Hotelier Roberto Pajares is a serial "opening GM". Already on his fifth opening project, the Ampersand in South Kensington is due to open in August. He talks to Emily Manson about the skills needed for this niche role and his latest project
Tell us about the Ampersand hotel
The idea is to connect to the local area and nearby museums through the design. It's contemporary and stylish but soft. Designer Dexter Moren Associates has put a lot of thought into the quirky design of the communal areas and five different room types. Reference points are definitely the Arch and Firmdale, although we're more contemporary. We're selling rooms from 31 August but are hoping to open it up earlier in phased stages.
What's your guest profile?
We're looking at 60% leisure and 40% business which is why we signed up with Small Luxury Hotels as they're very strong on leisure. We expect the UK will be the biggest market at around 30%, then the USA and then central Europe. We'll work with smaller corporates in the local area and the entertainment markets around Hammersmith and Kensington. We're also on board with OTAs and some wholesalers as our strategy is to be busy from the off.
What have been the challenges/setbacks?
The unknowns: in terms of building works. It was the ‘Savoy factor' - as an old building when we started going into the walls, the condition wasn't as good as we'd thought. We had to rip out pipework and replace it completely but that was all much earlier. There are fewer surprises now that the project is nearing completion.
Isn't it crazy to launch a boutique hotel in the middle of a recession?
We're offering value in the market with a brand new product when others are ageing, so we immediately have the advantage in that sense. London's also proved to be very resilient and we anticipate easily hitting 65% occupancy with an average room rate of £180-£200.
Having said that, no one really knows what's around the corner. We're well financed so there is a bit of wiggle room and the bank's not breathing down our necks from day one.
How do you decide what level to pitch a new hotel at?
It's about size of room, product and quality of services. We have decided not to have a dedicated concierge, we have a small gym and no massive spa facilities, and the rates reflect that. We're looking at the competition all the time, so we know that as long as we're in the market at the right price, there's no reason not to get our share. We're not being aggressive on rates and hope to keep the rate and build occupancy. Standard rooms midweek start at £145 rising to £365 for suites.
What's the key to successful refurbishment?
On time and on budget. It's difficult and challenging to deliver either or both but that's the reality. The project also has to be realistic, and not over-spent or over-engineered. It's about knowing what rate you're going to achieve and working back from there to figure out how much money you can spend. If the owner has millions and doesn't expect a return that's great, but then they have to understand they're putting ‘the commercials' aside.
How far off budget can you go - have you gone?
St Pancras's budget moved massively but that was because they consciously upgraded the spec and increased the rate correspondingly. That was my job - to make it more upmarket and push for a £40 higher rate than originally budgeted - there was business theory behind it and it's been a big success. More generally, if you're 20-30% over budget you're getting into deep trouble, unless there's some good reason.
This is your fourth new opening - it's quite your niche now. Is that what you intended?
Not at all. When I left InterContinental I went into restaurants for a while but I fell back into hotels. If I think it's exciting then I will do it. It's always about the project for me - I wish I could be doing more - Café Royal, the Savoy, Corinthia, they're all brilliant. I love new openings, I'm addicted to them. You start from nothing, no office, ordering everything and making the tea.
You've spent time with the big boys InterContintental, Marriott and Hilton as well as independents. What are the key differences?
Sometimes I think I should have stayed at IHG and taken an easier route but I like working with independents - it's as close as you get to running your own business. Sir Terence Conran's philosophy was all about giving you the freedom to run the operation like it was your own business.
It's easier to take risks in independents. There are things that brands like Marriott just can't even consider, but here or at the Great Eastern you can have fun, take risks, be controversial and push boundaries - and that gives places real identity. But having said that Hilton and IHG were very good at systems, revenue management and structures and it was great to update my knowledge. I don't agree with all of it but it's essential to know.
You've worked at or helped open Coq D'Argent, the Great Eastern, the Selfridge hotel, Aviator and Ampersand. Which was the hardest project and why?
They've all had different challenges but the Selfridge isn't built yet. I was working on it for a long time but it became a whole redevelopment rather than a specific project as per the original plan. I hated walking away and not seeing the project through but I could have been there for another two years.
The owners are amazing and willing to challenge the status quo and that's why it became much more than just about the hotel. At St Pancras I was in a different role, between the owners and operators and it was interesting. I'm more used to getting stuck in.
What's the difference between an operational GM and an opening GM?
You have to be willing to take the risk. You're basically putting yourself on the line and if it doesn't work after opening then a lot of the blame will fall on you. If you take over an existing hotel there will be a trading history and the job is about longevity and improving things steadily. Opening a hotel you need to take decisions quickly and keep pushing forward. I think you have to be a bit more aggressive in terms of approach and style.
What qualities do you have that make you a good opening GM?
I have loads of energy and enthusiasm but I'm also dogged. Everyone has different priorities and they need to be managed. I have the overview and am the bane of the project manager's life - he wants to sign off the project but I'm looking at everything in minute detail and driving the contractors mad.
I try to do stuff ahead of schedule and keep pushing for decisions all the time. You also need a sense of humour and perspective. There will be hiccups along the way, but we can sort them out as they arise. That's part of the deal.
What the one thing you should do as a GM overseeing this kind of project?
Hire a good opening team - that's key. Between getting the keys and opening is seven days - you can't do it all yourself. You also need enough volume on the books and some base business for those first weeks - that's what keeps me awake at night.
All I think about is heads on beds. In terms of cashflow and atmosphere it's crucial, even if we take a hit on rate initially and have to do flash sales. If you've only got 10 on the books, there's nowhere to go other than to drop your pants. You can always raise the rate later.
What's the one thing you shouldn't do as a GM overseeing this kind of project?
Upset the contractor. It'd be very easy to be gobby with the contractor and blame them for everything but they will be around for months and you need to keep a good relationship with them. You need them onside.
Hoteliership is in your blood - how do you get on with your father Ramon?
I'm very different from my father and I do things very differently but we get on extremely well and talk about hotels and food all the time. We're always eating out together - he's obsessive about hotels and we like to try new places - although we do like different styles. I often ask his advice, but I don't always take it.
He's an inspirational figure to so many - who are your other inspirational figures?
Nicholas Rettie, who opened the Great Eastern, Metropolitan and the Halkin, and Sir Terence Conran. In terms of icons, Conran is the one for me. I was lucky enough to work for him at Coq d'Argent where I saw him on his hands and knees, looking at the waiters' stations.
What business lesson do you know now that you wish you'd known five years ago?
I'm a great believer in running things as if it's your own business. But operationally, start small in terms of staffing. Keep it minimalist, with the ability to add and grow, rather than setting up a massive structure and being forced to cut back - that's much harder.
Roberto Pajares: Potted CV
2011-present General manager, the Ampersand hotel
2011 Pre-opening project manager, South Place hotel
2010-2011 Hotels & leisure asset manager, Manhattan Loft Corporation
2008-2011 Pre-opening general manager, the Selfridge hotel
2006-2007 General manager, the Trafalgar hotel
2000-2005 Director of operations & restaurants, Great Eastern hotel
1997-2000 Pre-opening general manager, Coq d'Argent
Room rate £145 - £365
General manager Roberto Pajares
Restaurants Apero & The Drawing Rooms
Food style Mediterranean food, all-day coffees and light bites
Address 10 Harrington Road, London SW7 3ER