The Caterer interview: Chris Penn, managing director of the Ace Hotel London Shoreditch

27 January 2016 by
The Caterer interview: Chris Penn, managing director of the Ace Hotel London Shoreditch

Ace Hotels was recently the highest-placed hospitality operator on the CoolBrands list. What does 'cool' mean to Ace Hotel?

Wow, what an honour. To be honest, we don't know what cool means any more. We've always operated under the assumption that if we do what we love and care about ideas, each other and the world, things will work out.

Sum up the unique aspects of the Ace Hotel experience and service style for guests.

When the founders started Ace Hotel, they wanted to make a place that felt like an extension of their apartments, with good music, good coffee and friends' art on the walls, where everyone feels genuinely comfortable and cared for. We try to create a space that fosters connection, warmth and a creative spark.

What are the key aspects of an Ace bedroom? Good design, good art and the most comfortable beds ever. We provide space for work and space for daydreaming. Record players help, too.

Facing challenges head-on has played a major part in your career. What were the key challenges for you in joining Ace Hotel?

My first and biggest challenge was to make the decision to leave Flemings. I had created something at the hotel that had taken a lot of work, and I felt that we were starting to make a difference. My knowledge at the time of Ace was very little - it was very much the unknown. My wife, Vikki, played a big part in pushing me. We both believe in seizing the day. In 2007 we quit our jobs to go travelling for seven months, as we knew it was something we wanted to do before starting a family. We see life as an opportunity and always make the most of what we have. At first, I didn't want to pursue it, but my belief in staying true to myself was a big driving force in making the decision.

I valued the input of the director at Cranfield School of Management, where I attended the accelerated talent development programme in 2011. When I spoke to her about what my future career held, she said that I had to take up bigger opportunities as I would never be satisfied if things were easy for me.

Ace is a fantastic, well-considered brand and it's very different from where I had worked before. I even had to reconsider what I would wear to work each day. Joining a very creative company, where there are no strict operational rules, takes time to understand. If you join Hilton Worldwide, you are likely to know exactly what to expect, but with Ace it is not so straightforward.

It has, however, been very exciting. In coming to understand the brand, I've come to realise that what matters most is to be a genuine and caring human being. Once I realised that, it enabled me to be free and embrace the culture. Ace is a very human organisation. The company employed me because I am Chris, not because of my job title.

How did your earlier, fairly traditional, hotel career prepare you for your current role?

There are many aspects of traditional hotelkeeping which make sense: for instance, maintaining quality, caring about the customer and the details, being a people-focused business, ensuring a good return on investments and delivering shareholder value. All these traditions are absolutely appropriate for every single business in our industry. I've certainly drawn on what I learned from my past as I aim to be successful in my new role.

What are the shackles that you have been able to throw off from your earlier career?

I used to arrive at work as Chris and walk through the door to be greeted as Mr Penn. I've never wanted to be known as Mr Penn and I've never asked to be called Mr Penn. I have no interest in being superior to others. I'm just a human being with certain talents that are focused on helping others to be happy. So the shackles that were on me were the ones which hid Chris and promoted Mr Penn.

I have huge energy and a passion for what I do and I genuinely care about people, which is something I believe adds value to an organisation. Why hide that? That's why I can't stand the word boss - I prefer the word leader. I lead a staff of 240 and there are certain expectations that go with that. Being a leader, as opposed to a boss, is a sustainable way of achieving results.

What is your key focus as managing director? My priority is to be a facilitator, to inspire others to achieve their potential and more. I am a bit like a conductor of an orchestra, made up of a hugely diverse group of very different-sounding instruments. If you are not careful, they could end up sounding very noisy and disparate or, if carefully arranged and orchestrated, together they can be something very beautiful, timely and inspiring to others.

To be able to inspire, I make sure I know the name of every member of staff and understand who they are. I see my team as my customers and spend an incredible amount of time with them and make sure they have everything they need to do their roles.

How do you recruit and train staff at Ace? Do they have hospitality experience?

We try to maintain a diverse ecology of weird, heady, idealistic hearts on-board at all times. They don't necessarily need hospitality experience. We are a disparate pack of 240 inspired, creative and passionate humans.

How do you inspire your staff?

I aim to be real - if I act, then I run the risk of forgetting my words, but if I'm Chris Penn, there is no risk of mixed messages being passed on. One of the most refreshing things about moving away from central London is that there is more of a sense of real people who are true to themselves and the business. The staff are not afraid of expressing themselves, which I find inspiring and I hope others do too.

I prefer to show, rather than tell, people that amazing things can happen in life. That is why I test myself with great challenges, as doing that inspires others. The restriction on someone who wants to do a 5k run is themselves. It is only impossible if you think it is impossible. By changing your mindset and being brave, there is so much more you can achieve.

