The Caterer Interview – Jonathan Slater

08 November 2013 by
The Caterer Interview – Jonathan Slater

After 30 years of constantly ensuring the five-red-AA-star, 80-bedroom Chester Grosvenor hotel retains its position as one of the UK's leading independent hotels, Jonathan Slater is now also overseeing the development of a new brand, Oddfellows, as he tells Janet Harmer

How have you successfully kept the Chester Grosvenor at the top of its game over 30 years?

When we wanted to open the brasserie onto the street in 1990, it took us a year to get it through planning. The same happened when we launched the Rococo Chocolates shop onto the street last year. It is challenging, but for all the right reasons. This is an iconic landmark building which needs to be cared for and nurtured as well as being allowed to evolve. It has been a privilege to be trusted with making this unique hotel extra special - it has been an amazing hell of a ride.

What attracted you to the hotel in the first place?
The previous managing director was Richard Edwards, who had the Midas touch when it came to marketing. He undertook some of the first hotel marketing trips to the USA with Terry Holmes 45 years ago. As a result, he was very successful at creating an interest in the hotel. There was always something going on here and that impressed me.

What was the state of the hotel when you arrived? It was very well known, but it was tired. It had 90 rooms, 30 of which were singles that were not much bigger than shoeboxes. Yet it also had five amazing suites, each individually designed by high-profile designers, which received all the marketing attention.

My remit was to look at what needed to be done to the hotel. The work required was much greater than just a straightforward refurbishment, as the infrastructure needed a phenomenal amount of work - all the plumbing, electrics and lifts had to be replaced. Hence, we closed for four and a half months at the end of 1987 and reopened for Easter the following year. The bedrooms were reconfigured and all the single rooms disappeared. We ended up with a total of 80 rooms.

We spent ï¿¡15m, which at the time was a stratospheric amount of money. Since then we have constantly reinvested in the property to ensure that we will never have to close again. You always have to have a long-term view. An old building like this needs to be caressed and loved all the time.

Tell us about the food outlets at the hotel? We created La Brasserie from the old Grosvenor dining room during the 1987 refurbishment, alongside the Arkle fine dining restaurant, which has since been turned into Simon Radley at the Chester Grosvenor. While the Arkle immediately clicked - because that is what people expected from us - it was quite a risk to open a brasserie.

It was the only part of the refurbishment that I had sleepless nights about as there was nothing like it outside London at a time when Langan's Brasserie was big business in the capital. Having a brasserie in a smart hotel, with tables close together and no tablecloths, was revolutionary back then. It took us about 18 months to get it right and we've never looked back since.

We are always looking at ways to maximise revenue, so over the years we have tweaked and reconfigured it to achieve a better yield. Hence, we opened the brasserie onto Eastgate, which is the most expensive stretch of real estate in Chester, and more recently launched Rococo - the chocolate brand's first store outside London - at the front of the hotel. Although we have lost some space from the brasserie, we have gained a retail rent. Overall, we have achieved year-on-year growth.

Simon Radley at the Chester Grosvenor, and in its previous life as the Arkle, has held a Michelin star for 23 years. The two restaurants together provide a balance for the guest. The 120-seat brasserie is open all day, while Simon Radley, which has 40 covers, is open for only five nights a week and has a waiting list of around six weeks.

You have long played an active role in the wider hospitality industry. How have you balanced that with your day job? The owner has always allowed me to do things outside the Chester Grosvenor so long as they benefit the hotel and the city. Much of the work I have done with Marketing Cheshire - and more recently with Marketing Chester - has been about destination marketing, which in turn has a positive impact on the hotel. However, I've always remembered the core responsibility of my job.

My major outside involvement has been as chairman of marketing consortium Small Luxury Hotels (SLH). I have been on the board for 21 years and chairman for nine years. Back in 2001 it had 70 hotels and four ships; now it has 750 hotels and annual revenues of $119m (ï¿¡73m). I eventually stepped down in March.

How significant has SLH been in driving business to the hotel? SLH is recognised globally as a luxury 'soft brand' and helps opens doors, specifically with regards to business from North America. I really don't think the hotel would be where it is today without the support of SLH. All of our global distribution system bookings come via SLH and all of our own internet bookings are run off the platform. As a result, between 20 and 25% of our room revenue comes from SLH.

How has the mix of business to the Chester Grosvenor changed over the years? When I arrived at the hotel in 1983, 75% of business was corporate. Now it has swung the other way, with around 65% of our bookings coming from leisure guests. The reason for this is largely because corporate business is rate-driven and people in business no longer have the need to travel because of technology.

