The Hotelier Edit: Rafi Bejerano, Hotel Director of Sopwell House
The team had the pleasure of visiting Sopwell House and interviewing Rafi Bejerano, a hotelier with extensive experience in the industry. Having worked in various hospitality roles, Rafi's expertise spans diverse areas of hotel operations. In 2014, he took over the running of the family business, Sopwell House, and has since transformed it into a remarkable hotel known for its warm hospitality, luxurious spa, and memorable guest experiences.
Can you give us an introduction to yourself and your experience in the industry?
I was born into the hospitality industry. My father started a hotel business in the early 1970s, and I grew up working in his hotels during my school holidays. I always enjoyed the dynamic and people-oriented nature of the industry.
During my degree, I had to choose a specialisation, so unsure of my direction, my father suggested exploring the spa industry, which was gaining traction at the time. With his connections in the industry, I interviewed spa professionals to understand the potential benefits of adding a spa to our hotel. This became the focus of my thesis, and I delved deeper into the concept of wellness. It evolved from a personal passion to a professional one.
After completing a hotel degree, I took a few years off to travel and then returned to work in the family business. I worked for various companies, including Savoy Group, some catering companies, and Marriot International, before returning to the family business in 2007.
I worked my way up in the business, starting as a Quality Manager. I then took on the role of Food & Beverage Manager and Rooms Division Manager. In 2009, I was tasked with opening a new hotel in London. Despite having no sales and marketing budget, we were able to achieve great success. I handled sales and marketing for the next few years, travelling around the world to promote the hotel.
In 2014, I took over the running of the family business, building upon its strong foundation and further enhancing its reputation. Fast forward to now, we're doing well—solid sales, good financials, and positive guest feedback. It's been quite a journey, and I'm proud of where we are now, especially our spa offering.
I've had the privilege of experiencing many exceptional spas, but none quite as remarkable as ours. We poured our hearts and souls into meticulous research, avoiding gimmicks and impractical features. Instead, we prioritized elements that would genuinely enhance our guests' experiences. Drawing inspiration from our extensive travels in Asia, we infused Asian influences into our spa design. The garden, for instance, was meticulously crafted by a renowned Chelsea Flower Show winner.
Tell us about the history of your hotel
Sopwell House has a really rich history, dating back to the early 1603. In 1670, the house was bought by Sir Harbottle Grimston, Earl of Verulam, owner of the Gorhambury estate. Gorhambury was built by Sir Richard Lee on the ruins of the Sopwell Nunnery which became the possession of Francis Bacon, the 1st Baron of Verulam. The Sopwell Nunnery is believed to have been where Anne Boleyn took refuge following her return from France and where her secret marriage to King Henry VIII took place.
In 1901, the property became home to Lord Mountbatten. In 1969, it was transformed into a hotel, initially quite modest, with only 21 bedrooms, a bar and lounge, and half the restaurant.
My father acquired Sopwell House in 1985 and started on his journey to expand and enhance the property. Over the years, he oversaw various extensions, renovations, and upgrades, shaping it into the remarkable hotel it is today.
While the exact timeline of Sopwell House's early history is a bit hazy, there are remnants of its past scattered throughout the property. For instance, the archway outside dates back to 1605, and there are hints of 16th-century architecture within the building's structure.
There were some Roman ruins around here, and it became a holy place with a monastery for quite a number of years. It was much quieter back then, with fewer houses and residential offices across the road. There was nothing but land, so it felt more remote. Now it's a lot more built up.
What does a great customer experience look like at your hotel, and what makes it unique?
We want our guests to feel like they're staying at a cosy home, not just another stuffy hotel. We're all about creating a personal and friendly atmosphere, where our guests feel like they're part of the family. We're not just selling a hotel room; we're selling a feeling.
I think we’re quite different from other hotels because we don't have that corporate, snooty vibe. We're all about creating a warm and inviting space where guests can let their hair down and relax.
Our staff are trained to be the friendliest, most enthusiastic group of people you'll ever meet. They're genuinely excited to make your stay amazing, and they'll go out of their way to make sure you have a memorable experience.
We've had so many guests tell us how much they appreciate our staff's personal touch. They've said our staff went the extra mile to make their stay special, and they've even mentioned how they felt emotionally connected to the hotel.
That's the ultimate goal for us – to create a truly memorable experience that leaves a lasting impression. Even if there's a minor hiccup, like a malfunctioning shower or a stain on the wallpaper, if our staff handles it with genuine care and concern, the guest will likely be more forgiving.
What do you think are the major opportunities and challenges in the hotel market?
We're seeing a growing trend for people to value experiences over material goods, which has been highlighted by our Black Friday results. Consumers might be more frugal, but they’re still seeking luxury experiences and we see a lot more gifting towards experiences than for products.
We also have a strong domestic market in the UK. Over 90% of our guests are from the UK, which is great because it gives us a focused market to understand and cater to.
