Meet the Independent Hotel Show Awards winners: Independent Hotelier Stuart Procter
Image: Stuart Procter with Independent Hotel Show Ambassador Peter Hancock (left) and Independent Hotel Show Event Manager Glenn Wallace (right).
Following the historic 10th edition of the Independent Hotel Show on 4-5 October 2022, the team caught up with Stuart Procter, Chief Operating Officer at Stafford Collection and winner of the Independent Hotelier award at the Independent Hotel Show Awards. Tucked away in a quiet street alongside Green Park in London, The Stafford is a haven of five-star calm away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Piccadilly. Since returning as the hotel's General Manager in 2015, Stuart has led an exciting period of growth for the brand along with a fantastic team of hospitality professionals.
Hi Stuart, how did it feel to win the Independent Hotelier award at Independent Hotel Show 2022?
It was very special; I’ve been in the independent hotel business all my life and I’ve run some beautiful independent hotels so it’s really nice to be recognised by industry colleagues. It’s always nice to be recognised by peers you respect, so it’s probably the nicest award to receive, voted for by clients and peers in the industry.
What does it mean to you to be an independent hotelier?
It’s really special to be an independent hotelier, as it feels much more personal. When you work for an independent hotel, you can get involved in every aspect of the business, every team member plays an integral part and we can celebrate every achievement as our own. Creating and achieving what we have at Northcote and The Stafford – The Stafford especially – has come directly from the dedication and hard work of the team and it’s something to be really proud of. As an independent hotelier you watch your team grow and develop, colleagues become friends and you support each other like a family. It’s a real privilege to be a part of that.
How do you approach recruitment and building exceptional teams?
To me, it’s about employing fabulous leaders and an amazing team. We train to the highest level and because of this, The Stafford is recognised as one of the best hotels in the world, not just independent hotels. We’re developing a world-class team and delivering to some of the most affluent clients in the world, who could choose to stay anywhere in London. We’re very fortunate that due to the very hard work of the team, from top to bottom and left to right, we can attract top talent and the best clients in the world.
In this industry we talk a lot about the latest innovations and new technology, how does that factor into a hotel like The Stafford?
Behind the scenes we’re probably one of the most high-tech hotels in the world and we use the most innovative solutions in sales, marketing, PR etc, but when you walk into a hotel like The Stafford, the actual hotel-keeping hasn’t changed since I joined the industry at 15. At the end of the day service is key; nobody who I’ve ever met in my life doesn’t like recognition, and my team deliver that. Technology is all well and good, but food is food, wine is wine, and service is service.
The best lighting system in your penthouse won’t enhance your stay if the room service guy doesn’t deliver the coffee you ordered, or your hot water doesn’t work. The technology you have in a hotel won’t enhance your stay in that way, you’ve got to prioritise service.
And that human touch and customer service is an important part of the guest experience?
None of my team are robotic; they’re not formulaic, they’re just themselves. Our Director of The American Bar, Benoit Provost has been running the bar for 28 years, Brett Tidy has been on the Concierge desk for 37 years, Sarah Pendrigh has been my Executive Assistant for 26 years, it goes on and on through this hotel. I want personality. The clients can stay anywhere in the world, and they choose to stay here because they have a connection with not only the hotel, but the team. We don’t have an infinity pool and a penthouse with a million-pound chandelier, we just have great people and that’s the differentiator.
It seems to be a running theme with many of the independent hoteliers we speak with, allowing team members to express their creativity and find what they’re passionate about within the hotel industry.
If you make a mistake, you make a mistake, it’s okay. Just stop what you’re doing and try it again. No one walks into this building to spill something on a client, everyone is trying their best. If we’ve come up with the best strategy to promote the latest suite and it doesn't work, then we stop and we try again. I don’t micromanage, I let the top people and managers get on with it and we work as a team.
How did you first enter the hospitality industry, and when did you realise it would be a life-long passion?
I’ve loved hotels since I was little. When I was eight years of age, I used to go to the Dalmeny Hotel in a town called Lytham St Annes and stand in the corner and watch the chefs at work in the kitchen (I was that strange child). l went to work at Northcote Manor, as it was called then, when I was 15 years old, as a waiter. My football team-mates would ask what I was doing on Saturday night, and I'd say, ‘waiting on!’.
I loved it. I worked for Craig Bancroft [Managing Director of Northcote] from the age of 15 and became an apprentice at Northcote when I was 16. I love people and I love service and looking after guests.
How do you think the industry has changed since your early days as an apprentice?
