JONATHAN DOHERTY is the man behind the WORQ GROUP. SUSAN YOUNG caught up with him to find what makes him tick.
Jonathan Doherty may come across as very laid back, but the man behind the WORQ Group is more industrious than just about anyone I know, and I know a fair few people! He admits to being a workaholic, a trait he tells me he inherited from his father.
We met to talk about his Scottish hospitality business which includes, Riva Hotel in Helensburgh and Boutique50 in Glasgow’s west end, as well as Revolver Glasgow. He also has restaurants Chianti in Falkirk and El Santo in Glasgow plus Scotland’s largest log cabin construction and design group – Log house Cabins Scotland.
I met Jonathan at his LGBT-friendly hotel, Revolver, in Virginia House above Delmonica’s in Glasgow’s Merchant City. But first I had to navigate past the giant teddy sitting on a bean bag in reception – a familiar site for guests checking-in.
This definitely sets the scene – this is no ordinary hospitality business – but a hybrid hotel/hostel venue which has 38 rooms with a capacity for 128 people where rooms start at £25 and go up to £300. In fact, you don’t even have to check-in at reception, Revolver has its own app which allows guests to check in remotely and find out all they need to know about the hotel and Glasgow.
That’s just one of the reasons it recently picked up the accolade Independent Operator of the Year at the Scottish Bar and Pub Awards with the judges saying, “The accolade goes to an operator who really knows how to identity new opportunities, to innovate and to respond to emerging market trends. It’s a dynamic and forward-thinking business that exudes creativity in what it does and how it delivers in the marketplaces it serves.”
Certainly Revolver, which has just celebrated its 1st birthday, has done just that – to date it has proved a hit with travellers, the LGBT community and single women.
The group renovated what was the former G1 office building and transformed it into this multi-faceted venue which offers various types of accommodation and a social hub. Says Jonathan, “I think I can see things in a building that others don’t. When I used to travel for work, I would stay in three or four star hotels, but when I travelled for fun I stayed in nice hostels.
“In the hotels, the bars were always empty, and the rooms were quite standard, but in hostels you could get a private room and you had an area where you could interact with other people of a similar age. I thought it was a good mix but that it should also be available for the single working traveller, and this is where the concept of Revolver began.”He worked with design company Robbie Crocker to create Revolver says Jonathan, “I’ve worked with Robbie Crocker for six years – he is a well-established interior designer – and we have a very good working relationship. He knows what he is doing, and we like to do things properly because we want our venues to have longevity. If you do it right, then you know you have 10/15 years before you have to renovate. I bring some ideas to the table, and he does too – it’s an ongoing relationship.”
The two first worked together on the design of Jonthan’s first hotel Riva in Helensburgh which he opened in 2019. However, before we went any further into his current activities, I asked him to start at the beginning.
He smiles, “I was born in Edinburgh and moved to Ireland when I was four. My father was an entrepreneur and had a very strong work ethic that I inherited from him. I think I have always been a serial entrepreneur. I started working at the age of 14 when I started my own carwash business and I also worked in petrol stations over the summer when I was 15/16.
“I’ve done a lot of different jobs, from running catering vans at festivals, to sales. I dabbled in financial trading and have done gorilla marketing – I really enjoyed that. It was unique and we had some crazy creative ideas, but it was all on advertising vans and trailers – there was nothing online.”But one business which was online was an e-commerce site that he set up with his best friend. Explains Jonathan, “Ireland was in a bad recession, and we decided to buy liquidated stock off administrators by the truckload and sell it online. The business grew really quickly and we ended up employing a lot of people. It was a crazy time. People used to queue outside our warehouses at 7am in the morning to find out what bargains we had.
“One of the things I most regret was selling it after two years – Ireland doesn’t have an eBay and the market leader now was set up at the same time as our business – although we did get a fair bit of cash for it. However, because we were young, we blew it all in a year on things like a penthouse and cars – all the typical things that young people like. It was a real lesson to us.”In his late 20’s he made the move back to Scotland and followed in his father’s footsteps with his next business, “I fell into design and construction when I moved back to Scotland where the initial plan was to refurbish properties. My father had being doing this most his life, although he had great success, all businesses have their ups and downs, and my dad was no different. He lost everything in 2009 but that didn’t deter him and he built it all back up again. I have learned from him how important it is to be resilient.”
He continues, “It was the deal that attracted me to Riva. It had been empty for four years and was an old 1800s building. No normal person would have taken it. However, I would travel anywhere for a good deal.”
And travel he did, from Edinburgh to Helensburgh for 18 months before booking into a low-cost hotel at Kelvingrove. He smiles, “Three of us did all the stripping out and I built the bones of our own construction fit-out team from that – we learned a lot.
“Then we started doing fitouts for clients, but we still had a passion for doing our own thing – we took over number one commercial street Edinburgh and turned it into Hemingways. Then opened Chianti and Boutique50 before launching Revolver and El Santo.”
