Ganan Kanagathurai tells Mel Flaherty how he hopes to lead Itsu to fulfil its potential.
Alex Pritchard tells Mel Flaherty about his calling to run hotels and his latest venture, Axiom Hospitality.
“There is a certain flair about independents that allows you to hone your hospitality skills… you can change a lot in this hotel very quickly to reflect customer trends, which is something the brands would take a lot longer to do”
On the face of it, the Marriott Hotel MetroCentre in Gateshead doesn’t have much in common with the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas. However, to Alex Pritchard at the age of 14/15, the mirrored frontage of the hotel conjured up that very image and was partly responsible for inspiring him to follow a career in hospitality.
“I remember it so clearly,” Pritchard, now co-owner and co-founder of Axiom Hospitality, the hotel management firm, says. “My mum and I were at the MetroCentre and she asked me what I wanted to do when I was older. All my family are doctors, dentists and teachers, but I had always loved the board game Hotel and for me, that hotel [the Marriott], looked like where I wanted to be – it was like a calling.”
While his vocation didn’t lead him to working in that specific hotel, Pritchard’s path has encompassed various Marriott brands over the years. First though, a year as a management trainee at Le Méridien Dubai (long before Le Méridien became part of the Marriott stable) cemented his desire to work in hotels, opened his eyes to high-end hospitality and convinced him to change the degree he planned to take upon his return from hotel management to international business.
Despite ambitions to then work overseas, Pritchard was advised that if he could prove himself in the UK hospitality business, he would be able to work anywhere in the world: “I’m obviously still trying to prove myself here in the UK,” he jokes.
Post-graduation, he spent almost a year as regional sales manager for Swallow Group before becoming sales and marketing director at the Waltham Abbey Marriott Hotel, moving up to general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott Northampton West and eventually heading Kew Green Hotels whose portfolio grew to 77 hotels, including some Marriott properties. His latest venture, Axiom, set up in October 2020 with his former chairman at Kew Green, Jamie Lamb, now manages three Residence Inn by Marriott properties (Kensington, London Bridge and Tower Bridge) as well as two Hiltons and a Doubletree by Hilton. Interestingly, it is his new firm’s de-badging of a Marriot hotel – Le Méridien in London’s Piccadilly – which is attracting most attention at the moment.
When the management agreement with Marriott expired in November 2020, owner Archer Hotel Capital took stock and decided there was greatest potential in developing it as an independent brand run by a white-label hotel operator. Archer then selected Axiom as operator before investing in a major refurbishment and relaunch of the building as The Dilly.
The playful name was deliberately chosen to reflect the hotel’s location and heritage (it originally opened in 1908 as The Piccadilly Hotel). Pritchard admits the new moniker has caused much debate but says it is helping the site finally get the acknowledgement he feels it truly deserves.
He is also thoroughly enjoying the process of creating a brand from scratch.
“I do enjoy working with all the major brands but working with The Dilly, I feel like I have had the handcuffs taken off,” he enthuses. “There is a certain flair about independents that allows you to hone your hospitality skills. Also, you can change a lot in this hotel very quickly to reflect customer trends, which is something the brands would take a lot longer to do, but then the loyal following they have is amazing. It is good to have both in the portfolio.”
Some of the more creative touches being introduced at The Dilly include hosting pop-up restaurants – Madhu’s, the upscale Indian restaurant, will be in residence for the first six months. The hotel will emphasise its ‘London-ness’, using as many suppliers and services from within the capital as possible and its concierge will conduct free tours of the local area for guests. In addition, Pritchard says the hotel will harness technological advances expedited by the pandemic to offer a more flexible guest experience (and not just in terms of Covid-aware cancellation policies), using increasingly sophisticated customer profiling to offer more personalisation and choice, something he feels the industry as a whole has been slow to embrace compared to other sectors.
One example is the ability to book the restaurant and spa treatments online at the same time as booking a room and more choices of the type and location of room selectable on the website.
“When you think about travelling by plane, you can book your seat, choose your food, book a lounge at the airport whereas with hotels you usually have to do each thing separately.
“Similarly with food – during the pandemic, people have got used to having so many choices on their phones that to just have a room service menu on the desk seems ridiculous now.”
In response to this, rooms have tablets offering Table Top, a food and beverage ordering app for the hotel. During the pandemic, some of the hotels Axiom runs have made their food offerings available via JustEat and Deliveroo.
These kinds of advances, and more of an emphasis on making f&b outlets destinations in their own right, are initiatives that Pritchard believes will become more commonplace in both his and the wider hotel business going forward.
Another pandemic-borne trend, an increase in the proportion of leisure guests compared to corporate, is something he hopes will have some ongoing affect, to provide more of a balance between the two segments. While it is too soon to say what the long-term implications of the shift to homeworking will have on meetings and corporate travel, he appreciates that it is likely to be quite some time before the conference market shows any signs of recovery. He does worry about the impact on the industry’s already difficult task of filling jobs – not only have Brexit and the pandemic meant many workers from overseas have returned to their home countries, the media focus on the fate of the hospitality industry throughout the Covid crisis has made potential candidates view it as a high-risk in terms of job security.
As to his and Lamb’s timing on launching their new business slap bang in the middle of the pandemic, he admits it has had its difficulties: “Relying on Zoom calls and Teams meetings when you are trying to build a business on relationships is tricky – we were trying to convince these big investors to come on board when we didn’t have any infrastructure in place, so we were really putting our reputations on the line.”
Given that Axiom is already working in partnership with big hitting investors including Starwood Capital, Archer Capital and Castleforge Partners and that its portfolio will be just shy of 10 hotels within its first six months and with a pipeline including hotels in Edinburgh, Cardiff, and mainland Europe, it appears the industry didn’t see working with their start-up as much of a gamble.
Pritchard says the fact that Axiom is owned by its employees and puts its money where its mouth is, investing its own funds in the projects it takes on (albeit, he stresses, a relatively small proportion), has helped too. But it is his and Lamb’s previous successes that have obviously led to these wins and their astute recognition of a niche in the market for a management firm offering a personal service to a select group of investors to steadily grow their portfolio and deliver returns for all stakeholders.
When Pritchard’s and Lamb’s previous employer Kew Green was acquired by HKCTS, the Chinese hotel operator in 2015, the pair agreed to develop and deliver the three-year business plan, which they more than achieved. Kew Green grew from 55 to 77 hotels within that time. It was also InterContinental Hotels Group’s (IHG) largest Holiday Inn franchisee in Europe but managed to maintain quality and maximise returns, scoring seven out of seven on IHG’s winning metrics for two consecutive years. Pritchard admits that visiting the Great Wall of China with 55 general managers as part of their reward for this has been one of his professional highlights to date.
Pritchard and Lamb certainly gained from their experience of working as part of a large corporation but missed the entrepreneurial style of operation in Kew Green’s early days, hence, Pritchard laughs, in January 2020 he resigned for the first time in his life – various changes of ownership meant all his previous jobs were effectively with the same company.
Axiom now has a five to ten-year plan to grow a European portfolio of around 20 to 30 hotels with a small group of investment partners, although Pritchard emphasises this is flexible depending on opportunity. Beyond that, his aim is that the Axiom team takes the business forward while he….he’s not sure yet. He thinks for a minute: “I’ve always loved America – I love the people the positivity, the service culture. And I love playing golf.”
So maybe he will finally work in hospitality overseas again, or maybe he will just enjoy it. His favourite places are Florida and California, partly thanks to his six-year-old son’s love of Disney. Las Vegas doesn’t feature, but wherever he ends up, it will be a long way from the Marriott in Gateshead.
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