The Caterer and hotelkeeper Interview – Andrew Coney, general manager, InterContinental London Westminster

14 December 2012 by
The Caterer and hotelkeeper Interview – Andrew Coney, general manager, InterContinental London Westminster

Andrew Coney is the general manager of the new InterContinental London Westminster which welcomes its first guests today. He tells Janet Harmer how he intends for the hotel to become the hub of political life

Why did you decide to apply for the role of general manager at InterContinental's first new hotel in the UK for 36 years?
I'm something of a frustrated politician. When I was growing up, I decided I wanted to be either a hotel manager or a politician. I have always loved politics and used to regularly watch debates in the House of Commons, so to be able to run a high-quality hotel in an area where we shall be playing a role in the local political community, is the ultimate job for me.

The first InterContinental quickly became an iconic hotel upon opening on Park Lane in 1976. Can the InterContinental Westminster have the same impact?

The hotel will be largely business-driven, with a mix of guests from the UK and the USA. Immediately around the hotel, the area is on the cusp of a transition, with the likes of Microsoft, Google and the Daily Telegraph nearby.

Primarily our customers will be split between the players - those connected to the political life of Westminster who will use our F&B - and the stayers, mostly made up of the business community.

The development of the hotel was significantly delayed (see page 28). How did you use that time? I was actually appointed as general manager in 2011, so we have had a long time to make sure that we've got everything right. I've spent a lot of time visiting hotels to see what they are doing, as well as ensuring that we've got the team right with a strong focus on taking on high-quality and engaged staff who are able to provide consistent service. One of the key failings I've picked up from visiting other properties is a widespread inconsistency of service.

How do you intend to offer consistent service? Our mantra is Empowered To Be Extraordinary as we want the staff to have the confidence to come up with a solution to any problem, as it arises. We don't want them to refer to a manager or a supervisor or tell the guest to write to head office. If it is appropriate, we want them to invite the customer back without charge. The most important thing is that a guest sees that the team member is genuinely concerned and is able to turn a negative into a positive.

But hopefully, empowerment will not be just about dealing with negative situations, it will also involve being proactive and providing what the guest wants or what will impress the guest. So, for instance, if a guest checking in happens to mention it is a special occasion, then we want the receptionist to arrange for Champagne on ice to be in the bedroom before the guest even arrives there. By providing this kind of individual attention to detail - with genuine passion behind it - the wow factor will start to kick in. How we approach service has been a big deal throughout the training process.

How would you sum up the design of the hotel? There are many contrasting areas of the public spaces, but overall we didn't want it to feel intimidating. RPW Design, led by Jan Wilson, has been responsible for the interiors. While the lounge, used for afternoon tea, probably has the most conventional InterContinental feel about the hotel, Emmeline's - named after the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst - is a more ethereal space. This is where cocktails and Champagne will be served. In the restaurant - the Blue Boar Smokehouse & Bar - we have aimed to create a brasserie atmosphere where there will be a lot of chatter and energy, with a specific area set aside for people who want to eat quickly. We will have a division bell here - which had to be agreed by the Sergeant at Arms and receive the support of six MPs - ensuring members will be able to get back to the Houses of Parliament within eight minutes to vote.

Describe the thinking behind the Blue Boar Smokehouse & Bar? It is inspired by American pit barbecue restaurants, such as the Blue Smoke in New York. It is a concept that is relatively new to London, but we are doing it on a more stylish level than anything which currently exists here. The Blue Boar will offer a British twist to what you will find in the USA, so we are offering a dish of pulled lamb shoulder, as well as the more traditional pulled rare-breed pork. Other dishes, cooked over the charcoal and wood grill, include Yorkshire rose veal T-bone with anchovy and caper butter, and stuffed fillet of sea bass with preserved lemon, samphire and fennel. We will also be offering conventional burgers and ribs.

