The Stafford London, one of London’s most established luxury hotels, located in the heart of St James’s, is enjoying a new lease of life since the return of Stuart Procter as general manager. Janet Harmer reports on how he is successfully combining a modern approach to hospitality with traditional hotelkeeping.
The Stafford London may have been established as a hotel in 1912, but today it’s enjoying something of a renaissance. The hotel’s restaurant, the Game Bird, was one of London’s most successful launches in 2017 and this, along with the creation of a number of stylish new suites, has brought a new vibrancy and glamour to the Stafford.
Back in 2008, the 105-bedroom hotel was very much at the top of its game – it was named Hotel of the Year – Group at the Catey Awards and was promoted from a four- to a five-red-AA-star property – but in the years after that, it lost its way. The departure of general manager Stuart Procter in 2011 heralded a succession of incumbents in the role – Leon Baum, Christine Hodder and Spencer Yeo – and in 2014 a management agreement between the hotel and Kempinski ended abruptly after just four years. Alongside a struggle to maintain stability in the management team, the hotel’s performance also dipped.
So the news in October 2015 that Procter was returning to the Stafford was initially greeted with surprise. His stint of nearly five years away from the hotel, when he headed the management team that created the Hotel and Café Football concepts, had taken him into a totally new territory of hospitality. It had been expected that he would remain with Manchester United football legends Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville as Hotel Football parent company, GG Hospitality, of which he was managing director, looked to expand. However, with his wife Claire and two teenage children, Archie and Florence, living in Surrey, Procter no longer wanted to be based in Manchester, where Giggs and Neville were working on the development of two new city centre hotels. He also missed working within the luxury hotel sector. So when he was offered the challenge of turning things around at the Stafford, he jumped at the chance.
Back for good
Procter’s return to the hotel, in retrospect, makes absolute sense, but there are no regrets about his five years away – in fact, he believes it was the best thing for his development as a general manager and that it has benefitted the Stafford. “I learned how to set up a hotel from scratch, which covered everything from
creating the branding to being involved in the physical building of the property and setting up the operational side of the business. I did things I had never done before and I can now approach what we are doing at the Stafford from a different point of view.”
During his first stint at the Stafford, which ran from 2006 to 2011, Procter was unable to change what had become an institution under the tenure of Terry Holmes. But gradually, things started to evolve as he gained the trust of the team and Holmes’ seal of approval, and the owners started to realise that increased competition in the capital’s luxury hotel market meant change was necessary. The renowned American bar trebled in size and its age-old dress code was dropped. “We had to wake up and realise that you can no longer insist on a jacket and tie in the bar,” explains Procter. The hotel expanded with the addition of 26 bedrooms, created in the adjacent mews building.
“Without sounding arrogant, I was not fazed by taking on the general manager role at the Stafford at the age of 29. Terry had virtually allowed me to run the hotel for 12 months before he left, presenting me with all the financials and introducing me to the key players, particularly those in the US.”
Then, in 2009, the Stafford was acquired for a reported £77.5m by Britannia Hospitality, owned by the Egyptian El Sharkawy family. The sale of the hotel after 14 years of being operated by Shire Hotels, which was owned by brewery business Daniel Thwaites, came about largely due to the smoking ban – introduced two years previously – which badly affected the 500 pubs within the group.
“The only asset the Yerburgh family [major shareholders of Daniel Thwaites] had of any value was the Stafford,” says Procter. “They were very sad to sell – Mrs Yerburgh said it was like getting rid of the family silver.”
Soon after the sale, Procter decided to explore other ventures, which led to discussions with Giggs, who was a regular guest at the Stafford. “He was still playing for Manchester United at the time and he introduced me to Gary [Neville]. Initially, they wanted me to open a boutique hotel with them in London, but at the eleventh hour the deal fell through.”
It was then that the Hotel Football concept was born and Procter entered the world of hotel development for five years before returning to the Stafford. Since coming back, just over two years ago, he hasn’t stood still.
Through his introduction of a proper revenue management system, overhaul of the sales and marketing function (including the introduction of a New York-based PR team, a UK-based food PR team, new website and social media strategy) and move away from a reliance on corporate accounts, the performance of the hotel has improved dramatically. Revenue has grown by 44%, with EBITDA increasing by 40% over the past two years.
Additionally, occupancy in 2017 reached 81% and the average room rate has grown by £85 over the past 18 months. The strong reliance on business from the US – initiated by Holmes and his very personal approach to American travel agents – has continued and today accounts for 53% of all room bookings.
