The general manager of the Lowry in Salford tells Janet Harmer how his extensive overseas experience has brought new ideas to the five-AA-star hotel, and how it coped with the Manchester Arena bombing
You returned to the UK in 2015 after 17 years overseas. What attracted you to the Lowry?
My wife and I had a great experience abroad, but felt it was time to establish a base back home. I then received a call from a headhunter about the Lowry. We knew and liked Manchester as I had worked here for five years before going overseas. It was a good time to join the Lowry as the owners at the time [Westmont Hospitality Group] intended to reposition the hotel after buying it from Rocco Forte Hotels.
How had Manchester developed since you worked in the city in the 1990s?
The city changed monstrously while I was abroad. The development has been incredible.
There are more restaurants, bars and hotels now and an astonishing number of cultural activities. It is a much more vibrant city and people are very buoyant about the future.
Is there room for more hotel rooms in the city?
Which country did you find most challenging, and which was the most enjoyable?
Baku [in Azerbaijan] was definitely the toughest. I oversaw the opening of a 340-bedroom hotel with seven restaurants, and none of the non-management staff had any hospitality experience. We had to train for everything, from making beds to laying tables. We even hired a motel prior to opening to simulate a
service environment to boost the confidence of staff. There was also an ongoing delay to the construction of the hotel. The experience stood me in good stead for anything.
We loved Singapore - its vibrancy and the opportunity to travel to other areas of the Far East. Budapest was another favourite. We spent six years there with a great quality of life in a beautiful city set in beautiful countryside.
How do you think your overseas experience has enhanced your career?
I learned a lot about understanding and respecting different cultures, which has certainly helped in dealing with the 20 nationalities we employ at the Lowry. You have to be respectful of other cultures and not just go in and put your own stamp on a hotel.
I also picked up great operational ideas, particularly in Asia, which probably enjoys the best hospitality in the world. For example, as a result, we have introduced a guest of the day programme, in which we pick out an individual and offer them an upgrade - maybe a suite, extra amenities, and a personal welcome from myself or my deputy. Guests love it.
I have introduced some of Fairmont's initiatives here, such as the handprint wall, which features the handprint of every new colleague and the name and date they joined the hotel.
What renovations have taken place at the hotel since your arrival?
As soon as I joined in early 2015, I started to oversee a £5m refit, which included new-look bedrooms, corridors, a banqueting floor and spa. The work has helped drive the business forward - over the past two years, revenue has grown by 16% and profit by 25%. Revenue for 2017 will be £13.5m, with occupancy at about 83% and average room rate in excess of £150.
How has the Lowry grown the business?
We have increasingly focused on football, entertainment, celebrities, film production and music, alongside corporate group bookings and high-end leisure. Growing our quality, improving our cost management and membership of Leading Hotels of the World have also helped.
How do you promote the hotel?
We have a lot of creative PR. The hotel is named after Salford artist LS Lowry, but there was no indication that we had any connection with art. We've now introduced an art gallery with a different artist every month. It's all about creating stories that will keep us in the limelight in the Manchester Evening News, Cheshire Life and Lancashire Life, and further afield. I came across a fantastic picture in Salford Museum of the Manchester Ball, dating from 1868. We recreated the ball in March this year, with guests in period costume, and raised £17,000 for cancer charity Maggie's Manchester. It resulted in lots of press and PR, and will now become an annual event.
How important are international visitors?
International business accounts for only 8% of our bookings, but it is a growing area. Chinese group business is up 25% following president Xi Jinping's stay here for two days during his UK state visit in 2015. And Middle Eastern business is growing too, helped by improved connections into Manchester Airport from Middle Eastern airlines. With plans in place to double the airport capacity, we expect to see a further increase in international business.
In May this year, another new owner came on board - Singapore-based CDL Hospitality Trusts, which is an associate of Millennium & Copthorne Hotels - for £52.5m. How has that impacted the business?
Having a new owner can be unsettling while they find their feet and consider strategies. But CDL quickly reassured us they want to further grow the quality of the hotel. CDL is looking to invest another £2m in the lobby, bar, restaurant and washrooms. They are also intending to rent out a unit overlooking the river to an F&B operator. No decision has yet been taken about the restaurant, which has two AA rosettes under head chef Andrew Green.
The terrorist bomb at the Manchester Arena in May killed 22 people and injured 250. How has the hotel community dealt with the tragedy?
It was a very traumatic night for the whole city. From the outset we supported ne another as we helped the families involved and the emergency services. A number of families staying with us that evening attended the Ariana Grande concert. Luckily, none were injured, so our role was to comfort people who witnessed some terrible things and help with onward travel arrangements.
All hotels in the city suffered a huge number of cancellations in the weeks after the event.
We have not charged any cancellation fees as a result, something which has been common practice across the city. We lost about £120,000 of bookings, although we did pick up media business. Occupancy has now returned to good levels, with the city bouncing back very fast.
You are actively involved in the community. What are your roles?
I'm very engaged with Manchester and Salford councils - it is important to be at the forefront of what is happening in the community.
I'm chair of the Manchester Hoteliers Association as well as head of the Manchester Conference Initiative. We work hard at making the city more attractive to visitors and improving our welcome. Earlier this year, I became a Master Innholder. I'm also an ambassador at Manchester Metropolitan University, which has a strong hospitality department. I lecture, help with the curriculum and guest-speak on panels. I also work with Trafford and Salford City colleges. There is a lot going on in the city, but there is even more we can do. For instance, Manchester doesn't have a fashion show, which would drive more business. It is about big-picture thinking and making the city an even more attractive place to visit.
Rocco Forte Hotels opened the Lowry in 2001 and sold it in 2014 to Westmont
Hospitality Group. Ownership changed again earlier this year, with CDL Hospitality Trusts acquiring it for £52.5m. It has 165 bedrooms, including six suites and a presidential suite, the River restaurant, River bar and a spa.
Although the hotel promotes itself as "the first five-star hotel" in Manchester, it is in fact in Salford, on the opposite bank of the River Irwell from Manchester, and the centre of a vast £650m urban regeneration project.
Guests can walk to Manchester's Deansgate shopping district in three minutes by crossing the Santiago Calatrava-designed footbridge.
2015-present General manager, the Lowry, Manchester
2014-2015 Rebranding consultant, Fairmont Sanur Beach, Bali
1989-2014 General manager positions at (most recent first): Fairmont Baku, Azerbaijan; Corinthia Hotel Budapest; Le Royal Méridien Bristol, Warsaw;
Le Méridien Changi Village, Singapore; Le Méridien Victoria & Albert, Manchester; Dunston Hall Hotel and Country Club, Norwich; Airport Ambassador