SUSAN YOUNG met with Michael Bonsor, of the Rosewood London
There has been a lot of furore over plans to convert the former Royal High School in Edinburgh into a five-star Rosewood Hotel. It’s not so much opposition to the Rosewood, but to the architectural plans. It would be the first Rosewood in Scotland, and to find out what the brand offers I went to London to catch up with MD Michael Bonsor and see the Rosewood London for myself. I wasn’t disappointed.
It’s a glorious Edwardian Grade II-listed building in Holburn, with 306 bedrooms, which was built in 1914 to house the Pearl Assurance company headquarters. It was then transformed into a hotel, and latterly, before being bought by Rosewood, it was a Marriot.
But today the hotel bears no resemblance to its former incarnation. Instead, Michael tells me more than £90 million has been spent transforming the hotel, which included restoring original features.
The Rosewood is imposing. You enter it through a grand carriageway entrance which leads to the hotel’s courtyard. It boasts Belle Époque architectural features and a seven-story Pavonazzo marble staircase. The public areas were designed by Tony Chi and Associates and Martin Brudnizki was responsible for its Holburn Dining Room
and its Scarfes Bar.
The company has at its heart the philosophy ‘A Sense of Place’ and the designers main brief was to design a building which reflected the history of the hotel’s location, and its culture and sensibilities. As a result, the hotel is used as much by the local community as by visitors to London. It is luxurious, but it is also not at all stuffy – with a refreshing casual informality.
Michael is now MD of the business having been GM until six months ago. I asked him what is the difference, he told me, “There is none really. In some organisations, they call it GM in others MD. Rosewood globally call the GM an MD, some companies have both. But it is typically the same thing.” Certainly, the title MD fits when you consider the revenue the hotel generates as a company. Says Michael, “I don’t think people realise that the revenue and profit a property like this generates is enormous.” It’s not just revenue from hotel rooms that drives the business at Rosewood London, its restaurants and bars are very busy too. Says Michael, “We have a real mix of people and our restaurant is quite unexpected in a luxury hotel. It has an informal brasserie style, which because it is busy has quite a buzz.
Typically when you go to a luxury hotel the restaurant is expensive and relatively empty, despite the concierge often recommending it. However, customers don’t want to go to a restaurant that appears to be overpriced, which is no fun, and too quiet with no locals. Rosewood has addressed this with a different approach. It is refreshing here that you can go down for a meal, and then go to the bar, and don’t feel that you have to leave the hotel.” And that’s exactly what I did on my visit! We had a pre-dinner drink in its gin bar, then had dinner in the Holborn Dining Room and then to Scarfes for a cocktail. We didn’t feel like we were in a hotel but instead felt like we were in different places almost. And Scarfes I just loved – with 1,000 books lining the walls, live jazz and incredibly efficient staff it was my perfect bar!
Before joining Rosewood, Michael spent four years at Claridge’s and in fact appeared BBC 2 ‘Inside Claridge’s’ in his role as Operations Manager. He came across as a very smooth operator. Today he is even smoother and more assured with his melodic transatlantic accent and polished appearance. His staff too are polished, gracious and very slick and I have no doubt this has come from the top down.
Having had the ‘Rosewood Experience’ I am not surprised that the hotel has won multiple accolades. It was the Cateys Hotel of the Year in 2017, as well as being voted Best Hotel in London in the Condé Naste Traveler 2017 Readers’ Choice Awards. It also picked up a gong from the AA winning Hotel of the Year 2014–15 and Opening of the Year 2014 at the European Hospitality Awards. The Rosewood Hotel’s global business is also flourishing.
