by Susan Young
I’m not sure what I expected when I headed to the House of Gods Hotel in Edinburgh to meet co-founder, Mike Baxter, but needless to say, I came away feeling charmed, not just by the hotel, but by the man behind it.
The moment I walked into the cosy reception area, with a gas fire blazing, and a helpful receptionist who was checking out a customer from a laptop on her lap, I felt I had walked into a sensory boudoir. Despite it being a morning meeting, the House of Gods feels like a night-time haunt.
It is a 22-roomed hotel, with a small cocktail bar on the ground floor, and next door there is the recently opened Casablanca Cocktail Club, which is self-described as “Edinburgh’s most opulent cocktail lounge.’
Now the plan is to roll out the House of Gods concept around the world. The next hotel to open will be in Glasgow, followed by Manchester. In fact, Mike believes that there could be many more.
The ethos which Mike Baxter and brother Ross have instilled into their hotel is one of decadence, and Mike is unapologetic. He tells me, “If I want to stay in a hotel I want to escape my life and my own four walls and I think other people feel the same way. I literally want to fall down a rabbit hole. So with House of Gods, we have created something more experiential and exciting for our guests.
“We borrowed from the real romance of luxury hotels but we were also influenced by the rock and roll stories of people like Liam Gallagher. We wanted to create a hotel with the romance of the Orient Express and the opulence and charm of Versailles and the hedonism of Studio 54. We looked at hotels like the Savoy, the Dorchester, the Waldorf Astoria and The Balmoral – all these hotels have incredible heritage and offer a real hotel experience, but they can be prohibitively expensive for many people. We kind of borrowed bits and pieces and put our own twist on it. We may have room butlers and oak panelling for the romance of it, but we added neon, cocktails and fun… and I believe we have created a modern, contemporary hotel.”
The hotel is already award-winning, having picked up an accolade for Sunday Times Hotel of the Year Scotland in 2020, but says Mike, “I’m sure if they had had an award for “decadently sexy” we would win that every year.”
The passion that Mike has for his hotel is very evident, but surprisingly, he and his brother Ross, do not come from a hotel background. Before opening the hotel Mike was in property development, and Ross was an offshore engineer in the oil industry.
Mike was always ambitious. He explains, “At school, I looked old for my age and I would rent a nightclub and sell tickets to nights there.” When he went to Aberdeen University he continued promoting nights and became one of Aberdeen’s key promoters running the hugely popular Wednesday nights at First Leisure’s Amadeus. This led to him opening his own bar, Eskobar, in 1997, when he was only 22.
Says Mike, “We lived the life. They were halcyon days and we had a lot of fun. I maybe was a bit too young because I was going out and enjoying myself, and just happened to own the bar.” But by the time he had hit his mid-twenties, he was using his money more wisely and investing in property development.
‘It was the brothers’ desire to invest in property that led them to open The Baxter hostel in Edinburgh’s West Register Street, which, on the day it opened, had 100% occupancy and subsequently, in 2016, a hotel in London called Kip. Explains Mike, “It is much more of a utility hipsters style hotel – which is not food and beverage led.
Then they had the idea of the House of Gods. The two saw an opportunity in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket in a building that had been left devastated by the 2002 Cowgate fire. Says Mike. “233 Cowgate was a shell of a building. We could see its potential.”
They opened House of Gods in 2019, with Mike designing the interiors and Ross taking charge of the operational side of the business. Says Mike, “It has been incredibly successful. The difference between House of Gods and some other hotels is that it is a lifestyle brand. Guests don’t come to us because they need an accommodation solution solved – they come to us because they want to live their best lives.”
And they certainly can do that at House of Gods. It is opulent and decadent and eclectic – from four-poster beds to glitter balls. It also boasts Gucci wallpaper and House of Hackney fabrics, and glorious quirky features, not least your bell to call the butler to deliver cocktails.
Mike tells me. “It’s a mash-up. I love Anouska Hempel who designed and created the Blake Hotel in London. I also love Maison Souquet in Paris. I like the old worldly luscious interiors. They borrow from stately homes and layer things on top of each other. I have borrowed from their style, and brought out a more contemporary side and twisted it a wee bit.”
They also embrace technology. I do wonder why the hotel industry is not as advanced in some areas of tech as it could be. Why was a business-like Airbnb allowed to come in and steal business away from the experts? In tech, a 17-year-old can hack a bit of code and change the world – there are no barriers to entry in computing. But there are no 17-year-olds re-imaging hotels! Perhaps one of the reasons is that the barrier to entry is so significant. It is expensive getting into the hotel industry. The bar industry on the other hand has developed really quickly and one of the reasons has to be because it has few barriers to entry – you can open a bar for £20K and bar operators have been innovative.
