The success of the Soho House Group, according to operations director Martin Kuczmarski, relies on staff giving guests everything they want – within reason, of course.
We all report to one person: the guest. This is who we’re working for. They pay our wages.” So says Martin Kuczmarski, the operations director of Soho House in the UK and Europe, as he describes the kind of people he wants working with him across the eight UK venues he is currently responsible for, along with the Dean Street hotel that will open in September and Soho House Berlin, due to launch in early 2010.
“I have learned not to look at people’s CVs any more,” he explains. “The technical skills you can teach them. Instead I ask people what do you do on your day off, what music do you listen to, what makes you laugh, are you ambitious. So our choice of people is really personality driven. And I think it’s difficult to find genuinely nice people today.” But find them he must, he stresses, because nice people are critical to his business. “We are in hospitality. I’m not here to sell shoes. I’m here to make an experience and you make an experience with personality.”
Kuczmarski is aware that this service-oriented ethic is even more crucial in these difficult times, and so far, for Soho House, it seems to be working. Despite the downturn, the business is in good shape. Interest in membership to its clubs hasn’t waned. Nearly 4,000 people are on the waiting list to join its 10,000 UK members. The day before we meet, in Shoreditch House, the club served 1,500 guests and took £25,000 in a night. Turn up in the evening and see the pretty young things cavorting in the outdoor rooftop pool (always heated) or bowling in the club’s own 10 pin alley or sinking cocktails in one of several bars and you might think, “Recession, what recession?”
But, as Kuczmarski explains, the current resilience of the Soho House business is partly the result of early action taken when the first hints of a downturn were felt. “I started working on this last August, on our pricing strategy, offers for members, tweaking our menu prices, adding more value to what they were already getting.” He knew that a members-based business could be exceptionally vulnerable in a recession. If people want to cut back on their monthly outgoings, they’ll look at their direct debits and that monthly membership payment is an easy one to cull.
“We had to ensure that when our members went out, they’d say let’s go to Shoreditch House – or Soho House or High Road House – because there we get better food, better service, better value,” says Kuczmarski. “We started doing lots of members events. Screenings of films that weren’t yet in the cinema. We showed that we really cared.”
As a result, January was one of the company’s best months financially. “Like-for-likes are up,” he says. “Is it difficult? Yes, it is. But you can survive. Not if you are good, but if you are excellent.”
Kuczmarski has a good platform from which to build of course. The Soho House Group, created by Nick Jones and now owned by Jones and Richard Caring, is constructed around an exceptionally good concept, one that’s geared around fostering fun with like-minded people. If you’re a banker, you’re unlikely to be accepted for membership. Instead, they want creative types, artists, musicians, people who work in the media. There’s a hugely discounted membership rate for under 27s. The result? A young, arty, energetic crowd: exactly the kind of people you’d want to invite to a party. Couple that with excellent food and drink (Kevin Gratton, formerly of Scott’s and Le Caprice is executive head chef across the group) and the kind of service that Kuczmarski evangelises about and why wouldn’t you want to go back there again and again? Even in a recession. Maybe especially in a recession.
Still, there’s no question about the company getting complacent. Kuczmarski describes the Soho House group’s attitude to its members as “the three yeses: yes, yes and yes” and he is currently putting his more than 1,000 employees through training to “re-emphasise” that attitude. Nice people, he reiterates, will always go that extra mile to develop great service.
For someone who no longer reads CVs, Kuczmarski, who was born in Poland but grew up in Italy, has a pretty impressive one himself. His first years in the industry were spent in a series of luxury hotels: the Four Seasons in Milan, the Ritz in Paris, the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. One of his mottos, Kuczmarski says, is ‘Make Things Happen’, and as he recounts his career to date, that sense of purpose clearly shines through. He deliberately targeted different jobs in different hotels, sometimes taking a step backwards in his career, so that he could learn about every aspect of the hospitality business. In 1997, he moved away from traditional hotels and joined Gordon Campbell Gray, helping him to launch the ground-breaking One Aldwych. Campbell Gray’s philosophy clearly made an impression. “One Aldwych was an amazing vision,” says Kuczmarski. “It was all about service, all about the staff, the people, creating a comfortable environment. There was nothing stuffy about it. And we had that attitude that nothing was too much trouble for the guests.”
After five years, he left to help open Whatley Manor with chef Martin Burge: “a very good experience; I had to do everything from scratch: recruitment, training, writing of the menus with Martin, selection of the uniforms, costing, everything.” And then he returned to Campbell Gray Hotels to help open Carlisle Bay in Antigua.
If hotel jobs were collectors’ items, Kuczmarski would pretty much have a complete set. Despite his youth, his all-round experience – he’s worked as waiter, chef de rang, restaurant supervisor, lobby bar manager, back of house manager, F&B manager – would stand him in good stead for any senior management role in hospitality. But for Soho House, with its diverse operations – restaurants, hotels and clubs in the UK and abroad – Kuczmarski seems tailor-made. He started at the company in January last year, running Electric House in Notting Hill, then High Road House as well. After six months, Nick Jones was sufficiently impressed to promote him to director of operations for the UK and Europe. With two major sites launching in the next year – Dean Street and Berlin – plus 27 bedrooms opening in Shoreditch House in December, not to mention a downturn to deal with, Kuczmarski’s ability to Make Things Happen will be put to the test.
But the challenge doesn’t faze Kuczmarski one bit, who offers this deceptively straightforward formula for success: “Make what you offer the best. Do it faster than your competition and do it at a better price. Then you’ll win.”