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The Caterer Interview – David Orr

27 January 2011 by
The Caterer Interview – David Orr

As chief executive of Mint Hotel, David Orr has recently overseen a major rebranding of the company, previously known as City Inn. He talks to Janet Harmer about his plans for the business

Why did you decide to change the name of the group from City Inn to Mint Hotel?
We launched the first City Inn in Bristol in 1999 and it was very much the right name for its time. However, the research we commissioned last year showed that, while customers regarded the hotels as stylish, contemporary, good value and upmarket, the more general market perceptions of the brand name did not convey the quality of the offer to those who had not experienced it. Lots of people liked the City part of the name, but not the Inn.

And why the name Mint?
There are lots of positive connotations around Mint as a name. It is memorable, punchy and fresh. In the garden, mint is a perennial plant with an inherent strength. Along the lines of Apple and Orange, Mint is a good brand name.

Rebranding is a costly business. What has it set back the company?
I won't say how much it has cost, but it is an investment. Once we came up with the name, it took four weeks to get everything ready in terms of changing the collateral. We told the staff only three days before making the change and it was greeted with great enthusiasm.

Why is the timing right for the change of name?
We announced the new name just before the opening of two new hotels - Mint Hotel Tower of London, which we launched on 20 December, and our first overseas hotel, in Amsterdam, which we open in March. Having opened Leeds in 2009, it means that we will have opened three hotels in three calendar years, with the Tower of London and Amsterdam hotels almost doubling our portfolio from 1,647 rooms to 2,783 rooms.

Mint Hotel Tower of London is your second London hotel. What does it offer?
Like all of our hotels, it is in a fantastic city location. This particular part of London provides some of the most important and most visited heritage sites in the city, as well as some of the capital's largest offices. With 583 bedrooms, it is the largest hotel in the City of London. Its City Café is a very important part of our move into the area because although there are some huge offices around us here, there are very limited food and beverage options nearby. We are expecting the City Café, with its offer of traditional British food, to become a destination restaurant. The meetings and events spaces - all with natural light - will also be a big attraction.

Why have you decided to open a Mint Hotel in Amsterdam?
We've had ambitions to open in Europe for some time, as a key element of the company's growth plans. However, it has taken about five years for the hotel to be developed. It was originally earmarked as a Park Hyatt site and we thought we would never get it. But we did and it is as prime a site as you will find. It is in the very heart of the city, right next to the station and is part of a newly developed nine-acre site. Our neighbours include the headquarters of Vodafone and TomTom and lots of housing, as well as the City Library and Conservatorium.

The development of the new London hotel and the one in Amsterdam is costing around £300m, with funding for the Tower hotel from the Lloyds Banking Group. The Amsterdam hotel is the first property that is being developed on our behalf.

Did you ever consider delaying the projects as the country headed into recession?
No, not at all. We actually started building our Westminster hotel on 11 September 2001, which, as it turned out, was appalling timing, but it didn't change anything for us. Being the owner and operator, we don't build according to economic cycles. We always build on cherished pieces of land which will retain their value for hundreds of years, so why would we stop? We totally believe that both sites are the right sites.

At a time when many hotel groups are moving away from owning the bricks and mortar, and concentrating on management, why is Mint Hotel continuing to both develop and manage its properties?
That was the way it was when we developed our first hotel and that is the way we have continued. We like to be responsible for everything as it allows us to have a strong connection with the customer. By selecting the very best sites we can maximise the value of the property, which gives us a prime asset which supports a good daily trading business. Having a belief in the asset is very important for Mint Hotel, even though assets have not been seen to be good in the past three to four years.

Design is important to Mint Hotel. Explain the thinking behind the look of your properties? All of our hotels are new builds and it is important that they look comfortable within an urban setting. By having full-height windows in all of our bedrooms, the design looks less frenetic and it improves the guest's enjoyment by providing plenty of natural light. We also like to position the restaurants on the west side of the building with access to a terrace where diners can potentially benefit from the evening sunshine.

And tell us about the SkyLounge?
Mint Hotel has been consistently innovative in the way we've developed the hotels and the SkyLounge is another example of how we've done that. The concept, which was first fully developed in Leeds, provides views over city rooflines from private dining and meeting rooms, alfresco terraces and exclusive destination bars. The SkyLounge at the Mint Hotel Tower of London has uninterrupted views over the Tower. We need a reasonable scale property to invest properly in the SkyLounge.

What do you have planned in the future for Mint Hotel?
Once the Amsterdam hotel is open, we would like to move into other key European cities such as Paris, Rome, Milan, Madrid and Barcelona. Back in the UK, we hope to develop a hotel in Edinburgh and a third hotel in London - somewhere between the two we have so far. All future properties will be funded on a case- by-case basis and we're looking at options now.

How will future developments be financed?
We are currently looking at all options for future funding, including a new joint venture partner. It is not correct, as has recently been reported in the press, that we are looking to sell the company. Having worked so hard at developing all the hotels, it would be surreal to consider selling up now. We very much enjoy creating new hotels such as the Tower of London property, in which we have created 300 jobs, and are now looking at different ways of growing the business in the future.

DAVID ORR: CV HIGHLIGHTS

David Orr graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Birmingham in 1986, followed by a MPhil from the University of Reading in 1989 with a paper on the prospects for budget hotel development in the 1990s. After returning to his home city of Edinburgh, where he set up a fish restaurant which proved unsuccessful, he got involved in finding and negotiating hotel, bar and restaurant sites for clients, gaining valuable experience in dealing with distressed properties and failed businesses. He gave up working in commercial property in 1998 to concentrate on developing City Inn.

A VisitEngland board member, Orr's interests include architecture, the arts, golf, skiing, sailing, cricket and fishing. He is married to Olga and has a son, Cameron, from a previous marriage.

MINT HOTEL: THE FACTS

Founded in 1995 by David Orr, his father, Sandy Orr, and Donald MacDonald as City Inn - and rebranded as Mint Hotel in November 2010 - the group has grown steadily since the launch of its first hotel in Bristol in 1999.

Mint Hotel now has seven four-star properties across the UK. After Bristol, there were openings in Glasgow (2000), Birmingham (2001), London-Westminster (2003), Manchester (2007), Leeds (2009) and London - Tower of London (2010). The opening of the first Mint hotel overseas - in Amsterdam - will result in a group of eight hotels with 2,783 rooms and 1,500 employees.

In 2004, the then-named City Inn Westminster won the Catey for Hotel of the Year - Group.

Occupancy during the last full company year, ending in March 2010, was 71%, with a turnover of £46.6m.

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