I think the role of running a hotel has changed dramatically over that time. There are very few front-of-house people now, there are a lot of GMs and CEOs that hide in their office and think the numbers are the key. The numbers will only come if you’re delivering great service, have a wonderful property and great people. There's a lot of accountants who’ve got involved, which I don’t think is a good thing for the industry. Some people have the wrong incentive to be in the hospitality business, so there’s been a big shift. The Stafford isn’t just an asset, it’s a hotel first and foremost.
The problem with our country is that Hospitality has never been a career that’s taken seriously, but if you go to America or Europe, there are significant hotel schools. I was fortunate enough to go to Cornell University School of Hotel Administration later in my career. You meet so many international colleagues and they’ve wanted to work in hospitality since they were in the kitchen with their grandma when they were young. It’s aspirational and so it should be. Let’s be clear: there’s a lot of money to be made in this business, there’s also a lot of travel to be had and friends to be made.
When I was little and waiting on at the weekends, missing all the weddings, birthdays, stag dos etc., everyone wondered what I was doing it for and now they all want to be my friend. To me it’s a top business and I love it, but you have to want to love it to get the most from it.
Tell us about the growth of the Stafford Collection.
Since I returned to The Stafford in 2015, we’ve transformed this hotel; we’ve really woken it up. Myself, Marketing Director, Cassie Delaney-Brown, Director of Sales and Marketing, Steven McGovern, Director of Revenue, Manav Jaitly, Chief Engineer, Emmanuel Carabeau and our previous Group FD, Paul Fuykschot and Hotel Manager, Mark Surguy have shaped this place. We’ve stuck together and we’ve innovated.
We also make sure we work with the best. We brought in a world-renowned interior designer from New York, Alexandra Champalimaud, to oversee the renovation of our Carriage House Rooms and Suites and she really took them to the next level.
A game changer for The Stafford was the launch of The Game Bird restaurant. It’s five years old now and before the relaunch, the hotel restaurant was dead, honestly the worst hotel dining room, it had a harp in it! We got Jason Atherton to help behind the scenes, working with Executive Head Chef Jozef Rogulski. We asked our Concierge ‘where do we send our clients to eat?’. It wasn’t about copying something that was already out there, but about creating our own version to meet our guests needs and expectations. The branding, design, concept and launch plan was all managed in house and it was a game changer. Jay Rayner said, ‘this is not a review, this is a love letter’. It was a phenomenal review.
Image: The Game Bird restaurant
We turned the top line round by 60% growth. Then we were in a position to do more.
The Stafford Collection bought Northcote in early 2019, was that decision related to working there in one of your first hospitality roles?
Not at all, it was just a moment in time. It came to us an opportunity and it was too good to be missed. We went to visit the hotel and the rest is history. In the pandemic Northcote made a lot of money with their gourmet boxes. Unbelievably, we made more money closed than open, because we were selling a thousand covers (gourmet boxes for two) every week, and we were able to keep the staff on. It widened the audience; the database grew massively and we had to introduce virtual ‘waiting rooms’ on our website on release days due to demand. Lisa’s profile is terrific [Executive Chef Lisa Goodwin-Allen].
We opened Norma [the Stafford Collection’s Fitzrovia-based restaurant with a Sicilian-inspired menu] in September 2019 and closed in March due to the pandemic. I say this all the time, but I’ve been involved in creating and leading some really fascinating businesses, but I love Norma and how we created that as a team. It really offers something for everyone. You can take your niece, your friends, your boyfriend, your gran and everyone is having a great time. You walk in and it had a great feel and the food is top drawer. From the moment we opened it it’s been off the chart. It’s a beautiful restaurant.
What is your approach to guest experience?
We say, ‘welcome home’, because The Stafford really is home to our clients. Seventy percent of our clients are repeat, direct through my office or our reservations office. We know the inside leg of all our clients, our top clients have their own embroidered bathrobes. To me, we’re a different level than the majority of independent hotels in the country. The Executive Concierge here, Alan Noone is the best in Britain, there’s nothing he can’t get. We hired Ned Holder our Guest Relations Manager, five years ago and his attention to detail is second to none. The biggest footballers in the world stay here and those guys could buy anything, but Ned manages to create special moments that they think is unbelievable. It’s the little touches that make you smile.
Is there any advice you’d give to someone aspiring to be in a role like yours?
I had three really good mentors through my career. One of these was Ali Kasikci who set up the Peninsula in Beverly Hills and Montage Group and he’d say, ‘if you say you’re going to do something, then do it. The clients pay your wages, they own the hotel, and work hard.’ My advice? Be accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you have to be. Your top clients want to know the boss.