When Michael joined the business five years ago there were 16 hotels in the Rosewood portfolio, now there are 24 and over the next two to three years it is expected to double in size. He believes that Edinburgh would really benefit from having a Rosewood in the city. He tells me, “There are some beautiful hotels in Edinburgh and I’ve stayed in many, but I think the city would benefit from a 5-star Rosewood. We are incredibly sympathetic when it comes to preserving the historical aspect of a building. You just have to look at what we have done here, and with the Hotel Crillon in Paris – it was a former Palace and it is now exquisite as a hotel. Parisians are very happy with it.” Michael doesn’t come to Scotland as much as he would like, and when he does it is mainly to see his mum who lives in
Inverness, which was where he started out his hotel career. His first job in the industry was helping out his parents, David and Marion, in their small hotel called Culduthel Lodge (now Rocpool Reserve). It was his parent’s habit of taking the winter off and travelling to first-class hotels throughout the world that cemented Michael’s love of luxury hotels. He tells me, “I was quite lucky because when the hotel was closed for the winter we would go overseas to the likes of Raffles in Singapore or other luxury hotels around the world. But I didn’t hang out by the pool. Instead, I was running around the hotel trying to figure out what was going on behind the front desk and speaking to the concierge. I was a super nosey kid. I think I like fell in love with that end of the market then. Looking back a lot of my friends were still debating what they wanted to do, even when they were at university, but I was lucky because I knew what I wanted to do from the age of 8. I wanted to work in luxury hotels.” But his parents’ long hours and dedication to their business also made him realise that he would be quite happy working for someone else, rather than running his own business.
Says Michael, “My father was an accountant, and that was key to running his own business. He had bought a large house which needed renovated – but it was so big and the renovations so intensive, that it seemed sensible to turn it into a small hotel.
Subsequently, they extended it twice to make it larger and the hotel just evolved. As you know with your own business it quickly takes over your life, and they would be up at crack of dawn and still at their desks at 1am.” He went to Strathclyde University to do his hotel management degree in 1997 and when he graduated he went for an interview in London, but on his lunch break he popped into the Four Seasons and that decision changed the course of his life. Michael explains, “I wanted to see what the Four Seasons Park Lane was like and ended up talking to a lady who was directing guests regarding why I was in London. She was the hotel’s Director of HR. Two weeks later (this was before the days of 9/11) I had a visa to the US and a job at the Four Seasons in Boston. I was 21, and everything just fell into place.”
He continues, “Mind you I hadn’t really thought things out. I couldn’t get credit in the US because I didn’t have any credit history, and I couldn’t pay my six months’ rent up front without it. I had to get my mum and dad to help me out!” His first role at The Four Seasons also wasn’t quite what he imagined. Says Michael, “I had this grandiose idea that I would be running my own restaurant. But instead, I was back of house. Over the next six months, I kept knocking on the GM’s door and finally got moved into the hotel’s Bristol Lounge, which was its main all-day dining lounge, as an assistant manager. It was my first managerial job.” Over the next ten years with the Four Seasons Michael moved from Boston to Toronto, The Pierre in New York, back to Toronto and then back to New York to the company’s flagship Four Seasons on 57th Street. Michael comments, “When I moved to Boston it was a city that is easy to navigate, and I could walk to work, Toronto was the next step up and then there was New York. I love the fact
our customers digitally, and the fact that we have our own free-standing website, means that it makes commercial sense to have our own team. We also do a lot of videos now, which we use to promote the business. We did a video at the start of the year, which wrapped up the previous year, and it cost £2,500 but it gave us a return on investment of about £300K – we could tell this because of the traffic to our website. If we had sent a text format we may only have got £20/30K worth of bookings. We were amazed at the difference, so now we will be making more videos.” It’s not the only measure that Michael and his team take to drive business.
He tells me, “I socialise four to five nights a week, a lot of that is with work – a lot of gatherings, dinners, industry dinners, clients, new clients. I go to New York several times a year and meet with clients and potential new clients. It is something that you need to do, if you are not in front of these people and nurturing relationships you can be forgotten, after all we are a people industry. The travel agents and corporate accounts want to know
the individuals – they want to know who is taking care of the clients. These accounts can be worth £100,000s if not millions. “
He certainly loved his time in Manhattan. He tells me, “London is slow compared to Manhattan. There is a pace in Manhattan unlike any other city in the world. I still go back six or seven times a year and stay in the same neighbourhood I lived in. I still see some familiar faces and we nod to each other. Despite being a big city, and London is the same, there are small pockets which are like little villages within a gigantic city.” He adds, “In New York especially there is the culture of service and the profession of being an hotelier is held in high regard, especially when you work for the Four Seasons. Hospitality staff are also incredibly well taken care of. For instance, a bartender can earn $150K dollars at the Four Seasons in New York. The tipping culture means that
you are directly rewarded for good service. Certainly, there is more of a pride there about delivering good service. That is something in this country we need to overcome. Working in hospitality here is still
seen as long hours and poor pay. But this change in attitude has to start from a change at home. Are parents happy when their offspring say they want to be a pastry chef or a sales manager for a hotel? I’m not sure. There seems to be a stigma with regard to jobs in hotels, which I don’t really understand. “Tourism accounts for 10% of GDP and it must be taken more seriously. We should be shouting about how the industry has changed and that we pay appropriately and abide by working hours, as well as offering a multitude of other benefits too.”
