The Stafford London, one of London’s most established luxury hotels, located in the heart of St James’s, is enjoying a new lease of life since the return of Stuart Procter as general manager. Janet Harmer reports on how he is successfully combining a modern approach to hospitality with traditional hotelkeeping.
The Stafford London may have been established as a hotel in 1912, but today it’s enjoying something of a renaissance. The hotel’s restaurant, the Game Bird, was one of London’s most successful launches in 2017 and this, along with the creation of a number of stylish new suites, has brought a new vibrancy and glamour to the Stafford.
Back in 2008, the 105-bedroom hotel was very much at the top of its game – it was named Hotel of the Year – Group at the Catey Awards and was promoted from a four- to a five-red-AA-star property – but in the years after that, it lost its way. The departure of general manager Stuart Procter in 2011 heralded a succession of incumbents in the role – Leon Baum, Christine Hodder and Spencer Yeo – and in 2014 a management agreement between the hotel and Kempinski ended abruptly after just four years. Alongside a struggle to maintain stability in the management team, the hotel’s performance also dipped.
So the news in October 2015 that Procter was returning to the Stafford was initially greeted with surprise. His stint of nearly five years away from the hotel, when he headed the management team that created the Hotel and Café Football concepts, had taken him into a totally new territory of hospitality. It had been expected that he would remain with Manchester United football legends Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville as Hotel Football parent company, GG Hospitality, of which he was managing director, looked to expand. However, with his wife Claire and two teenage children, Archie and Florence, living in Surrey, Procter no longer wanted to be based in Manchester, where Giggs and Neville were working on the development of two new city centre hotels. He also missed working within the luxury hotel sector. So when he was offered the challenge of turning things around at the Stafford, he jumped at the chance.
Back for good
Procter’s return to the hotel, in retrospect, makes absolute sense, but there are no regrets about his five years away – in fact, he believes it was the best thing for his development as a general manager and that it has benefitted the Stafford. “I learned how to set up a hotel from scratch, which covered everything from
creating the branding to being involved in the physical building of the property and setting up the operational side of the business. I did things I had never done before and I can now approach what we are doing at the Stafford from a different point of view.”
During his first stint at the Stafford, which ran from 2006 to 2011, Procter was unable to change what had become an institution under the tenure of Terry Holmes. But gradually, things started to evolve as he gained the trust of the team and Holmes’ seal of approval, and the owners started to realise that increased competition in the capital’s luxury hotel market meant change was necessary. The renowned American bar trebled in size and its age-old dress code was dropped. “We had to wake up and realise that you can no longer insist on a jacket and tie in the bar,” explains Procter. The hotel expanded with the addition of 26 bedrooms, created in the adjacent mews building.
“Without sounding arrogant, I was not fazed by taking on the general manager role at the Stafford at the age of 29. Terry had virtually allowed me to run the hotel for 12 months before he left, presenting me with all the financials and introducing me to the key players, particularly those in the US.”
Then, in 2009, the Stafford was acquired for a reported £77.5m by Britannia Hospitality, owned by the Egyptian El Sharkawy family. The sale of the hotel after 14 years of being operated by Shire Hotels, which was owned by brewery business Daniel Thwaites, came about largely due to the smoking ban – introduced two years previously – which badly affected the 500 pubs within the group.
“The only asset the Yerburgh family [major shareholders of Daniel Thwaites] had of any value was the Stafford,” says Procter. “They were very sad to sell – Mrs Yerburgh said it was like getting rid of the family silver.”
Soon after the sale, Procter decided to explore other ventures, which led to discussions with Giggs, who was a regular guest at the Stafford. “He was still playing for Manchester United at the time and he introduced me to Gary [Neville]. Initially, they wanted me to open a boutique hotel with them in London, but at the eleventh hour the deal fell through.”
It was then that the Hotel Football concept was born and Procter entered the world of hotel development for five years before returning to the Stafford. Since coming back, just over two years ago, he hasn’t stood still.
Through his introduction of a proper revenue management system, overhaul of the sales and marketing function (including the introduction of a New York-based PR team, a UK-based food PR team, new website and social media strategy) and move away from a reliance on corporate accounts, the performance of the hotel has improved dramatically. Revenue has grown by 44%, with EBITDA increasing by 40% over the past two years.
Additionally, occupancy in 2017 reached 81% and the average room rate has grown by £85 over the past 18 months. The strong reliance on business from the US – initiated by Holmes and his very personal approach to American travel agents – has continued and today accounts for 53% of all room bookings.