INTERVIEW: TREVOR HORWELL, CEO, NOBU HOSPITALITY GROUP
Having started its hospitality journey with one solitary restaurant, albeit one very successful restaurant, Nobu is an authentic brand born out of a passion for food and bringing people together. Now with 45 restaurants and 20 hotels worldwide, Nobu’s CEO Trevor Horwell tells Sophie Harper what he puts the brand’s success down to.
Hailing from The Potteries – the world’s ceramic capital – in Stoke-on-Trent in the UK, Trevor Horwell’s career in hospitality really began by chance. Having been an accountant for the first few years of his professional life, he found himself travelling around the
world and living in different countries whilst working for Hyatt. It was during his time as the hospitality brand’s CFO EMEA, about 25 years ago, that he met his colleague and long-term business counterpart, Struan Mckenzie. The duo’s thinking was so aligned that they ended up running departments from Hyatt to COMO, to Hard Rock Hotels and Casinos together before joining the Nobu team 11 years ago. “We all run the company, I’m Chief Executive Officer and Struan is Chief Operating Officer but also Hiro Tahara is head of our restaurants and has been with Nobu for over 15 years,” Trevor tells me. “I believe that in a company nobody achieves success without a partner and trust is everything. That’s why Struan and I have been together 25 years plus.”
It was whilst Trevor and Struan were working together at COMO that they first met Nobu Matsuhisa, Robert De Niro, and Meir Teper, “Believe it or not we actually met the partners of Nobu 23 years ago when we brought Nobu to The Metropolitan Hotel as the first restaurant coming out of the United States.” Nobu had established itself and was beginning to grow and, with a new restaurant in New York, was hot property as far as brands go. “It was bringing a bit of New York to Park Lane.” In 2009, Nobu were again in touch with Trevor and Struan and, realising they shared the same vision, joined forces and have gone from strength to strength ever since. “I think one of the reasons why it’s been such a success is that the vision of the partners was to actually take what we had within restaurants and migrate that into a full holistic experience within a hotel.”
Looking at real estate as an opportunity to make a return on every square foot, the Nobu business model is based on its first-class food and beverage offering with the guest experience in a hotel that holds the same traditional values that are invested in its people, and that combination is a compelling investment strategy. “We look at it as a 360-degree offering,” Trevor tells me, “we find a piece of real estate and [work out] if the restaurant works first.” The Nobu approach to hotels is kind of akin to a house party where everyone gathers in the kitchen, and the local community plays just as much a role in Nobu’s success as as its foreign visitors. The restaurant is the brand’s draw, the place where locals and travellers congregate, mingle, and ultimately experience a culture where everyone is welcome, which is a very attractive atmosphere for a hotel. “Nobu is a lifestyle hotel so really the heartbeat is the F&B and while all our hotels are really individual, we play to our strengths. When you travel to a different country you want to go where the locals go. You can’t really fill a restaurant with just guests from a hotel, you have to bring in the locals and that really makes it a totally different experience.”
With more than five million annual customers at last count, it seems the business model is a strong one, and good reason for the brand to continue its expansion. “We don’t need to grow but we want to do something with the brand that is special,” says Trevor. “As Robert De Niro always says, ‘everything we do has to be special’ and when he first saw Nobu, 26, 27 years ago, he thought it was special – it was a game changer then and it still is now.” He goes on to explain that working with the right partners is key, and that being selective in the first instance has resulted in some great partnerships and the brand’s ongoing success. “A lot of our investors are solid, sustainable individuals, who have the same mindset as us, and that is key for going forward because we want to have a long-term investment with them. When our investors look at what we produce in our business, they’re very happy to see that we can give them a good return on their investment, and at the same time it becomes a very strong individual hotel that they’re happy to own – and that’s really why we’re able to grow.”
The Nobu hotel portfolio consists of chic properties in some of the most seductive locations in the world. Each hotel is different to the next, but there is an unmistakable identity in which pared-back design meets comfortable luxe but with a flair for theatre in its open spaces. “When we started up with the restaurants, design to us was the foundation of everything really. Our hotels are understated, they have a residential feel, but then the drama we like to put into the public spaces.” Trevor talks about the great design studios they’ve worked with over the years – from the Rockwell Group in New York to David Collins Studio in London and Studio PCH in California, “At the end of the day we approach every city differently and we don’t want to be cookie cutter in design. We use a number of great interior designers, which is key to what we do.”
