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Hotelier of the week: Stuart Bowery

Stuart Bowery, the new general manager of London’s Grosvenor House, a JW Marriott hotel, talks to ABTN about the London riots, the Olympics, and the capital’s luxury hotel sector

What is new at the hotel?

Our most recent launch was the JW Steakhouse, which opened just over a year ago. It has been a resounding success for the hotel and is something we are very proud of. It is appealing to both hotel guests and as an American steak house in London – a destination restaurant.

What next for Grosvenor House?

We relaunched as a JW Marriott in 2008 and since then we have completed a refurbishment of all the guestroom stock and our meetings wing 86 Park Lane. The renovation cycle will soon start again. As you can imagine, given the scale of the hotel, by the time you’ve gone from refurbishing the ground floor to finishing the guest rooms, it’s time to review the public space again.

We are now in the taking stock phase, looking at the future, positioning and planning. We need to balance the JW Marriott brand and the Grosvenor House history and heritage, and understand what are all the elements that are going to protect the rich heritage of the destination. We’re looking at how we can start to – with all the design elements – bring in all the essences of what a JW Marriott brand customer wants in the luxury segment.

There have been several refurbishments and openings recently among London’s luxury hotel set – such as the Savoy and the Four Season, also on Park Lane. I imagine you’re looking at how to position the JW Marriott alongside those...

There has been a tremendous amount of new stock, particularly in the luxury segment. What we want to be absolutely clear is where we are positioned. Dare I say that we’re not deluded in any way. We are a big hotel, and we want to make sure that we’re very clear on what our positioning is and not forget where we are, what Grosvenor House is about, what the history is about, and how we can look after the well-heeled guests.

The hotel boasts a rich history...

Yes, for example the Great Room was originally the ice rink and the Queen came here to ice skate when she was 7. That is a wonderful story. And in the lobby there is a wonderful painting of society in London having a great ice ball. That is something that we need to protect as a story. The international visitor is fascinated. It does come through as that quintessential Englishness.

As a general manager, trying to protect that heritage is important. A lot of my peers in the industry around the world have all cut their trade in this hotel. So many people say they remember working here. Obviously in recent years it has gone through a lot of change, with a change in ownership. Putting all that aside, the development we do going forward is going to be about understanding the history, the reputation and making sure that we are fit for business and have a preferable proposition.

How do you see the luxury hotel market developing post the recession?

Clearly there are emerging markets. As the hotel market evolves, it’s about trying to balance the fundamentals of what service is about, but also embracing technology and the pace of consumer demands with the dynamics of the customer.

What I’m relieved to know is there is a new customer out there, from Asia, the Far East and the Middle East. They are probably the stronger markets, although the traditional markets of Europe and North America are still there. It’s a challenge as you can’t be all things to all people all the time. You can be very clear about what the proposition is, but at the same time you need to be flexible enough to adapt, to taylor make.

How did Grosvenor House react to the recent riots in London?

We took it very very seriously. It was clearly distressing and alarming for all of us in the UK, and we were fully booked. We had a lot of guests from North America. I personally wrote to all of the guests assuring them that should they have any concerns, the leadership team would be on hand to help. We explained to them that it was not happening in central London, and that London is a big city.

It was obviously tragic what happened. We take security very seriously, and I did increase the presence of our security team. We liaised with the local police, the British Hospitality Association, the Oxford Street trade association – all the various trade bodies that were keeping the communication lines open. Where we had group business in our head of security met with their head of security and briefed them to give them assurances.

Business held up. A couple of rooms cancelled. They were not charged for cancelling late in the evening. We took a very open, flexible view on it, and we were conscious of what was being seen internationally.

We also needed to provide an access and support mechanism, if needed, to all the staff, because by and large they live on the fringes of London where these incidences were happening. They were also told to talk to us if they had concerns. Fortunately things settled down within the space of about 48 hours.

Have you seen any lasting effects?

Not from a business point of view. I think from my personal experience we bounce back very quickly as a city. We demonstrate how robust our transport network is and society gets back to normal very very quickly. With that the international traveller seems to have confidence in the city.

What would you say to people who have questioned whether London is fit to host the Olympics, following the riots?

We are 110% fit for it. As far as the Olympics is concerned, I think people will understand, although they won’t necessarily forget.

Will you see a lot of business around the Olympics?

We are fully committed for the Olympics and we are very excited about it. I think it’s going to be great for London. Around 95% of our rooms have gone to LOCOG.

What stage of the planning are you at now?

We’re going through the finer understanding of the logistics, for example how easy movement around Park Lane will be. Also the actual servicing of it – we want to ensure everyone is clearly briefed. It’s clearly very exciting. London is well placed from the hoteliers' point of view – the hotels are very well geared up to it.

So the hotels will be ready?

Absolutely.

How about the rest of London?

I think naturally there will be concerns. People will be fretting. But I think we are prepared.

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