University-inspired Graduate Hotels has arrived in the UK, backed by a 28-strong US portfolio and investment from AJ Capital Partners. Tessa Allingham visits the two flagship Oxbridge properties to discover how the brand is embracing locality and rethinking hotel F&B spaces.
The Randolph hotel sits in Victorian Gothic dominance on a crossroads in Oxford. The building has plenty of stories, from the real – it has been one of the city's best five-star stays and a go-to for landmark celebrations or afternoon tea with visiting relatives, for over 150 years – to the fictional and the famous. Author Colin Dexter found inspiration there for his Inspector Morse whodunnits, and royalty, actors and political leaders have stepped into its polished, chandelier-lit interior. Even the vigorous flambéeing of beef that sparked a serious fire in April 2015 couldn't destroy it: this hotel and its heritage is going nowhere.
But alongside its strong history, there has been change. The Randolph reopened this summer following a nine-month closure and an undisclosed spend on refurbishment by its new owners, Nashville-based private investment firm AJ Capital Partners. It joins the former DoubleTree by Hilton in Cambridge as part of AJ's newly launched Graduate Hotels brand in the UK and Europe, having acquired a long leasehold on both properties. The Cambridge hotel was acquired in July 2019 from UK property company, Ability Group, the Randolph from Macdonald Hotels in November 2019.
Now known as ‘the Randolph hotel by Graduate Hotels', and the ‘Graduate Cambridge', these hotels take the Graduate portfolio to 30, with the remaining 28 in the US. Another six are to open by the end of 2022, because the company is "committed to the UK for the long term". The next locations are yet to be revealed but all, as the name suggests, will be in university towns and are designed to appeal to the nostalgia of university days.
An exchange programme
"To say that I'm excited would be a gross understatement," says Phillip Allen, Graduate Hotels' chief development officer. "This is the culmination of three years' work. Oxford and Cambridge are dream Graduate destinations."
Those three years have been some of the toughest ever for the hospitality industry, the well-documented impact of Brexit and then the pandemic testing even the most resolutely ambitious to the limit. Added to that is the more subtle challenge of navigating cultural nuance. The AJ team are sensitive to it and Allen is looking forward to showing what the Graduate concept looks like "when viewed through a British lens". He and Ben Weprin, AJ founder and chief executive, pulled one out of the hat by partnering with White Rabbit Studios (WRS), the bespoke arm of London-based hospitality investment firm White Rabbit Projects. WRS was tasked to create and run food and beverage concepts that remain true to the American brand, but will be embraced locally too.
"Our job is to be a sounding board and to make sure the brand is recalibrated for the UK," says creative director Matt Corrall. "AJ has been keen not to interpret Britain superficially or create a pastiche. They listen when we warn against cliché, so our relationship is less about ‘marking homework' and more an open collaboration."
AJ has been keen not to interpret Britain superficially or create a pastiche
Chris Douglas, general manager of Graduate Cambridge, keeps Weprin's words in mind: "He said to us all that we need to become ‘the living room of the community'." In Oxford, general manager Philip Lewis echoes the sentiment: "If you get the community to take a place to its heart, you can succeed," he says.
It's not easy. The Oxford press, talking to a readership emotionally invested in the city's grande dame of hotels, wrote of an "international outcry" at suggestions the Randolph might be renamed to fit the Graduate brand. A compromise was agreed. Likewise, the hotel's famous Morse Bar remains. "It's thought of very fondly," says Corrall. "It would have been churlish to change it."
In Cambridge, the name of the new restaurant – Garden House – references the hotel that stood on the site of the current 1970s building before fire demolished it. "We've tucked into historic continuity," says Corrall. "I love the name, it feels like ‘we're back'. But people are cautious of change; the default reaction is ‘what are they doing?'."
The answer? Both hotels have been renovated from top to bottom. The chandeliered opulence and familiar footprint of the Grade II-listed Randolph remains, but bold, contemporary colours replace what Lewis describes as the "elegant but safe" previous style. Artist renderings show Oxford dark blue and original panelling in public areas, but also pink, sunflower yellow and lime green in Drawing Room furniture. Wallpaper patterns are striking, whether in lofty-ceilinged spaces, the dark, intimate Snug, or the bedrooms. The Alice restaurant is as lavish with colour as it is with winks of humour and Wonderland references – a portrait of a white rabbit with pocket-watch hangs among more traditional paintings and ornate mirrors.
