Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
November 2022, Virtual
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
Bill Walshe is chief executive of The Doyle Collection
Isn't now the worst time to be launching those kinds of hotels?
No. We are starting to be commercially very successful, picking up accounts from those for whom going to luxury hotels isn't the thing to do right now but who aren't prepared to compromise on standards. I think we have the right product at the right time because people are going for a more understated life, and we fit that. Hotels tend to react to economic downturns in two ways: they cut quality, cut staff and hide, which is what the majority seems to be doing now, or they build additional quality and try and sell their way out of trouble, which is what we are doing.
Are we where we thought we were going to be? Absolutely not. But you can compare to budgets, which, 15 minutes after they are written, become irrelevant, or you look at market share. We set up aspirational competitive sets so we had a benchmark and now we see ourselves climbing and that for me is the primary measure. Are we stealing market share of whatever business is available in the market? I can't control the British economy but I can control how well we are doing.
We also have a tremendously strong ownership and board who are supporting the direction we are taking. We are spending €250m on the redevelopment and we are not slowing down. In fact, we are taking advantage of the conditions. If there is less demand, then what a fantastic time to take out inventory and accelerate the redevelopment. If we are taking out a floor a month, let's take two or three so when we are competing, we are competing with the best product so we stand out from the crowd. We have opened a sales office in New York and revamped our sales structure here to make us easier to do business with. We relaunched Fidelio Opera as our distribution structure to allow us to offer best available rate and we joined the Global Hotel Alliance.
What benefits do you think that will bring?
The model they are adopting is the hotel industry's answer to the Star Alliance. In no way does it suffocate the individuality of its brands, but it creates strength through unity and hopefully retains customers within the network. It also allows us to acquire customers. The Leela group in India is a member. My company will never set up a sales office in India, but through the alliance we can introduce our product to these affluent customers. It suits us also because there is no network-wide loyalty scheme and if it did come it would be benefit and recognition-based. One of the first things I did when I arrived was an evaluation of our points-based system here and I pulled it. In fact, I spoke at ITB last year and said that if I could I'd go back in time to five minutes before whoever it was who invented a points-based loyalty system, I would hit him round the head with a shovel. These schemes have given hoteliers a way of abdicating responsibility for recognising guests. I'd rather train our people to recognise and reward guests through outstanding service and maybe certain benefits rather than saying ‘Oh you didn't have a great stay? We've credited your account with 300 points'. Also, for a company of our size they are cost prohibitive. Instead, the technology we have put in place will allow us to build profiles of guests and recognise them around the company so we will get a lot better at recognising the individuality of guests.
Do you have any plans to expand?
No. Mentally I'm not going there yet. We are doing this in a two-year time frame which will end by September of this year - taking the entire portfolio of hotels and renovating, renaming, relaunching, as well as bringing in a new corporate identity and corporate structure and that's keeping us as busy and focused as possible. If a hotel opportunity came along in New York or Paris or Milan, I would actually turn it down because I genuinely don't think we could do a great job incorporating it into the portfolio because we are flat out at the moment. We are not putting ourselves out for management contracts either. I think one of the benefits of being who we are is that we have a tremendous speed to market. So if we decide we want to do something, we make the decision, we deploy it and we move on to the next initiative. We don't have to spend eight months travelling the world getting the permission of all our owners only for some of them to say we are not taking part in that initiative. We are masters of our own identity.
In addition, there has been something of a growth obsession in the whole industry so if you're not talking about whom you're going to be, you're not successful. But I'm quite happy talking about who we are. If five years from now we have 11 award-winning, highly-thought-of, commercially successful properties, it will be job done.
But you must have aims for other locations.
If we did expand, New York would be it, and our sales people say it would help if we had it, but we are a credible sell right now to the major corporate accounts because we are in Dublin, Washington and London. Bristol has aerospace and defence as well and with Washington we get a lot of corporate, diplomatic and government business, so we are on the radar. And coming out now with the product we have now and the identity we are starting to turn heads.
With those locations, the restaurant side must be difficult
We work with John Wood who was executive chef of the Burj al Arab when I was in Dubai and who previously was at Cliveden. He is one of the most talented chefs I have met, and he puts together our restaurant concept for our chefs. We are passionate about simple food with a relatively limited menu choice using local sourced ingredients. It's about being part of a community and shouting about it.
The physical change of these properties is the easy bit: the design schemes get implemented and we change the name of the hotel. The cultural change has really been the fun part and for me the most rewarding is investing in our colleagues. There was scepticism and uncertainty, but now it is sheer excitement. In all of our restaurants we took the name badges away - because it creates a barrier, and now we greet our guests, we smile, we don't script the greeting, but we say ‘Engage'. The days of luxury hotel-keeping being about ‘Not speaking until you're spoken to' are over. Our guests are intelligent, interactive people, so we have given our staff a voice. And they have that voice internally as well. The appraisal process has gone from filling out a form to an online 360-degree appraisal starting with me. On example of how it has worked is one of the new restaurants at the Westbury in Dublin. We have Cafe Novo where the old Sandbank Bistro used to be, conceived by John Wood. When it was the old Sandbanks restaurant, on a busy Saturday we would do 50 or 60 covers. We did 600 last Saturday, and it's the same chef - he has brought himself to a new level with our help. And the clientele has changed. A year ago there might have been two bus tours parked outside a hotel like the Marylebone property, but now the rates have gone up, the average age has gone down, and we've opened new market segments, such as entertainment.