The most significant and visible boost to business has undoubtedly been the launch of the 32-seat Game Bird. Procter took advice from chef-restaurateur and fellow Acorn award-winner Jason Atherton to create an all-day restaurant with an energy and vibe that matched the hotel’s perennially busy American Bar. The appointment of James Durrant as executive chef was an inspired choice. His contemporary take on a traditional British menu is very much what the diners who now flock to the Game Bird want to eat. Ten months on, the Game Bird has increased the Stafford’s food and beverage revenue by more than £2m.
With a more vibrant restaurant in place, it has been easier for Procter to attract a younger clientele to the hotel, something which he has achieved by working with what he describes as “influential ambassadors with phenomenal networks”, such as former English rugby player Mark Tindall, the husband of Zara Phillips.
Experience and enthusiasm
Meanwhile, Procter has worked hard at inspiring and stabilising the 162-strong team by carefully blending a plethora of stalwarts, including master sommelier Gino Nardella, who has worked at the hotel for 42 years, and telephonist Christianne Brown (44 years), with the newer recruits, among whom are three Acorn Award winners. Procter himself is a holder of the accolade, which recognises employees under the age of 30 who are identified as being the brightest prospects in the hospitality industry. Other former Acorns include Durrant, hotel manager Mark Surguy and marketing manager Cassie Delaney-Brown.
Ultimately, over the past two years Procter has been working towards a more hospitable environment for guests and staff alike. He may have put all the procedures in place behind the scenes to make the business more profitable, but he is also a hotelier in the old-fashioned sense: he is highly visible, providing guests, who include royalty and high net-worth individuals, with exactly what they want – recognition and a personal welcome.
“It is no good having all the gizmos in place if the coffee is not served hot and you don’t know your guests’ names,” he explains. “It has to be about the hospitality. That is why 60% of our business is repeat.” And the improvements are ongoing, so look out for news of a refurbished American bar, additional suites and a spa in the year ahead.
Stuart Procter’s early career
Stuart Procter has come a long way from the 15-year-old, part-time waiter at Northcote – or Northcote Manor as it was then known.
The fact that he started his career at Northcote in Langho, Lancashire, was a significant factor in propelling him to the top of the industry. Working for co-owners Craig Bancroft and Nigel Haworth gave him a work ethic, an insight into a genuine style of hospitality and the ambition to reach the top.
Procter was born in Whalley in the Ribble Valley and brought up in Blackburn. Once he knew he wasn’t good enough to pursue his dream of becoming a professional footballer, he realised that hospitality was where his future lay. “I loved the buzz of the service and the energy of the kitchen,” he says.
It was during his time as Northcote’s first apprentice, which involved working at the hotel four days a week and studying for a BTEC national diploma on day release at Runshaw College in Leyland, that Procter decided he wanted to run the Stafford. He was only 16 or 17 at the time and he was told about the hotel by Bancroft’s mother (then Sue Bancroft, who upon remarrying became Lady Sue Purvis), who was responsible for the Stafford’s sales and marketing.
Procter then moved on to work for Shire Hotels. Serendipitously, the Yerburgh family – the owners of Shire – bought the Stafford in 1995 soon after Procter arrived to work at the group’s Oaks hotel in Burnley. “It was the summer and I told Ian Harkness, the managing director of Shire Hotels, that come the staff Christmas party, I wanted to be seated next to the general manager of the Stafford, Terry Holmes,” says Procter. “I was immediately told in no uncertain terms that was not how things worked. However, when Christmas came, I was seated next to Terry. I was only 18, but I questioned him all night and told him I wanted his job.”
Procter’s cheekiness served him well. At his next role, as general manager at Devonshire Arms in Bolton Abbey, he found another mentor in Jeremy Rata, the managing director of the business. “Jeremy let me make mistakes and made me more financially astute. He taught me that if we made the figures, we could spend more on the hotel.”
The Devonshire Arms was named Country Life Hotel of the Year and Procter also received an Acorn Award. After four years in North Yorkshire, Procter told Harkness and Ann Yerburgh, chairman of Daniel Thwaites, the parent company of Shire Hotels, that he was keen to work for the Stafford. Again, luck was on his side. Succession planning was being put in place to replace Holmes, and Procter was offered the job of his deputy.
“I was told that I may be able to replace Terry, but there was no guarantees,” says Procter. “I would have to prove myself first.” Within two years, his dream was realised and Procter was appointed general manager.
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