Removing walls in the (unlisted) Cambridge hotel has created a flexible public area that opens onto gardens and the river Cam. Parquet and tiles replace carpet, and a 32-seat oval bar anchors the space. The gentle light blue of Cambridge features, and horticultural wallpaper in the private dining room references the restaurant's name. Old punts, hung vertically in the double-height reception area, are an obvious nod to the location, and a suspended model of the DNA double helix, identified by Cambridge scientists Francis Crick and James Watson, based on work by Rosalind Franklin, will likely become a talking point. From bedrooms, views either across cattle-grazed Coe Fen, or ancient Peterhouse and colleges beyond, are ready for Instagram.
"Hilton were fantastic operators," says Douglas, an employee for 13 years, the last three running the Cambridge hotel. "But AJ are taking this place to a different level. It's a design language we might not have considered. I like it."
Douglas is tasked with delivering a return on the AJ investment by tempting back leisure and corporate guests. "We've always had a good UK leisure market and we hope the ‘staycation' trend continues. The next 12-18 months will be key."
Lewis has the equivalent job in Oxford. In post since July 2019, he brings experience running Hotel du Vin properties, the five-AA-star Como Metropolitan London, and three years at the Macdonald Windsor hotel. "We need to catch the end of summer, and hit the ground running," he says, hopeful that stays longer than the typical two- to three-night city break will become more frequent.
Important to hitting targets will be establishing destination restaurants. "The stigma of the hotel restaurant is going," says Corrall. "The US is ahead of the UK regions, but even here the pivot of the last 10 years has been that we socialise more inside a hotel. They're not just a place to sleep."
The mission will be helped by the Alice having its own street entrance, and the Garden House – formerly a Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar & Grill – a clearly differentiated lobby.
Within the restaurants, Corrall's experienced executive chefs, Chris Emery and Adam Wood (see panel) have created contemporary, broad-appeal British menus and simpler all-day offers. "Price accessibility is vital. There's no prerequisite to spend £100 in our restaurants – but that doesn't negate creativity or credibility."
Price accessibility is vital. There's no prerequisite to spend £100 in our restaurants – but that doesn't negate creativity or credibility
Credibility will be boosted by what Corrall calls "meaningful partnerships" with suppliers. "There's nothing unique in supporting local when it's the best, but the connections our chefs build must be real. People see through it easily, otherwise."
The F&B range will encourage guests to linger. Remote workers or students are encouraged to use the co-working spaces. "It's a core part of the Graduate brand," says Corrall. "And it makes commercial sense. They might arrive at 11 for coffee, have lunch, maybe a meeting or two, then drinks and hopefully stay for dinner. It's the current way of using a hotel."
Current too is the slick use of technology. In Cambridge, augmented reality (AR) accessed via the hotel's app leads people, for example, to the Eagle pub where Watson and Crick announced their DNA discovery, or to Scudamore's to discover the history of punting. In Oxford, the same app-based technology will tell the story of famous university individuals such as JRR Tolkien and TS Eliot, pictured on key cards designed to resemble a student ID.
As for launching in challenging times, Allen prefers to give a dose of upbeat American optimism rather than dwell. "What can I say that hasn't already been said? It's been a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad year. The pandemic has been tremendously challenging." But, he adds: "We've seen an uptick in stay length [in US Graduate hotels], an increase in regional road-trip travel, and the continued flexibility of the remote worker.
"I think travel – particularly leisure travel – is in the early stages of a huge comeback. Lockdowns have reminded people of what they love about travelling – physical activity, meeting people, learning about new places. And if you're not optimistic about the future of your company, why would you get out of bed in the morning?"
If you're not optimistic about the future of your company, why would you get out of bed in the morning?