He adds, “When I was working with my parents, and subsequently when I went to uni, I didn’t fully fathom, or understand, all the cogs in the hotel business. I understood the operational side, but not PR, sales, marketing,
finance or engineering. All these jobs are essential in hotels. I wasn’t taught that when I was at the Scottish Hotel School. When I was there it was more about accountancy and book keeping and, from an HR perspective, how to motivate people. I don’t think my course had enough practical sessions – schools in Europe offer students more placements. Certainly, I feel that all hotel management courses should combine practical, real experiences with the coursework. “A hotel is like a small world, and now we are bringing even more talent in-house.
He continues, “This year I’ve been in the Middle East – that is a market that really wants to know who the general manager is and meet that person. I was in Brazil too and I am about to go to Vegas to the largest gathering of luxury travel associates – hotels, agencies, cruise lines and airlines. It is called Virtuoso and is literally speed dating. I sit in the Bellagio ballroom with three of my colleagues and there are a 1,000 people in the room, and there are six rooms like this. A buzzer goes and I move along working my way up a line of tables as far as the eye can see. I then host a lunch for 30/40 people and in the afternoon go the other way down the room. Between us, we meet 400/500 people. If you are not there how do you expect any of these people to book your hotel, if you have not invested your time? Most of them are America-based but people come from all over the world from Australia, Europe and such like – I love it. You also end up seeing all the GMs from London.” He also catches up with his London colleagues monthly. He explains, “We have a group called the W1. Every month we meet. There are about 26 GMs – usually 20 make it. We discuss last month’s results and future bookings. It is great, we get a lot of insight.
“Tourism accounts for 10% of GDP and it must be taken more seriously. We should be shouting about how the industry has changed and that we pay appropriately and abide by working hours, as well as offering a multitude of other benefits too.”
It’s been running for more than 10 years and we do, as a collective body, have quite a bit of clout. We speak to the Mayor and we get involved with tourism issues. We’ve even had the Tourism Minister here.” Michael manages 400 staff at the hotel and it has a reputation for staff retention. Michael says, “We don’t call them staff, we call them associates and we also spend a lot of time on how the staff look. We don’t call them uniforms we call them wardrobes, and, so the associates have a wardrobe – you need to feel good about yourself. I believe if you don’t look good you don’t feel good. How many times do we go out and you look at a waiter or waitress and they are wearing a uniform that doesn’t fit? If that was you, you would feel uncomfortable. We use Savile Row fabrics and have a tailor inhouse, and a professional tailor also comes in every few weeks. Pride in your role starts with that. Then you have to give your staff knowledge. If you don’t have knowledge you shy away from people, and you don’t want to have eye contact in case someone asks you a question. These things are basic, but they need to be on-point.”
He continues, “We also have a lot of talent in this building and now we are building stories around the people here. I think storytelling is now key in hospitality. There is so much craftsmanship and knowledge in our own building from own people and we are tapping into it. For instance, we have a great pie-maker and we now run a pie-making course for our guests, and they love it. We also do gin-tastings as so on. We need to celebrate the different talents we have. It all adds to the story.” It certainly does, here’s hoping the next chapter in the Rosewood story is an Edinburgh chapter. It has just been announced that there will be a public inquiry which begins the month. The decision over the future of the Royal High School will be made by Scottish government reporters Scott Ferrie and Dannie Onn. Codevelopers Duddingston House Properties and Urbanist Hotels are appealing against City of Edinburgh Council’s decision to refuse planning permission for the Rosewood hotel in August 2017. Rosewood are the planned hotel operators. The hotel plan has been opposed by campaigners who want to turn the former high school into a new home for the St Mary’s Music School.