The Hotelier Edit: Cameron Bownes and Hollie Crowhurst of The Zetter Townhouse Clerkenwell
The Independent Hotel Show London team pay a visit to The Zetter Townhouse Clerkenwell where GM Cameron Bownes, and Digital Marketing Executive Hollie Crowhurst are on hand to discuss the history of the hotel, the place of tech in hospitality, and the little touches that elevate the customer experience.
Originally founded by Mark Sainsbury and Michael Benyan, The Zetter Group was sold to investor Orca Holding in early 2021, with the investor 'actively looking' to open more properties in London and other key cities across the UK and Europe.
Hi Cameron and Hollie! Tell us a bit about the history of The Zetter Townhouse Clerkenwell
The Zetter Hotel, located just across the square from The Zetter Townhouse Clerkenwell, was originally an old Victorian warehouse and a spice merchants owned by the Zetter family, when Benyan and Sainsbury acquired it with the idea of redesigning it as a hotel. It was important to the pair that every single brick was built with sustainability in mind, including digging down to a 1500-foot borehole in order give the hotel a self-sufficient water supply.
A time after the Zetter Hotel opened and became a success, the pair purchased the Georgian Townhouse, less that 20 steps away across the cobbled St Johns Square and called it The Zetter Townhouse, Clerkenwell.
Interior genius Russel Sage was introduced in order to tie together a Victorian warehouse turned modern, sustainable space and a Georgian Townhouse full of historic character, and he devised the concept of The Zetter Portfolio based around beloved fictional eccentric characters.
The Zetter family resided in a Townhouse across the road from the family spice merchants in St Johns Square. When the family died, all their earthly possessions and Zetter Estate were left to their eccentric daughter Wilhelmina Zetter. Wilhelmina, or ‘Aunt Wilhelmina’ as we call her, as we imagine she grew old to be like everyone favourite peculiar but most beloved relative, is a lush who adores hosting cocktail parties and has a passion for travel, hence the antiques and curious nick nacks she has collected to fill her home.
We are currently sitting in The Zetter Townhouse, Clerkenwell, on the chesterfield sofa in Wilhelmina’s lounge, drinking some of her favorite cocktails. Across from us is The Dining Room where she holds small meetings and dinner parties for up to 14 guests and downstairs is The Games Room which can host standing parties for up to 50. The Townhouse has 13 uniquely designed bedrooms all filled with Wilhelmina’s prized unusual possessions.
Years later the hotelier team opened Marylebone across town and which became home to Uncle Seymour, another relative of the Zetter family tree. The Zetter Townhouse, Marylebone, also a triumph of Georgian architecture has 24 bedrooms in the heart of the West End, on Seymour Street, just a stones throw from Marble Arch. The interiors of The Zetter Townhouse, Marylebone, also designed by Sage, are moodier, masculine, and more art focused to reflect Uncle Seymour’s slightly wicked but passionate personality. The love of a good tipple however is something Seymour and Wilhelmina very much shared and we strive to create the very best in innovative cocktail creation in the bars in both locations.
What does a great customer experience look like at your hotel?
There’s a lot of unique points about the guest journey here. We have made our check in process as straightforward as possible in order to make our guests feel relaxed as soon as they walk through the door to the townhouse. There is no reception desk, so we ask our guests to take a comfortable seat in the lounge while we bring over their room key, but which point they could have a drink in hand. When you're ready, we'll show you up to the room and show you around.
We've got 13 bedrooms, so we know most of our guests by name. We get a lot of repeat guests but even with guests who are visiting for the first time the aim it for them to feel like they are at home, or at the very least visiting a quirky relative.
With such a big focus on cocktails in our lounge we like to ask our guests what is their tipple of choice so our team can talk them through the cocktail menu and often will even tailor-make a special drink for them.
What do you think defines an independent hotel?
There are many great things about large corporate hotels, but we think what makes a great independent hotel experience is the personalization and warm welcome of every stay. If we know that someone loves martinis then we can have a martini waiting for them when they arrive. There are small touches that make someone feel special and that is what we are all about here, and why we maintain our occupancy rate in a competitive market.
What do you think are some of the main challenges and opportunities right now in the market?
