AYO AKINSETE, MD, BIRCH HOTELS
With 14 years industry experience, recently appointed MD, Ayo Akinsete prepares for the imminent launch of Birch Seldon. Following the success of the group’s first property, Birch Cheshunt, SPACE catches up with Akinsete, to discover the concept behind the brand, and his plans for future growth.
Where did you grow up?
South East London
Where are you currently based?
South East London
What was your path into hospitality?
Following a masters in Hotels from the University of Nevada Las Vegas – while on holiday with friends – I met the owner of the Gansevoort. He gave me my first job in hotels with the opening of Gansevoort Park Avenue. Then I caught the ‘opening bug’ and have since opened seven hotels and Birch Selsdon will be number eight.
What prompted your move from SH Hotels?
It was an opportunity to move back to the UK with my family and launch a new brand for Barry Sternlicht, the Treehouse Hotel.
How does your new role differ from your previous role?
I am now fully responsible for the success of the business, whereas in my last role I had a US corporate office.
What was the attraction of joining Birch hotels?
I feel Birch caught magic in a bottle creating a concept that is an escape for explorers. It is a place where companies, couples, creatives and families alike, can have access to the best parts of a lifestyle hotel in a countryside setting just outside of London, via our core pillars: nature, wellness, rest, along with great food and drink.
What is your vision for the future of the Birch brand?
To build on the great work of those before me, scaling Birch while keeping true to the initial brand pillars set out from the start.
What is the ethos behind the Birch brand?
Birch is an escape for explorers that allow our guests to relax, reset and enjoy as much or little of our offering as they please.
What is involved in the launch of a new hotel?
There is so much involved, from staff training, setting up new systems, right through to securing planning permissions, purchasing every item required in a hotel, hiring staff, presales, tours and designing of spaces.
What does your typical workday look like?
I am up around 6am and will check a few emails before dropping the kids off at school. I’ll then go straight off to one of the properties for team meetings, chatting with guests, before checking the next round of emails.
Who do you think Birch hotels appeals to and why?
Anyone that wants to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, that does not want to drive hours away to feel like they are in a countryside estate with a lifestyle feel.
Who do you consider to be your competitors?
We compete with some of the big box players when it comes to meetings and events. From a leisure guest standpoint, we are up against, The Pig, The Hoxton, and The Standard.
How does the Birch brand differ from the brands you have previously worked with?
Due to the size of the properties, coupled with a variety of activities going, we can offer so much more than other lifestyle hotels found within the city. Whether it’s a pottery or ring making class, a dip in the lido, great food or drink, a bingo night, foraging, nomadic dinners, nature walks, DJ’s spinning, or wellness classes. There is so much going on at a Birch, which you would not typically find within the four walls of a hotel. Not to mention the fact we are also a member’s club with exclusive spaces for them.
What are the challenges and the rewards of working for a relatively new brand along with a new team?
Everything is new, so often operational procedures need to be firmed up. Finding the balance of being commercial and cool. At the start of a new hotel, you are often in the visibility business for awareness, however you must find that balance to ensure the hotel is commercially viable.
How does working in the UK compare to working in the US, and are you enjoying being back on home turf?
It’s great to be back, my entire family is here and with two young children it is great for them to grow up with their uncles, aunties, and their children. People take holidays here, in the US people live to work; here people work to live.
Are there any plans to open hotels outside of the UK and if so, where?
That would be great, anything is possible!
What are your plans for future growth?
To take Birch to the East and West of London so we have London covered. Then we want to explore other areas – the outskirts of other UK cities.
What do you believe the Birch guest is looking for when booking their stay?
A place to rest and reset, to have a great bite to eat and have some fun.
Do you think Birch will always focus on period properties in rural locations, or do you believe they could evolve and translate into an urban setting?
An urban Birch would be interesting and fun. If we can embed our core values in some way, it is possible.
How are you coping with the labour shortage within the hospitality industry and how do you see it resolving itself?
It’s a tough one, the hospitality industry has a talent puddle at the moment. We are fortunate that we can offer our employees, nature, a great gym, and wellness facilities which is always an added bonus in this day and age. We are always engaging with our employees and developing from within. With that said we are not immune to the current labour shortage. It remains challenging to recruit great talent.
What advice and encouragement would you give anyone looking for a career in hospitality?
It’s a great industry where every day is different. There are so many different areas within a hotel that people don’t think of. Whether it be marketing, finance, revenue, or sales. Though most things within the business can be taught, it is often the intangibles that make the big difference. Be prepared to work hard and have dedication, along with a genuine desire to deliver gracious hospitality. Ultimately, we are in the experience business which I have always enjoyed.
At a glance
Where: South Croydon, UK
Keys: 181 bedrooms
Offers: Two restaurants from Michelin-star chef Lee Wescott, three bars, Wellness space, gym, treatment rooms,
Activities: pottery studio, screen printing workshop
Opening: Spring 2023