The Caterer Interview: David Morgan-Hewitt

06 March 2014 by
The Caterer Interview: David Morgan-Hewitt

The eyes of the world were on the Goring in April 2011 for the royal wedding. How did the exclusive booking come about? We have long-term links with Buckingham Palace and members of the royal family use us a lot. Once the wedding was announced, I asked if there anything we could do to help. I was thinking perhaps of putting some royal guests up for the night, but in the end the entire hotel was taken over from the morning of the Thursday - the day before the wedding - to the Saturday. I think our discretion helped. Discretion is something of real value today, particularly for people of power and wealth.

How did interest in the hotel increase as a result of the wedding?
Only four people in the building knew about the wedding up until the official announcement. The heads of department were told one hour before the news was announced. Our PR company, Mango, then worked two days solidly around the clock, dealing with enquiries. During the two-week corresponding period to the wedding in 2010, our website received 200,000 hits. In the two weeks following the announcement, we had five million. We installed a bigger server, but it still crashed for an hour.

The Goring was quite low key before the wedding, but as a result, it became an international brand overnight. Now there are many people who, while they may not personally know the hotel, certainly know of it.

How has this manifested itself in bookings?
Lots of people want to come here, and the most accessible way they can do that is by having afternoon tea. At £39 per head plus 12.5% service (or £49 for Bollinger afternoon tea), it allows people to have luxury at a reasonable price.

At first, we were simply inundated with bookings. We can do 50 afternoon teas a day. Immediately after the wedding we could have done hundreds - we were almost over-run. Expectations were huge, and unfortunately, service levels dropped for a time. We knew the wedding would have an impact, but it was much greater than we thought.

The wedding coincided with the completion of the refurbishment [costing around £3m] of the hotel, which included two years spent on planning and creating the royal suite. Although our room rates continued to go up on an annual basis as before, what has changed is that we haven't had to use our discounted room rates very often. Our latest figures show a turnover of nearly £12m in the year to March 2013 (up 6.5% on the previous year) and a profit of £1.12m.

I do now say that one of my greatest achievements since arriving at the hotel is putting the Goring on the tourist bus tour!

What were your expectations of the Goring before arriving to work at the hotel?
It was a hotel I walked past every day as I lived nearby. I did my research and found that it had an excellent reputation within the industry as a good four-star hotel and that it always over-delivered on service. But the restaurant was a bit like a film set - it was very unfashionable - and although it had very good lunch business, it generally only catered for in-house guests for dinner. It was a place used by government officials and civil servants. The bedrooms were dated, to put it mildly. It was clear the product wasn't as good as the staff.

During the mid-1990s, we undertook a major refurbishment, which upgraded the hotel to the next level and, as a result, it became regarded and acknowledged as one of the best four-star hotels, before being awarded five stars in 2000. Since 2006, we've taken another step forward and put a lot of emphasis on really good-quality furnishings and very good bathrooms.

Today, the restaurant continues to be the place the very top establishment come to for lunch, but it has also increasingly become a destination restaurant where guests come to celebrate special occasions, including garden parties and investitures at the Palace. It is also popular with extended families.

How has the Goring developed since Jeremy Goring took over from his father George in running the hotel in 2005?
Jeremy wanted to take the hotel to the next level, to the top end of the market. He wanted to change people's perceptions about the place by providing great attention to detail in the product, the food, the furniture, the staff and the service.

During the first round of improvements in the 1990s, around £20,000 was spent per bedroom. Since 2006, the spending has increased to £100,000 per room. As a family hotel, we invest in the long-term as the building is not just about to be sold.

The bedrooms have been designed by Russell Sage, Tim Gosling and Nina Campbell and include designs that are not going to date. Much of the furniture has been designed by Russell and made by Manbourne cabinet makers, with beds from Hypnos. We have the same top-quality Gainsborough silks on the walls which are used in royal palaces all over Europe and in the White House. We've recreated the silks used on the Titanic for the royal suite, and we even have hand-painted silks lining the backs of the wardrobes.

Where does most of the Goring's business come from? Nearly half (47%) comes from the US and 28% from the UK. Most of the rest is from Europe, with about 5% from Australia. The hotel has moved forward quite a bit in recent years, and we've been working hard at letting everyone know and understand what we now offer.

Our main means of getting the word out has been through the Fine Hotels & Resorts programme with American Express and Rebecca Recommends, a hotel representation company in the US. We've recently joined Relais & Chateaux, which we hope will increase our European business. And in the UK we've been a long-time member of Pride of Britain, of which I've recently agreed to be chairman for another two years.

How has working at the Goring allowed you to develop as a hotelier?
It has provided me with the opportunity to work with true hoteliers - George and Jeremy Goring. They are not builders or bankers who have invested in the hotel, and they're not marketers or accountants. Instead they are obsessed with continually creating a better experience for the guest. It is not about sweating the asset - something that I think is totally unique in London - and, of course, this is the approach I take. They have allowed me to have a personality, which is a good thing. I don't believe my personality overpowers - if it does, then it is a mistake.

How do you share the management role with other key members of staff?
Graham Copeman, who joined us from Claridge's as general manager in 2006, runs the hotel day-to-day with other senior members of the staff, and together they deliver the quality we want. Graham has strong front office skills, while I oversee the food and beverage side, with Stuart Geddes, the food and beverage manager, and our new executive chef Shay Cooper reporting directly to me. A lot of my time is spent looking at how to take the business forward, on sales and the PR of the brand.

