Following the sale of the Jurys Inn brand in 2017 to Israeli-based Fattal Hotel Group, Jason Carruthers has overseen Fattal’s portfolio as managing director of Jurys Inn and Leonardo Hotels UK and Ireland. Katherine Price catches up with him to chat about the group’s aggressive expansion plans
Three months ago, Fattal Hotel Group acquired four central London Grange hotels in partnership with Queensgate Investments. At what point are the rebrands now?
At the end of April three of the hotels became Leonardo Royals. The Holborn hotel has become a Jurys Inn and then it will become a NYX. We can’t rebrand it immediately because it will involve a significant physical transformation.
The plan is to improve the performance of the hotels, improve the guest experience and to invest in order to transform the actual offer. We start that process in August this year.
What will that involve?
These are big hotels – the St Paul’s hotel has 460 bedrooms – and we’ve gone through all the different room types, all the configurations, to ensure that we match the guest expectations and get it right from an optimisation point of view.
The hotels also have very big public areas; the St Paul’s hotel has got three bars on the ground floor. The offer needs to be rationalised and we need to make sure that the F&B offer is appropriate for the market in which we operate.
We haven’t concluded exactly which way it will go. We don’t want big, cavernous spaces with nobody sat in them. We’ll evaluate all of that in August and we’ll finish in Q1 next year.
Why are three of the hotels going to become Leonardo Royals, rather than Leonardos or Jurys Inns?
They join a premium portfolio which already includes the Grand Harbour in Southampton and the Midland in Manchester. Those two hotels are larger than the majority of hotels in those locations, and they aren’t dissimilar; they also have extensive M&E, F&B and spa and wellness facilities. That will become the core of the Leonardo Royal brand in the UK.
When you joined Jurys Inn in 2016 you were tasked with growing and developing the brand – has your focus changed?
It’s certainly accelerated with Fattal on board. When I joined we were a group of 27 hotels; that became 36. With bringing nine hotels in, the focus was to rebrand, optimise performance, create value for [previous owner] Lone Star, and then ultimately Lone Star would exit.
Now we have a longer-term plan to grow the overall Fattal suite of brands. This has created masses of opportunities, certainly for my team. We’ve created a regional London team [to oversee the Queensgate hotels], and all of those roles have been filled internally. We’re now creating a lot of opportunities for people who have worked for the business for a long time.
What are the growth plans for the group?
At the point Fattal acquired us we had 36 hotels; we’re now at 49 and we’ve got another four in the pipeline. The plan is to further roll out the Leonardo brand – some in locations where we’ve already got Jurys Inns. We have 37 Jurys Inns in 31 locations in the UK and Ireland. We have infrastructure in those cities because we operate at a regional level, so we have a regional commercial team, a regional operations team, and the hotels are clustered.
We’re very clear where we want new hotels – not just the city; we know the actual streets.
Do you have any target figures?
We have an aspiration of 10% growth per annum. We are evaluating opportunities in new developments, acquisition of existing hotels – both individual and portfolios – and through a combination of leaseholds and freeholds. We will work with other partners as necessary – Pandox with Jurys and the Midland, Queensgate, and some Fattal will fund entirely itself.
We’ve got 2,500 rooms in the pipeline, which will be potentially added into the group. Not all of those will come off and others will be added in, but that’s the number that we need to keep in mind if we want to ultimately grow at the rate we have done. The last 12 months really demonstrate our ability to grow as an organisation.
What about the group’s existing properties? Are there plans for investment there?
We’re applying for planning permission to add rooms to the Oxford and Inverness Jurys Inns, and we’ll keep evaluating sites. Sometimes we’ll be converting meeting rooms to bedrooms or vice versa, depending on the demand and characteristics.
We’ve fully refurbished our Exeter and Croydon Jurys Inns this year, along with Leonardo hotels at London Heathrow Airport and Edinburgh Murrayfield. A further two Jurys will be refurbished next year. We keep it on a cycle to maintain a very consistent product.
