The celebrity hoteliers

25 May 2006
The celebrity hoteliers

The news that actor Neil Morrissey is to invest £7.5m in developing a new hotel in Hertfordshire puts under the spotlight how seriously celebrities take their hotel-owning business.

Of course, there is a long tradition of celebrity-owned establishments in the hospitality sector, particularly when it comes to restaurants and bars. But for every successful celebrity restaurateur, such as Michael Caine, who co-owns London's Deya Indian restaurant with Claudio Pulze; and Robert De Niro, who owns the Tribeca Grill and the international Nobu chain; or club and bar owners such as Johnny Depp, who owns the Viper Room in Los Angeles and the Man Ray in Paris with fellow actor Sean Penn, there is also a long list of failures.

Does anyone still remember the Fashion Café, backed by the likes of Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer, or Damien Hirst's London restaurant Pharmacy?

Depending on the size and nature of the hotel, compared with restaurants and bars investment returns can be slow in coming. Yet there now seem to be an increasing number of celebrities who are willing to take the plunge.

Aside from Morrissey, designer and former actress Anouska Hempel - or Lady Weinberg, as she is now known - has not only just repurchased her old luxury hotel Blakes, but is also set to open an offshoot in Brazil next year, with other sites being considered in Turkey and the USA. Another iconic face, 1960s fashion model Jean Shrimpton, now known as Jean Cox, owns the Abbey hotel in Penzance, Cornwall, with rack rates of £100-£190 per night.

Other celebrity-owned hotels in the UK include Formula 1 racing driver Nigel Mansell's Woodbury Park hotel in Devon. More ambitious is another racing driver, David Coulthard. In partnership with Ken McCulloch, founder of the Malmaison hotel group, Coulthard owns the Dakota hotel in Nottingham, with 92 bedrooms and a standard rack rate of £84.50 per night. Another Dakota is set to open later this year in Glasgow, and there are more in the pipeline. Coulthard and McCulloch also own the stylish Columbus hotel in Monaco, with a second one scheduled to open in the UK next year.

From the music profession, Cliff Richard co-owns the Arora International hotel in Manchester (see panel, page 28); while Bono and Edge, of U2, own Dublin's Clarence hotel, where rack rates are £235-£1,735 per night; and Jim Kerr, lead singer of Simple Minds, owns the Villa Angela hotel in Taormina, Sicily.

So why would a celebrity want to own a hotel? Is it just vanity, or is there more to it? Perhaps they've had a bad experience staying in hotels and instead of screaming "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here!" they would rather stay somewhere designed to cater for their tastes? Or is it simply that they want to be seen to be doing something constructive rather than merely appearing in gossip columns?

Matt Roberts, Morrissey's business partner and chief executive of their company Hurst House, states that his partner's decision to get into the hotel trade in 2001 was a purely practical one.

"Morrissey's a shrewd investor," says Roberts. "The acting profession can be quite fickle, so it makes sense for him to invest in ventures which will offer financial security for the future. He also has a passion for good food and drink, and because of his work, stays in a lot of hotels. So it was a natural progression for him to want to open a hotel."

Roberts, whose background is in the music industry, and Morrissey, met through mutual friends. Roberts had already purchased the hotel site in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, and was looking for a business partner. As it transpired, both men had an affinity for the area, and Morrissey immediately said "yes" to the proposition. The two have an equal stake in the Hurst House group, while 25% of the company is shared between other investors. Roberts is reluctant to divulge precise figures, but says that he and Morrissey have so far invested "millions".

Aside from the upmarket seven-bedroom Hurst House Wales, which opened in 2001 and now boasts occupancy rates of 80% and average achieved room rates of £225, the group owns several other sites. There are two pubs, also in Laugharne, private members' club Hurst House London, and another hotel, the Mill, with 22 bedrooms, in Hertfordshire, due to open next year. A second private members' club is being developed in Edinburgh, while additional hotel sites are being considered overseas, in Paris and New York, with the ultimate aim of turning Hurst House into a luxury brand name.

Interior design for all their operations is overseen by Juliet de Valero Willes, who is singer Billy Bragg's partner.

"From the outset," says Roberts, "Morrissey has been involved in all business and hospitality aspects of the hotel. He and I are very much in sync and styled the hotel in what we define as a ‘beyond boutique' look, which mixes the old and the new. So one minute guests can be sitting on antique furniture, and next listening to music on a state-of-the-art Bang & Olufsen CD stacking system.

"Even when Morrissey's on acting assignments I keep him updated daily, and he will be on site whenever required, including things like doing menu tastings and compiling the wine list for the hotel's restaurant."

But if British celebrities generally prefer to own boutique-style hotels, their American counterparts seem to have hotels and resorts that are positively sprawling.

Robert Redford's Sundance Resort in Utah, which he opened in 1969, hosts the annual Sundance film festival and has not only rooms and cottage-style units but also shops, restaurants, a wildlife reserve and skiing facilities. Clint Eastwood's Mission Ranch Resort, in Carmel, California, is spread out over several acres, with tennis courts, a restaurant and 31 bedrooms with rack rates of £60-£150 per night.

Two Hollywood A-listers currently developing hotel projects are De Niro and George Clooney. While De Niro already owns property in New York's Tribeca area, he is now spending more than £30m building the luxury six-story, 83-bedroom Downtown hotel, scheduled to open in Lower Manhattan by the end of this year. Clooney and a group of investors, rumoured to include fellow actor Brad Pitt, are developing Las Ramblas, a 25-acre complex in Las Vegas, using high-profile architects and designers such as Philippe Starck. Costing more than £1b and scheduled to open in 2008, the complex will include a hotel, restaurants, shops and casinos.