What impact has Shay Cooper had on the food? Up until Christmas, Shay's brief was to carry on as before as it was very busy, but now he is introducing some changes. His dishes incorporate a mix of traditional and more up-to date ideas. We're not going to lose aspects of our service that make the Goring special - such as the carving trolley - as fewer places are doing these things now. Derek Quelch [Cooper's predecessor] did a great job for us, but now we want to take the food to the next level and make it more refined and challenging. Shay is a very exciting young chef.

What is the essence of good hospitality at the Goring?
It starts from the moment the guest reaches the hotel. The doormen should welcome them by walking towards them to greet them, before introducing them to the next member of staff. We always make the customer the centre of what is going on by finding out how they are and understanding their individual needs.

We make them comfortable and ensure that they feel the Goring is their London home. It is all about anticipating the guest's needs by saying can I…, may I…, how can I…. We should be interested in the guest's world; they shouldn't be interested in ours. We're all about creating dreams - a little bit of magic. Good housekeeping and unbelievable service is what guests want. Too many hotels over-complicate things with systems and forget that the guest should be at the centre of everything.

How, as a single, independent hotel, do you ensure the Goring doesn't stand still?
Staying in a hotel is the only way you can see what everyone else is doing, and it is so important that we see new developments. So every Easter I book into a hotel in London for three to four days and experience it as a guest. I've had particularly wonderful experiences at the Berkeley, the Connaught and the Mandarin Oriental. Every year on my birthday I stay at the Dorchester, where I enjoy the most excellent service. Fifteen years ago I took a sabbatical and stayed at hotels around the world. The Oriental Bangkok was my favourite - the level of comfort and service was amazing.

You are very actively involved in the wider industry. Why is this so important?
I had already been here for 15 years when I was appointed managing director. I told Jeremy that I would accept the position on the proviso that I could continue to do other things to ensure that I remain fresh and not become stale from being in one location for so long.

In the past I have been on the London advisory board of Springboard and today I'm on the executive committee of the Master Innholders, chairman of Pride of Britain and honorary catering advisor to the Army.

This latter role is a fascinating one, which takes me into a different world with so many challenges. Over the past seven years the number of chefs in the army has dropped from more than 3,000 to around 900, with more of the catering provided by outside contractors. I hope, through my influence at senior level, that I can provide a greater focus on the quality of the food, which has taken something of a back seat in recent years.

How did the Royal Warrant granted by the Queen - the first ever for a hotel - come about?
We had inquired five or six years before it was eventually granted last year, but was told that the Queen did not grant warrants to hotels. Then in April 2012, someone from the palace suggested we should apply and this time it was granted. It has been a huge honour.

What plans are there for the Goring?
The next projects are the reception, the front hall and the front of the hotel, which are timetabled for early 2015. Russell Sage will do the inside work, while Michael Blair, who worked on the Connaught, is designing the glass and metalwork awnings for the outside.

And for yourself?
You never know what is around the corner, but there are few hotels I would leave this one for. And I don't want to leave London.

David Morgan-Hewitt has spent more than 23 years - the bulk of his career - at the Goring, during which time he has established himself as a larger-than-life personality synonymous with the hotel.

The fact that he has had a long and successful career in what has become one of the world's most instantly recognisable hotels may never have happened if his father had had his way.

"At the age of 14 I saw a TV programme about a German hotel, and instantly became transfixed and knew that it was what I wanted to do. My father told me not to be ridiculous and that I was going to become a lawyer," says Morgan-Hewitt.

Although he did begin a law degree at Cambridge, Morgan-Hewitt hated it and ended up reading history at Durham. However, during
the holidays, he worked at Sprowston Manor hotel in Norwich and loved it. When he read a 'life in a day' article in The Sunday Times about Willy Bauer, who was then general manager at the Savoy, his dream of becoming a hotelier was cemented.

However, it was several years before that opportunity arose. Following a side-step into consumer and then financial PR, which he also loathed, Morgan-Hewitt went to work for Keith Read, the owner of Reads, a neighbourhood restaurant in London's Old Brompton Road.

This led to an opportunity to work with Robin Sheppard, now chairman of Bespoke Hotels, on Thowley House, a new hotel being developed near Faversham in Kent. However, when the project faltered, Morgan-Hewitt began to look for a new job.

Via the Portfolio agency, he went for an interview in 1990 as restaurant manager at the Goring. Although George Goring, who was then running the hotel, was unsure about the "flamboyant" Morgan-Hewitt "with his stripey shirts", his deputy William Cowpe urged the boss to give him a try.

In the intervening years, Morgan-Hewitt worked his way up to general manager and was eventually appointed managing director upon Cowpe's retirement in 2005.

Today his vision for the Goring is shared with Jeremy Goring: "quintessentially English, a little bit eccentric, surprising, theatrical".

The Goring was opened in 1910 by Otto Richard Goring, better known as OR Goring, the great-grandfather of the present proprietor of the hotel, Jeremy.

In the intervening years, OR's son, Otto Gustave (OG) and then his grandson, George, took the helm before Jeremy took over as chief executive in 2005.

The price of a room in 1910 was 7s 6d (37p). Today, prices at the 69-bedroom hotel start at £395 including VAT and excluding breakfast.

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