Jeremy Robson. Hotelier, London.
Jeremy Robson is attempting a tricky manoeuvre. Having seen his exhibition moves, I’m confident he’ll get top marks, even from the hard-to-impress Russian judges. It’s the Reverse Coliseum, a seldom-attempted commercial back flip (with pike) that favours the brave.
We’ll get to it after this shock revelation.
In all my years talking to hotel people – General Managers, owners, housekeeping staff who have ignored my Do Not Disturb signs – I can’t ever remember any of them telling me about that time they scaled DOWN the technical amenities of their property.
This is exactly what Robson – who has opened his Great Northern Hotel in London’s King’s Cross to much early acclaim – is telling me. “We initially soundproofed all the windows, rooms and floors,” he says, as we address the issue of his hotel being squat in the centre of King’s Cross and its urban clamour. “But you know what? We overdid it. The hotel was too quiet. We had to de-specify!”
There was also a needlessly complicated lighting situation that pulled back from cutting edge interior ambient technology. “Yeah, we kind of over-designed that too,” Robson admits. “We’ve ended up going back to, well, dimmer switches. Imagine that.”
Given the other tales Robson has been telling me about the incredible care that has gone into this restoration, I really CAN imagine it, but it’s nevertheless a welcome breeze of candour. Most properties would have just bundled the mistake under a soundproofed carpet and forged ahead.
Not this hotel. And here’s an owner-operator who isn’t just opening a new outpost of Hilton or a W – this is a guy (albeit a well-connected, entrepreneurially successful guy) who has pulled in £40m of other people’s cash to realise a dream. And that dream was never going to be badly lit.
I initially have a one-word question: Risky?
“Ha! Well the decision wasn’t risky but the opportunity was,” he says. “The people who took on the development of King’s Cross were taking the real risk. They’d put almost everything in place for the hotel to work, but the risk was securing the opportunity. It was a hard time to borrow that much money. It took some creativity.”
My innumerate mind can’t really grasp the wheelings, let alone the dealings involved in something like this. Hell, I just like the pretty building they ended up with. But it could all have been so different. Initial business plans were touting the possibility of a 2- or 3-star hotel, tempting in the hordes of budget travellers looking to upgrade from a hostel.
“It could have gone that way,” Robson says. “I’m involved in Holiday Inns in Aberdeen and Glasgow and while I like those hotels, I think going down that road here would have been…a missed opportunity.”
This would be the opportunity for the Reverse Coliseum. It goes like this: You’ve got your iconic landmark or UNESCO-flouted attraction, right? Well, most of your punters are passing by just the once, so they’ll just begrudgingly swallow whatever substandard cafes, restaurants and hotels are in the vicinity. There’s no real repeat custom, so why bother chasing it with annoyances such as value for money and standards?
“That’s the Coliseum Effect,” says Robson. “Even with the perhaps transient nature of an average station hotel guest, why leave yourself open to them not coming back because it’s rubbish? My aim is to be all about quality.”
Quality is what the hotel screams. Or rather, sings out with a perfect Middle C, because it’s a pitch-perfect renovation of the 1854 original, the spirit of the place looming large amid the hand-blown pendant lights and bespoke bedside cabinets.
High design lives side by side with the generosity of an eccentric lord of the manor welcoming you into his stately home, though. Pantries crammed with free cake and treats, free light-speed wifi and a library of pre-loaded quality films, books and music.
“I want guests to live in the real world, not hotel world,” says Robson with the air of a man tired of staying at quality gaffs that nickel and dime you for every amenity. “I don’t want them staying where everything is a rip off. So here’s the fastest internet in the UK for free and a bunch of entertainment-friendly, free films – GOOD films. Not crap.”
Not content with giving money-grabbing hoteliers a bad name, Robson extends the ethos to his food and beverage outlets. Plum & Spilt Milk is the in-house restaurant, which joins the ground floor bar (channelling the spirit of a French railway restaurant) and Kiosk, a platform side gourmet deli.
“Hotels typically get 20% of their revenue through their F&B,” Says Robson. “With us, it’s 50%, which is huge. Our outlets share the family DNA but they are all different. They offer terrific value for what they are.”
Having scoffed a Kiosk sandwich, made in front of me from fresh ingredients for around the price of a pre-packed conveyor belt clone, I can vouch for this claim.
One last thing that struck me was how relaxed the staff were. You expect people working at a new hotel to be kind of aware of being under the spotlight, all stiff and ingratiating and anxious, but the GNH workforce seemed notably relaxed, without slipping into bumbling amateurism.
Having already disappointed me by not being a completely exploitative hotelier, I’m not sure I want hear about Robson being an alright boss, too. You’ll be telling me he asks them not to be corporate.
“I tell them not to be corporate.” Damn. “They should be themselves, not shy. They all know what good service is, what it looks like – I don’t have to tell them. And I’m very proud of the 20 nationalities that make up even our senior team.”
Fine. Jeremy Robson there. Lines up the Reverse Coliseum and…yes, he’s done it. Perfect scores across the board. Look at the replay. Hard to fault that. Just don’t call it textbook.