“We are a service-led business but technology helps. Human interaction is part of hospitality and I think if you create a relatively fun place to work, pay well, and create a nice environment to work in, people will stay. There is no way I can run our hotels with robots. I don’t want to replace people’s jobs. We do use some of the most advanced property management systems available. We have more than 15 different pieces of software that streamline processes from marketing and e-commerce to account management. We are also quite lean – we have hacked our way through systemisation and artificial intelligence but you can’t take away the requirement for a human being. There is always a place for it, even in a utility hotel
“Because my brother and I have not come through a hotel background, and we had no hotel training, we have never been told how to do that or this, as a result, our approach is fairly disruptive, but what we are doing is actually quite easy – I just imagined all the things I like and put them into House of Gods.
“Generally, by the time people come up through the hotel industry, and get to their 40’s and 50’s, they don’t tend to shake things up. I’m not sure, for instance, whether anyone on the board for Travelodge would want to. The bigger hotel companies are usually owned by big equity in other words – pension funds, with hugely deep pockets. But we are independents and we take a different approach – it does sometimes feel like a David and Goliath thing.”
Although the two did not have hotel experience they did bring on a very well known hotelier as Chairman of the company at the beginning. Explains Mike, “Our former Chairman was Robert Cooke,– now he is very busy as CEO of TGI Friday, and is no longer on the board. But he helped us at the beginning. He said he could see in us what it was like in the early days of Malmaison. That was very complimentary. He compared me to Ken McCulloch – in that he could not come into a room and have dinner without giving direction. I am the same way, which is a nightmare for my staff. But I do believe someone has to guide the vision. Mike is keen to keep his hotels as independent and as individual as possible. He says, “Our hotels are smaller. We only have 30 keys typically and that allows us to have a personal relationship with our customers and team. We can learn everyone’s name and we can treat them individually.”
House of Gods is also a bit of a social media star. In fact, most of its bookings come through word of mouth with a few coming via booking.com because of the effectiveness of its social media.
Mike explains, “Principally, people are finding us through social media and recommendations, and our customer base is generally UK-based. We don’t have a foreign travel market. It also helps that our social media product is very Instagrammable. Our customers only post on social media if they enjoy it and then they want to tell the world. It’s not what we do on social media that is important – it is what other people do on social media that is.”
He continues, “House of Gods is very natural and we get to meet people at their absolute best. Nobody ever books here and says I am going to have a quiet night. People who come to us are excited and are on good form from the beginning of their stay to the end.
“If they want, we will deliver cocktails to their room – we would even have someone dressed like Axel Rose come to their door and the sound system plays music into the room when we deliver the cocktails which adds to the experience.
“I really enjoy the fact that we absolutely get to see people at their best – it’s a privilege to be custodians of people’s leisure time and we value that highly, especially when they are coming to House of Gods for a special moment. We have had 100’s of marriage proposals take place here and we have even had a baby conceived here that we know about.”
House of Gods has not been immune to the current recruitment crisis in hospitality, but he believes there is a credible solution. He tells me, “I think one of the ways we can turn the recruitment issue in hospitality around is to pay people properly. We have an entry-level of £10 per hour. I believe if employees have the skills and are good they should be rewarded. Our issue is that people do not consider hospitality roles a vocation. It is up to us to persuade them it is – we have to show people that they can move up through the company and we do that. You can move into management here at four levels and we will move people to manage new premises as they come on-line. We are doing the groundwork and we want people who are on the same path, who think hospitality is the future, and you get people to engage when they think it is exciting.”
Certainly, Mike and Ross have plans for House of Gods which are exciting. Glasgow is already underway and Manchester is next on the agenda, but Ibiza could figure too. “I love the fact that we did Edinburgh and now Glasgow first. This is very much a Scottish story – but we are also keen to get into London, and we would like to do Ibiza and Majorca. We are on an aggressive rollout. There is definitely scope for 10/15 in the UK then the plan is to go overseas. The fun thing about places like Ibiza and Majorca is that a lot of people from Scotland would come to a House of Gods if we opened there. The hotels there would have an element of beach club-style – although we wouldn’t go all white! We are not using a cookie-cutter approach to design, with each of our hotels having its own personality which reflects the personality of the city it is in. The more corporate hotel companies would find a nice building and put a brand in it but we wanted to create a hotel brand.
In Glasgow the new hotel, on Glassford Street, will be, says Mike, “a bit more rock and roll than Edinburgh.” It will feature a rooftop bar with a retractable roof and a secret cocktail bar. This hotel will have 33 rooms once the vision is realised.
Says Mike, “One of the magical things about House of Gods is that it is to customers whatever they want it to be. We have people from all different tribes – it is a real melting pot of culture.”
It is very obvious that Mike really enjoys what he does. “We couldn’t do what we do 24/7 if we didn’t. I do the service side and Ross keeps away from that – he is the rock of the business and we have a fantastic consistent relationship because we are so opposite. We are like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, we are the yin and the yang, but it works.”