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Royal Garden Hotel GM Jonathan Lowrey on managing a 50-year-old hotel

By Emma Eversham+ , 11-Mar-2016
Last updated on 11-Mar-2016 at 10:42 GMT2016-03-11T10:42:50Z

Royal Garden Hotel GM Jonathan Lowrey on managing a 50-year-old hotel

As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Royal Garden Hotel's general manager Jonathan Lowrey tells us how he caters for celebrity guests like Justin Bieber and shares the secrets of the business's success. 

Celebrating 50 years in the business is a huge achievement, what's the secret to the Royal Garden Hotel's success?

I can only speak for the last 20 years, which is how long I've been here, but I would say it's the focus we put on guest service. That is the absolute core of our business. 

The guest is the centre of our universe. Everything is based around that. All 360 of our members of staff go through a training programme which is built around seven key promises - we call them our golden rules. We encourage our staff to give friendly, genuine service that is natural, not stiff and starchy. It has to come from their hearts. 

I think everything else in a hotel - the nice carpets, comfortable beds and fluffy towels - all those things are expected and are given here, but it’s the service that makes the difference. People like us and come back time and time again. In February 43 per cent of our guests were returns. That's high and I think it is down to our emphasis on the guest. 

We also have a high level of staff retention. Many members of our team are long serving members of staff who make a point of getting to know regular guests and that helps. 

The Royal Garden Hotel is renowned as a celebrity haven, how do you deal with famous guests?

Since it first opened in the 1960s The Royal Garden has had a large number of celebrity figures through the doors - staying with us, dining with us or attending events. We have a quite a rich back catalogue of celebrities – from the worlds of music, sport and film.

I think one of the reasons we are so popular is we do treat our celebrity guests in the same manner we would our other guests - with respect and courtesy. Unless a famous guest particularly wants to be greeted and escorted everywhere we let them roam as any other guest would.

Most celebrities just want to be comfortable, quiet and left alone, although we've had one or two interesting ones stay with us. Justin Bieber stayed here a few years ago and it brought mayhem to Kensington. We had thousands of screaming fans outside - it was like the days of the Beatles who stayed here in the 1960s alongside The Monkees and the Rolling Stones. Justin Bieber is a modern incarnation of that.

We lost one of our dear celebrity guests Lemmy (of Motorhead) before Christmas. He lived in LA, but when he came back to the UK he would stay with us time after time for many years. He was a very interesting guest. We do have a number of existing regular celebrity guests who I won’t name in print. One is about to come back for his 300th stay. He’s been upgraded to the master suite on the top floor.

What have been the biggest challenges you've faced in the 20 years you've been at The Royal Garden Hotel?

The biggest impact on the business was the 9/11 bombings in New York. It dramatically affected business levels and we had to put in crisis measures to  tighten things up and maintain the business while revenue levels dropped.

In 2008 the financial crash made a dramatic dent in our business from which we are still rebuilding. We are thankfully back past those levels but it’s been slow moving.

London has seen the arrival of many luxury hotels in the last few years, how do you stay ahead of the competition?

We have to stay aware of what our competitors are doing. We spend time visiting competitor properties and have an in-house competitor analysis programme. Within our own product we maintain it well and make sure we are staying up to speed with the latest trends, whether that’s in-room technology or having a presence on social media.

Technology is driving things very quickly. We use CRM systems that identify guests by behaviour and that sort of thing. We use revenue management system from IDeaS and have recently started working with Revinate for our CRM. These systems drive a lot of the way we do business. 

We have to embrace technology, whether its good or bad. We spend a lot of money now with OTAs for example - £1.5m a year goes out of our P&L in commission to reservations companies. They skim off a lot of money from us, but there's nothing we can do to avoid them, although we are investing in our own website and we are doing lots to encourage customers to book directly with us. 

How do you plan to celebrate the hotel's 50th anniversary?

We have already had our annual staff party which this year was a 50th birthday party with a swinging 60's theme.

Internally that was the highlight of the celebrations, but we are doing lots to celebrate it with guests and use it to re-establish peoples’ awareness of the hotel. We've redesigned our logo to incorporate the 50th anniversary and we're giving away special vouchers to guests encouraging them to book again this year with £50 off their stay. We're also serving special 50th anniversary cupcakes with our afternoon tea. 

In the second half of our anniversary year we are holding some events to highlight the hotel’s links with England wining the Football World Cup in 1966. We have made links with the Football Association and the Bobby Moore Foundation and worked with Mrs Moore to help raise funds for the charity. Our executive chef has discussed Sir Bobby Moore’s favourite dishes and food with his wife and we’ll be introducing Bobby Moore favourites onto our menus this year with a donation from every sale going to the charity.

Our lounge bar will also become the become the Bobby Moore Lounge in July and we’ll use it in conjunction with the FA to stage a number of different events in celebration of the 50th year. It's going to be an exciting one.