More G&T, Vickers?
Lanarkshire-born Angela Vickers is Apex Hotels’ CEO. She joined Apex as Financial Director in 2004 when the company had five hotels and a £14m turnover. Today, Apex owns ten hotels and has a turnover of £65m. She recently sat down with Hotel Scotland’s Jason Caddy to discuss everything from leadership, support groups in business, the spectre of Airbnb and organising an afternoon G&T event.
Google ‘Angela Vickers Apex Hotels ‘ and up comes a stack of interviews and career facts on the Apex CEO’s business brilliance. “Really?” said Angela, when I mentioned this to her during our afternoon chat at The Apex Hotel Glasgow City, one of ten in the group, including sites in Edinburgh and Dundee. “It’s funny you should bring up what’s written about me on the Internet because one of our marketing guys just told me that I was in The Washington Post’s Top Ten Quotes of what your parents say. I did that interview when I first started at Apex, and it was about my dad’s mantra which is ‘If a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing well’ and I still can’t get that out of my head because I can’t do a half-hearted job. The marketing guy said ‘do you remember doing that interview?’ and I said ‘no!’”
Hopefully, this interview will be more memorable for Angela. Despite her having ten hotels in her charge, a husband called Paul, two kids, Amy, 15, and Aidan, 18, and an ‘afternoon G&T party’ for HIT (Hospitality Industry Trust) to pull together for 500 folk on 9th November, she seems very relaxed.
For anybody unfamiliar with HIT and The Last Man Standing challenge, Angela kindly explained, “HIT does a Last Man Standing challenge. It started off a few years ago with Craig Stevenson who owns Braehead Foods, saying that he was going to be the ‘last man standing’ at every HIT event, and people sponsored him to do it. I don’t know where we got the cricket bat inscribed with Last Man Standing, but Craig passed it on to Paddy Craerer chairman of HIT at the time, and he did a drive around Europe in a vintage car. He passed it to Ollie Norman, who runs Itison. He cycled around Scotland in what was terrible weather. Ollie then bribed me to do it by promising me a meeting with Leonard DiCaprio. I couldn’t turn down the chance to meet an A-lister, so I agreed.”
She continued, “In my capacity as Last Man Standing I thought I’d do an event instead of anything physical, but now I wish that I’d climbed nine peaks rather than do this event, with all the organisation involved. I’m having an afternoon G&T event at the DoubleTree Glasgow on 9th November, aiming for 500 people, with Eden Mill sponsoring it. There’s also a fashion show and a Rod Stewart tribute band, so I’m having to drum up auction prizes. I’m passing the baton onto Hotel Scotland Editor, Susan, and with no bribery involved. I’m just playing on her good nature!”
That Internet research also turned up the fact that Angela can’t abide queues, and perhaps it’s her impatience that keeps her motoring. “My loathsomeness for queuing only gets worse with age. I’m so impatient,” she told me. “This is not great when I go to Florida because when we see a sign that says ‘queue time: 90 minutes’ I say, ‘I’m not getting on that ride’. The kids say ‘Have you got your phone? Clear your emails then’. So I do. I just can’t stand doing nothing.”
And one of the advantages of impatience, as well as industriousness, is an eye on the future, as Angela acknowledged. “I always look to the future. Never the past. Not unless there’s a learning experience in it,” she told me.
In fact, she’d just practised what she preached immediately before our interview. “I’ve just literally come off the phone with Norman Springford (who owns the company),” explained Angela, “and we spoke about where we can go next and about how sustainable is a four-star hotel in the UK in our industry today. Should we be looking at diversifying? Should we be looking at different areas of the business that we can move into?”
She continued, “I’m looking after a family business that’s been handed down through generations, as its custodian, so you’ve always got to be looking forward and moving forward and thinking of innovative ways of getting around all of that and making it more exciting. It would wear you down if you kept thinking, ‘oh what challenge is coming next, like Brexit,’ or ‘our costs of operating are getting really high’. But I’d prefer to push through that rather than let it drag me down and cause any sleepless nights.”
Practically a year to the day of our meeting, Apex Number Ten in Bath opened, which, as Angela explained, was a slightly different proposition to previous ones. “The last few we have opened have been in Glasgow and London, so it was all about selling rooms. Bath was about putting Apex on the map for conferences because people tend to go to London or Bristol.”