At the same time he opened Boutique 50 plans for Revolver were well underway. Says Jonathan, “After Riva I said I wouldn’t do an old building again. Then along came Virginia House which was perfect for my Revolver concept.
“This is a brand I definitely want to develop into different cities. We are actively looking for our next location. Old offices are perfect because we can go with the fabric of the buildings because of the variety of accommodation we offer. I think this gives us a real opportunity. We would also like to get a bigger unit. There is no reason why we cannot scale up and the plan is to expand into Europe too.
“Revolver is aimed at a market which is younger and 70% of our customers are women. I am not sure whether it is driven by our links to the LGBT community, but people see this as a safe hotel, and I am delighted that they feel safe here.
“We went down the LGBT route because of the location and the team we have around us. Revolver is very much about ‘be who you are’, we really promote that ideology, and that is reflected in the unique customer we get.“I think today young people also want to experience the world and like to spend their money on travel and clothes rather than going out drinking on a Friday. Many will save their money and travel abroad for a weekend once a month. I think that’s why this model works – they don’t want expensive accommodation and they want the social angle too.”
Every room is quirky and comes complete with ear plugs and a condom – the ear plugs are definitely required as because of its location and the popularity of Delmonica’s, the hotel does suffer noise pollution. Those on a budget can book a Dormitory bed or a Japanese style Pod room. There are also double rooms, some with ensuites and a triple room. As well as its own app, the group is also trialling a prototype commercial Alexa.
Jonathan explains, “I saw these in the States, and I spoke to our IT Manager about getting them here. When we enquired, we were told that it was not available in Europe. But they then came back to us and said we could have them if we would trial them – so we are the first commercial hotel to have Alexa’s in Europe. We have preset questions about the hotel that have been programmed in and our guests can put in an order using voice commands.
“One of the reasons that I think our hotels are popular is because people enjoying staying in them – and they enjoy them because we do care about the details. That also allows us to charge a bit more in our boutique hotels. Revolver is an ongoing project with plans for the roof well advanced – a hot tub, gym and outdoor area for socialising will be open in the Spring. WORQ has many other strings to its bow, with hostels and hotels down south, it is also a facility management company and Jonathan is coowner of Scotland’s biggest log cabin construction and design group.
He explains, “I own a loghouse cabin company with a good friend from Ireland. He also has the manufacturing company in Lithuania. When Covid came with the restaurants and hotels closing we thought it would be a good time to launch the business here. We thought following Covid that people might want to put offices in their gardens to get away from their children. We now have a 15000 Sq ft showroom for Loghouse Cabins Scotland at Caulders in Cumbernauld where we showcase our log cabins – we don’t just sell to households but to businesses including hotels and holiday parks.
“One of things I would like to do is build an eco-lodge resort and we are looking for land. This, like Revolver, will be aimed at the younger generation – the aim is to make it like a miniature Centre Parks with lots of amenities. We also have some bubble domes in storage – we just need to find the right private land and secure it.”
Jonathan is not the only entrepreneur in the family his older brother Christopher is in the trade too. Says Jonathan, “He runs community pubs in Edinburgh, but we do help each other out – I help with marketing and maintenance and he helps me with the recruitment side of the business.”
Jonathan admits he is perhaps more of a workaholic than his brother. The good news is since the birth of his son Joseph two years ago, he now only works until 7pm or 8pm!
Luckily for him his Brazilian partner Gabriela is very understanding – in fact she runs the housekeeping side of the business for him. She is not the only member of the family involved in the business – his bulldog called El Santo is also an office dog. In fact, most of his venues, excluding Boutique 50, have dog friendly rooms – and Riva really benefits from this dog-friendly policy.
Says Jonathan, “When Riva opened it had two dog friendly rooms – now there is only one which is non-dog friendly. It has worked really well for us – so many people want to travel with their dogs – and folk that are travelling to the highlands often stop over with us. You get a Paws Package for your room!”
Although the end of the year and the quieter part of the year is looming Jonathan is not planning on taking it any easier. He says, “You have to be resilient in business, especially in hospitality, and part of that is planning for the quieter months. We try and ensure we don’t overspend but we do try and put money back in and ensure our overheads are accommodated – for instance it’s not inexpensive having your own maintenance team but we do utilise them well.
“El Santo is set to close for a few weeks in the New Year and a secondary door is going in, while a new tequila rack is also being added. Riva is also getting a refresh – under the careful eye of Robbie Crocker – he is already sourcing a new rug for the lounge!”
Part of the journey is also looking at how the business can be more sustainable and that is going to be a real focus in the years to come, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) is important to the business. Jonathan has put in vegetable gardens in all his sites and is also considering solar panels – he says “We’ve done all the usual things, but know we mean to take it a step further. It does mean a lot to the business.”
The most recent announcement from the group was its plan to create a new boutique hotel The Hive WA1 in Warrington which will open in 2025… Concludes Jonathan, ‘We are lucky we have a great team.” That may be the case, but it certainly helps to have dynamic boss too!