The hotel manager of the Celtic Collection's Parkgate hotel in Cardiff speaks about opening to heaving sports crowds and operating a luxury brand in the Welsh capital
How has trading been since opening last year?
We opened the hotel on 25 October – the week before the Autumn International game between Wales and the All Blacks. It was a real baptism of fire but it all went to plan. When you open any hotel it is phased and we capped it at 50% occupancy for that weekend, which is no mean feat for a new hotel. It's not wise to go from zero to 100% in one go. Since January and after the Covid blip we have opened properly, and it's been good. The hotel has been well received.
The city has some good offerings, including the St David's hotel [Cardiff Bay], where I was the manager previously, but in the centre there is a gap and this is where we've stepped in. It's been amazing to see local faces, some that I know, who are happy to come in and tell us that it's just what the city needed.
How have events like the Autumn Internationals and the Six Nations affected room demand?
Obviously any event in the city creates demand. I've worked in Cardiff for the past six years and all the hospitality venues came alive with the return of international rugby.
With the Six Nations there is immense demand, so much so that the city needs to accommodate two or three times more people, which is why they end up staying up to 40 miles away. The match day impact is felt everywhere. Whereas for some businesses these match days are a lifeline, for us they simply form part of our operation. They are integral to certain months, and our budgets are built around the games, but we are certainly not twiddling our thumbs at the other times.
Can you tell us about the operating structure of the hotel?
It's a joint venture between the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and the developer Rightacres. They are the owners of the property and Celtic Collection is the hotel operator. We handle the day-to-day running of the property. We've a real focus on Welsh hospitality – the WRU is obviously Welsh and Rightacres is a Welsh company and the Celtic Collection is Welsh too. I don't know of any other hotel operator of our scale in Wales.
The majority of restaurants in Cardiff are casual chains, how have you designed your F&B operation to capitalise on this?
We've a vast F&B offer. The Sorting Room restaurant, with 120 covers, is for special occasions and it's where you will be looked after and you'll find great food from local suppliers. We're not super-duper expensive but not budget either – mains are around £25 up to £42 for a beef wellington, and starters are £7-£10.
There is also the Sorting Room Bar, which is a destination cocktail bar, and the Cwrt Lounge, which has a mellow vibe with afternoon teas and becomes a relaxed space in the evening.
There is also the Cwrt courtyard out the back of the building that has not been activated yet because of the lovely Welsh weather! There will be a DJ on Saturday afternoons and cocktails and rosé from Provence being served – it's perfectly positioned for summer when things will come alive, especially as there's a great calendar of events planned in Cardiff, including Ed Sheeran at the stadium and the BBC Radio 6 Music Festival at venues across the city.
Whereas for some businesses these match days are a lifeline, for us they simply form part of our operation
Cardiff is evolving at pace and it's catching up, and part of this involves it finding and establishing a food scene. There are charming, traditional places that have been around for 20 to 30 years, but there are some gaps and the Parkgate Hotel is capitalising on this market need for a luxury offering.
Is the hotel helping prompt a bit of a regeneration of Cardiff, especially in the area near the stadium?
The city is going through an amazing regeneration, there is activity in Cardiff Bay with the new arena, and there is the Central Square project, which involves major redevelopment outside the main train station, as well as other development across the wider city.
This is all generating business in Cardiff and we are playing our part in this. If it creates more destination visitors for Cardiff, we're hopefully helping with that. What the city did not have was masses of luxury – which was more of a problem with F&B. In terms of hotels there is the St David's, which is five-star and was opened in 1999, but it is not in the centre.
Cardiff is now a great city to visit. You will not visit and feel that you could have been anywhere – you will know that you've been to Wales. We therefore try to use Welsh suppliers and encourage anything in the hotel that we can relate back to Wales. It's about a sense of place, which is very important to us. We encourage our staff to recommend non-branded restaurant chains and bars to guests who would not typically come across them.
How different is the hotel in terms of design and feel compared to Celtic Manor?
The hotel was never trying to be a replica of the Celtic Manor Resort. What's been drawn out though is the essence of Celtic Manor – its service ethos and culture. It's certainly not the same building.
With the Parkgate we've been sympathetic to the building and its city location. It looks very different but the service is very similar. It was an old Post Office and a separate building next door that was the County Court. No two rooms are quite the same and there are unusual bedrooms, like the Tower Suite, which sits below the bell tower, parts of which are exposed within the room. We've also added features such as a TV that pops out of the end of the bed, and we've got a private dining room that is carved out of what was the old roof of the Court.
When you tie all these elements together, including the spa, the property is unique. You wander around the building and there are lots of stories to tell because of its history. We've had more than 10 sets of people who've told us they used to work here when it was a post office, and some people who met there. One person jokily brought a package into the building as if it was still operating as a post office.
Tell us about the spa. Does it set you apart in terms of city centre competition?
With have such a beautiful product in the spa. It's on the rooftop and overlooks the stadium and out into the Welsh countryside.
Elemis is the house brand and the offer includes the Herbal Steam Temple (which is like a mud bath room), four treatment rooms, and the Thermal Suite experience, with heated lounger beds that look out over the city. There are only 12 people in the spa at any one time, and they will all have bookable slots. This means it's not a struggle to find somewhere to hang your towel, and you won't find you can't get into the pool. This really is unique for Cardiff. No other place has a rooftop spa.
Sustainability is on everyone's lips right now. How have you considered the planet when creating the Parkgate?
Within the fabric of the building we've incorporated solar panels and LED lighting, and we try to work with responsible suppliers. All of this was pre-energy prices going through the roof. It's clearly the responsible thing to do.
There are also some cool things we are doing behind the scenes, such as in the kitchen where we use induction and no gas. As we go through the year and establish ourselves we'll look at how we interact with suppliers on recycling.
We've already had a conversation with a linen company about their plastic packaging and we've looked at ways to cut it out. It's good to look at the business in this way.
Will you be looking to roll-out the ‘Parkgate' brand further? How does it sit with the other brands in the Celtic Collection?
There won't be another Parkgate. You won't see us opening one in Swansea or in London. It sits within the Celtic Collection category of hotels that are inspired by their properties, their architecture and their location. These are all in the four-star-plus category.
There is also an accessible version of hotel within the group – Tŷ Hotels. There is currently one, Tŷ Magor, which was formerly a Hampton by Hilton, and the next one is due to open on 8 April in Milford Haven. Next year the third will open in Newport.
And what has your journey been to Parkgate?
I opened and closed the St David's hotel more times than I care to say because of Covid-19 when I was hotel manager down in Cardiff Bay. I've never had a job outside of a hotel, having worked in them since the age of 13 when growing up in Great Yarmouth. My career has been with the large hotel groups – Hilton, Marriott and IHG Hotels & Resorts. I absolutely jumped at the opportunity to open a hotel and be the first custodian of something like the Parkgate, which is a career-defining moment for me. I've always worked in higher end properties where there's a real focus on the experience and it's more than just the physicality of the building.
What have you learned from your previous experience that you are bringing into your new role at Parkgate?
Personally, something that's really important to me is that it is not just that the guest has a great time but that we really look after the team and our people. It's super-important that we're cultivating hospitality as a wanted career choice. The way we do that is through the actions we have with our teams. I embed this into the culture. I use the word culture all the time – how we look and how we speak to each other. Hospitality is hard work, we know that, but we can still have our own fun and look after each other on the way.
Going out to market and opening the hotel at the time we did was no easy task. To try and resource a brand new hotel when the industry was on a decline in terms of recruitment was hard, but I really feel that the way you conduct yourself and present the business is a draw to people.
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