Following investment from Starwood Capital and significant renovation works, the 142-year-old Grand hotel in Birmingham is ready to welcome guests for the first time since 2002. General manager Peter Kienast speaks to Janet Harmer about harnessing the building's history while embracing modernity.
Opening a 185-bedroom hotel in the heart of the UK's second largest city in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic has required some creative thinking.
It is not just that Birmingham, like all major UK cities, is suffering from a lack of overnight visitors, but hospitality businesses everywhere are being hampered by the dearth of skilled staff. The double whammy has resulted in the Grand – a hotel that lives up to its name – opening its doors on 17 May with just 80 of its bedrooms available and operating on a five-day-a-week basis, from Tuesday through to Saturday.
"We have had to be cautious in our approach," explains German-born general manager Peter Kienast. "We therefore have a clever payroll in place to put people where they are needed when they are needed." Around 70 staff are currently employed out of the total 150 that it is hoped will be in position once the hotel is running at full capacity.
"It is unusual to open just five days a week, but without the corporate travel it makes sense cost-wise to close on the shoulder nights of Sunday and Monday," says Kienast.
However, despite operating at a pared-back level, Kienast is optimistic that everything is in place to ensure demand will return to a significant degree once restrictions are lifted. In particular he is looking to September, when he expects there will be a return to some corporate travel, which accounted for 33% of all overnight trips to Birmingham during 2019, alongside conference and events bookings.
Kienast has been greatly encouraged by what he describes as the "phenomenal" interest in the hotel, with its Madeleine bar being full most evenings, from Wednesday through to Saturday. Bookings for cocktails and light dishes have been predominately driven by locals and leisure customers, accounting for 80% of business.
A Grand history
While the Grand has all the gloss and grandeur of a new hotel, its history in fact stretches back 142 years. Unusually, the ownership of the Victorian building has remained in the same hands ever since it was built. Isaac Horton, a butcher turned property owner, opened the hotel in 1879 and today his descendants continue to own the freehold of the property through Hortons' Estate, which comprises a portfolio of office, industrial, retail and leisure properties throughout the Midlands with assets exceeding £190m. A second hotel in Birmingham, which originally opened as the Midland, is now known as the Burlington.
The Horton family ran the Grand until 1969, after which a succession of operators managed it until its closure in 2002, when it became apparent that extensive renovation to the fabric of the building was needed for the hotel to remain operational. However, it wasn't until 2017 that a realistic plan was put in place, when US private investment company Starwood Capital Group signed a 175-year lease on the property, with Hortons' Estate retaining the freehold. At that time, Cody Bradshaw, managing director and head of European hotels at Starwood Capital Group, announced his intention that the Grand would "once again become the finest hotel in the city".
A £45m renovation got under way, with Robert Angell Design International, whose work includes One Aldwych and the Berkeley in London and Lime Wood in Hampshire, appointed as interior designer. Alongside the remodelling of the hotel's interior, the work has included the creation of 1,000 sq m of office space and 10 new retail spaces, with hospitality groups Gusto and the Alchemist among the new occupants.
Initially, the hotel was going to join Principal, a brand of urban lifestyle hotels created by Starwood from a disparate collection of properties it had acquired over a number of years. But when Starwood sold Principal to French investment company Foncière des Régions (now known as Covivio) in 2018, the Grand was not included in the deal. As a result, the Grand reverted to the independent hotel it was originally developed to be.
"We have had so many letters and emails from former employees or children of former employees," says Kienast. "They are keen to share their memories as well as tour the building."
The history of the Grand was a key part of the attraction for Kienast in moving to Birmingham from his previous role as general manager of the Principal Manchester (now the Kimpton Clocktower) hotel, where he spent three years.
"Throughout my career I've worked in some wonderful historical hotels, such as Reid's Palace in Madeira and Badrutt's Palace in St Moritz. And I spent time at the Langham London, when it was a Hilton," he explains. "I've also worked in new-build properties, but there is nothing like having that feel and touch of an older era and converting it into a 21st-century business."
There is nothing like having that feel and touch of an older era and converting it into a 21st-century business
Having fallen into a desperate state of disrepair, with pigeons as the only residents, today the beautifully restored French Renaissance-style, Grade II*-listed hotel shines once again in its city centre location on Colmore Row overlooking St Philip's Cathedral. With Birmingham's hotel stock, comprising 10,000 bedrooms, dominated by newly built chain hotels, the Grand is in the position of offering a hotel stay with a touch of history as well as a luxury experience without carrying an official five-star rating.
"We are operating a five-star level of service, but to appeal to the likes of pharmaceutical companies and banks, we don't wish to hold that rating," says Kienast.
Certainly, everything about the refurbishment of the Grand has been carried out at the highest level, with once covered-up original Victorian and art deco features revealed again. Most impressive of all is the Louis XIV-style Grand Ballroom, which can accommodate 350 for a sit-down dinner when allowed. The ornate plasterwork ceiling, art deco chandeliers and double-height windows make it an outstanding event space for Birmingham.
But far from simply returning the Grand to its original look, the new interior firmly brings the hotel into the 21st century, from the boutique-style reception to the sleek bedrooms and suites in muted colours and modern four-poster beds. "We didn't want guests walking into an old shell that had just been redecorated," says Kienast. "The hotel is very much a marriage between the historic structure and contemporary touches and comforts."