We made a conscious decision not to recruit the restaurant and bar managers from a hotel background as we want the Blue Boar to have the feel of a street restaurant and bar and be part of the local community. The restaurant manager, Nikki Wilkinson, came from Rhubarb Catering, and the bar manager, Nuno Pires, was previously at Hawksmoor.

What will be some of the key features of the 256 bedrooms? Among the bedrooms, there are 14 suites - including one penthouse, and 40 studio rooms. The complimentary mini-bars are stocked with water and soft drinks and the 
TVs are hidden away behind mirrors. The decor is simple and charming with carpets which reflect a finger print design, which is a nice reference to our neighbours at New Scotland Yard.

Free Wi-Fi is available in the bedrooms - as it is throughout the whole hotel. People absolutely expect it at this level - and why shouldn't they, it is critical. Can you imagine Andrew Marr sitting in the lobby and having to pay for a code to be able to use his laptop?

What provisions have you made for the Members of Parliament and other Government personnel who are expected to make up an important part of your business? It is very important that staff are able to recognise key figures - as many of these customers will have an expectation of recognition - as well as be aware of what is going on within the world of politics. So to ensure the team become politically savvy, we are providing everyone with a daily bulletin of the latest news and images of all the key people within the local area. It is also extremely important that the team are totally discreet about anything they overhear - which inevitably they will. The hotel, potentially, could become the location where new coalitions are formed, but we have to be totally water-tight if we are the first to hear any major news.

Art reflecting the political world of Westminster is evident throughout the hotel. Tell us more about it? We really wanted to reflect the political locality in which we are situated - hence we have several major piece of art throughout the hotel which highlights life within the Houses of Parliament. In the bar, for instance, we have a large canvas by Agamaria Pasternak (see 
page 27), which features all 650 members of the House of Commons, as well as several political cartoons by Gerald Scarfe, Marin Rowson and Peter Brooks, which we think will flatter the politicians. More humour is found in the loos with political sound bites and the "hear, hear, hear" from Parliamentary debates and Mrs Thatcher's "no, no, no" as background noise.

What was your focus on recruiting the staff?
We were inundated with applications and have recruited 180 staff in total, including 24 in the kitchen. The delay in the opening of the hotel worked in our favour as it meant we were able to take the time to make sure we took on staff who had something special to bring to the hotel. It particularly enabled us to look for the best senior managers and heads of department - such as Scot Turner, who came from Coworth Park where he was food and beverage director, to be our hotel manager, and Jon Ingram, who we recruited as executive chef from the Grove in Hertfordshire.

We've also worked closely with the charity Soldier On! to help find jobs for former British war veterans. It seemed to be a particularly appropriate thing to do as we are situated nearby Wellington Barracks, from where troops are dispatched or prepare for major events of pageantry. They are proving to be a fabulous addition to the team. For instance, the assistant meetings and events manager, who used to run the mess at the barracks, has the most extraordinarily disciplined work ethic.

With the widespread number of London hotel openings in the past two years, is there room for another five star property like the InterContinental London Westminster? Well, I'm determined that we are not regarded as just another opening. And I do think we are different for two reasons. First, the hotel itself is very impressive and will surprise guests - in a good way. And second, I think our consistently extraordinary service ethos will ensure we stand out from the crowd. It is my intention that any member of staff who has the InterContinental London Westminster on their CV will impress any future employer.

Andrew Coney CV

2010-present General manager, InterContinental London Westminster
2009-2010 General manager, Grand Hotel 
& Spa, York
2008-2009 General manager, the Tower, London
2005-2008 General manager, Slaley Hall Hotel & Golf Resort, Northumberland
2002-2005 General manager, the Cavendish, London
2001-2002 General manager, Le Meridien Excelsior, London Heathrow London
1999-2001 General manager, Le Meridien Waldorf, London
1996-1999 General manager/regional general manager, Posthouse Hotels, London
1995-1996 General manager, Saint Georges Hotel, London
1994-1995 Executive assistant to the managing director, Le Meridien & Forte Grand Hotels
1991-1994 Deputy general manager, 
the Westbury, London

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