Who inspires you? I struggle to answer that, particularly with regards to people within the industry. Inspiration for me tends to come from outside the industry - from sports people who have achieved world records, gold medals and feats of endurance, as well as individuals who have overcome illness, and businesses which have not been afraid to diversify, such as Amazon.

Within the industry I'm more likely to be inspired by restaurants, such as Momo, rather than hotels. Restaurateurs and bar operators tend to be more entrepreneurial and innovative than hoteliers. I have huge respect for what Airbnb has achieved and the likes of Expedia. Also, I never thought I would say this, but AccorHotels has impressed me by the steps it is taking to build an online travel agent.

Hotels often regard themselves as being innovative because they install technology that has been designed by someone else, but that is not innovative. Innovation is thinking of how you can do something differently and making it better.

I hope to learn, evolve, disrupt and challenge, because it provides excitement and fun. I'm in an industry that enables me to do things that link to my talents and have a lot of fun at the same time. Hoxton has always been a disruptor and I'm inspired by that and the fact that it is not afraid to push boundaries.

How do you ensure that the hotel performs at its best financially?

I simply ask all the right questions. At school, I loved maths. For me, the ultimate relaxation on holiday would be to do logic puzzles. I'm an energetic, fun-loving analyst. I'm also a worrier and a rule abider.

Ace Hotel London Shoreditch lobby

What is the biggest driver of business?

Business comes from knowing who your customers are and caring about them. So much of what we do revolves around caring for people and, if you do it right, you will be amazed at how much business that creates.

What are your biggest bugbears about the industry?

Traditionalism, complacency, pessimism, internal thinking and laziness. I hear so much about the difficulties of recruiting staff, but instead of moaning about the situation, each individual needs to take control of their own destiny and be innovative. When it comes to recruiting at Ace, we hold castings every two weeks at which around 30 people come each time. It is an opportunity for people to come along and say hello and be themselves and hopefully make a connection with what we do.

We care about the interactions with our employees and treating them well - everything else flows from that. I think people obsess too much about retention figures rather than recruiting the right people. The right person may want to stay for only a short time because they are moving on to something else - I don't have a problem with that. I would rather have someone who can add energy and value to the hotel for a short time than someone who is average and hangs around for a long time.

How has your recent, epic 14-hour Channel swim affected your outlook on life and work?

I'm just the same person, but with a renewed sense of energy and a belief that I should continue to challenge myself, my mind and my body. Life is short and I will always want to challenge myself. I got so much enjoyment out of the swim and loved the whole experience. However, there were some low points: the first two hours, when the entire swim was ahead of me, the last two hours, when I could see my goal and it wouldn't come quick enough, and the two hours in the middle when I was stung by jellyfish. Getting through difficult situations is the way I inspire myself.

Why is the work of Hospitality Action important to you?

Hospitality Action helps people when things go awry. Who is to say that it is not something we might need in the future?

What was it like to be recognised with the Extra Mile award at the Hotel Cateys?

I've never sought recognition. I undertake challenges because it is something I care about and I want to make a difference, but to receive recognition was lovely - it was a wonderful surprise. I know I'm a little bit crazy to set myself these audacious goals, but I need to push my mind and body to the limits.

Chris Penn's CV

  • 2013-15 Managing director, Ace Hotel London Shoreditch

  • 2011-13 General manager, Flemings Mayfair, London

  • 2008-11 Hotel manager, the Cavendish, London

  • 2005-07 Resident manager, the Stafford, London

  • His first job in hospitality was at Historic House Hotels' Hartwell House, near Aylesbury

The story of Ace Hotel

Founded in Portland, Oregan, in 1999, by Alex Calderwood, Ace Hotel quickly made a name for itself for having an unconventional approach to hotelkeeping, offering vintage furniture, unpainted metal doors and original artwork, alongside in-bedroom record players and staff-curated vinyl.

New properties have gone on to open in Los Angeles, New York, Palm Springs, Seattle, Pittsburgh and Panama, with the launch of the London hotel marking Ace Hotel's first move outside the Americas. A ninth hotel is set to open in New Orleans next year.

The 258-bedroom Ace Hotel London has been a hit with the surrounding creative community of Shoreditch since opening in September 2013. Originally a Crowne Plaza hotel, the property was bought out of administration by Starwood Capital Group in June 2012 before undergoing an extensive refurbishment and rebranding, with the Ace Hotel Group appointed as the management company. Venture capital group Limulus paid £150m - equivalent to a record figure for the locality of £580,000 per bedroom - for the property in March 2015.

Ace Hotel London focuses on working with the surrounding community to allow its public spaces to be used as a hub for local activities. It features the Hoi Polloi restaurant, three bars, coffee shop, three retail outlets, a nightclub and 10 meeting spaces. The hotel was awarded the Best Renovation at the 2014 European Hotel Design Awards.

Calderwood was found dead, at the age of 47, at the Ace Hotel London, two months after the property opened. He had suffered an alcohol and drugs overdose.

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