Robin Sheppard, Co-Founder and President, Bespoke Hotels

Posted in People on 25 May, 2023

Robin Sheppard, Co-Founder and President, Bespoke Hotels

When Robin Sheppard’s world was turned upside down by a virus, his recovery exposed some harsh truths. Suddenly at the receiving end of his industry’s blasé approach to disability, his response was to lead by example. Following Bespoke Hotel’s launch of Hotel Brooklyn, Leicester, Emma Kennedy meets the hotelier responsible for delivering access to all areas with style and swagger.

Accessibility in the hospitality industry tends to be a box that needs ticking, with laws requiring only the most basic levels of compliance. Having suffered a debilitating illness in 2004, Robin experienced more trials than tribulations on his slow road to recovery. As a seasoned hotelier, he was determined to change the industry’s approach to the disabled traveller.  Engaging the expertise of award-winning accessible design specialists, Motionspot, along with leading interior design firm,, in 2020, Hotel Brooklyn, Manchester was launched. Marrying innovation and functionality with high-end style, together they delivered his vision for the UK’s first design-led hotel with a firm focus on accessibility.

All images shown taken from Hotel Brooklyn, Leicester, UK

As the media reviews poured in, with The Times & Sunday Times hailing it as “One of the top British hotels to stay in 2020” and Conde Nast Traveller’s Readers Choice Awards voting it “Favourite hotel in the Northwest UK”, Robin and his team were busy adding the final touches to Hotel Brooklyn, Leicester. Unsure of what to expect I made my way to Leicester, and like the collection of curious travel journalists who had ventured further north to Manchester, I wasn’t disappointed.

Following signs to Welford Road, home to the Leicester Tigers Rugby Club and now Hotel Brooklyn, I arrived at the hotel which is indeed less than 100 metres from the stadium. Half expecting to find an all singing all chanting lad-zone of rugby fuelled testosterone, instead I found myself in a Brooklyn subway station. Greeted by a reassuringly feminine receptionist, I checked in. Making my way to my suite, curiosity got the better of me, and I couldn’t help but take a detour of the hotel en route. Exiting the lift in a triangulated area of exposed brick, lit trees, and shuttered kiosks baring Bespoke graffiti, all that appears to be missing are the plumes of steam escaping from manhole covers. Looking up to the skylight, wrought iron fire escapes sit below windows, bringing an unmistakable New York flair.  Leaving the urban vibe behind me, double doors lead through to the restaurant and bar areas, and further lifts to the guest rooms and suites above.

From the outset, the interiors are vibrant and contemporary, with frequent and whimsical nods to their sporting neighbours, none more so than a papier mâché tiger, created from vintage Tigers programmes. All the spaces are generous, with corridors wide enough to accommodate the broadest shoulders of a visiting number 8—or of course a wheelchair. The tables in the restaurant are perfectly positioned to avoid the canteen trend that often leaves you confused as to who you’re actually dining with, while the adjacent bar offers a lower wheelchair height bar and mixed seating. The attention to detail is outstanding throughout, and their comprehensive website guides you through each area in detail, highlighting all the pros, of which there are many—along with any potential hazards for anyone with mobility issues.

However, if you weren’t aware accessibility was at the heart of the hotel, you would simply assume they were design-led decisions, which of course they are. The result is strangely calming, and it would take some deliberate planning to physically bump into someone—unless it was match day. My accommodation, one of the Liberty suites, offers the same level of comfort. The huge bed is angled to face the floor-to-ceiling windows, with far reaching views across the city. Complete with a free-standing tub, electric curtains, designated workstation, and a separate sitting area, it is fabulously well appointed, and once again, spatially generous.

It would be hard to fault the hotel, which is a relief given my forthcoming interview with Robin Sheppard. Fresh from my trip, we meet on Zoom, and I start by asking Robin to share a little about his background and journey into hospitality.

“I was born in Malta, grew up in Bath and I’m a West country boy by adoption. My introduction to hospitality was through my father, who was in the wine trade which meant I got to see many of the hotels and restaurants he was selling to.”

At the age of 15, he took his first job in a hotel in Bath—a hotel which “will remain nameless” he tells me, before launching into a story worthy of a Faulty Towers script, resulting in a swift departure and a solemn vow to his parents that he would “never ever work in a hotel again… and of course, that’s what I’ve been doing ever since,” he concludes.

His telling of the story was a genuine laugh-out-loud account, which seamlessly led to another, and had I not been allocated a strict time slot, I was in no doubt there were many more where those had come from. Suddenly aware of time, he paused at the end of an equally amusing anecdote and asks me for clarification of what I wanted to gain from the interview. Resisting the urge to tell him I was compiling a book of hospitality comedy moments; we briefly discuss the proposed purpose and it’s back to business.

