by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
The sheer scale of London as a destination makes it the perfect crucible for trying out new ideas and concepts in hospitality and MICE. Consequently it’s a rich source of inspiration for those of us, like Patrick and me, whose livelihood is derived from dispensing advice to destinations, venues, hotels on how to flourish within the lucrative business events sector. We love to visit London to experience all this bourgeoning innovation and then to filter it through our súil nua, or “other viewpoint”, our perspective of experience based on over 20 years of flourishing – and failing – in the meetings industry. We were back in London again this week on the kind invitation of Martin Lewis, guests at the M&IT Awards, edition 2015.
We’ve been intrigued by the mammoth changes in how hospitality experiences are delivered (see previous postings) and, in particular, by the spectacular growth in independent, non-global chains endeavouring to offer a different guest experience. We began to take notice of Firmdale Hotels some time ago, prompted by some interesting media stories and decided to experience them in person during this visit to Britain’s capital.
Firmdale is not a new hotel chain. In fact the Dorset Square Hotel, where we stayed, was owners Kit and Tim Kemp’s first hotel way back in the mid 80s. It was sold but then re-purchased, renovated and re-opened in 2012 under General Manager, Eva Court, a 10 year denizen of Firmdale . It’s a sumptuous town house property overlooking the pastoral leafiness of Dorset Square and presents impeccably as a truly design-driven boutique hotel, a “living thing, not a stuff institution” to quote the owners. Having given us a great introduction to Firmdale, Eva kindly arranged for us to visit the newest, and possibly brightest, star in the Firmdale constellation, the Ham Yard Hotel.
Ham Yard Hotel
Ham Yard Hotel opened in the middle of last year and is way more than a mere “hotel”. It nestles on a three quarter acre footprint that, for 50 years, lay undeveloped right in the midst of Soho. There the Kemps have built an “urban village” comprising 98 luxury guest rooms, a rooftop terrace and herb garden (the bees are coming soon, apparently), 24 residential apartments, 13 retail stores, extensive food and beverage outlets and meetings and events space the size of a small African country.
The meetings and events space has been given the unique Firmdale treatment and is as different from conventional hotel meeting space as a hipster is from a suit. The extensive events suite is at basement level but lack of light is more than compensated for by volume, colour and vibrancy. There’s a 4 lane bowling alley down there with DJ console and dance floor and a screening room that seats over just under 200 persons. A double height foyer connects all of these spaces as well as to three additional meetings / events rooms that continue the eclectic, eccentric design ethos.
The delightfully debonair Duty Manager, David Lockhard, brought us on an efficient, whistle stop tour of the events space highlighting the interconnectivity between the spaces which, at full capacity, can easily accommodate up to 800 for a flow function. Ham Yard offers unconventional meetings and events space for creative Gen Y types in an overall setting that dazzles and delights. Check it out!
The Meetings and Incentive Travel (M&IT) Awards held this year again at the capacious Battersea Evolution also dazzled and delighted. Almost 1200 attendees enjoyed an amazing night of great food, fun and frivolity under the near-perfect control of MC Matt Dawson. In his day as England scrum-half Dawson had to control 8 fierce and ferocious forwards. That, as they say, was a walk in the park when compared with imposing order on 1200 meetings industry professionals but Matt was up to the task, his easy geniality as outrageously cheeky as some of the tries he scored.
I was fortunate to sit between my old buddy David Hornby of Why Not? and a brand new friend Tim Chudley of Sundial Group. David continues to push beyond the boundaries of the meetings industry, bringing his sharp intellect, flowing creativity and marketing nous to many projects. Tim, on the other hand, sticks to the knitting and has developed a world class family business serving the needs of meetings and events professionals across a range of connected verticals including venue ownership and management, global venue sourcing, conference and events management and team building.
The striking thing about Tim and his business is the relentless focus on culture and values, evident, immediately, from the way he talks about his business and its connection to his family across three generations. His passion for what he does is genuinely contagious and pivots around bringing the best out of his staff, his suppliers and his customers by following the golden rule and “treating others as you would like to be treated”. It was no surprise at all when Tim told me about his company’s accreditation as a Living Wage employer, the first, indeed, in the hospitality industry.
Tim’s businesses appear to have grown organically from a family owned and run bed and breakfast in the 1960s to a full scale enterprise that consolidates many products and services across the meetings industry from venue management to team building. It’s a great business model as it aggregates key products and services required by meeting planners offering them under a single, compelling brand and thereby capturing the maximum available meetings and events budget. When the entire enterprise is unified around a strong people-focused culture you’ve got the winning business over which Tim presides. And winning it certainly is – Sundial picked up no less than 3 awards on the night!
Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney are Managing Partners at SoolNua, a boutique consultancy working with destinations, venues, hotels and other business tourism entities on the strategy for MICE.