In the first of a series of interviews with some of the youngest and most successful members of the hospitality industry, Becky Paskin speaks to Steve Lowy, the 27-year-old founder and director of Umi hotels, director of British Education Travel Association (BETA) and former Wake Up London General Manager.
Upon first impressions, Umi hotels founder Steve Lowy doesn’t look like the sort of man who would feel at home with a rucksack strapped to his back. Raised within a family of hoteliers and within the backdrop of his newly purchased Brighton hotel, Lowy looks every bit the entrepreneur; a businessman through and through. And yet backpacking was where this London-bred wanderer’s passion for hotels set root.
“I’d no admissions of getting into hotels whatsoever as my dream was opening my own restaurant,” he explained. “But when I first got to Australia after three or four months travelling in Asia, I went to a hostel in Sydney called Wake Up. I worked on the bar there, and absolutely loved it. I thought, wow, this is something completely different and I really liked it.”
It was upon his return home that Lowy found the perfect property at which to open the first Wake Up London, along with his father and fellow businessman Peter. Within a year the hostel had secured a position in Time Out’s top 50 places to stay in London.
But Lowy wasn’t content with expanding somebody else’s hotel. The hospitality bug had bitten him and he looked for a way to break into an already competitive industry with a brand of his own.
“I felt there was a gap in the market for hotels generally aimed at younger people, a young vibe concentrating on the atmosphere and the experience people get in backpackers hostels. I felt the service being delivered in those places in terms of natural hospitality was better than a lot of three-star hotels.”
Working alongside a youth marketing company, Lowy developed the idea for an informal hotel that would encompass the youthful, bohemian atmosphere of its location, offering five-star service, in a three-star environment.
With the help of his father, whose holding company the Vienna Group owns the leasehold on the Umi sites, Lowy took over the old Westminster Hotel in London’s Notting Hill, and at just 25 years old, he set about transforming the generic hotel into his very own baby – Umi London.
A couple of years on and Lowy hasn’t just settled at being a general manager. He has developed an entire brand, from a stylish hotel that offers an unparalleled concierge service, great conference areas and added extras like complimentary juices and kimonos, to the popular ‘Yumi’ coffee shop and a renowned internship scheme, which has attracted the likes of hospitality students worldwide.
But despite designing the brand and becoming a GM at such a young age, Lowy is consistently deflecting praise away from himself whilst enjoying a rather large portion of humble pie.
“Success or not, I enjoy what I do and that’s really it for me,” he shrugged. “My family have always been in the hospitality industry so it’s probably always been in my blood. My dad`s run hotels, my older brother was one of the first managers of Planet Hollywood in New York and my sister runs a boutique hotel in Mayfair. I still work closely with my family; it’s them who’ve helped me.”
At a young age, Lowy had always wanted to cook. A brief encounter with a jam tart at the age of five secured his passion for a life in the kitchen, and at the age of 19 he embarked upon a Hospitality and Tourism Management course at Salford University. Despite nothing but praise for his university and tutors, it was Lowy’s gap year that took him to a side of the industry he never thought he would love.
“I spent four months working in the city for Chez Gerard in Chancery Lane just on a work placement but it really ended up as being as hospitality management there. I was helping organise parties, working on the door as a host, even doing the banking and I was only 18 so it was really great experience. I really enjoyed that, it was a lot of fun. They were long days but I really got into the hospitality side of it.”
Giving something back
Drawing on his own experiences as a student, Lowy has vowed to help others with a passion for hospitality by training them in his very own hotels. Working alongside numerous universities and schools from around the world, including his very own Salford University, Lowy offers students internships at both the Notting Hill and Brighton sites.
“At the beginning we were thinking about what would make it stand out and I’d just taken on an intern from Holland. She was a breath of fresh air. Since her I’ve had 50 interns in two and a half years. They give the hotel a great lift by bringing to the table all the things they learned at uni. It’s not a matter of getting cheap labour - what we want is the enthusiasm, the youth, the vibe behind it.”
After trawling through numerous independent user reviews of Umi, the youth vibe is definitely something that stands out. Most are glowing reports of how welcoming and enthusiastic the staff were, a standard that Lowy obviously instils in his team.
“These hospitality students all come wanting to be managers and they get going on a wave of enthusiasm to get better, and I think if there’s that vibe in a hotel you will really enjoy staying there because you got all these people who are interested in you. They really want to learn about hospitality.”
Lowy has recently seen Umi Brighton relaunch under its new brand name - if you start him talking about it he’ll never stop. The bohemian-at-heart Londoner has a real passion for his brand and plans and dreams you can envisage becoming reality. Now a director for BETA and now with a dream to create the UK’s first Hotel School, you may need reminding this lad is just 27. He has to be proud of his accomplishments.
“I’m proud, but there’s so many things I want to do and I don’t feel like I’ve done it all yet - but it’s not really about me. I’m not checking people in, I’m not dealing with day to day and that’s the most important part of the hotel you can have. You can have any scribbly line on a piece of paper and create a logo, but the people who work for you, they should be proud of what they’ve achieved.”
Umi was recently chosen as the sole representative of the hospitality industry at the first national VQ Day in Covent Garden. For more information about training opportunities at either Umi Brighton or Notting Hill, email firstname.lastname@example.org.