MIKE WARREN, MANAGING DIRECTOR, HARBOUR HOTELS
When Harbour Hotels were looking to expand, Mike Warren was an obvious choice given his success developing brands Hotel du Vin and Malmaison. Emma Kennedy caught up with the MD to discuss building a boutique brand.
Mike Warren is well rehearsed in understanding luxury. Not in a brash obvious way, associated with some of the glitzier brands, but in a quieter more unassuming way, brought about by his innate understanding of what his guests are looking for.
His background in the boutique sector is as thoroughbred as it gets, holding key roles at Hotel du Vin and Malmaison, stemming from a chance introduction into hospitality while on a gap year in Europe. “I grew up in Ireland and I took a year out to go travelling with some friends” Mike explained. “Before long, we ran out of pocket money, and realised we needed some kind of income. One of the groups cousins was living near Frankfurt and told us about a hotel that was often looking for staff. It was a beautiful country house hotel, 5-star deluxe, with a Michelin star restaurant – and was a member of the Relais & Châteaux collection. So, I just landed in this very posh, luxurious world, and became addicted to it.”
The ‘posh’ hotel was in fact Schlosshotel Kronberg where he stayed for two and half years before decamping to Chewton Glen, Hampshire, to continue his training for another four years. His story isn’t unusual, though to go on to become COO of a leading brand of boutique hotels, is more so. Joining Hotel du Vin founders Robin Hudson and the late Gerard Basset in 1997, marked the start of a 17-year career, during which they were bought by Malmaison’s parent company MWB Holdings in 2004. “I remained in the business, and worked on the Malmaison side, opening Malmaison Oxford before working across both sides, and overseeing the opening of 11 more hotels, which included taking Hotel du Vin from seven to 14 hotels.” He tells me with a hint of pride.
When Mike was approached to join Harbour Hotels in 2014, he was very clear. “I felt if I was leaving an established business in the Lifestyle Sector, I had to be sure that mine and Harbour Hotel’s founder, Nicolas Roche’s ambitions and visions aligned; that we could take a small coastal hotel group and grow, develop, and move it into the Lifestyle Sector. It is only that, that drives commercial improvements, better levels of occupancy, higher food and beverage sales, and everything that follows.” Having established that they shared a vision for Harbour Hotels, Mike began putting his plans for growth into action.
Comparing the two groups; Malmaison and Harbour Hotels, Mike explains “Harbour Hotels were already good hotels. The difference between the brands was their awareness. I had worked hard at developing the Hotel du Vin and Malmaison brands, and we had very high market awareness and penetration, particularly in the Lifestyle sector.” As if reading my thoughts, he went on to explain “I realise Lifestyle has many definitions, but to my mind if you’re in the Lifestyle Sector, then you’re going to read about us in the travel section of the Saturday Telegraph, or the Sunday Times… if you’re not appearing in these or similar, then the chances are you’re not in the Lifestyle Sector.” Finally! Someone has given me a simple explanation to an often-asked question, and I have to admit I like his definition. “There’s a lot of hoteliers, and I’m one of them” he continues, “who are obsessed with getting into that space. When you’re in it, obviously you must be confident in the service and product you offer, but it’s where you need to be to trigger a higher rate.’’
Eight years on, and suffice to say, Harbour Hotels are now occupying that space. Under Mike’s leadership, since 2014, they have grown from five to 14 hotels, taking up residence in not only high-end coastal locations, like Fowey and Padstow in Cornwall but also locations closer inland including Guildford, and Richmond-upon-Thames.
I ask Mike where he sees Harbour Hotels positioned in the market and who he considers to be his competitors. “I would say we are in that niche market now, with Soho House and The Pig. We are definitely in that circle. I know there will be quite a few couples in South West London – who are targets for all our brands – who will be looking for a weekend away in Devon or Cornwall and checking out all three of us.”
As Mike continues to deliver on his vision for growth, I wonder what the key elements he looks for in a potential property are. “Location” he replies without hesitation. “Location is extremely important. Ideally, if it’s an existing building then we also look for some character, for example, in Bristol our hotel is comprised of two beautiful banks. One of the external façades is a direct replica of St. Marks Venetian library. We were intrigued by this, especially as we only discovered that after we acquired the building. The old banking hall is now a beautiful function space. Then in Chichester, we have a Grade II listed Georgian town house. By comparison, our Southampton property is a new build – and probably the most visually impressive of all our hotels. Its design, inspired by a cruise liner, sits slap-bang in the middle of the Lifestyle Sector.”
With all their properties in the UK, I wonder if part of the growth strategy involves taking the brand abroad. “We don’t have any immediate plans, it’s something we have considered, but the reasons against probably outweigh the reasons for. To be more specific, the social and regulatory constraints of moving into a different country, couldn’t be underestimated. We would require another small management team just to navigate us through the working term directives and the taxation on the employees… absolutely everything is different, and the logistics involved are huge.”
Continuing to focus on the UK, Harbour Hotels are looking at locations that appear on most hoteliers’ lists; Bath, Oxford, Cambridge, but also some less obvious. “Initially there was a pattern of the properties being coastal, but in 2015 when we started to grow as a serious Lifestyle hotel operator, we decided we couldn’t be reliant on just coastal locations as it was too restrictive. There are lots of coastal locations but there are a finite number that are truly sought after; Salcombe, St. Ives, and Padstow are all on peoples bucket lists, and we are already there. The Lake District is an area I’d be interested in, there are a lot of good hotels up there, but there isn’t a Lifestyle group presence as such. But right now, we are operating in a very challenging environment, so we are really concentrating on refining the products we have.”
We briefly discuss the economic challenges facing the UK, unaware that within days further chaos would unfold and the financial markets would go into free fall following the now well documented mini-budget. There is no denying that the last few years have been extraordinary, and we all acknowledge the hospitality industry was hit hard, and I ask Mike how they navigated their way through it? “Looking back at the pandemic, it all seems like a bad dream” Mike reflects. “During lockdown, we lost quite a lot of our workforce to industries that were still in operation. But then we also realised that Covid was masking the impact of Brexit. The Brexit deal was finalised and Covid arrived just weeks later. Despite feeling supported by the government, it caused a lot of distortion, and when we re-opened, we realised just how significant Brexit had become. In the peak of spring and summer, there were more vacancies than there ever were, and the reality is that unfortunately, that was the impact of Brexit.”
Leaving Brexit and the Pandemic behind us, we make our way back on to far more desirable ground and discuss the ongoing success of Harbour Hotels most recent opening, The Harbour Beach Club & Spa. Its sleek glass and cedar façade, sea facing rooms and wraparound terrace look out across South Sands Beach in Salcombe. Ticking all the boxes required to achieve that all important Lifestyle Status; from appearing regularly in all the desired publications (and undoubtedly drawing in the South West London tribe) to being located in one of the UK’s most finite and sought after coastal locations, it is a luxurious triumph!