You’re exploring a sale of two properties – the Leonardo Inn Glasgow West End and Leonardo Boutique Hotel Huntingtower Perth – are you looking to sell any more?
It would be very unlikely that we’d acquire portfolios with any individual hotels that don’t have a long-term fit. We won’t be disposing of other hotels in the near future. The hotel in Perth is a 34-bedroom small country house wedding venue that doesn’t really sit in our portfolio. The Glasgow property is not a downtown city centre location, which is where we want to be.
Are you still seeing growth in the regional market that you were two or three years ago?
Last year was very positive for us. Our market, our competitor set, grew 3%. We grew significantly ahead of that. That’s partly because I think we’ve optimised very well and we’ve taken advantage of positive market growth. We’re seeing the return on investment at a greater level than the market in a number of different areas.
What about occupancy?
I think we’ve reached our optimum occupancy now, so we operate north of 80% occupancy across the UK against the market, which is 76%. I don’t think we’ll get much higher than that.
Are you expecting to perform as strongly this year?
We’ve predicted a softer market in 2019 and this is a little bit what we’re seeing, certainly in the first three months. We see a very strong position going into the summer, but we can certainly see a slight slowdown, not assisted by Brexit.
There are certain cities where there’s been a distinct increase in supply – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester – there has been a slowdown as a consequence of that, but without a doubt it’ll catch back up, because there’s a huge amount of demand stimulated in those cities.
Are you seeing any big fluctuations or differences between the domestic and international markets?
Domestic, certainly in the summer last year, was fantastic. I think that’s partly down to the strength of the pound, and we’ve got some very appealing locations. Two large Jurys Inn hotels in Brighton, for example, are very useful in a leisure period. Places like Edinburgh where we’ve a very significant foothold are very much leisure destinations. The increase in mini-breaks and staycations means a number of the cities have been at higher than normal occupancies.
Overseas travel is very similar to previous years; it peaks in summer and we don’t anticipate any change in that this year. But I’ll be pleased when we get to the end of the Brexit saga.
Are you doing anything to offset staffing issues?
It’s something we’re mindful of, but until we know which direction it’s going in, it is a bit speculative to say ‘this is our plan’. We haven’t seen any change in our employment profile since the vote to leave and we’re not seeing fewer applications. We know that EU workers are uncertain as to what the future looks like for them and we communicate with them to give them as much certainty as we possibly can.
What we have done – in part for that and in part to support the level of growth – is change our approach to ensure we’ve got an internal pipeline of people. We doubled the graduate intake into the business for 2019 [with 26 confirmed to start in September and a target of 33]. We’re recruiting people at an operations and deputy general management level to have them ready for future general management positions.
We have an 18-month programme that prepares deputy general managers for GM roles. We need a bigger group of people in that because the entire group from the last graduation are now general managers in our business.
2017-present Managing director, Leonardo and Jurys Inn UK and Ireland
2016-17 Managing director, Jurys Inn UK and Ireland
2014-15 Group chief executive, Andrew Brownsword Hotels
2013-14 Vice-president operations – Mercure Hotels, Accor
2010-13 Director of operations – Novotel UK, Accor
2005-10 Operations director, Shire Hotels
2001-05 General manager, Aztec Hotel Bristol (Shire Hotels)
1999-2001 General manager, Audleys Wood hotel, Basingstoke, Hampshire (Thistle Hotels)
1997-1999 Hotel manager, Stakis Dunkeld hotel, near Perth
1991-1997 Assistant/deputy general manager, Shire Hotels
Fattal Hotel Group
Fattal operates more than 200 hotels in 17 countries. Jurys Inn and Leonardo Hotels UK and Ireland oversees 37 hotels under the Jurys Inn brand and 12 hotels under the Leonardo brand.
The group’s UK brands include the three/four-star Leonardo brand, designed to cater mainly to business travellers; the premium, four-star Leonardo Royal brand; the lifestyle NYX brand; and the city centre, mid-market Jurys Inn brand.