The Caterer Interview: Surinder Arora, Arora Hotels
How did you get involved in developing the InterContinental London - The O2?
One of the senior directors of AEG, the owner of the O2, came to the Sofitel London Heathrow and loved it. He got in touch and asked if we would like to build a hotel at the O2. Initially,
I had reservations - I was unsure what kind of business we would be able to do beyond concerts. Then I found out that more events were held in the arena than I realised - nearly 200 a year. A hotel on the site could offer extensive conference and banqueting facilities and form a major part of the regeneration of the area.
It was the first time we had worked with InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), but after signing the agreement for the O2, we rebranded the 119-bedroom Arora Park Hotel in Slough as the Holiday Inn London - Heathrow Terminal 5. We have since gone on to agree the dual development of a 300-bedroom Crowne Plaza and 450-bedroom Holiday Inn Express at Terminal 4. We already had a relationship with Marriott and Accor and owned a couple of Hiltons. For the O2, we wanted to work with a local brand.
The Arora Group is the largest shareholder in the hotel, alongside Queensgate Investments LLP and AEG Europe. The hotel is fully managed and operated by Arora Hotels, a division of the Arora Group.
With 452 bedrooms, is the hotel over-ambitious for the location?
It is, but it is the kind of challenge we like. Fifteen years ago when we built the Arora Crawley with 312 bedrooms in the town centre, we were told we were being ambitious Similar views were voiced about the Sofitel at Terminal 5, launched in 2008 - people thought I was mad. The original design for the Sofitel included eight meeting rooms, but I changed that to 46, which has proved to be a great success. We are hoping for the same here at the O2, where we have 21 event spaces including a ballroom for more than 3,000 guests - the largest pillar-free ballroom in a UK hotel.
We're not just relying on the O2, we're also building up a lot of MICE [meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions] business. I pinch myself now. When we set out, my dream was to deliver a similar property to the Sofitel at Heathrow. We've created a wonderful hotel, which is now our flagship property.
In the past, your food and beverage (F&B) operations were contracted out. What is the position now?
Five years ago we brought F&B in-house when we parted company with Compass. We believed we could improve the quality and
service delivery. Now we operate F&B across all our hotels. Again, it's a challenge, but I love it.
How would you sum up the company DNA?
Our drive and vision comes from our mantra to treat staff like family and guests like royalty. Staff have to deliver or they can't be part of the family. In order to ensure the Arora DNA was in place for the opening of the InterContinental O2, more than 60% of the senior management team come from other Arora hotels.
We all look after each other, the property and the guests. Everyone in the business is just as important as everyone else, whether they are the managing director, general manager, maid or porter.
I don't want the staff calling me Mr Arora or sir, I ask them to call me Surinder. We're all human beings and we all come with nothing and go with nothing. If I turn up at one of the hotels, I don't want preferential treatment.
I don't want to be known as running just another hotel company. I want to be known for looking after our people, because that way they will look after your business. If they believe in the product and business, then it is easy and people stay.
My first general manager, Guy Morris, is now managing director of the business. Unusually for a hotel group like this, the majority of our housekeeping staff are our own. It is more costly, but it is much better as you have more loyalty.
Where did you get the drive to open your first hotel?
My mother was very driven. After the separation of India and Pakistan, she didn't want her family to struggle like she had done. She worked hard to educate her children. My drive definitely came from her.
What was your previous experience of working in hotels?
Apart from once working in a hotel as a waiter, I knew nothing. When designing the first hotel, the architect asked me what I wanted back of house. I replied: "What is back of house?" However, it is an industry I quickly came to love and I love the people. I'm very self-driven and motivated and I like challenges. I was proud to have delivered the first hotel three days early and slightly under budget. I've always been ambitious.
After the first hotel, I was asked what my plan would be for the next three to five years. I had no plan. I take life as it comes. If I see an opportunity, I take it.
Your first hotels opened under your own Arora brand. Why did you start working with the international brands?
I approached BAA in 2004 to ask if they would consider me to tender for a hotel that was going to be developed at the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow. When they asked me under which brand and I replied Arora, they laughed. They were developing a £4.5b terminal and they wanted an international five-star brand.
I started speaking to the major hotel companies about a franchise agreement and they all said that they didn't franchise their top brands. However, I didn't give up. I spoke to the chief executive of Accor and discovered that he had been sending mystery guests to our hotels and he liked the way we ran our business.
The decision went to the main board in Paris and it was agreed that an exception regarding a franchise agreement would be
made. Not only did we get the franchise to run the Sofitel at Heathrow, but we also signed an agreement to run the Sofitel Gatwick, which we had bought as a Le Meridien hotel and carried out a refurbishment before the rebranding.