Following his inauspicious introduction to hospitality, Robin took a degree in Hotel Management at Oxford Brookes University—formerly Oxford Polytechnic. A work placement with the now defunct British Transport Hotels led to his first graduate position at the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, before being transferred to The Old Course Hotel at St. Andrews. From here he went on to fulfil a variety of roles in a succession of hotels across the UK, learning his trade from the ground up. Securing his first GM role at the age of 27 he ‘dotted around’ before finally working for Hilton as it prepared for the opening of The Royal Berkshire in Ascot.

Joining forces with Haydn Fentum in 1999, they co-founded Bespoke Hotels along with the purchase of Billesley Manor. Once up and running, they took Billesley Manor to the marketplace using it as an exemplar of what they were able to offer independent hotels, and in spring 2000, signed Marwell Hotel—Bespoke’s first arm’s length management contract.

Discussing their early vision for the company, Robin tells me, “The original plan was to buy a few hotels along the way and manage others. It was a cynical view as we soon realised, we couldn’t both meet our salary expectations through one asset. We needed to support those expectations elsewhere. Having our own hotel which we had put our own customer practice into, made it an easy sell. We were able to say, ‘this is what we could do with your business, and this is how profitable it could be.’ And to this day I’m thrilled that Marwell Hotel is still with us.”

Jumping ahead several years, with a growing portfolio of eight hotels, business was good when Robin became suddenly and seriously ill in December 2004. “What started as pins and needles in my fingers and toes, within 24 hours had turned to total paralysis.” Diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare condition affecting the peripheral nervous system, his recovery was slow.

“Luckily, it’s an illness where you get a return ticket, and can potentially make a full recovery. Though I’m far from fully recovered, I do have a level of independence I could never have dreamed of all those years ago. I’ve had 18 years living in a new world—maybe wearing someone else’s raincoat,” he quips, “but I can still get about, and this is where the idea for The Bespoke Access Awards originated.”

Instrumental in the 2016 launch of the Bespoke Access Awards, he then went on to co-found the Blue Badge Access Awards—an extension of Blue Badge Style—alongside CEO, Fiona Jarvis. As the only dedicated award scheme championing design-led accessibility across the hospitality industry, the competition has 13 categories, ranging from Best Venue in a Listed/Historic Building to Best Inclusive Guest Innovation. Now in its eighth year, it has gained recognition and support from the hospitality industry as well as RIBA, the UK government, disability groups, and the media alike.

Discussing the inspiration behind the awards, Robin tells me, “Having been a consumer of disability, I had done my yards in a wheelchair—where people talk to the person pushing the chair and not you—and I thought how hostile our hospitality environments were. We were making choices that should be fun and elegant and caring—and we weren’t, so I decided initially to focus on the design component.  By this point, we had built up the Bespoke company to a scale which allowed me to be more indulgent of how I spent my time, and this was what I chose.”

With the imminent launch of the 2023/24 Awards, having worked tirelessly, knocking on many doors to gain the support and recognition the scheme now receives, I ask Robin how he believes he is seen within the industry.

He smiles as he considers the question. “Well, for a long time, I think I was just seen as a pain in the backside, with people thinking ‘haven’t you got anything else to talk about?’… but I like to think I’ve got beyond that now. I’m comforted that Fiona and I are frequently asked to be judges of other people’s Access competitions, and are regularly consulting on various projects, so hopefully, we are changing hearts and minds. I don’t think it’s something we want the government to change by statute, but I do feel it should come from within. At the moment to simply comply with the Disability Act is all you need to do. It’s a bit like doing a degree at university, with no concept of a grade, just a pass or fail. What I’m saying is let’s introduce another level, so we’ve christened this next award, rather grandiosely, The Liberty Level. Hopefully we are giving people the opportunity to enjoy a little more liberty—to have freedom and movement, with a bit of style and swagger.”

Finally, I ask Robin what steps he feels the industry needs to take for this to become second nature. Without hesitation, he tells me. “I would urge any business in the hospitality sector to appoint a champion within that business. It doesn’t matter whether that person is a kitchen porter or the managing director—but someone needs to make sure that Access sits on the agenda and is discussed and dealt with as a significant issue. I feel strongly that Access needs to have its own heading and its own moment of fame.”

It’s not difficult to see why Robin has made such an impact in a relatively short period. He is charismatic and very funny, and one imagines very persuasive. Offering solid solutions to the problems he highlights, his passion and drive have resulted in seismic changes within the hospitality industry. However, I don’t get the impression he’s about to clasp his hands together and declare “My work here is done!” anytime soon.



Bespoke Hotels is the UK’s Largest independent hotel group, with 100 plus hotels in total

Hotel Gotham Bristol
Hotel Gotham Newcastle
Hotel Brooklyn Liverpool
Hotel Brooklyn Leeds










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