The hotel is very much a marriage between the historic structure and contemporary touches and comforts
The link between the old and the new is highlighted in a collection of over 200 pieces of art, curated by Warwick-based Elegant Clutter, depicting Birmingham and its environs as portrayed by local artists. Works featured include an abstract textural painting inspired by Spaghetti Junction, various illustrations of the Mini, which was originally produced at the city's Longbridge plant, and laser-cut paper artwork depicting the lyrics from Birmingham band Black Sabbath.
The Grand may not have had the rebirth that Starwood Capital and Hortons' Estates envisaged back in 2017, but Kienast believes the hotel has "super potential" due to its heritage, central location and opening at a time when the city is going through what he calls a renaissance, similar to that experienced by Manchester five or six years ago.
The retail sector in the city has taken a major hit, with John Lewis and Debenhams among the outlets to shut up shop, but the establishment of HSBC's UK head office in 2018 and the arrival of Goldman Sachs later this year are a major boost to the financial sector. Meanwhile, the cultural side of Birmingham is on the up too, with the creation of a film and TV studio in Digbeth, headed by Peaky Blinder director Steven Knight. And next year, the eyes of the sporting world will be very much on the Birmingham when it becomes the host city for the 2022 Commonwealth Games from 28 July to 8 August, with a cultural festival running from March to September helping to attract people to the West Midlands.
Kienast believes the Grand is well-positioned to take advantage of the great exposure to Birmingham that these events will provide. "The key thing is that we need to shout louder about it," he concludes.
Adam Bateman's homecoming
The appointment of Adam Bateman as culinary director at the Grand in June 2020 marked the return of the chef to his home city of Birmingham. In particular, it also brought him back to the hotel into which he first had an insight as group operations and development chef at Principal.
"After Principal was sold and the operations of the group taken over by IHG Hotels & Resorts, I thought I had lost the opportunity to be involved in the Grand," he says. "When the opportunity arose last year to come back, I was delighted to take on the role as culinary director as a proud Brummie."
Bateman's experience working across hotels – most recently as group operations and development chef, UK & Ireland at IHG – has been invaluable in setting up the F&B offer at the Grand. "My skill-set has always been operational: being the middle man in getting the best from different teams and linking the operations with stakeholders."
At the Grand, this has meant Bateman working with global concept agency Gorgeous Group, Starwood Capital, brand director Simon Willis and Kienast. Their discussions resulted in the creation of two distinct spaces: Isaac's restaurant (named for the founder of the hotel) and the Madeleine bar (a name reflecting its Paris-meets-Birmingham vibe).
Located on the ground floor with a direct entrance on to the street, Isaac's is a New York-style brasserie, a concept chosen to fill a gap in the Birmingham market. "At one level, you have the likes of Aktar Islam at Opheem and Glynn Purnell at Purnell's at the Michelin-starred level, and then you have the high street restaurants, such as the Ivy, Côte and Primitivo," explains Bateman. "But in the middle, there are no private operators offering brasserie-style food at a great price point.
"Deciding on a brasserie was quite a bold move, as there is a certain expectation regarding a meal in a grand hotel. But I think if we had brought in someone like Gordon Ramsay or Marcus Wareing, there would have been a push back from the people of Birmingham. We decided it was sensible to offer something more accessible to the local people, especially when there are already four or five really good chefs operating at the highest level in the city."
For Kienast, the key thing about Isaac's is that it is "all about your favourite food". It serves dishes with wide appeal, such as Maryland crab cakes, pea and mint salad, with sriracha yogurt (£9); a New York-style hot dog with sauerkraut, red cabbage slaw, mustard and ketchup (£15); and cookie dough smores and peanut butter ice-cream sandwich (£8).
"New York is founded by immigrants, so the menu provides cultural references and tastes that reflect the New York dining scene, be it Jewish, Italian or central European," says Bateman.
Meanwhile, Madeleine offers a glamorous hotel bar experience, with light snacks that take their cue from France with a nod to the Midlands. So, alongside salad Lyonnaise (£10) and sourdough croque monsieur (£11), there is crispy paneer with spiced yogurt (£5), inspired by the local Asian community, and mini hash browns and brown sauce topped with a confit egg yolk (£5). With demand for a seat at Madeleine far outstripping supply while social distancing is in place, Bateman sees no reason why the bar will not become as renowned as other leading UK hotel bars, such as Scarfes at Rosewood London and Refuge at Kimpton Clockhouse in Manchester. Its signature Madeleine Martini (£10), comprising Absolut Elyx, pineapple, raspberry and lemon tart air, has already become a favourite.
When it comes to events, Kienast is hoping that the likes of something as theatrical as beef Wellington, carved and served in the Grand Ballroom, will be on the menu. "With such an impressive space, it is important that the food will have just as strong an impact," says Bateman. "There really is no other room in the city centre with the same wow factor."
With such an impressive space, it is important that the food will have just as strong an impact
In order to build a kitchen team made up of 20 chefs and five kitchen porters – he currently has an 11-strong brigade – Bateman is thinking outside the box. "Sometimes in the kitchen we get hung up on titles and experience," he says. "I'm now being flexible with the hours I'm offering, with more part-time and casual positions. And I'm giving opportunities to people who I perhaps wouldn't otherwise have chosen."
While the individuals may not have had the skills to start with, they do have drive and passion – which has resulted in what Bateman calls some "brilliant appointments".
Contact and details
Colmore Road, Birmingham B3 2BS
0121 827 9600
General manager Peter Kienast
Culinary director Adam Bateman
Food and beverage Isaac's restaurant, Madeleine bar
Events Grand Ballroom (for up to 350 dinner guests), plus eight further event rooms with central breakout area including external courtyard
Starting room rate £129
Photography by Tom Mannion 2020
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