Beccy Gunn is general manager of the recently opened Arch London hotel in Marylebone. She talks to ABTN about staying independent in a chain-led world.
For Gunn, the world of small luxury hotels is a passionate one, where plant pots matter and people get grumpy if things go awry. "Our guests are lovely people, but they're going to get grumpy if things go wrong. Well, I get grumpy too if things go wrong. If I'm paying a lot of money to go somewhere I expect it to work, which is understandable."
As a result, small hotels tend to aim for perfection. For example, says Gunn, when it comes to cleaning rooms (something she is an expert in after several years in housekeeping), staff have the time to do a thorough job. "At Intercontinental, I cleaned 13 or 14 rooms [in a shift], and at the Halkin I cleaned eight because everything had to be just so... Here the girls clean ten."
The Arch has 82 rooms, a restaurant, champagne bar and martini lounge, where guests can relax on sofas and read fascinating books on the history of the circus, or Italian Renaissance gardens. "I think that in smaller hotels you tend to notice the little things, and you're able to do the little things. Because we don't have thousands of people through the lounge, we're able to put out these Taschen books and beautiful night-lights in the evening - we're able to do a little bit more, to create that ‘home away from home' feel."
According to Gunn, independent hotels are leading the way for the younger generation of travellers, so much so that large chain hotels are creating boutique-style brands. "We all travel a lot now. We're very much a mobile society... The generation we're in now is a lot more experimental and adventurous, and I think it shows in what's coming out hotel wise. The market has cottoned on to it. I think Starwood have been very clever with its branding. When I go to the US I stay in a W hotel because it ticks my boxes."
The Arch is a townhouse property, situated in a residential quarter just a few minutes from busy Oxford Street. According to Gunn, location is everything in the hotel business. "You could have the most fabulous hotel, but if it's not in the right location, it's going to be hard to get people to go to it." The new boutique property, named after the nearby London landmark Marble Arch, is owned by AB Hotels, which also has properties in St Albans and Maldon. It aims to be sophisticated yet relaxed, with doormen in flat caps and stripy scarves in winter.
Gunn believes hotels need to be faithful to their surroundings. The Arch's design team, RDD, was inspired by nearby high-fashion drag, Bond Street - the contemporary art throughout the hotel and lobby reflects this - yet has also kept the traditional townhouse feel by incorporating Listed architectural elements and features into the new look. "The hotel has that kind of Marylebone, independent, very much fabulous design - that great townhouse feel that says, ‘I'm lived in, but you know what? I'm very comfortable but also hugely stylish."
Gunn started out in the hotel industry working in her local hotel in East Sussex. She fell in love with it, and then with the industry. She said: "You meet some amazing people and you never really feel like you're working, although my feet told me I was, and my arms - I used muscles I didn't know existed when I was waitressing."
Her first job after completing her hotel and catering degree was in London. Apart from a short stint at a country hotel in Surrey, Handpicked Hotels' Woodlands Park, she has remained in the capital, working for a number of independent properties including the Halkin, the Pelham and the Metropolitan, as well as the Intercontinental on Park Lane.
Gunn said she has followed people in her career, finding the energy and creativity of small hotels somewhat addictive. "I think I've always been very lucky working for really passionate, attention-to-detail people who notice everything... I like working for private owners - every owner I've worked with has been very much involved... to me that's very important."