Owner AJ Capital Partners (Nashville, US)
Hotels 28 in US; two in UK; six more to open by end of 2022
The Randolph hotel by Graduate Hotels
Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2LN
General manager Philip Lewis
Executive chef Chris Emery
Rates From £229 for room only
Facilities The Alice restaurant (78 covers); the Snug cocktail lounge (20); the Morse bar (17). Coffee, afternoon tea or private dining/functions in the Drawing Room (19) and Lancaster Room (40). Ballroom (250 seated). Treatment rooms to open October.
Granta Place, Mill Lane, Cambridge CB2 1RT
General manager Chris Douglas
Executive chef Adam Wood
Rates from £189 room only
Facilities Garden House restaurant (94 covers); Terrace (24); Garden Bar (100); private dining (14); River Suite (250 seated). Wellness centre to open October.
White Rabbit Projects
White Rabbit Projects (WRP) provides investment backing and operational infrastructure to help fledgling hospitality ideas scale up. Founded in 2016 by Chris Miller, formerly commercial director at Soho House Group, the company has supported the likes of Lina Stores, Island Poké and Kricket.
White Rabbit Studios, WRP's bespoke arm, has worked on the F&B not just with Graduate Hotels, but also with two of AJ Capital Partners' recently acquired luxury golf hotels in Scotland. Rusacks St Andrews and Marine North Berwick will open late summer, launching AJ's Marine & Lawn brand. They will be joined in 2022, following refurbishment, by Marine Troon.
At the stove
Chris Emery, the Randolph hotel by Graduate Hotels
Chris Emery brings extensive experience to Oxford, including almost five years ("the best of my working life") as executive sous at Jason Atherton's Pollen Street Social, and head chef at his Clocktower restaurant in New York. He will lead a 28-strong brigade in his first job at this scale. "My experience is restaurants, but I'm not shy of challenge. Unless you change from what's comfortable, you won't grow or learn."
Dishes served in the 78-cover Alice restaurant might include a sharing dish of Herdwick lamb saddle, hot-pot, braised fennel, and lamb-fat potatoes, or brill, Datterini tomatoes and butter sauce. It will be a "fluid, constantly evolving" modern British menu using ingredients cooked "the simplest way possible".
Supplier relationships are all-important. Emery quickly discovered M Feller & Daughter butchers, and the Oxford Cheese Company in the Covered Market, while previous connections, such as with Lake District Farmers for Herdwick lamb, remain. "I want to flip the conversation. Our suppliers will make this restaurant – and it's down to us to do them justice in the cooking."
Emery will also oversee small-plate menus in the lounges, and afternoon tea in the Drawing Room. "I just want to get people through the doors, and I want the whole team to share my excitement, to wake up every morning with butterflies because they can't wait to get into work."
Adam Wood, Graduate Cambridge
Adam Wood plans to build a ‘small restaurant' vibe in the 94-cover Garden House restaurant. Wood, formerly sous chef at Perilla in Newington Green, London, will cook a British menu over fire, from a bespoke Clayoven grill in the restaurant's long open kitchen. At full tilt, Wood, who brings several years' experience with Marcus Wareing, and two under Gary Foulkes at the Square, will lead a brigade of 26.
"I don't want to recreate Perilla. I love that pared-back, relaxed style, but I want to build an identity that screams ‘Garden House'," he says.
An opening menu includes grilled Norfolk quail with pickled cherries and dandelion; native oysters with salted gooseberry and jalapeño; and Flourish Farm tomato tart, goats' cheese and preserved wild garlic. A classic Cambridge burnt cream tart will likely be popular.
"I've dug into the depths of Cambridgeshire to find people doing really cool things," he says. An existing relationship with Flourish, the horse-powered farm near Linton, led to Seed to Feed Microfarm in Bedfordshire, foragers and producers of heirloom leaves and edible flowers, and Chapel & Swan smokehouse in Exning. Heritage grain flour from Duchess Farms in Sawbridgeworth, will be used in daily baked sourdough.
"I want everything to be super-seasonal, super-conscious of the environment, progressive. We have an opportunity to do something that hotels traditionally don't or can't," Wood explains. Kitchen waste is collected for conversion into bioenergy, and hives of honeybees – "my new pets!" – are tucked away on-site, soon to be valued suppliers.
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