Of course the service and atmosphere is an integral part of Nobu’s appeal, but it’s the combination of so many things that makes the brand such a resounding success and Trevor describes the different components in such a relatable way. “We look at a hotel and we break it up into the hardware and the software. The hardware is the design, the bricks and mortar and to a certain degree the product, and when it comes down to the experience it really is the software that we need to deliver something that’s different in the whole experience for our guests.”
Naturally Nobu has had to deal with the challenges of the pandemic this year, but with continual news of new developments, it almost feels as though the brand as a whole is managing to emerge from this crisis relatively unscathed. “Naturally we have to implement hygiene and safety measures within our restaurants and our customers trust us to do that,” Trevor says. “We’ve been fortunate as a brand – we’ve been very agile. You just have to make adjustments. There’s no precedent or frame of reference you can really look at, but at the same time we believe that all humans are social and need interaction and, at the end of the day, the progress will come from the heart.” Luckily many of the brand’s businesses have been able to operate by utilising open air spaces and rolling out appropriate safety standards, and it seems scheduled projects are still full steam ahead. “We’ll have 12 hotels opening, we have properties in Toronto, Tel Aviv, there’s a brand-new project in Barbuda, which we’re doing with Mr De Niro and we’re very excited that all of those projects haven’t stopped. We’re very fortunate that all the projects we have now are either in a stage of conversion or are still being built.”
Nobu Hotel London Portman Square is the latest opening for the brand with its grand unveiling taking place in December. Designed to be a tranquil retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life, the 249-key hotel heralds a timely concept of a home away from home and carries the values of ‘kokoro’ (Japanese for heart, authenticity and with passion). Nobu Hotel London Portman Square will of course have a Nobu restaurant at its very core, with beautiful design features, views over Portman Square and of course a tantalisingly delectable Nobu menu. With both hotel and restaurant having been designed by the award-winning David Collins Studio, the opening of Nobu Hotel London Portman Square is set to be a marked event being one of the city’s major openings since the pandemic. And there are plenty more lined up.
Trevor tells me that Europe and the Middle East are big focusses for Nobu currently with further expansion planned in Asia and America too. “We want to be in Madrid, which we’re looking at at the moment. We’re also in discussions on a project in Germany,” he reveals. “Naturally Italy is somewhere we’d like to do a hotel – in Rome as well as looking at places like Cortina – the ski resort. We have a restaurant in Milan with Mr Armani and we definitely want to grow more within Europe. Then we also have the Middle East – we’re opening our first hotel in Riyadh at the end of the year, and then we’re looking at other locations in the Middle East as well. Asia has been very opportunistic for us and we’re looking at Thailand as a location.”
I almost struggle to keep up with Trevor as he reels off project after project, and just when I think he’s done, he tells me about Nobu’s plans for mixed use developments. “We did a great project in Toronto – over 500,000 square feet of residential and hotel, which will be opening at the end of next year. We sold out all of the real estate for the residences in the space of three months, so that’s been a huge success! We’re looking at adding a residential component to Cabos and we’re looking at other cities where we can maybe add residential components. We call it a ‘Nobu centre’ and it will be a very holistic offering in the same way as we’re doing with the hotels.”
Clearly Trevor loves his work, his passion is so evident, so I can’t resist asking him what the best thing is about his job. He considers the question carefully, obviously trying to select just one of the many things he could pick out. “Working with great people,” he answers decisively. “My life gets better with age. Struan Mckenzie and I have gone through a lot of challenges in our time running companies together and I think now Nobu is one of the most satisfying periods of our lives. You never know how long things will last for but from our perspective we enjoy every day and we don’t achieve success without our teams. I come from Stoke and they have a moto there that a united force is stronger, and I believe in that and think that’s why Nobu has been so strong as a brand. I think at the end of the day everything we do: Nobu does it, Meir Teper, Bob De Niro, all of us, we all do it from the heart and it’s great. There aren’t many companies like that, that’s why I don’t believe in heavy corporate structures, I think they’re the handbrake to creativity. We’re like one big family and that’s how we run our business.”