You might also say that she has a nose for spotting good sites. “I remember going down before the opening and it was a beautiful summer’s day and so we sat outside and had lunch and went back into the board meeting with a burnt nose, saying ‘yeah I think we should buy this.’ Part of the planning was that we had to have a conference facility and its been open a year.
So is there a typical day for Angela? “Not really,” she said. “Today, for example, I started out in Uddingston with our PR and digital marketing team. Then I went to a Vistage meeting, a business group that I’m a member of that caters for different levels of management. We come together once a month and there’s a speaker that could be talking about strategy. Or it could be about planning for pensions. It could be health and well-being and trying to retain your resilience. The speakers are brilliant. Afternoons are for issue processing, so if you’re facing a problem in your business, you talk it through with a key group of people round about you. You’ve got to be invited in, but it’s all people that run businesses that maybe don’t have a board or someone whom they can talk through resolutions. Every quarter we have a smaller triad group, which was today. Then I had the call with Norman, then I came here.”
She continued, “After this interview, I’m interviewing for a Compliance Officer, because we have to deal with more and more regulation like GDPR, and I feel that we need to pay more attention to it. We’ve built this role into the structure, to ensure that we are adhering to best practice in terms of good risk management.”
And when it came to work/life balance and breaking through the glass ceiling, Angela managed it with sheer hard work. She said. “ As I came through hospitality I was quite lucky. I just kept my head down, worked hard and got on with it. I was given good opportunities through Stakis and I had great mentors. The same happened when I joined Apex. The Group FD at Stakis, Neil Chisholm, gave me some great opportunities to introduce me to the Stakis board through high profile project work. I didn’t have the restrictions that unfortunately some mothers did, as I was extremely lucky to have a supportive family on my doorstep. I’ve got three brothers and a large extended family so I suppose I’m not conscious of being in a male-dominated environment or a female environment.”
Angela also outlined some of the challenges in what is a changing market, and Airbnb particularly, which she didn’t initially perceive as a competitor or a threat. “I was the first person to say ‘no, no’ in meetings with the bank a few years ago when they’d ask ‘is Airbnb having an impact’, She explained. “It was a different type of person that went to an Airbnb than would go to a city centre hotel location. Until this year that is. Especially in Edinburgh. Airbnb bookings in Edinburgh jumped 70% to more than 1.1 million stays. So between Airbnb, university accommodation and hostels, places that hadn’t previously put their stock on during the summer period just flooded the city of Edinburgh stats. So we did see an impact from Airbnb definitely.”
And this naturally led onto us discussing the proposed tourist tax, about which City of Edinburgh Council is like a dog with a bone. “My view on the tourist tax is aligned with the UKHospitality view,” Angela said. “I feel that there are enough taxes and it’s all very well saying that we’ll pass it on to the consumer, but we are very much a supply and demand market – it’s not that we can add on another £2 on a bill because people have in their mind what they’re going to pay and everybody prices competitively. It’s easy to say we’ll recoup it from the customer but we’ll most likely end up absorbing that within our P&Ls.”
She continued, “I do feel that, between apprenticeship levy and our property rates, that there are enough taxes going out the door. Whether they redistribute or they look at the rating system, hospitality is already a major contributor to the economy. Plus there would have to be a system introduced to enforce it and administrate it, and that includes Airbnb or someone that rents out their hostel or their private flat. So at the end of the day, it will be hoteliers, because we are organised, that will be administrating and paying on behalf of the masses that we’re competing against.”
So what about the future? Any plans for an Apex 11? New premises tend to come up ad hoc. We don’t have a plan to have, say, 20 hotels by 2030. It’s more a case of ‘ is it right for us?’ Let’s analyse it etc. and we can go two or three years, as we did with Bath, and in that in-between time it’s not like we don’t have things to do, like looking at a new technology stack, for example.”
Speaking of technology, I wound things up by asking Angela if she embraced social media. She said, “I don’t find a lot of time for social media. I have enough keeping up with my emails. My fear is that if I spend too much time on it I won’t be able to put it down and nothing will get done!”
Angela makes ‘getting it done’ look so easy. She’s definitely one hotelier to watch.