Although we are well positioned with many major companies around us - such as HSBC, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Range Rover and Bentley - communications have improved, with more frequent trains now coming to Chester from London, which means business people can easily travel up here and back in the same day without having to stay the night. The whole world has changed and I don't ever see it changing back.

Around 65% of our business is from within the UK and the rest comes from overseas.

What do you regard as the single most important aspect of the success of Chester Grosvenor? Without doubt it is the people. Millions of pounds can be spent on creating a wonderful-looking building, but it is bullshit to say it will make an iconic hotel. It won't; only the people can do that. The success of this hotel is all about the people. Most of the staff who hold the top positions here are home-grown; many started with us, went away for a period, and then came back to us again.

I have never been so energised by the management team I have now - they are all people I know well and trust. Alongside Paul Cookson, director of operations, the team includes executive chef Simon Radley, marketing manager Liz Parry, food and beverage manager Carlo Iulianella and chief engineer Ted Griffiths.

We have 140 full-time staff at Chester Grosvenor, in addition to around 20 full-time casuals. The calibre has been boosted in recent years through the Simon Radley Academy, which recruits 10 chef apprentices annually, as well as our own internal front-of-house programme.

Chester Grosvenor has recently taken over the management of Oddfellows, an 18-bedroom hotel in the city. How did that come about? I had known the owners - two brothers, one of them a surgeon and the other a chief financial officer - for some time. They opened Oddfellows five or six years ago as a bar and private members' club, but were finding it a challenge to make it work. They spoke to me and a lot of other people about the way forward. I believed that there was an opportunity to change the model by expanding from four to 18 bedrooms and creating a boutique hotel. I talked the idea over with the owners of the Grosvenor and we had to consider how we could leverage our involvement. We have signed a contract to run the hotel for 10 years in return for a considerable fee.

What has been the outcome? Following its relaunch in May 2012 - with the bedrooms opening three months later - Oddfellows has been on fire. It provides a point of difference in price, with a room rate that is around half that of the Chester Grosvenor, which is around ï¿¡180 plus VAT. And it offers a boutique experience, compared to the more traditional hospitality at the Chester Grosvenor. It has also been great to offer Simon Radley an additional challenge as he oversees Oddfellows' new restaurant, The Garden by Simon Radley. Occupancy is in excess of 80%.

What is your focus for the future? I am totally committed to the Chester Grosvenor and have no intention to retire any time soon. I'm very energised by what I do and love coming to work every day. There is a lot of potential with regards to Oddfellows and we are already looking towards the development of the brand at other sites. We are talking to planners about one which is located within a Grade II-listed 1870 property.
Jonathan Slater - the personality
Family Wife Melanie; two daughters, Rebecca and Nyree; and granddaughter, Ophelia
First job Waiter at Victoria Sporting Club
Great inspiration in hospitality My team at the Chester Grosvenor and Oddfellows
Favourite author Lee Child
Favourite film Senna
Favourite restaurants L'Osier (three-Michelin-star restaurant in Tokyo) and Fox & Barrel, Tarporley, Cheshire (pub owned by ex-Chester Grosvenor chef, Richard Cotterill)
Favourite hotels Isle of Eriska, Argyll; The Goring, London; Coral Reef Club, Barbados
Last holiday Cornwall with the family
Hobby Sailing

Jonathan Slater a life in hospitality

Jonathan Slater began his career at Centre Hotels with the late hotel industry pioneer Henry Edwards, before moving to Lonrho in 1977 and working for its Metropole Hotels group in Birmingham and Brighton. He arrived at the Chester Grosvenor 30 years ago - initially as a 28-year-old hotel manager, before being promoted to managing director 18 months later.

The Chester Grosvenor, which opened in 1866, is owned by the Duke of Westminster.

As well as overseeing the transformation of the Chester Grosvenor from a four-AA-star to a five-red-AA-star hotel, which has held a Michelin star for 23 years, Slater has played an active role in the wider hospitality industry. He has been a long-time board member of Marketing Cheshire and more recently become involved with Marketing Chester as well. Earlier this year he stepped down as chairman of Small Luxury Hotels (a marketing consortium of 750 independent hotels worldwide) after nine years, having also sat on its board for 21 years.

Slater received the Catey Award for Manager of the Year in 2002 and joined the Master Innholders the following year. In 2010 he was presented with the Outstanding Achievement Award at the Chester Food and Drink Festival.

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