It doesn't matter what the brand is - we have the same philosophy in all our hotels. The goal is always to look after guests like royalty, staff like family and properties likes homes.
Is there now a brand overload within the hotel sector?
Customers like the reward systems the brands bring, but I believe the biggest tool now in driving business is TripAdvisor. We can never please 100% of people, but we aim to score between 4.5 and 5 from each review. If my kids came home and told me they had done their best, that is all I can ask of them. That is exactly the same as I expect in my hotels.
How do you maintain standards?
I turn up at hotels unannounced for a 'Surinder audit'. I am just as interested in walking back of house and eating in the staff restaurant as I am in seeing what is going on front of house. When I bought the Renaissance in Heathrow in 2012, it was listed number 18 out of 23 hotels in Hounslow on TripAdvisor.
My dream was to reach the top five; now it is number four. Now it is my aim to move the InterContinental at the O2 [214 out of 1,064 hotels in London on TripAdvisor], ahead of InterContinental London Park Lane [number 124] by the end of the year.
It is healthy to be competitive and it's fun. At the end of the day, the customers will be the winners. I always want to be the best and am always looking at ways to improve.
Staff shouldn't feel offended or scared by the Surinder audit when I check the loos. I sometimes sneak into a hotel at 1am and take a walk back of house. If I find something wrong, there is an opportunity for staff to learn. We all learn by our mistakes.
Tell us about your only unbranded hotel, Savill Court Hotel and Spa.
It is a beautiful Georgian property in 22 acres near Windsor. We have plans to upgrade and extend - I think we can do much better. Work will start this year with a relaunch in 2018.
Arora's financial backer has changed. Why?
I had been supported by the Allied Irish Bank for over 20 years, but they pulled the rug from under my feet and sold [£200m of] our debt to a US hedge fund [Davidson Kempner]. That hurt. Now we are with the Bank of Ireland, who we have had a fantastic relationship with. We're also supported by RBS and Santander. You live and learn through tough times.
You support a lot of charities.
We held our first charity ball three years ago, when we raised £440,000 for Cancer Research and the Caron Keating Foundation. Then 18 months ago we organised a second ball for two children's charities, the Lily Foundation Against Child Trafficking and Evelina London Children's Hospital, raising £770,000. On 19 May, we shall be holding a ball here at the InterContinental in aid of last year's Nepal earthquake. Every single penny raised will go to the charity. Doing these events is as satisfying as building another hotel.
What are your future plans?
People ask me when am I going to retire, but I love work too much - I get great satisfaction and the challenge to deliver something that will be here for many generations to come. I'm 57 now and expect to appoint a new chief executive before I'm 60, but I'm currently extremely well supported by Guy Morris as managing director and Vincent Madden [previously general manager at the Sofitel London Heathrow] as director of operations.
From the Punjab to property
Born in 1958 in the Punjab, Surinder Arora was brought up in India by his aunt (believing she was his mother). He was the youngest of four children and was left behind when his parents moved to the UK. It wasn't until he arrived in London, unable to speak English, at the age of 13, that he discovered who his real parents were.
On leaving school, he joined British Airways as a customer service officer, working occasionally as a waiter at what is now the Renaissance London Heathrow, a hotel he later went on to buy, as well as part-time as a sales associate with Abbey Life.
Arora joined Abbey Life full-time in 1988 as a sales manager, becoming the youngest branch manager of the company three years later.
During his time there he was named Abbey's second-best salesperson in the country. Hotels did not come Arora's way until 1993, when he saw the opportunity to develop a row of houses opposite Heathrow into bed and breakfast accommodation for airline crew. The property was eventually redeveloped in 1999 to become the first Arora hotel, after British Airways agreed that all its flight personnel would stay there.
Today, Arora Hotels operates seven of the properties it owns, having sold on a number of other hotels, including four airport properties and one in Manchester.
Arora Group's current portfolio includes the InterContinental London - The O2, Sofitel London Heathrow, Sofitel London Gatwick, Renaissance London Heathrow, Holiday Inn Heathrow - Terminal 5, Arora Hotel Gatwick/ Crawley, and Savill Court Hotel and Spa, near Windsor. The first five are operated under franchise agreements with InterContinental Hotels Group, AccorHotels and Marriott International, while Savill Court is not branded.
Total hotel turnover for 2015 was £97m. Grove Developments, a construction arm of the Arora Group, was launched in 2011 to undertake internal and external hotel building projects.
Arora is a life patron of the Springboard Charity, a patron of Royal Holloway Entrepreneurs, and honorary professor of the University of West London.
He has been married for 33 years to Sunita, who works on the design of the hotels with in-house interior designer Martin Farrow. Together they have two daughters and four grandchildren. His son, Sanjay, joined Arora Hotels as a director last year.
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