council for a Soho House in Brighton, Jones said he would love to develop a second coastal property in the UK and maybe a resort in southern Europe.
At an annual membership of £1,200, Soho Farmhouse is the most expensive House in the UK to join, with the cheapest being Little House in Mayfair at £400. Alternatively, new members can select to join every House in
the group for a £1,400 annual fee. Since founding the business 20 years ago, Jones has sold shares to finance expansion. American investor Ron Burkle acquired a 60% stake for around £250m in 2012, with 30% held by Richard Caring of Caprice Holdings and 10% by Jones.
Turnover for the UK element reached £83.8m in 2014, up 14.3% on the previous year, according to the company's most recent annual accounts lodged at Companies House. Adjusted earnings before interest, taxes,
depreciation and amortisation for the same period declined by 2.7% to £9.1m.
- Harry Murray Chairman, Lucknam Park hotel & spa, Colerne, Wiltshire, and 1986 Hotelier of the Year
- Gordon Campbell Gray Chairman, CampbellGray Hotels, and 2002 Hotelier of the Year
- Robin Hutson Chairman and chief executive, Lime Wood Group & Home Grown Hotels, and 2003 Hotelier of the Year
- John Stauss Regional vice-president and general manager, Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane, and 2005 Hotelier of the Year
- Richard Ball Chairman, the Calcot Collection, and 2006 Hotelier of the Year
- Andrew McKenzie Managing director, the Vineyard Group, and 2008 Hotelier of the Year
- Jonathan Raggett Managing director, Red Carnation Hotels, and 2009 Hotelier of the Year
- Stuart Johnson General manager, Brown's hotel, London, and 2012 Hotelier of the Year
- Stuart Bowery General manager, Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott Hotel, London, and 2013 Hotelier of the Year
- Danny Pecorelli Managing director, Exclusive Hotels and Venues, and 2014 Hotelier of the Year
- Fiona Duncan Hotel critic, The Sunday Telegraph
- Simon Numphud Head of AA Hotel Services
Chaired by Amanda Afiya, editor, and Janet Harmer, hotels editor, both The Caterer
What the sponsor says
"We are extremely proud to sponsor the Hotelier of the Year award as it highlights the excellent work taking place in today's hospitality industry. Being successful at this level takes a huge amount of hard work, 24-hour commitment and a total dedication to exceeding excellence. These are standards and ethics that we share at Casna. And that's one of the reasons why we are so delighted to see our colleagues in the industry reap the rewards of their hard work and to take their place as a real inspiration to others. The Hotelier of the Year award is an accolade of the highest honour that we are delighted to be associated with."
Nick Appell, managing director, Casna Group
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