Star treatment

27 May 2004
Star treatment

Outside of the industry, hotels are known for just two reasons: you, or someone you know, has stayed there, or someone we all know has. Celebrity guests and endorsements can mean big bucks for hotels in terms of publicity. Celebrities are also big spenders, usually taking the most expensive suites in the hotel for themselves and booking out a few more, if not the entire hotel, for their entourages. So, what do you do as a hotelier? Do you tell the world about your VIP guest or do you keep it under your hat?

Being chosen as one of four hotels in Edinburgh to host celebrities for the MTV Europe music awards last November certainly helped boost the reputation of the Eton Group's Glasshouse hotel. Managing director Peter Tyrie reckons that playing host to hot glam rockers The Darkness and a host of other celebrities definitely put the hotel on the map. He credited the publicity it got from the awards as one of the reasons it was the only Scottish property to feature in glossy magazine Cond‚ Nast Publications' Top 50 Hotels of the World.

Kevin Nicholas, marketing and PR director for Eton, says being chosen not only meant the hotel was full, but also resulted in a lot of high-profile people seeing the hotel, ensuring that it got its name mentioned in the press. "The Sun sent a journalist up to Edinburgh before the awards to find out where the celebrities were staying," says Nicholas. "In terms of PR for the hotel, the piece was brilliant."

Getting your name out to four million people isn't usually free, he adds. But telling the papers the information yourself is a big no-no for hoteliers. Charles Oak, communications director at Radisson Edwardian, says telling people about your celebrity guests in a bid to get press coverage is too short-term and can be counterproductive.

"It would be wonderful if we could get into the glossy magazines by telling them who we have staying," says Oak, "but we pride ourselves on the fact that we won't talk about people. We have a reputation for being very discreet. If a celebrity finds out a hotel has told the papers they won't stay there again. We hope that if celebrities stay with us it will get round by word of mouth."

At Eton Group, Nicholas says they make a point of not talking about a celebrity guest while they are staying with the group, but does admit that since the MTV awards he has unashamedly name-dropped on many a press release.

Rob Baldry, head of marketing at Corus Hotels, says there's absolutely no publicity before a stay. "That's a golden rule for us. The privacy of every guest is important and even more so for a celebrity guest," he says. But after a stay there's definitely an opportunity from a marketing and public relations point of view. Baldry cites the Edgwarebury hotel close to Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, where EastEnders is filmed, as an example. Pop flop Kym Marsh and former EastEnders star Jack Ryder married at the hotel. Although the company was unable to talk about anything before the event, the wedding was featured in celebrity magazine OK!, which gave the hotel a lot of coverage. It could also be used for internal publicity to give employees a bit of boost, adds Baldry.

Keeping mum about celebrity guests not only benefits you in terms of your reputation in the celebrity world, it can also protect you from a lot of the hassle that goes along with fame. Murray Thompson, UK director of sales and marketing at Rocco Forte Hotels, says the leaking of information about a celebrity guest can wreak havoc on your hotel's operation. When singer Beyonc‚ was in Edinburgh for the MTV awards, information - apparently from her own camp - leaked out that she was staying at the Balmoral. What followed could have proved a nightmare as the pop diva caused a massive traffic jam outside the hotel.

But despite the headaches that sometimes go hand in hand with having famous faces staying at your hotel, most hoteliers value their business. "Celebrities are a valuable part of our business because they come back time and time again," says Thompson. "And if they're seen at our hotels then it can benefit the property because of that association." They can also generate more custom as fans book into the hotel in a bid to get close to their favourite celebrity.

Celebrities are important to Firmdale Hotels, which is a favourite among the rich and famous, says operations director Carrie Wicks. She says the company refuses to talk about its celebrity guests by name, which has led to it becoming a choice destination for stars visiting London, with many recommending the hotels to their celebrity friends and their agents. Wicks says celebrities sometimes stay a long time, and usually have an entourage and a production team who will also want the high-end (read most expensive) rooms.