There's also the potential to benefit from rising costs in London. With transportation and accommodation becoming more expensive in London, people are increasingly looking for alternatives outside of the city centre. We're well positioned to take advantage of this trend, as we're located just a short drive from London and offer a more affordable and relaxing alternative.
One of the biggest challenges we face is the rising minimum wage. This is putting a lot of pressure on our profit margins, as we have to pay our staff more without being able to raise our prices accordingly.
We also need to be savvier and more creative in our marketing and operations. Guests are more informed and discerning than ever before, so we need to make sure that we're providing them with the information and experiences they want. This means using technology to our advantage, but also making sure that we're not losing the personal touch that makes hotels special.
Another challenge is balancing technology with the personal touch. Guests want to feel like they're valued and cared for, but they also expect us to use technology to make their stay as convenient as possible. It's a delicate balance, but it's one that we need to get right. Finally, Brexit has made it more difficult to recruit from abroad. We rely on a number of skilled workers from overseas, and Brexit has made it more difficult and expensive to bring them into the UK.
What’s really exciting you in the hotel industry right now?
It's exciting to see people still investing in hotels. I read that London received the most investment in Europe for hotels in 2023. There's a lot of money going into trophy hotels and restaurants, and people are eating out more than ever before.
There are also a lot of new hotels opening up with amazing designs and sustainable ideas. Restaurants are evolving beautifully, and the bar industry is really exciting. Wellness is also a huge trend, so there's a lot of innovation in all of these areas.
The biggest challenge is finding enough staff to keep up with the demand. The hospitality industry requires a big labour pool, and we haven't even been able to completely fill our housekeeping team since COVID.
It's exciting that there's money in the industry and that investment is constant. People want to eat out, drink out, stay out, have experiences, and have spa treatments. The demand for what we do is huge, we just need to be able to meet it.
What's the greatest piece of business advice you've ever received?
I've received a lot of great advice from my father, of course, but I had another mentor, a very famous hotelier called Willy Bauer OBE. He was known as the saviour of The Savoy. He passed away last year, and he was our company chairman for many years when we had three hotels.
He always told me, "Raf, it can be done." He had this little leather sign on his desk that said, "It can be done." Whenever we disagreed about something, he'd say, "It can be done"
He would always say, "Don't let anyone tell you if you want to do it, you can do it. Never give up." I always refer back to that because he was my mentor for 15 years. He was European Hotel of the Year, and he worked with my father in the 70s. I often think that if I'm determined to do something, I'll just do it, whatever happens. If I know it's the right thing to do, I'll always push through.
When I show that I believe in something, the team follows me. But if I doubt it or make excuses, they give up. I can't have that.
What's your favourite part of your job?
If I had more time, I would spend it going to the spa. But my two favourite things to do at work are tasting desserts and attending the annual staff awards dinner.
I have a sweet tooth, so I love tasting the desserts in the pastry kitchen every week. I get to experiment with different flavours and give my feedback to the pastry chefs.
I also really enjoy the staff awards dinner. It's a great way to show the staff that they are appreciated for their hard work. We have DJs, dancers, awards, performances, and amazing food. It's like a wedding reception. My favourite part of the dinner is seeing the excitement on the faces of the staff members when they are recognised for their hard work. Some people even cry! It's really emotional, and it makes me feel fulfilled.
I also love that the staff awards dinner is a chance for the staff to let loose and have fun. I allow them to bring one person to the dinner, and we have photographers and photo booths so that they can capture the memories.
If your hotel had a theme song, what would it be and why?
That's a tough one. I've been thinking about it for the past hour or two, and I'm still not sure! I know it's a bit cheesy, but I think "Simply the Best" by Tina Turner would be a good choice.
Even though we're not always the best, I always strive for us to be the best. I want this hotel to be amazing, and I know that we can never stop improving.
We've made a lot of changes in the past 16 years that I've been here, and I'm always pushing for more. I want us to be more interesting and unique in everything we do. I always tell my staff, "Is that really the best we can do?" I believe that the best is always possible.
Why do you attend the Independent Hotel Show London?
I attend the show for two main reasons: to network and to find new products and services for my hotel. I always learn a lot from the seminars and workshops, and I love talking to other hoteliers about their experiences and challenges.
This year, I was particularly interested in finding sustainable products that we could use in our hotel. I was particularly impressed by Who Gives a Crap, a company that makes toilet paper made from recycled materials. I think their product is a great example of how businesses can be both sustainable and profitable.
I also met with Hawkridge Gin; a company that makes gin from ingredients grown in their own garden. I was so impressed with their gin last year that we decided to start serving it in our hotel and created our own Sopwell gin. It's been a big hit with our guests! These relationships all came from attending the Independent Hotel Show, so it's a great way to find new suppliers and partners. I would highly recommend it to any independent hotelier.