One Hollywood A-list talent who is investing in a UK hotel is actor John Malkovich. Along with his friend Cosmo Fry - himself no stranger to the gossip pages as a member of the Fry chocolate-making family - and four other investors, Malkovich backed the 81-bedroom Big Sleep hotel in Cardiff in 1999. Occupancy is now 84% with average achieved room rates of £48. A second, smaller though more luxury-orientated Big Sleep hotel is scheduled to open in Cheltenham by the end of this year, and more sites are being planned.

"It was quite a soft sell," says Fry, who is also managing director of the Big Sleep, of his experience of enticing Malkovich into investing in the hotel. "Malkovich is someone who, due to the nature of his work, spends a lot of time staying in hotels all over the world. He also has strong opinions about what they should or shouldn't be like. When I mentioned to him over lunch one day that I wanted to open a stylish but affordable hotel, he was keen to be involved."

While the hotel's rooms boast tastefully done photos of Malkovich, Fry admits that the actor's involvement is very much on the business side. But Fry does keep him updated as often as possible, and discussions are under way about the possibility of Malkovich designing the staff uniforms for the forthcoming hotels.

"The bigger and more successful a celebrity is," says Anna Wood, director of sales and marketing at U2's hotel the Clarence, "the less chance there is of them being hands-on."

She adds: "U2, and particularly Bono, are globally known, with a lot of commitments outside music, so it would be naïve to expect them to be involved in the minutiae of their hotel. They leave it up to the hotel's management team to run it, but they do come and stay here when they are in Dublin and will be involved in the expansion and renovation of the Clarence, due next year."

Celebrity hoteliers might not always have time to immerse themselves in the business, but are there any distinct advantages or disadvantages to them putting their name to a venture?

"I'm not going to mention the names of any guests who come and stay at Hurst House," states Roberts, "but let's just say that someone like Morrissey has a unique understanding of the privacy needs of someone else who is also well-known.

"The downside came in the first years of the business when we were developing the hotel. With low occupancy figures we were not making any profit, even though we are now. So each year we filed our accounts knowing that the tabloid press would latch on to the fact that we were making a loss and say that Morrissey was a failure as a businessman."

For the Big Sleep, Malkovich's name has given the hotel a wholly positive spin. "I can't deny," says Fry, "that because of his involvement the hotel's had a certain cachet. The hotel even gets fan mail, which I pass on to Malkovich, with people saying things like he shouldn't take himself so seriously or that he should stop wearing white socks all the time."

Celebrity hotel owners

  • Michael Douglas and his mother own Ariel Sands, a 48-bedroom luxury resort hotel in Bermuda. Douglas reputedly spent more than £2m recently giving the hotel a major face-lift.
  • Francis Ford Coppola, film director and wine-maker, owns the Turtle Inn and Blancaneaux Lodge, both in Belize. His third hotel, La Lancha, where rack rates are £35-£155 per night, is in Guatemala.
  • Benny Andersson, the former Abba member, owns the boutique-style Rival hotel in Stockholm.
  • Olivia Newton-John owns Gaia Retreat and Spa in New South Wales. Also in Australia, on the Gold Coast, Donatella Versace owns the five-star Palazzo Versace hotel, where rack rates are £160-£1,450 a night.

Celebrity-themed suites

Launched in 2004 with Cliff Richard's friend and owner of Arora International hotels Surinder Arora, the 140-bedroom Arora hotel in Manchester has five "Cliff-themed"suites named after Cliff's songs, such as Summer Holiday, Congratulations, and the Heathcliff musical.

Occupancy is about 87% with an average achieved room rate of £78. Turnover for the hotel in 2005 was £3.2m, and the projected turnover for this year is £3.5m.

Arora had already designed the hotel soon after it was purchased, although the moment Cliff became involved he concluded that the hotel should have some form of identification with him, albeit a discreet one. Arora had the five Cliff-themed suites designed with photos from his films and a personalised note underneath about his memory of making that film. Many fans now make a point of requesting those suites.

Arora is positive about Richard's involvement: "I keep Cliff abreast of all developments at the hotel, but as this is not his sole business venture and he has a busy schedule, he is not involved in the daily machinations of the hotel. He stays at the hotel whenever he is in Manchester and has a very good relationship with the staff. He makes a point of meeting them and signing autographs as well as doing some staff presentations."

He adds: "Cliff's involvement is not meant to be a business driver, because the hotel needs to stand on its own merits, and we don't advertise the fact that he is a co-owner, but it's nice to have an association with someone as
well-known as him."

Celebrities and business performance Robert Cook is chief executive of the Malmaison and Hotel du Vin group and, in his opinion, working with celebrities on a hotel project can only be positive.

His experience of celebrity takes him back to his early years with Malmaison, where he worked for Ken McCulloch with investment from Simply Red's Mick Hucknall, and later at the Columbus in Monaco, again with McCulloch, where they brought in fellow Scot, Formula 1 racing driver and Monaco local David Coulthard as an owner.

His view of Coulthard is particularly glowing. "From day one, David was a pretty active investor. He was very interested in the building, the timing and when we opened. He was always very gracious to staff, very concerned about staff welfare, very interested in how the hotel was doing and very particular about service and how clean the place was. As a customer, he always fed back comments, good or bad."

Cook says a celebrity aspect adds to business performance and so isn't surprised to see the connections between Soho House owner Nick Jones and Ant and Dec, for example. "It does add another dimension, and I think people genuinely believe that as an owner they manage the hotel, tidy the bedrooms and clean the toilets. Customers seriously think: ‘David made my bed'!"

The celebrity factor also gives a different quality to roll out to potential investors, says Cook. In addition they tend to dine regularly in their own place and bring their friends, thereby attracting more and more business. "Certainly, from my experience with David, an owner with celebrity status is a joy."

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