So what do you have to do to get the celebrities checking in time and time again? "We always find out what the celebrity guest wants before they arrive," says Wicks. "Whether they want to check in at the front desk or not, etc. We let the guests dictate how they want to be treated. We don't give them any special treatment unless they ask for it, which helps them feel comfortable and to blend in," she adds.

There's never too much you can do for a star. Celebrities are by their nature a demanding clientele, so make sure you're prepared to pander to their every need. And there could be some bizarre requests. Staff at Firmdale once had to fly in oranges from Israel for one guest, while at Radisson Edwardian, staff were instructed to fill one star's bedroom (and bathroom) with tiny yellow tea roses.

But the main advice hoteliers that have captured the celebrity market give is not to actively seek stars, and once you get them as guests, be as discreet and subtle as possible. Make sure your staff don't go weak at the knees when Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie walk into the hotel. Training your staff to deal with famous and VIP guests and all the extras that go along with it is vital.

Most hotels that have regular celebrity guests will give staff training. Oak says all staff who join Radisson Edwardian go through an induction that touches on dealing with VIP guests, but adds that front-of-house staff, concierges and food and beverage staff, who all have close contact with stars, receive more intensive training.

He says staff are told not to ask for autographs or to get excited when celebrities are in the hotel, and that they should treat them the same as any other important guest. They are also trained in the tactics celebrity guests use when staying at hotels, such as using aliases, and are told why they use them and how important remaining incognito is.

At Firmdale, says Wicks, all staff go through a whole day of induction introducing them to the company and the kind of guest they have. "We make sure that staff are not star-struck," she says. "Everyone who goes through this one day of induction will understand what the company is about and that our market is the entertainment, media and advertising industry, which will include the big names."

Preparing staff for a celebrity guest is key if you want to make the star feel comfortable checking into your hotel, so briefing is vital. Having good central support with media-trained individuals is also helpful when dealing with press calls and paparazzi. Baldry says staff at Corus Hotels are told they're not allowed to comment on any guest and have to refer everything back to a central support team. Each hotel also has media enquiry forms so that records of all calls can be kept.

The greatest advice to give staff when dealing with celebrities, however, comes from Craig Markham, marketing and PR director at Firmdale. "The way we make celebrities feel comfortable is by treating them like normal people," he says. "And we treat our ‘normal' guests like celebrities." n

Celeb Management - Do your homework.

  • Don't go over the top.
  • Be on hand to personally manage the situation.
  • Don't be overfamiliar.
  • Be professional at all times.

Stars and Gripes
Mark Fuller, owner of London club Embassy, says it's important to judge whether your celebrities are clamouring for the limelight. The Beckhams may be happy to be splashed across the front covers, but not all your clientele will.

A regular stream of celebrity diners is great as it gives both the staff and other customers a buzz, according to Jamie Barber, co-owner of London restaurants Hush and Zumi. "Treat celebrities as normal people, because that's ultimately what they are," says Barber. And if you want them to come back, never tip off the press and don't offer them a complimentary meal, as it's embarrassing.

"Banning cameras from the restaurant also goes without saying," says Fuller, but he concedes camera phones are becoming a significant problem. "You can hardly ask other guests to surrender their mobiles."

Soren Jessen, owner of London restaurants Noble Rot and One Lombard Street, where Hollywood stars Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman rub shoulders with European royalty and supermodels such as Naomi Campbell, believes treating any two customers the same is a mistake, celebrity or not. "Some people will want to be pampered, others will prefer to be left alone," he says. "You have to be aware of the occasion and tailor your service to suit."

Another thing to remember is that not all celebrities like each other, warns Fuller, so getting the seating arrangements right is a must if you're going to avoid a nasty Luis Vuitton handbag fight. Barber points out that most celebrities prefer a discreet corner table, sitting with their backs to the other diners to avoid attention.