The main challenge at the moment is demand is through the roof, in both rooms as well as for tables in bars and restaurants. With this increase demand, we also see greater expectations for standards from guests in the current climate. It’s no secret that staffing is quite tricky at the moment within the hospitality industry, so, it’s up to us as a hotel to make sure we continue to pay close attention to these factors to ensure the service we are providing is impeccable throughout the guests journey.
Having said that, when it comes to sustainability, something we as a brand have always put as a key focus from the very beginning, 20 plus years ago, it is important that we manage guests’ expectations when getting the balance right. For instance, we don't offer a housekeeping service as standard every night, as this, of course, increases the impact on the environment due to linen cleaning. We say 'you're more than welcome to have it, if you want it, let us know'. For us here at the Zetter properties, it’s not about taking service away from our guests but allowing them to consider their needs and environmental factors.
Sustainability has now become criteria that people look for when booking a room, or visiting a bar or restaurant which is great progress and something we are pleased to see, especially as it has always been close to our hearts. We now see other hotels focusing on sustainable practices as well so it is important for us to stay genuine and transparent when it comes to our sustainable practices as well as constantly review our methods, and review suppliers, products etc. Our regular guests trust us to do our best wherever possible when it comes to sustainability, and we will continue to do so.
How do you approach creating the menus and sourcing the food & drinks?
Seasonality within food and drink is the obvious comparison we see between us and our competitors, we also try especially on the drink side of things is to really minimize waste, so even things like lemons and limes, when we pre-batch cocktails, we try not to use them. We use a lime solution, which means the limes don't have to be shipped and reduces the carbon footprint. When we’re choosing spirits, we try to source as close to home as possible.
How important is hospitality tech to you?
Tech allows us to be personal and that is the key for us.
We were fortunate to win Best Use of Technology at the Hotel Cateys 2022, which was a great triumph for us because we put a lot of time and thought into changing over all the hotel systems in 2021 during the pandemic.
With new ownership we were able to take a step back and look at all the procedures and systems in place and assess what could be done better, we completely started from scratch in finding the newest, innovative systems on the market to improve the guests journey from start to finish, from our PMS, to invoicing and everything in between. The tech that we have put in place was all chosen to allow us to spend more time with the guests from the moment they arrive to the next time they come to stay, cutting down the admin attached to day-to-day procedures, as well as allowing us to personalize our communication with them as much as possible.
It can certainly be difficult to adjust as new tech isn't something that comes naturally to everyone. There are definitely different levels of confidence in our teams as in every establishment when it comes to tech. However, we are lucky that the new systems provided extensive training and support throughout the change over and now we are reaping the rewards and are ultimately able to focus on our guests. It was a very proud moment for The Zetter team to win the award and all the hard work has been worth it.
Has the new tech been transformative?
There’s particular tech that has indeed been transformative. Flex keeping, for instance, is used for all housekeeping communication, logging lost properties, noting that bedrooms are out of use, busy or need to be cleaned. All communication takes place via the program, which the team can update and check via their devices on the go which means the front of house and housekeeping team don’t waste time picking up internal calls and can focus on the guests in house.
Are there areas where tech doesn’t work?
Ordering through a QR code, as for us, it's not what hospitality is about. There are some instances where we use it, for example it allows guests to access information on the local area, and room service from their bedrooms. However, our bartenders, for instance, live and breathe cocktails and have created recipes in our cocktail lab for months before it features on the menu, and to not be able to tell guests about it, face to face would be a great loss for both the team and the guest. You can’t appreciate the passion and creativity behind a menu via a QR code.
What's your approach to recruitment and retention?
In terms of retention, we are very fortunate to have an amazing team as well as Heads of Department who have managed to keep a lot of our employees in place even through the pandemic. Most of, the Heads of the Department have been here for a minimum of four years themselves and have seen the change of ownership.
Wages have increased as a result of the additional pressure on hospitality workers in this climate. But for us, the main tool when it comes to retaining staff is through empowering people to learn and be more involved with key decisions.
Cameron ; The way I personally like to manage is, if there's a way of doing something better then I want to hear it. I have an open-door policy where I would expect anyone, from any department to feel able to say ‘Why do we do it like that?’ or ‘I have an idea’. If there is the way that we can improve, we will act fast and implement a change, and the person that made the suggestion will receive the deserved recognition.