General manager Mark Cox agrees that doing your homework is important. He runs Nottingham's Lace Market hotel, which is essentially three businesses operating under one umbrella. It includes a four-red-star, 42-bedroom townhouse; Merchants, a 70-seat restaurant, and the Saint Bar. Recent guests include boy band Blue, Ronan Keating and American folk singer Joan Baez.

"If on our daily guest list there's a name we don't recognise we do a web search to find out more," says Cox. "Recently one of our unknowns turned out to be the CEO of a major blue-chip company, so it pays to know exactly who you're looking after."

Cox recommends keeping up-to-date notes on regulars, as knowing their dietary requirements and favourite drink wins friends. "Looking after your guests goes without saying," says Fuller. "I have in the past informed a young footballer that the girl he's chatting up is from the press." However, he warns you should never be overfriendly with your VIPs; professional at all times is best.

Jessen agrees, saying: "We avoid calling celebrities by just their first or surnames, no matter how often they come to the restaurant. The safest option is to use something along the lines of sir or madam, but avoid sounding stuffy."

While most stars will have their own security arrangements, Cox takes no risks at Lace Market, employing a team of private security experts when VIPs are on the premises. On the flip side, Fuller says you need to be on hand to back up staff, and head off any potential problems with guests suffering diva syndrome after too much Cristal.

The celebrity hotelier A whole host of celebrities are involved in the hotel world. Michael Douglas, Clint Eastwood, Robert de Niro and John Malkovich all have interests in hotels. They all make plenty of money from their film careers, so what makes them want to invest in the hospitality industry?

TV's man behaving badly Neil Morrissey has several hospitality ventures in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire. The actor owns - along with business partner Matt Roberts and designer Juliet Wills, wife of singer Billy Bragg - Hurst House hotel, the Mariners pub and Brown's hotel in the Welsh town. And he has plans to expand further. The trio will open a members-only club in London in November and are looking into buying the 13th-century Laugharne Castle when it comes up for auction next month.

Morrissey got into the hotels business after staying at Hurst House and falling in love with the place. He and Roberts already knew each other and decided to go into business together. Roberts, who has a media history himself, says there are links between the world of celebrity and hospitality.

"It's all about entertaining people and making money out of it. Some celebrities invest in a restaurant or hotel like it's a medallion. That's not the right way. You should invest to make money and be involved in the ethos of it," he says.

And having a celebrity on board can sometimes be a hindrance as well as a help. Roberts says having a celebrity owner is important in the promotion of Hurst House but that the company is trying to get people to focus on its business rather than on Morrissey.

"It gets us a lot of national press," says Roberts, "but we're after high-spend individuals, not coach parties. People have stopped outside and done a ‘this is Neil Morrissey's pub' photo stop and then moved on. We don't want that really, it can be a hindrance."

Celebrity aliases Britney Spears - Jade Moet
Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston - Mr and Mrs Ross Vegas
Ozzy Osborne - Prince Albert or Harry Bollocks
Sharon Stone - Phoebe Turner
Elton John - Bobo Latrine or Sir Humphrey Handbag
Tiger Woods - B Simpson

The behind-the-camera hotelier Stuart Doughty, 54, had worked in television for more than 30 years, mostly as a producer, but seven months ago he left the world of entertainment and bought a hotel with his wife Lin.

"Having done the same thing for 30 years it comes to a point when you think I wouldn't mind doing something else," says Doughty. "As you get older you think differently. Television isn't a job you can carry on doing into your 60s, while running a hotel is."

He adds that having been a producer there isn't a great deal else you can do when you decide to leave the profession, and opening a business is one of just a few career paths that remain open to you.

And the move into the hotels world has meant a few changes for Doughty. "I'm earning much less than I did 12 months ago, and all my worldly goods are in one building that's also our business, which is frightening and exciting."

Doughty says there aren't many similarities between his new life as a hotelier and his previous life as a television producer, but he does see some link between his current role and his early life in the theatre. "With a hotel and restaurant you do a performance every night. There's a similarity between the hotel business and the theatre in that you're putting on a show each night and have to be ready for your performance."

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